Part 1 out of 7
Etext prepared by John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
and Dagny, email@example.com
SONS OF THE SOIL
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Monsieur P. S. B. Gavault.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote these words at the beginning of his
Nouvelle Heloise: "I have seen the morals of my time and I publish
these letters." May I not say to you, in imitation of that great
writer, "I have studied the march of my epoch and I publish this
The object of this particular study--startling in its truth so
long as society makes philanthropy a principle instead of
regarding it as an accident--is to bring to sight the leading
characters of a class too long unheeded by the pens of writers who
seek novelty as their chief object. Perhaps this forgetfulness is
only prudence in these days when the people are heirs of all the
sycophants of royalty. We make criminals poetic, we commiserate
the hangman, we have all but deified the proletary. Sects have
risen, and cried by every pen, "Arise, working-men!" just as
formerly they cried, "Arise!" to the "tiers etat." None of these
Erostrates, however, have dared to face the country solitudes and
study the unceasing conspiracy of those whom we term weak against
those others who fancy themselves strong,--that of the peasant
against the proprietor. It is necessary to enlighten not only the
legislator of to-day but him of to-morrow. In the midst of the
present democratic ferment, into which so many of our writers
blindly rush, it becomes an urgent duty to exhibit the peasant who
renders Law inapplicable, and who has made the ownership of land
to be a thing that is, and that is not.
You are now to behold that indefatigable mole, that rodent which
undermines and disintegrates the soil, parcels it out and divides
an acre into a hundred fragments,--ever spurred on to his banquet
by the lower middle classes who make him at once their auxiliary
and their prey. This essentially unsocial element, created by the
Revolution, will some day absorb the middle classes, just as the
middle classes have destroyed the nobility. Lifted above the law
by its own insignificance, this Robespierre, with one head and
twenty million arms, is at work perpetually; crouching in country
districts, intrenched in municipal councils, under arms in the
national guard of every canton in France,--one result of the year
1830, which failed to remember that Napoleon preferred the chances
of defeat to the danger of arming the masses.
If during the last eight years I have again and again given up the
writing of this book (the most important of those I have
undertaken to write), and as often returned to it, it was, as you
and other friends can well imagine, because my courage shrank from
the many difficulties, the many essential details of a drama so
doubly dreadful and so cruelly bloody. Among the reasons which
render me now almost, it may be thought, foolhardy, I count the
desire to finish a work long designed to be to you a proof of my
deep and lasting gratitude for a friendship that has ever been
among my greatest consolations in misfortune.
SONS OF THE SOIL
Whoso land hath, contention hath.
Les Aigues, August 6, 1823.
To Monsieur Nathan,
My dear Nathan,--You, who provide the public with such delightful
dreams through the magic of your imagination, are now to follow me
while I make you dream a dream of truth. You shall then tell me
whether the present century is likely to bequeath such dreams to the
Nathans and the Blondets of the year 1923; you shall estimate the
distance at which we now are from the days when the Florines of the
eighteenth century found, on awaking, a chateau like Les Aigues in the
terms of their bargain.
My dear fellow, if you receive this letter in the morning, let your
mind travel, as you lie in bed, fifty leagues or thereabouts from
Paris, along the great mail road which leads to the confines of
Burgundy, and behold two small lodges built of red brick, joined, or
separated, by a rail painted green. It was there that the diligence
deposited your friend and correspondent.
On either side of this double pavilion grows a quick-set hedge, from
which the brambles straggle like stray locks of hair. Here and there a
tree shoots boldly up; flowers bloom on the slopes of the wayside
ditch, bathing their feet in its green and sluggish water. The hedge
at both ends meets and joins two strips of woodland, and the double
meadow thus inclosed is doubtless the result of a clearing.
These dusty and deserted lodges give entrance to a magnificent avenue
of centennial elms, whose umbrageous heads lean toward each other and
form a long and most majestic arbor. The grass grows in this avenue,
and only a few wheel-tracks can be seen along its double width of way.
The great age of the trees, the breadth of the avenue, the venerable
construction of the lodges, the brown tints of their stone courses,
all bespeak an approach to some half-regal residence.
Before reaching this enclosure from the height of an eminence such as
we Frenchmen rather conceitedly call a mountain, at the foot of which
lies the village of Conches (the last post-house), I had seen the long
valley of Aigues, at the farther end of which the mail road turns to
follow a straight line into the little sub-prefecture of La Ville-aux-
Fayes, over which, as you know, the nephew of our friend des Lupeaulx
lords it. Tall forests lying on the horizon, along vast slopes which
skirt a river, command this rich valley, which is framed in the far
distance by the mountains of a lesser Switzerland, called the Morvan.
These forests belong to Les Aigues, and to the Marquis de Ronquerolles
and the Comte de Soulanges, whose castles and parks and villages, seen
in the distance from these heights, give the scene a strong
resemblance to the imaginary landscapes of Velvet Breughel.
If these details do not remind you of all the castles in the air you
have desired to possess in France you are not worthy to receive the
present narrative of an astounded Parisian. At last I have seen a
landscape where art is blended with nature in such a way that neither
of them spoils the other; the art is natural, and the nature artistic.
I have found the oasis that you and I have dreamed of when reading
novels,--nature luxuriant and adorned, rolling lines that are not
confused, something wild withal, unkempt, mysterious, not common. Jump
that green railing and come on!
When I tried to look up the avenue, which the sun never penetrates
except when it rises or when it sets, striping the road like a zebra
with its oblique rays, my view was obstructed by an outline of rising
ground; after that is passed, the long avenue is obstructed by a
copse, within which the roads meet at a cross-ways, in the centre of
which stands a stone obelisk, for all the world like an eternal
exclamation mark. From the crevices between the foundation stones of
this erection, which is topped by a spiked ball (what an idea!), hang
flowering plants, blue or yellow according to the season. Les Aigues
must certainly have been built by a woman, or for a woman; no man
would have had such dainty ideas; the architect no doubt had his cue.
Passing through the little wood placed there as sentinel, I came upon
a charming declivity, at the foot of which foamed and gurgled a little
brook, which I crossed on a culvert of mossy stones, superb in color,
the prettiest of all the mosaics which time manufactures. The avenue
continues by the brookside up a gentle rise. In the distance, the
first tableau is now seen,--a mill and its dam, a causeway and trees,
linen laid out to dry, the thatched cottage of the miller, his
fishing-nets, and the tank where the fish are kept,--not to speak of
the miller's boy, who was already watching me. No matter where you are
in the country, however solitary you may think yourself, you are
certain to be the focus of the two eyes of a country bumpkin; a
laborer rests on his hoe, a vine-dresser straightens his bent back, a
little goat-girl, or shepherdess, or milkmaid climbs a willow to stare
Presently the avenue merges into an alley of acacias, which leads to
an iron railing made in the days when iron-workers fashioned those
slender filagrees which are not unlike the copies set us by a writing-
master. On either side of the railing is a ha-ha, the edges of which
bristle with angry spikes,--regular porcupines in metal. The railing
is closed at both ends by two porter's-lodges, like those of the
palace at Versailles, and the gateway is surmounted by colossal vases.
The gold of the arabesques is ruddy, for rust has added its tints, but
this entrance, called "the gate of the Avenue," which plainly shows
the hand of the Great Dauphin (to whom, indeed, Les Aigues owes it),
seems to me none the less beautiful for that. At the end of each ha-ha
the walls of the park, built of rough-hewn stone, begin. These stones,
set in a mortar made of reddish earth, display their variegated
colors, the warm yellows of the silex, the white of the lime
carbonates, the russet browns of the sandstone, in many a fantastic
shape. As you first enter it, the park is gloomy, the walls are hidden
by creeping plants and by trees that for fifty years have heard no
sound of axe. One might think it a virgin forest, made primeval again
through some phenomenon granted exclusively to forests. The trunks of
the trees are swathed with lichen which hangs from one to another.
Mistletoe, with its viscid leaves, droops from every fork of the
branches where moisture settles. I have found gigantic ivies, wild
arabesques which flourish only at fifty leagues from Paris, here where
land does not cost enough to make one sparing of it. The landscape on
such free lines covers a great deal of ground. Nothing is smoothed
off; rakes are unknown, ruts and ditches are full of water, frogs are
tranquilly delivered of their tadpoles, the woodland flowers bloom,
and the heather is as beautiful as that I have seen on your mantle-
shelf in January in the elegant beau-pot sent by Florine. This mystery
is intoxicating, it inspires vague desires. The forest odors, beloved
of souls that are epicures of poesy, who delight in the tiny mosses,
the noxious fungi, the moist mould, the willows, the balsams, the wild
thyme, the green waters of a pond, the golden star of the yellow
water-lily,--the breath of all such vigorous propagations came to my
nostrils and filled me with a single thought; was it their soul? I
seemed to see a rose-tinted gown floating along the winding alley.
The path ended abruptly in another copse, where birches and poplars
and all the quivering trees palpitated,--an intelligent family with
graceful branches and elegant bearing, the trees of a love as free! It
was from this point, my dear fellow, that I saw a pond covered with
the white water-lily and other plants with broad flat leaves and
narrow slender ones, on which lay a boat painted white and black, as
light as a nut-shell and dainty as the wherry of a Seine boatman.
Beyond rose the chateau, built in 1560, of fine red brick, with stone
courses and copings, and window-frames in which the sashes were of
small leaded panes (O Versailles!). The stone is hewn in diamond
points, but hollowed, as in the Ducal Palace at Venice on the facade
toward the Bridge of Sighs. There are no regular lines about the
castle except in the centre building, from which projects a stately
portico with double flights of curving steps, and round balusters
slender at their base and broadening at the middle. The main building
is surrounded by clock-towers and sundry modern turrets, with
galleries and vases more or less Greek. No harmony there, my dear
Nathan! These heterogeneous erections are wrapped, so to speak, by
various evergreen trees whose branches shed their brown needles upon
the roofs, nourishing the lichen and giving tone to the cracks and
crevices where the eye delights to wander. Here you see the Italian
pine, the stone pine, with its red bark and its majestic parasol; here
a cedar two hundred years old, weeping willows, a Norway spruce, and a
beech which overtops them all; and there, in front of the main tower,
some very singular shrubs,--a yew trimmed in a way that recalls some
long-decayed garden of old France, and magnolias with hortensias at
their feet. In short, the place is the Invalides of the heroes of
horticulture, once the fashion and now forgotten, like all other
A chimney, with curious copings, which was sending forth great volumes
of smoke, assured me that this delightful scene was not an opera
setting. A kitchen reveals human beings. Now imagine ME, Blondet, who
shiver as if in the polar regions at Saint-Cloud, in the midst of this
glowing Burgundian climate. The sun sends down its warmest rays, the
king-fisher watches on the shores of the pond, the cricket chirps, the
grain-pods burst, the poppy drops its morphia in glutinous tears, and
all are clearly defined on the dark-blue ether. Above the ruddy soil
of the terraces flames that joyous natural punch which intoxicates the
insects and the flowers and dazzles our eyes and browns our faces. The
grape is beading, its tendrils fall in a veil of threads whose
delicacy puts to shame the lace-makers. Beside the house blue
larkspur, nasturtium, and sweet-peas are blooming. From a distance
orange-trees and tuberoses scent the air. After the poetic exhalations
of the woods (a gradual preparation) came the delectable pastilles of
this botanic seraglio.
Standing on the portico, like the queen of flowers, behold a woman
robed in white, with hair unpowdered, holding a parasol lined with
white silk, but herself whiter than the silk, whiter than the lilies
at her feet, whiter than the starry jasmine that climbed the
balustrade,--a woman, a Frenchwoman born in Russia, who said as I
approached her, "I had almost given you up." She had seen me as I left
the copse. With what perfection do all women, even the most guileless,
understand the arrangement of a scenic effect? The movements of the
servants, who were preparing to serve breakfast, showed me that the
meal had been delayed until after the arrival of the diligence. She
had not ventured to come to meet me.
Is this not our dream,--the dream of all lovers of the beautiful,
under whatsoever form it comes; the seraphic beauty that Luini put
into his Marriage of the Virgin, that noble fresco at Sarono; the
beauty that Rubens grasped in the tumult of his "Battle of the
Thermodon"; the beauty that five centuries have elaborated in the
cathedrals of Seville and Milan; the beauty of the Saracens at
Granada, the beauty of Louis XIV. at Versailles, the beauty of the
Alps, and that of this Limagne in which I stand?
Belonging to the estate, about which there is nothing too princely,
nor yet too financial, where prince and farmer-general have both lived
(which fact serves to explain it), are four thousand acres of
woodland, a park of some nine hundred acres, the mill, three leased
farms, another immense farm at Conches, and vineyards,--the whole
producing a revenue of about seventy thousand francs a year. Now you
know Les Aigues, my dear fellow; where I have been expected for the
last two weeks, and where I am at this moment, in the chintz-lined
chamber assigned to dearest friends.
Above the park, towards Conches, a dozen little brooks, clear, limpid
streams coming from the Morvan, fall into the pond, after adorning
with their silvery ribbons the valleys of the park and the magnificent
gardens around the chateau. The name of the place, Les Aigues, comes
from these charming streams of water; the estate was originally called
in the old title-deeds "Les Aigues-Vives" to distinguish it from
"Aigues-Mortes"; but the word "Vives" has now been dropped. The pond
empties into the stream, which follows the course of the avenue,
through a wide and straight canal bordered on both sides and along its
whole length by weeping willows. This canal, thus arched, produces a
delightful effect. Gliding through it, seated on a thwart of the
little boat, one could fancy one's self in the nave of some great
cathedral, the choir being formed of the main building of the house
seen at the end of it. When the setting sun casts its orange tones
mingled with amber upon the casements of the chateau, the effect is
that of painted windows. At the other end of the canal we see Blangy,
the county-town, containing about sixty houses, and the village
church, which is nothing more than a tumble-down building with a
wooden clock-tower which appears to hold up a roof of broken tiles.
One comfortable house and the parsonage are distinguishable; but the
township is a large one,--about two hundred scattered houses in all,
those of the village forming as it were the capital. The roads are
lined with fruit-trees, and numerous little gardens are strewn here
and there,--true country gardens with everything in them; flowers,
onions, cabbages and grapevines, currants, and a great deal of manure.
The village has a primitive air; it is rustic, and has that decorative
simplicity which we artists are forever seeking. In the far distance
is the little town of Soulanges overhanging a vast sheet of water,
like the buildings on the lake of Thune.
When you stroll in the park, which has four gates, each superb in
style, you feel that our mythological Arcadias are flat and stale.
Arcadia is in Burgundy, not in Greece; Arcadia is at Les Aigues and
nowhere else. A river, made by scores of brooklets, crosses the park
at its lower level with a serpentine movement; giving a dewy freshness
and tranquillity to the scene,--an air of solitude, which reminds one
of a convent of Carthusians, and all the more because, on an
artificial island in the river, is a hermitage in ruins, the interior
elegance of which is worthy of the luxurious financier who constructed
it. Les Aigues, my dear Nathan, once belonged to that Bouret who spent
two millions to receive Louis XV. on a single occasion under his roof.
How many ardent passions, how many distinguished minds, how many
fortunate circumstances have contributed to make this beautiful place
what it is! A mistress of Henri IV. rebuilt the chateau where it now
stands. The favorite of the Great Dauphin, Mademoiselle Choin (to whom
Les Aigues was given), added a number of farms to it. Bouret furnished
the house with all the elegancies of Parisian homes for an Opera
celebrity; and to him Les Aigues owes the restoration of its ground
floor in the style Louis XV.
I have often stood rapt in admiration at the beauty of the dining-
room. The eye is first attracted to the ceiling, painted in fresco in
the Italian manner, where lightsome arabesques are frolicking. Female
forms, in stucco ending in foliage, support at regular distances
corbeils of fruit, from which spring the garlands of the ceiling.
Charming paintings, the work of unknown artists, fill the panels
between the female figures, representing the luxuries of the table,--
boar's-heads, salmon, rare shell-fish, and all edible things,--which
fantastically suggest men and women and children, and rival the
whimsical imagination of the Chinese,--the people who best understand,
to my thinking at least, the art of decoration. The mistress of the
house finds a bell-wire beneath her feet to summon servants, who enter
only when required, disturbing no interviews and overhearing no
secrets. The panels above the doorways represent gay scenes; all the
embrasures, both of doors and windows, are in marble mosaics. The room
is heated from below. Every window looks forth on some delightful
This room communicates with a bath-room on one side and on the other
with a boudoir which opens into the salon. The bath-room is lined with
Sevres tiles, painted in monochrome, the floor is mosaic, and the bath
marble. An alcove, hidden by a picture painted on copper, which turns
on a pivot, contains a couch in gilt wood of the truest Pompadour. The
ceiling is lapis-lazuli starred with gold. The tiles are painted from
designs by Boucher. Bath, table and love are therefore closely united.
After the salon, which, I should tell you, my dear fellow, exhibits
the magnificence of the Louis XIV. manner, you enter a fine billiard-
room unrivalled so far as I know in Paris itself. The entrance to this
suite of ground-floor apartments is through a semi-circular
antechamber, at the lower end of which is a fairy-like staircase,
lighted from above, which leads to other parts of the house, all built
at various epochs--and to think that they chopped off the heads of the
wealthy in 1793! Good heavens! why can't people understand that the
marvels of art are impossible in a land where there are no great
fortunes, no secure, luxurious lives? If the Left insists on killing
kings why not leave us a few little princelings with money in their
At the present moment these accumulated treasures belong to a charming
woman with an artistic soul, who is not content with merely restoring
them magnificently, but who keeps the place up with loving care. Sham
philosophers, studying themselves while they profess to be studying
humanity, call these glorious things extravagance. They grovel before
cotton prints and the tasteless designs of modern industry, as if we
were greater and happier in these days than in those of Henri IV.,
Louis XIV., and Louis XVI., monarchs who have all left the stamp of
their reigns upon Les Aigues. What palace, what royal castle, what
mansions, what noble works of art, what gold brocaded stuffs are
sacred now? The petticoats of our grandmothers go to cover the chairs
in these degenerate days. Selfish and thieving interlopers that we
are, we pull down everything and plant cabbages where marvels once
were rife. Only yesterday the plough levelled Persan, that magnificent
domain which gave a title to one of the most opulent families of the
old parliament; hammers have demolished Montmorency, which cost an
Italian follower of Napoleon untold sums; Val, the creation of
Regnault de Saint-Jean d'Angely, Cassan, built by a mistress of the
Prince de Conti; in all, four royal houses have disappeared in the
valley of the Oise alone. We are getting a Roman campagna around Paris
in advance of the days when a tempest shall blow from the north and
overturn our plaster palaces and our pasteboard decorations.
Now see, my dear fellow, to what the habit of bombasticising in
newspapers brings you to. Here am I writing a downright article. Does
the mind have its ruts, like a road? I stop; for I rob the mail, and I
rob myself, and you may be yawning--to be continued in our next; I
hear the second bell, which summons me to one of those abundant
breakfasts the fashion of which has long passed away, in the dining-
rooms of Paris, be it understood.
Here's the history of my Arcadia. In 1815, there died at Les Aigues
one of the famous wantons of the last century,--a singer, forgotten of
the guillotine and the nobility, after preying upon exchequers, upon
literature, upon aristocracy, and all but reaching the scaffold;
forgotten, like so many fascinating old women who expiate their golden
youth in country solitudes, and replace their lost loves by another,--
man by Nature. Such women live with the flowers, with the woodland
scents, with the sky, with the sunshine, with all that sings and skips
and shines and sprouts,--the birds, the squirrels, the flowers, the
grass; they know nothing about these things, they cannot explain them,
but they love them; they love them so well that they forget dukes,
marshals, rivalries, financiers, follies, luxuries, their paste jewels
and their real diamonds, their heeled slippers and their rouge,--all,
for the sweetness of country life.
I have gathered, my dear fellow, much precious information about the
old age of Mademoiselle Laguerre; for, to tell you the truth, the
after life of such women as Florine, Mariette, Suzanne de Val Noble,
and Tullia has made me, every now and then, extremely inquisitive, as
though I were a child inquiring what had become of the old moons.
In 1790 Mademoiselle Laguerre, alarmed at the turn of public affairs,
came to settle at Les Aigues, bought and given to her by Bouret, who
passed several summers with her at the chateau. Terrified at the fate
of Madame du Barry, she buried her diamonds. At that time she was only
fifty-three years of age, and according to her lady's-maid, afterwards
married to a gendarme named Soudry, "Madame was more beautiful than
ever." My dear Nathan, Nature has no doubt her private reasons for
treating women of this sort like spoiled children; excesses, instead
of killing them, fatten them, preserve them, renew their youth. Under
a lymphatic appearance they have nerves which maintain their
marvellous physique; they actually preserve their beauty for reasons
which would make a virtuous woman haggard. No, upon my word, Nature is
Mademoiselle Laguerre lived an irreproachable life at Les Aigues, one
might even call it a saintly one, after her famous adventure,--you
remember it? One evening in a paroxysm of despairing love, she fled
from the opera-house in her stage dress, rushed into the country, and
passed the night weeping by the wayside. (Ah! how they have
calumniated the love of Louis XV.'s time!) She was so unused to see
the sunrise, that she hailed it with one of her finest songs. Her
attitude, quite as much as her tinsel, drew the peasants about her;
amazed at her gestures, her voice, her beauty, they took her for an
angel, and dropped on their knees around her. If Voltaire had not
existed we might have thought it a new miracle. I don't know if God
gave her much credit for her tardy virtue, for love after all must be
a sickening thing to a woman as weary of it as a wanton of the old
Opera. Mademoiselle Laguerre was born in 1740, and her hey-day was in
1760, when Monsieur (I forget his name) was called the "ministre de la
guerre," on account of his liaison with her. She abandoned that name,
which was quite unknown down here, and called herself Madame des
Aigues, as if to merge her identity in the estate, which she delighted
to improve with a taste that was profoundly artistic. When Bonaparte
became First Consul, she increased her property by the purchase of
church lands, for which she used the proceeds of her diamonds. As an
Opera divinity never knows how to take care of her money, she
intrusted the management of the estate to a steward, occupying herself
with her flowers and fruits and with the beautifying of the park.
After Mademoiselle was dead and buried at Blangy, the notary of
Soulanges--that little town which lies between Ville-aux-Fayes and
Blangy, the capital of the township--made an elaborate inventory, and
sought out the heirs of the singer, who never knew she had any. Eleven
families of poor laborers living near Amiens, and sleeping in cotton
sheets, awoke one fine morning in golden ones. The property was sold
at auction. Les Aigues was bought by Montcornet, who had laid by
enough during his campaigns in Spain and Pomerania to make the
purchase, which cost about eleven hundred thousand francs, including
the furniture. The general, no doubt, felt the influence of these
luxurious apartments; and I was arguing with the countess only
yesterday that her marriage was a direct result of the purchase of Les
To rightly understand the countess, my dear Nathan, you must know that
the general is a violent man, red as fire, five feet nine inches tall,
round as a tower, with a thick neck and the shoulders of a blacksmith,
which must have amply filled his cuirass. Montcornet commanded the
cuirassiers at the battle of Essling (called by the Austrians Gross-
Aspern), and came near perishing when that noble corps was driven back
on the Danube. He managed to cross the river astride a log of wood.
The cuirassiers, finding the bridge down, took the glorious
resolution, at Montcornet's command, to turn and resist the entire
Austrian army, which carried off on the morrow over thirty wagon-loads
of cuirasses. The Germans invented a name for their enemies on this
occasion which means "men of iron."[*] Montcornet has the outer man of
a hero of antiquity. His arms are stout and vigorous, his chest deep
and broad; his head has a leonine aspect, his voice is of those that
can order a charge in the thick of battle; but he has nothing more
than the courage of a daring man; he lacks mind and breadth of view.
Like other generals to whom military common-sense, the natural
boldness of those who spend their lives in danger, and the habit of
command gives an appearance of superiority, Montcornet has an imposing
effect when you first meet him; he seems a Titan, but he contains a
dwarf, like the pasteboard giant who saluted Queen Elizabeth at the
gates of Kenilworth. Choleric though kind, and full of imperial
hauteur, he has the caustic tongue of a soldier, and is quick at
repartee, but quicker still with a blow. He may have been superb on a
battle-field; in a household he is simply intolerable. He knows no
love but barrack love,--the love which those clever myth-makers, the
ancients, placed under the patronage of Eros, son of Mars and Venus.
Those delightful chroniclers of the old religions provided themselves
with a dozen different Loves. Study the fathers and the attributes of
these Loves, and you will discover a complete social nomenclature,--
and yet we fancy that we originate things! When the world turns upside
down like an hour-glass, when the seas become continents, Frenchmen
will find canons, steamboats, newspapers, and maps wrapped up in
seaweed at the bottom of what is now our ocean.
[*] I do not, on principle, like foot-notes, and this is the first I
have ever allowed myself. Its historical interest must be my
excuse; it will prove, moreover, that descriptions of battles
should be something more than the dry particulars of technical
writers, who for the last three thousand years have told us about
left and right wings and centres being broken or driven in, but
never a word about the soldier himself, his sufferings, and his
heroism. The conscientious care with which I prepared myself to
write the "Scenes from Military Life," led me to many a battle-
field once wet with the blood of France and her enemies. Among
them I went to Wagram. When I reached the shores of the Danube,
opposite Lobau, I noticed on the bank, which is covered with turf,
certain undulations that reminded me of the furrows in a field of
lucern. I asked the reason of it, thinking I should hear of some
new method of agriculture: "There sleep the cavalry of the
imperial guard," said the peasant who served us as a guide; "those
are their graves you see there." The words made me shudder. Prince
Frederic Schwartzenburg, who translated them, added that the man
had himself driven one of the wagons laden with cuirasses. By one
of the strange chances of war our guide had served a breakfast to
Napoleon on the morning of the battle of Wagram. Though poor, he
had kept the double napoleon which the Emperor gave him for his
milk and his eggs. The curate of Gross-Aspern took us to the
famous cemetery where French and Austrians struggled together
knee-deep in blood, with a courage and obstinacy glorious to each.
There, while explaining that a marble tablet (to which our
attention had been attracted, and on which were inscribed the
names of the owner of Gross-Aspern, who had been killed on the
third day) was the sole compensation ever given to the family, he
said, in a tone of deep sadness: "It was a time of great misery,
and of great hopes; but now are the days of forgetfulness." The
saying seemed to me sublime in its simplicity; but when I came to
reflect upon the matter, I felt there was some justification for
the apparent ingratitude of the House of Austria. Neither nations
nor kings are wealthy enough to reward all the devotions to which
these tragic struggles give rise. Let those who serve a cause with
a secret expectation of recompense, set a price upon their blood
and become mercenaries. Those who wield either sword or pen for
their country's good ought to think of nothing but of DOING THEIR
BEST, as our fathers used to say, and expect nothing, not even
glory, except as a happy accident.
It was in rushing to retake this famous cemetery for the third
time that Massena, wounded and carried in the box of a cabriolet,
made this splendid harangue to his soldiers: "What! you rascally
curs, who have only five sous a day while I have forty thousand,
do you let me go ahead of you?" All the world knows the order
which the Emperor sent to his lieutenant by M. de Sainte-Croix,
who swam the Danube three times: "Die or retake the village; it is
a question of saving the army; the bridges are destroyed."
Now, I must tell you that the Comtesse de Montcornet is a fragile,
timid, delicate little woman. What do you think of such a marriage as
that? To those who know society such things are common enough; a well-
assorted marriage is the exception. Nevertheless, I have come to see
how it is that this slender little creature handles her bobbins in a
way to lead this heavy, solid, stolid general precisely as he himself
used to lead his cuirassiers.
If Montcornet begins to bluster before his Virginie, Madame lays a
finger on her lips and he is silent. He smokes his pipes and his
cigars in a kiosk fifty feet from the chateau, and airs himself before
he returns to the house. Proud of his subjection, he turns to her,
like a bear drunk on grapes, and says, when anything is proposed, "If
Madame approves." When he comes to his wife's room, with that heavy
step which makes the tiles creak as though they were boards, and she,
not wanting him, calls out: "Don't come in!" he performs a military
volte-face and says humbly: "You will let me know when I can see you?"
--in the very tones with which he shouted to his cuirassiers on the
banks of the Danube: "Men, we must die, and die well, since there's
nothing else we can do!" I have heard him say, speaking of his wife,
"Not only do I love her, but I venerate her." When he flies into a
passion which defies all restraint and bursts all bonds, the little
woman retires into her own room and leaves him to shout. But four or
five hours later she will say: "Don't get into a passion, my dear, you
might break a blood-vessel; and besides, you hurt me." Then the lion
of Essling retreats out of sight to wipe his eyes. Sometimes he comes
into the salon when she and I are talking, and if she says: "Don't
disturb us, he is reading to me," he leaves us without a word.
It is only strong men, choleric and powerful, thunder-bolts of war,
diplomats with olympian heads, or men of genius, who can show this
utter confidence, this generous devotion to weakness, this constant
protection, this love without jealousy, this easy good humor with a
woman. Good heavens! I place the science of the countess's management
of her husband as far above the peevish, arid virtues as the satin of
a causeuse is superior to the Utrecht velvet of a dirty bourgeois
My dear fellow, I have spent six days in this delightful country-
house, and I never tire of admiring the beauties of the park,
surrounded by forests where pretty wood-paths lead beside the brooks.
Nature and its silence, these tranquil pleasures, this placid life to
which she woos me,--all attract. Ah! here is true literature; no fault
of style among the meadows. Happiness forgets all things here,--even
the Debats! It has rained all the morning; while the countess slept
and Montcornet tramped over his domain, I have compelled myself to
keep my rash, imprudent promise to write to you.
Until now, though I was born at Alencon, of an old judge and a
prefect, so they say, and though I know something of agriculture, I
supposed the tale of estates bringing in four or five thousand francs
a month to be a fable. Money, to me, meant a couple of dreadful
things,--work and a publisher, journalism and politics. When shall we
poor fellows come upon a land where gold springs up with the grass?
That is what I desire for you and for me and the rest of us in the
name of the theatre, and of the press, and of book-making! Amen!
Will Florine be jealous of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre? Our modern
Bourets have no French nobles now to show them how to live; they hire
one opera-box among three of them; they subscribe for their pleasures;
they no longer cut down magnificently bound quartos to match the
octavos in their library; in fact, they scarcely buy even stitched
paper books. What is to become of us?
Adieu; continue to care for
If this letter, dashed off by the idlest pen of the century, had not
by some lucky chance been preserved, it would have been almost
impossible to describe Les Aigues; and without this description the
history of the horrible events that occurred there would certainly be
After that remark some persons will expect to see the flashing of the
cuirass of the former colonel of the guard, and the raging of his
anger as he falls like a waterspout upon his little wife; so that the
end of this present history may be like the end of all modern dramas,
--a tragedy of the bed-chamber. Perhaps the fatal scene will take
place in that charming room with the blue monochromes, where beautiful
ideal birds are painted on the ceilings and the shutters, where
Chinese monsters laugh with open jaws on the mantle-shelf, and
dragons, green and gold, twist their tails in curious convolutions
around rich vases, and Japanese fantasy embroiders its designs of many
colors; where sofas and reclining-chairs and consoles and what-nots
invite to that contemplative idleness which forbids all action.
No; the drama here to be developed is not one of private life; it
concerns things higher, or lower. Expect no scenes of passion; the
truth of this history is only too dramatic. And remember, the
historian should never forget that his mission is to do justice to
all; the poor and the prosperous are equals before his pen; to him the
peasant appears in the grandeur of his misery, and the rich in the
pettiness of his folly. Moreover, the rich man has passions, the
peasant only wants. The peasant is therefore doubly poor; and if,
politically, his aggressions must be pitilessly repressed, to the eyes
of humanity and religion he is sacred.
A BUCOLIC OVERLOOKED BY VIRGIL
When a Parisian drops into the country he is cut off from all his
usual habits, and soon feels the dragging hours, no matter how
attentive his friends may be to him. Therefore, because it is so
impossible to prolong in a tete-a-tete conversations that are soon
exhausted, the master and mistress of a country-house are apt to say,
calmly, "You will be terribly bored here." It is true that to
understand the delights of country life one must have something to do,
some interests in it; one must know the nature of the work to be done,
and the alternating harmony of toil and pleasure,--eternal symbol of
When a Parisian has recovered his powers of sleeping, shaken off the
fatigues of his journey, and accustomed himself to country habits, the
hardest period of the day (if he wears thin boots and is neither a
sportsman nor an agriculturalist) is the early morning. Between the
hours of waking and breakfasting, the women of the family are sleeping
or dressing, and therefore unapproachable; the master of the house is
out and about on his own affairs; a Parisian is therefore compelled to
be alone from eight to eleven o'clock, the hour chosen in all country-
houses for breakfast. Now, having got what amusement he can out of
carefully dressing himself, he has soon exhausted that resource. Then,
perhaps, he has brought with him some work, which he finds it
impossible to do, and which goes back untouched, after he sees the
difficulties of doing it, into his valise; a writer is then obliged to
wander about the park and gape at nothing or count the big trees. The
easier the life, the more irksome such occupations are,--unless,
indeed, one belongs to the sect of shaking quakers or to the honorable
guild of carpenters or taxidermists. If one really had, like the
owners of estates, to live in the country, it would be well to supply
one's self with a geological, mineralogical, entomological, or
botanical hobby; but a sensible man doesn't give himself a vice merely
to kill time for a fortnight. The noblest estate, and the finest
chateaux soon pall on those who possess nothing but the sight of them.
The beauties of nature seem rather squalid compared to the
representation of them at the opera. Paris, by retrospection, shines
from all its facets. Unless some particular interest attaches us, as
it did in Blondet's case, to scenes honored by the steps and lighted
by the eyes of a certain person, one would envy the birds their wings
and long to get back to the endless, exciting scenes of Paris and its
The long letter of the young journalist must make most intelligent
minds suppose that he had reached, morally and physically, that
particular phase of satisfied passions and comfortable happiness which
certain winged creatures fed in Strasbourg so perfectly represent
when, with their heads sunk behind their protruding gizzards, they
neither see nor wish to see the most appetizing food. So, when the
formidable letter was finished, the writer felt the need of getting
away from the gardens of Armida and doing something to enliven the
deadly void of the morning hours; for the hours between breakfast and
dinner belonged to the mistress of the house, who knew very well how
to make them pass quickly. To keep, as Madame de Montcornet did, a man
of talent in the country without ever seeing on his face the false
smile of satiety, or detecting the yawn of a weariness that cannot be
concealed, is a great triumph for a woman. The affection which is
equal to such a test certainly ought to be eternal. It is to be
wondered at that women do not oftener employ it to judge of their
lovers; a fool, an egoist, or a petty nature could never stand it.
Philip the Second himself, the Alexander of dissimulation, would have
told his secrets if condemned to a month's tete-a-tete in the country.
Perhaps this is why kings seek to live in perpetual motion, and allow
no one to see them more than fifteen minutes at a time.
Notwithstanding that he had received the delicate attentions of one of
the most charming women in Paris, Emile Blondet was able to feel once
more the long forgotten delights of a truant schoolboy; and on the
morning of the day after his letter was written he had himself called
by Francois, the head valet, who was specially appointed to wait on
him, for the purpose of exploring the valley of the Avonne.
The Avonne is a little river which, being swollen above Conches by
numerous rivulets, some of which rise in Les Aigues, falls at Ville-
aux-Fayes into one of the large affluents of the Seine. The
geographical position of the Avonne, navigable for over twelve miles,
had, ever since Jean Bouvet invented rafts, given full money value to
the forests of Les Aigues, Soulanges, and Ronquerolles, standing on
the crest of the hills between which this charming river flows. The
park of Les Aigues covers the greater part of the valley, between the
river (bordered on both sides by the forest called des Aigues) and the
royal mail road, defined by a line of old elms in the distance along
the slopes of the Avonne mountains, which are in fact the foot-hills
of that magnificent ampitheatre called the Morvan.
However vulgar the comparison may be, the park, lying thus at the
bottom of the valley, is like an enormous fish with its head at
Conches and its tail in the village of Blangy; for it widens in the
middle to nearly three hundred acres, while towards Conches it counts
less than fifty, and sixty at Blangy. The position of this estate,
between three villages, and only three miles from the little town of
Soulanges, from which the descent is rapid, may perhaps have led to
the strife and caused the excesses which are the chief interest
attaching to the place. If, when seen from the mail road or from the
uplands beyond Ville-aux-Fayes, the paradise of Les Aigues induces
mere passing travellers to commit the mortal sin of envy, why should
the rich burghers of Soulanges and Ville-aux-Fayes who had it before
their eyes and admired it every day of their lives, have been more
This last topographical detail was needed to explain the site, also
the use of the four gates by which alone the park of Les Aigues was
entered; for it was completely surrounded by walls, except where
nature had provided a fine view, and at such points sunk fences or ha-
has had been placed. The four gates, called the gate of Conches, the
gate of Avonne, the gate of Blangy, and the gate of the Avenue, showed
the styles of the different periods at which they were constructed so
admirably that a brief description, in the interest of archaeologists,
will presently be given, as brief as the one Blondet has already
written about the gate of the Avenue.
After eight days of strolling about with the countess, the illustrious
editor of the "Journal des Debats" knew by heart the Chinese kiosk,
the bridges, the isles, the hermitage, the dairy, the ruined temple,
the Babylonian ice-house, and all the other delusions invented by
landscape architects which some nine hundred acres of land can be made
to serve. He now wished to find the sources of the Avonne, which the
general and the countess daily extolled in the evening, making plans
to visit them which were daily forgotten the next morning. Above Les
Aigues the Avonne really had the appearance of an alpine torrent.
Sometimes it hollowed a bed among the rocks, sometimes it went
underground; on this side the brooks came down in cascades, there they
flowed like the Loire on sandy shallows where rafts could not pass on
account of the shifting channels. Blondet took a short cut through the
labyrinths of the park to reach the gate of Conches. This gate demands
a few words, which give, moreover, certain historical details about
The original founder of Les Aigues was a younger son of the Soulanges
family, enriched by marriage, whose chief ambition was to make his
elder brother jealous,--a sentiment, by the bye, to which we owe the
fairy-land of Isola Bella in the Lago Maggiore. In the middle ages the
castle of Les Aigues stood on the banks of the Avonne. Of this old
building nothing remains but the gateway, which has a porch like the
entrance to a fortified town, flanked by two round towers with conical
roofs. Above the arch of the porch are heavy stone courses, now draped
with vegetation, showing three large windows with cross-bar sashes. A
winding stairway in one of the towers leads to two chambers, and a
kitchen occupies the other tower. The roof of the porch, of pointed
shape like all old timber-work, is noticeable for two weathercocks
perched at each end of a ridge-pole ornamented with fantastic iron-
work. Many an important place cannot boast of so fine a town hall. On
the outside of this gateway, the keystone of the arch still bears the
arms of Soulanges, preserved by the hardness of the stone on which the
chisel of the artist carved them, as follows: Azure, on a pale,
argent, three pilgrim's staff's sable; a fess bronchant, gules,
charged with four grosses patee, fitched, or; with the heraldic form
of a shield awarded to younger sons. Blondet deciphered the motto, "Je
soule agir,"--one of those puns that crusaders delighted to make upon
their names, and which brings to mind a fine political maxim, which,
as we shall see later, was unfortunately forgotten by Montcornet. The
gate, which was opened for Blondet by a very pretty girl, was of time-
worn wood clamped with iron. The keeper, wakened by the creaking of
the hinges, put his nose out of the window and showed himself in his
"So our keepers sleep till this time of day!" thought the Parisian,
who thought himself very knowing in rural customs.
After a walk of about quarter of an hour, he reached the sources of
the river above Conches, where his ravished eyes beheld one of those
landscapes that ought to be described, like the history of France, in
a thousand volumes or in only one. We must here content ourselves with
A projecting rock, covered with dwarf trees and abraded at its base by
the Avonne, to which circumstance it owes a slight resemblance to an
enormous turtle lying across the river, forms an arch through which
the eye takes in a little sheet of water, clear as a mirror, where the
stream seems to sleep until it reaches in the distance a series of
cascades falling among huge rocks, where little weeping willows with
elastic motion sway back and forth to the flow of waters.
Beyond these cascades is the hillside, rising sheer, like a Rhine rock
clothed with moss and heather, gullied like it, again, by sharp ridges
of schist and mica sending down, here and there, white foaming
rivulets to which a little meadow, always watered and always green,
serves as a cup; farther on, beyond the picturesque chaos and in
contrast to this wild, solitary nature, the gardens of Conches are
seen, with the village roofs and the clock-tower and the outlying
There are the two paragraphs, but the rising sun, the purity of the
air, the dewy sheen, the melody of woods and waters--imagine them!
"Almost as charming as at the Opera," thought Blondet, making his way
along the banks of the unnavigable portion of the Avonne, whose
caprices contrast with the straight and deep and silent stream of the
lower river, flowing between the tall trees of the forest of Les
Blondet did not proceed far on his morning walk, for he was presently
brought to a stand-still by the sight of a peasant,--one of those who,
in this drama, are supernumeraries so essential to its action that it
may be doubted whether they are not in fact its leading actors.
When the clever journalist reached a group of rocks where the main
stream is imprisoned, as it were, between two portals, he saw a man
standing so motionless as to excite his curiosity, while the clothes
and general air of this living statue greatly puzzled him.
The humble personage before him was a living presentment of the old
men dear to Charlet's pencil; resembling the troopers of that Homer of
soldiery in a strong frame able to endure hardship, and his immortal
skirmishers in a fiery, crimson, knotted face, showing small capacity
for submission. A coarse felt hat, the brim of which was held to the
crown by stitches, protected a nearly bald head from the weather;
below it fell a quantity of white hair which a painter would gladly
have paid four francs an hour to copy,--a dazzling mass of snow, worn
like that in all the classical representations of Deity. It was easy
to guess from the way in which the cheeks sank in, continuing the
lines of the mouth, that the toothless old fellow was more given to
the bottle than the trencher. His thin white beard gave a threatening
expression to his profile by the stiffness of its short bristles. The
eyes, too small for his enormous face, and sloping like those of a
pig, betrayed cunning and also laziness; but at this particular moment
they were gleaming with the intent look he cast upon the river. The
sole garments of this curious figure were an old blouse, formerly
blue, and trousers of the coarse burlap used in Paris to wrap bales.
All city people would have shuddered at the sight of his broken
sabots, without even a wisp of straw to stop the cracks; and it is
very certain that the blouse and the trousers had no money value at
all except to a paper-maker.
As Blondet examined this rural Diogenes, he admitted the possibility
of a type of peasantry he had seen in old tapestries, old pictures,
old sculptures, and which, up to this time, had seemed to him
imaginary. He resolved for the future not to utterly condemn the
school of ugliness, perceiving a possibility that in man beauty may be
but the flattering exception, a chimera in which the race struggles to
"What can be the ideas, the morals, the habits, of such a being? What
is he thinking of?" thought Blondet, seized with curiosity. "Is he my
fellow-creature? We have nothing in common but shape, and even
He noticed in the old man's limbs the peculiar rigidity of the tissues
of persons who live in the open air, accustomed to the inclemencies of
the weather and to the endurance of heat and cold,--hardened to
everything, in short,--which makes their leathern skin almost a hide,
and their nerves an apparatus against physical pain almost as powerful
as that of the Russians or the Arabs.
"Here's one of Cooper's Red-skins," thought Blondet; "one needn't go
to America to study savages."
Though the Parisian was less than ten paces off, the old man did not
turn his head, but kept looking at the opposite bank with a fixity
which the fakirs of India give to their vitrified eyes and their
stiffened joints. Compelled by the power of a species of magnetism,
more contagious than people have any idea of, Blondet ended by gazing
at the water himself.
"Well, my good man, what do you see there?" he asked, after the lapse
of a quarter of an hour, during which time he saw nothing to justify
this intent contemplation.
"Hush!" whispered the old man, with a sign to Blondet not to ruffle
the air with his voice; "You will frighten it--"
"An otter, my good gentleman. If it hears us it'll go quick under
water. I'm certain it jumped there; see! see! there, where the water
bubbles! Ha! it sees a fish, it is after that! But my boy will grab it
as it comes back. The otter, don't you know, is very rare; it is
scientific game, and good eating, too. I get ten francs for every one
I carry to Les Aigues, for the lady fasts Fridays, and to-morrow is
Friday. Years agone the deceased madame used to pay me twenty francs,
and gave me the skin to boot! Mouche," he called, in a low voice,
Blondet now perceived on the other side of the river two bright eyes,
like those of a cat, beneath a tuft of alders; then he saw the tanned
forehead and tangled hair of a boy about ten years of age, who was
lying on his stomach and making signs towards the otter to let his
master know he kept it well in sight. Blondet, completely mastered by
the eagerness of the old man and boy, allowed the demon of the chase
to get the better of him,--that demon with the double claws of hope
and curiosity, who carries you whithersoever he will.
"The hat-makers buy the skin," continued the old man; "it's so soft,
so handsome! They cover caps with it."
"Do you really think so, my old man?" said Blondet, smiling.
"Well truly, my good gentleman, you ought to know more than I, though
I am seventy years old," replied the old fellow, very humbly and
respectfully, falling into the attitude of a giver of holy water;
"perhaps you can tell me why conductors and wine-merchants are so fond
Blondet, a master of irony, already on his guard from the word
"scientific," recollected the Marechal de Richelieu and began to
suspect some jest on the part of the old man; but he was reassured by
his artless attitude and the perfectly stupid expression of his face.
"In my young days we had lots of otters," whispered the old fellow;
"but they've hunted 'em so that if we see the tail of one in seven
years it is as much as ever we do. And the sub-prefect at Ville-aux-
Fayes,--doesn't monsieur know him? though he be a Parisian, he's a
fine young man like you, and he loves curiosities,--so, as I was
saying, hearing of my talent for catching otters, for I know 'em as
you know your alphabet, he says to me like this: 'Pere Fourchon,' says
he, "when you find an otter bring it to me, and I'll pay you well; and
if it's spotted white on the back,' says he, 'I'll give you thirty
francs.' That's just what he did say to me as true as I believe in God
the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And there's a learned man at
Soulanges, Monsieur Gourdon, our doctor, who is making, so they tell
me, a collection of natural history which hasn't its mate at Dijon
even; indeed he is first among the learned men in these parts, and
he'll pay me a fine price, too; he stuffs men and beasts. Now my boy
there stands me out that that otter has got the white spots. 'If
that's so,' says I to him, 'then the good God wishes well to us this
morning!' Ha! didn't you see the water bubble? yes, there it is! there
it is! Though it lives in a kind of a burrow, it sometimes stays whole
days under water. Ha, there! it heard you, my good gentleman; it's on
its guard now; for there's not a more suspicious animal on earth; it's
worse than a woman."
"So you call women suspicious, do you?" said Blondet.
"Faith, monsieur, if you come from Paris you ought to know about that
better than I. But you'd have done better for me if you had stayed in
your bed and slept all the morning; don't you see that wake there?
that's where she's gone under. Get up, Mouche! the otter heard
monsieur talking, and now she's scary enough to keep us at her heels
till midnight. Come, let's be off! and good-bye to our thirty francs!"
Mouche got up reluctantly; he looked at the spot where the water
bubbled, pointed to it with his finger and seemed unable to give up
all hope. The child, with curly hair and a brown face, like the angels
in a fifteenth-century picture, seemed to be in breeches, for his
trousers ended at the knee in a ragged fringe of brambles and dead
leaves. This necessary garment was fastened upon him by cords of
tarred oakum in guise of braces. A shirt of the same burlap which made
the old man's trousers, thickened, however, by many darns, open in
front showed a sun-burnt little breast. In short, the attire of the
being called Mouche was even more startlingly simple than that of Pere
"What a good-natured set of people they are here," thought Blondet;
"if a man frightened away the game of the people of the suburbs of
Paris, how their tongues would maul him!"
As he had never seen an otter, even in a museum, he was delighted with
this episode of his early walk. "Come," said he, quite touched when
the old man walked away without asking him for a compensation, "you
say you are a famous otter catcher. If you are sure there is an otter
From the other side of the water Mouche pointed his finger to certain
air-bubbles coming up from the bottom of the Avonne and bursting on
"It has come back!" said Pere Fourchon; "don't you see it breathe, the
beggar? How do you suppose they manage to breathe at the bottom of the
water? Ah, the creature's so clever it laughs at science."
"Well," said Blondet, who supposed the last word was a jest of the
peasantry in general rather than of this peasant in particular, "wait
and catch the otter."
"And what are we to do about our day's work, Mouche and I?"
"What is your day worth?"
"For the pair of us, my apprentice and me?--Five francs," said the old
man, looking Blondet in the eye with a hesitation which betrayed an
The journalist took ten francs from his pocket, saying, "There's ten,
and I'll give you ten more for the otter."
"And it won't cost you dear if there's white on its back; for the sub-
prefect told me there wasn't one o' them museums that had the like;
but he knows everything, our sub-prefect,--no fool he! If I hunt the
otter, he, M'sieur des Lupeaulx, hunts Mademoiselle Gaubertin, who has
a fine white "dot" on her back. Come now, my good gentleman, if I may
make so bold, plunge into the middle of the Avonne and get to that
stone down there. If we head the otter off, it will come down stream;
for just see their slyness, the beggars! they always go above their
burrow to feed, for, once full of fish, they know they can easily
drift down, the sly things! Ha! if I'd been trained in their school I
should be living now on an income; but I was a long time finding out
that you must go up stream very early in the morning if you want to
bag the game before others. Well, somebody threw a spell over me when
I was born. However, we three together ought to be slyer than the
"How so, my old necromancer?"
"Why, bless you! we are as stupid as the beasts, and so we come to
understand the beasts. Now, see, this is what we'll do. When the otter
wants to get home Mouche and I'll frighten it here, and you'll
frighten it over there; frightened by us and frightened by you it will
jump on the bank, and when it takes to earth, it is lost! It can't
run; it has web feet for swimming. Ho, ho! it will make you laugh,
such floundering! you don't know whether you are fishing or hunting!
The general up at Les Aigues, I have known him to stay here three days
running, he was so bent on getting an otter."
Blondet, armed with a branch cut for him by the old man, who requested
him to whip the water with it when he called to him, planted himself
in the middle of the river by jumping from stone to stone.
"There, that will do, my good gentleman."
Blondet stood where he was told without remarking the lapse of time,
for every now and then the old fellow made him a sign as much as to
say that all was going well; and besides, nothing makes time go so
fast as the expectation that quick action is to succeed the perfect
stillness of watching.
"Pere Fourchon," whispered the boy, finding himself alone with the old
man, "there's REALLY an otter!"
"Do you see it?"
"There, see there!"
The old fellow was dumb-founded at beholding under water the reddish-
brown fur of an actual otter.
"It's coming my way!" said the child.
"Hit him a sharp blow on the head and jump into the water and hold him
fast down, but don't let him go!"
Mouche dove into the water like a frightened frog.
"Come, come, my good gentleman," cried Pere Fourchon to Blondet,
jumping into the water and leaving his sabots on the bank, "frighten
him! frighten him! Don't you see him? he is swimming fast your way!"
The old man dashed toward Blondet through the water, calling out with
the gravity that country people retain in the midst of their greatest
"Don't you see him, there, along the rocks?"
Blondet, placed by direction of the old fellow in such a way that the
sun was in his eyes, thrashed the water with much satisfaction to
"Go on, go on!" cried Pere Fourchon; "on the rock side; the burrow is
there, to your left!"
Carried away by excitement and by his long waiting, Blondet slipped
from the stones into the water.
"Ha! brave you are, my good gentleman! Twenty good Gods! I see him
between your legs! you'll have him!-- Ah! there! he's gone--he's
gone!" cried the old man, in despair.
Then, in the fury of the chase, the old fellow plunged into the
deepest part of the stream in front of Blondet.
"It's your fault we've lost him!" he cried, as Blondet gave him a hand
to pull him out, dripping like a triton, and a vanquished triton. "The
rascal, I see him, under those rocks! He has let go his fish,"
continued Fourchon, pointing to something that floated on the surface.
"We'll have that at any rate; it's a tench, a real tench."
Just then a groom in livery on horseback and leading another horse by
the bridle galloped up the road toward Conches.
"See! there's the chateau people sending after you," said the old man.
"If you want to cross back again I'll give you a hand. I don't mind
about getting wet; it saves washing!"
"How about rheumatism?"
"Rheumatism! don't you see the sun has browned our legs, Mouche and
me, like tobacco-pipes. Here, lean on me, my good gentleman--you're
from Paris; you don't know, though you DO know so much, how to walk on
our rocks. If you stay here long enough, you'll learn a deal that's
written in the book o' nature,--you who write, so they tell me, in the
Blondet had reached the bank before Charles, the groom, perceived him.
"Ah, monsieur!" he cried; "you don't know how anxious Madame has been
since she heard you had gone through the gate of Conches; she was
afraid you were drowned. They have rung the great bell three times,
and Monsieur le cure is hunting for you in the park."
"What time is it, Charles?"
"A quarter to twelve."
"Help me to mount."
"Ha!" exclaimed the groom, noticing the water that dripped from
Blondet's boots and trousers, "has monsieur been taken in by Pere
The words enlightened the journalist.
"Don't say a word about it, Charles," he cried, "and I'll make it all
right with you."
"Oh, as for that!" answered the man, "Monsieur le comte himself has
been taken in by that otter. Whenever a visitor comes to Les Aigues,
Pere Fourchon sets himself on the watch, and if the gentleman goes to
see the sources of the Avonne he sells him the otter; he plays the
trick so well that Monsieur le comte has been here three times and
paid him for six days' work, just to stare at the water!"
"Heavens!" thought Blondet. "And I imagined I had seen the greatest
comedians of the present day!--Potier, the younger Baptiste, Michot,
and Monrose. What are they compared to that old beggar?"
"He is very knowing at the business, Pere Fourchon is," continued
Charles; "and he has another string to his bow, besides. He calls
himself a rope-maker, and has a walk under the park wall by the gate
of Blangy. If you merely touch his rope he'll entangle you so cleverly
that you will want to turn the wheel and make a bit of it yourself;
and for that you would have to pay a fee for apprenticeship. Madame
herself was taken in, and gave him twenty francs. Ah! he is the king
of tricks, that old fellow!"
The groom's gossip set Blondet thinking of the extreme craftiness and
wiliness of the French peasant, of which he had heard a great deal
from his father, a judge at Alencon. Then the satirical meaning hidden
beneath Pere Fourchon's apparent guilelessness came back to him, and
he owned himself "gulled" by the Burgundian beggar.
"You would never believe, monsieur," said Charles, as they reached the
portico at Les Aigues, "how much one is forced to distrust everybody
and everything in the country,--especially here, where the general is
not much liked--"
"That's more than I know," said Charles, with the stupid air servants
assume to shield themselves when they wish not to answer their
superiors, which nevertheless gave Blondet a good deal to think of.
"Here you are, truant!" cried the general, coming out on the terrace
when he heard the horses. "Here he is; don't be uneasy!" he called
back to his wife, whose little footfalls were heard behind him. "Now
the Abbe Brossette is missing. Go and find him, Charles," he said to
The gate of Blangy, built by Bouret, was formed of two wide pilasters
of projecting rough-hewn stone; each surmounted by a dog sitting on
his haunches and holding an escutcheon between his fore paws. The
proximity of a small house where the steward lived dispensed with the
necessity for a lodge. Between the two pilasters, a sumptuous iron
gate, like those made in Buffon's time for the Jardin des Plantes,
opened on a short paved way which led to the country road (formerly
kept in order by Les Aigues and the Soulanges family) which unites
Conches, Cerneux, Blangy, and Soulanges to Ville-aux-Fayes, like a
wreath, for the whole road is lined with flowering hedges and little
houses covered with roses and honey-suckle and other climbing plants.
There, along a pretty wall which extends as far as a terrace from
which the land of Les Aigues falls rapidly to the valley till it meets
that of Soulanges, are the rotten posts, the old wheel, and the forked
stakes which constituted the manufactory of the village rope-maker.
Soon after midday, while Blondet was seating himself at table opposite
the Abbe Brossette and receiving the tender expostulations of the
countess, Pere Fourchon and Mouche arrived at this establishment. From
that vantage-ground Pere Fourchon, under pretence of rope-making,
could watch Les Aigues and see every one who went in and out. Nothing
escaped him, the opening of the blinds, tete-a-tete loiterings, or the
least little incidents of country life, were spied upon by the old
fellow, who had set up this business within the last three years,--a
trifling circumstance which neither the masters, nor the servants, nor
the keepers of Les Aigues had as yet remarked upon.
"Go round to the house by the gate of the Avonne while I put away the
tackle," said Pere Fourchon to his attendant, "and when you have
blabbed about the thing, they'll no doubt send after me to the Grand-
I-Vert, where I am going for a drop of drink,--for it makes one
thirsty enough to wade in the water that way. If you do just as I tell
you, you'll hook a good breakfast out of them; try to meet the
countess, and give a slap at me, and that will put it into her head to
come and preach morality or something! There's lots of good wine to
get out of it."
After these last instructions, which the sly look in Mouche's face
rendered quite superfluous, the old peasant, hugging the otter under
his arm, disappeared along the country road.
Half-way between the gate and the village there stood, at the time
when Emile Blondet stayed at Les Aigues, one of those houses which are
never seen but in parts of France where stone is scarce. Bits of
bricks picked up anywhere, cobblestones set like diamonds in the clay
mud, formed very solid walls, though worn in places; the roof was
supported by stout branches and covered with rushes and straw, while
the clumsy shutters and the broken door--in short, everything about
the cottage was the product of lucky finds, or of gifts obtained by
The peasant has an instinct for his habitation like that of an animal
for its nest or its burrow, and this instinct was very marked in all
the arrangements of this cottage. In the first place, the door and the
window looked to the north. The house, placed on a little rise in the
stoniest angle of a vineyard, was certainly healthful. It was reached
by three steps, carefully made with stakes and planks filled in with
broken stone and gravel, so that the water ran off rapidly; and as the
rain seldom comes from the northward in Burgundy, no dampness could
rot the foundations, slight as they were. Below the steps and along
the path ran a rustic paling, hidden beneath a hedge of hawthorn and
sweet-brier. An arbor, with a few clumsy tables and wooden benches,
filled the space between the cottage and the road, and invited the
passers-by to rest themselves. At the upper end of the bank by the
house roses grew, and wall-flowers, violets, and other flowers that
cost nothing. Jessamine and honey-suckle had fastened their tendrils
on the roof, mossy already, though the building was far from old.
To the right of the house, the owner had built a stable for two cows.
In front of this erection of old boards, a sunken piece of ground
served as a yard where, in a corner, was a huge manure-heap. On the
other side of the house and the arbor stood a thatched shed, supported
on trunks of trees, under which the various outdoor properties of the
peasantry were put away,--the utensils of the vine-dressers, their
empty casks, logs of wood piled about a mound which contained the
oven, the mouth of which opened, as was usual in the houses of the
peasantry, under the mantle-piece of the chimney in the kitchen.
About an acre of land adjoined the house, inclosed by an evergreen
hedge and planted with grape-vines; tended as peasants tend them,--
that is to say, well-manured, and dug round, and layered so that they
usually set their fruit before the vines of the large proprietors in a
circuit of ten miles round. A few trees, almond, plum, and apricot,
showed their slim heads here and there in this enclosure. Between the
rows of vines potatoes and beans were planted. In addition to all
this, on the side towards the village and beyond the yard was a bit of
damp low ground, favorable for the growth of cabbages and onions
(favorite vegetables of the working-classes), which was closed by a
wooden gate, through which the cows were driven, trampling the path
into mud and covering it with dung.
The house, which had two rooms on the ground-floor, opened upon the
vineyard. On this side an outer stairway, roofed with thatch and
resting against the wall of the house, led up to the garret, which was
lighted by one round window. Under this rustic stairway opened a
cellar built of Burgundy brick, containing several casks of wine.
Though the kitchen utensils of the peasantry are usually only two,
namely, a frying-pan and an iron pot, with which they manage to do all
their cooking, exceptions to this rule, in the shape of two enormous
saucepans hanging beneath the mantle-shelf and above a small portable
stove, were to be seen in this cottage. In spite, however, of this
indication of luxury, the furniture was in keeping with the external
appearance of the place. A jar held water, the spoons were of wood or
pewter, the dishes, of red clay without and white within, were scaling
off and had been mended with pewter rivets; the heavy table and chairs
were of pine wood, and for flooring there was nothing better than the
hardened earth. Every fifth year the walls received a coat of white-
wash and so did the narrow beams of the ceiling, from which hung
bacon, strings of onions, bundles of tallow candles, and the bags in
which a peasant keeps his seeds; near the bread-box stood an old-
fashioned wardrobe in walnut, where the scanty household linen, and
the one change of garments together with the holiday attire of the
entire family were kept.
Above the mantel of the chimney gleamed a poacher's old gun, not worth
five francs,--the wood scorched, the barrel to all appearances never
cleaned. An observer might reflect that the protection of a hovel with
only a latch, and an outer gate that was only a paling and never
closed, needed no better weapon; but still the wonder was to what use
it was put. In the first place, though the wood was of the commonest
kind, the barrel was carefully selected, and came from a valuable gun,
given in all probability to a game-keeper. Moreover, the owner of this
weapon never missed his aim; there was between him and his gun the
same intimate acquaintance that there is between a workman and his
tool. If the muzzle must be raised or lowered the merest fraction in
its aim, because it carries just an atom above or below the range, the
poacher knows it; he obeys the rule and never misses. An officer of
artillery would have found the essential parts of this weapon in good
condition notwithstanding its uncleanly appearance. In all that the
peasant appropriates to his use, in all that serves him, he displays
just the amount of force that is needed, neither more nor less; he
attends to the essential and to nothing beyond. External perfection he
has no conception of. An unerring judge of the necessary in all
things, he thoroughly understands degrees of strength, and knows very
well when working for an employer how to give the least possible for
the most he can get. This contemptible-looking gun will be found to
play a serious part in the life of the family inhabiting this cottage,
and you will presently learn how and why.
Have you now taken in all the many details of this hovel, planted
about five hundred feet away from the pretty gate of Les Aigues? Do
you see it crouching there, like a beggar beside a palace? Well, its
roof covered with velvet mosses, its clacking hens, its grunting pig,
its straying heifer, all its rural graces have a horrible meaning.
Fastened to a pole, which was stuck in the ground beside the entrance
through the fence, was a withered bunch of three pine branches and
some old oak-leaves tied together with a rag. Above the door of the
house a roving artist had painted, probably in return for his
breakfast, a huge capital "I" in green on a white ground two feet
square; and for the benefit of those who could read, this witty joke
in twelve letters: "Au Grand-I-Vert" (hiver). On the left of the door
was a vulgar sign bearing, in colored letters, "Good March beer," and
the picture of a foaming pot of the same, with a woman, in a dress
excessively low-necked, on one side, and an hussar on the other,--both
coarsely colored. Consequently, in spite of the blooming flowers and
the fresh country air, this cottage exhaled the same strong and
nauseous odor of wine and food which assails you in Paris as you pass
the door of the cheap cook-shops of the faubourg.
Now you know the surroundings. Behold the inhabitants and hear their
history, which contains more than one lesson for philanthropists.
The proprietor of the Grand-I-Vert, named Francois Tonsard, commends
himself to the attention of philosophers by the manner in which he had
solved the problem of an idle life and a busy life, so as to make the
idleness profitable, and occupation nil.
A jack-of-all-trades, he knew how to cultivate the ground, but for
himself only. For others, he dug ditches, gathered fagots, barked the
trees, or cut them down. In all such work the employer is at the mercy
of the workman. Tonsard owned his plot of ground to the generosity of
Mademoiselle Laguerre. In his early youth he had worked by the day for
the gardener at Les Aigues; and he really had not his equal in
trimming the shrubbery-trees, the hedges, the horn-beams, and the
horse-chestnuts. His very name shows hereditary talent. In remote
country-places privileges exist which are obtained and preserved with
as much care as the merchants of a city display in getting theirs.
Mademoiselle Laguerre was one day walking in the garden, when she
overheard Tonsard, then a strapping fellow, say, "All I need to live
on, and live happily, is an acre of land." The kind creature,
accustomed to make others happy, gave him the acre of vineyard near
the gate of Blangy, in return for one hundred days' work (a delicate
regard for his feelings which was little understood), and allowed him
to stay at Les Aigues, where he lived with her servants, who thought
him one of the best fellows in Burgundy.
Poor Tonsard (that is what everybody called him) worked about thirty
days out of the hundred that he owed; the rest of the time he idled
about, talking and laughing with Mademoiselle's women, particularly
with Mademoiselle Cochet, the lady's maid, though she was ugly, like
all confidential maids of handsome actresses. Laughing with
Mademoiselle Cochet signified so many things that Soudry, the
fortunate gendarme mentioned in Blondet's letter, still looked askance
at Tonsard after the lapse of nearly twenty-five years. The walnut
wardrobe, the bedstead with the tester and curtains, and the ornaments
about the bedroom were doubtless the result of the said laughter.
Once in possession of his care, Tonsard replied to the first person
who happened to mention that Mademoiselle Laguerre had given it to
him, "I've bought it deuced hard, and paid well for it. Do rich folks
ever give us anything? Are one hundred days' work nothing? It has cost
me three hundred francs, and the land is all stones." But that speech
never got beyond the regions of his own class.
Tonsard built his house himself, picking up the materials here and
there as he could,--getting a day's work out of this one and that one,
gleaning in the rubbish that was thrown away, often asking for things
and always obtaining them. A discarded door cut in two for convenience
in carrying away became the door of the stable; the window was the
sash of a green-house. In short, the rubbish of the chateau, served to
build the fatal cottage.
Saved from the draft by Gaubertin, the steward of Les Aigues, whose
father was prosecuting-attorney of the department, and who, moreover,
could refuse nothing to Mademoiselle Cochet, Tonsard married as soon
as his house was finished and his vines had begun to bear. A well-
grown fellow of twenty-three, in everybody's good graces at Les
Aigues, on whom Mademoiselle had bestowed an acre of her land, and who
appeared to be a good worker, he had the art to ring the praises of
his negative merits, and so obtained the daughter of a farmer on the
Ronquerolles estate, which lies beyond the forest of Les Aigues.
This farmer held the lease of half a farm, which was going to ruin in
his hands for want of a helpmate. A widower, and inconsolable for the
loss of his wife, he tried to drown his troubles, like the English, in
wine, and then, when he had put the poor deceased out of his mind, he
found himself married, so the village maliciously declared, to a woman
named Boisson. From being a farmer he became once more a laborer, but
an idle and drunken laborer, quarrelsome and vindictive, capable of
any ill-deed, like most of his class when they fall from a well-to-do
state of life into poverty. This man, whose practical information and
knowledge of reading and writing placed him far above his fellow-
workmen, while his vices kept him at the level of pauperism, you have
already seen on the banks of the Avonne, measuring his cleverness with
that of one of the cleverest men in Paris, in a bucolic overlooked by
Pere Fourchon, formerly a schoolmaster at Blangy, lost that place
through misconduct and his singular ideas as to public education. He
helped the children to make paper boats with their alphabets much
oftener than he taught them how to spell; he scolded them in so
remarkable a manner for pilfering fruit that his lectures might really
have passed for lessons on the best way of scaling the walls. From
teacher he became a postman. In this capacity, which serves as a
refuge to many an old soldier, Pere Fourchon was daily reprimanded.
Sometimes he forgot the letters in a tavern, at other times he kept
them in his pocket. When he was drunk he left those for one village in
another village; when he was sober he read them. Consequently, he was
soon dismissed. No longer able to serve the State, Pere Fourchon ended
by becoming a manufacturer. In the country a poor man can always get
something to do, and make at least a pretence of gaining an honest
livelihood. At sixty-eight years of age the old man started his rope-
walk, a manufactory which requires the very smallest capital. The
workshop is, as we have seen, any convenient wall; the machinery costs
about ten francs. The apprentice slept, like his master, in a hay-
loft, and lived on whatever he could pick up. The rapacity of the law
in the matter of doors and windows expires "sub dio." The tow to make
the first rope can be borrowed. But the principal revenue of Pere
Fourchon and his satellite Mouche, the natural son of one of his
natural daughters, came from the otters; and then there were
breakfasts and dinners given them by peasants who could neither read
nor write, and were glad to use the old fellow's talents when they had
a bill to make out, or a letter to dispatch. Besides all this, he knew
how to play the clarionet, and he went about with his friend
Vermichel, the miller of Soulanges, to village weddings and the grand
balls given at the Tivoli of Soulanges.
Vermichel's name was Michel Vert, but the transposition was so
generally used that Brunet, the clerk of the municipal court of
Soulanges, was in the habit of writing Michel-Jean-Jerome Vert, called
Vermichel, practitioner. Vermichel, a famous violin in the Burgundian
regiment of former days, had procured for Pere Fourchon, in
recognition of certain services, a situation as practitioner, which in
remote country-places usually devolves on those who are able to sign
their name. Pere Fourchon therefore added to his other avocations that
of witness, or practitioner of legal papers, whenever the Sieur Brunet
came to draw them in the districts of Cerneux, Conches, and Blangy.
Vermichel and Fourchon, allied by a friendship of twenty years'
tippling, might really be considered a business firm.
Mouche and Fourchon, bound together by vice as Mentor and Telemachus
by virtue, travelled like the latter, in search of their father,
"panis angelorum,"--the only Latin words which the old fellow's memory
had retained. They went about scraping up the pickings of the Grand-I-
Vert, and those of the adjacent chateaux; for between them, in their
busiest and most prosperous years, they had never contrived to make as
much as three hundred and sixty fathoms of rope. In the first place,
no dealer within a radius of fifty miles would have trusted his tow to
either Mouche or Fourchon. The old man, surpassing the miracles of
modern chemistry, knew too well how to resolve the tow into the all-
benignant juice of the grape. Moreover, his triple functions of public
writer for three townships, legal practitioner for one, and clarionet-
player at large, hindered, so he said, the development of his
Thus it happened that Tonsard was disappointed from the start in the
hope he had indulged of increasing his comfort by an increase of
property in marriage. The idle son-in-law had chanced, by a very
common accident, on an idler father-in-law. Matters went all the worse
because Tonsard's wife, gifted with a sort of rustic beauty, being
tall and well-made, was not fond of work in the open air. Tonsard
blamed his wife for her father's short-comings, and ill-treated her,
with the customary revenge of the common people, whose minds take in
only an effect and rarely look back to causes.
Finding her fetters heavy, the woman lightened them. She used
Tonsard's vices to get the better of him. Loving comfort and good
eating herself, she encouraged his idleness and gluttony. In the first
place, she managed to procure the good-will of the servants of the
chateau, and Tonsard, in view of the results, made no complaint as to
the means. He cared very little what his wife did, so long as she did
all he wanted of her. That is the secret agreement of many a
household. Madame Tonsard established the wine-shop of the Grand-I-
Vert, her first customers being the servants of Les Aigues and the
keepers and huntsmen.
Gaubertin, formerly steward to Mademoiselle Laguerre, one of La
Tonsard's chief patrons, gave her several puncheons of excellent wine
to attract custom. The effect of these gifts (continued as long as
Gaubertin remained a bachelor) and the fame of her rather lawless
beauty commended this beauty to the Don Juans of the valley, and
filled the wine-shop of the Grand-I-Vert. Being a lover of good
eating, La Tonsard was naturally an excellent cook; and though her
talents were only exercised on the common dishes of the country,
jugged hare, game sauce, stewed fish and omelets, she was considered
in all the country round to be an admirable cook of the sort of food
which is eaten at a counter and spiced in a way to excite a desire for
drink. By the end of two years, she had managed to rule Tonsard, and
turn him to evil courses, which, indeed, he asked no better than to
The rascal was continually poaching, and with nothing to fear from it.
The intimacies of his wife with Gaubertin and the keepers and the
rural authorities, together with the laxity of the times, secured him
impunity. As soon as his children were large enough he made them
serviceable to his comfort, caring no more for their morality than for
that of his wife. He had two sons and two daughters. Tonsard, who
lived, as did his wife, from hand to mouth, might have come to an end
of this easy life if he had not maintained a sort of martial law over
his family, which compelled them to work for the preservation of it.
When he had brought up his children, at the cost of those from whom
his wife was able to extort gifts, the following charter and budget
were the law at the Grand-I-Vert.
Tonsard's old mother and his two daughters, Catherine and Marie, went
into the woods at certain seasons twice a-day, and came back laden
with fagots which overhung the crutch of their poles at least two feet
beyond their heads. Though dried sticks were placed on the outside of
the heap, the inside was made of live wood cut from young trees. In
plain words, Tonsard helped himself to his winter's fuel in the woods
of Les Aigues. Besides this, father and sons were constantly poaching.
From September to March, hares, rabbits, partridges, deer, in short,
all the game that was not eaten at the chateau, was sold at Blangy and
at Soulanges, where Tonsard's two daughters peddled milk in the early
mornings,--coming back with the news of the day, in return for the
gossip they carried about Les Aigues, and Cerneux, and Conches. In the
months when the three Tonsards were unable to hunt with a gun, they
set traps. If the traps caught more game than they could eat, La
Tonsard made pies of it and sent them to Ville-aux-Fayes. In harvest-
time seven Tonsards--the old mother, the two sons (until they were
seventeen years of age), the two daughters, together with old Fourchon
and Mouche--gleaned, and generally brought in about sixteen bushels a
day of all grains, rye, barley, wheat, all good to grind.
The two cows, led to the roadside by the youngest girl, always managed
to stray into the meadows of Les Aigues; but as, if it ever chanced
that some too flagrant trespass compelled the keepers to take notice
of it, the children were either whipped or deprived of a coveted
dainty, they had acquired such extraordinary aptitude in hearing the
enemy's footfall that the bailiff or the park-keeper of Les Aigues was
very seldom able to detect them. Besides, the relations of those
estimable functionaries with Tonsard and his wife tied a bandage over
their eyes. The cows, held by long ropes, obeyed a mere twitch or a
special low call back to the roadside, knowing very well that, the
danger once past, they could finish their browsing in the next field.
Old mother Tonsard, who was getting more and more infirm, succeeded
Mouche in his duties, after Fourchon, under pretence of caring for his
natural grandson's education, kept him to himself; while Marie and
Catherine made hay in the woods. These girls knew the exact spots
where the fine forest-grass abounded, and there they cut and spread
and cocked and garnered it, supplying two thirds, at least, of the
winter fodder, and leading the cows on all fine days to sheltered
nooks where they could still find pasture. In certain parts of the
valley of Les Aigues, as in all places protected by a chain of
mountains, in Piedmont and in Lombardy for instance, there are spots
where the grass keeps green all the year. Such fields, called in Italy
"marciti," are of great value; though in France they are often in
danger of being injured by snow and ice. This phenomenon is due, no
doubt, to some favorable exposure, and to the infiltration of water
which keeps the ground at a warmer temperature.
The calves were sold for about eighty francs. The milk, deducting the
time when the cows calved or went dry, brought in about one hundred
and sixty francs a year besides supplying the wants of the family.
Tonsard himself managed to earn another hundred and sixty by doing odd
jobs of one kind or another.
The sale of food and wine in the tavern, after all costs were paid,
returned a profit of about three hundred francs, for the great
drinking-bouts happened only at certain times and in certain seasons;
and as the topers who indulged in them gave Tonsard and his wife due
notice, the latter bought in the neighboring town the exact quantity
of provisions needed and no more. The wine produced by Tonsard's
vineyard was sold in ordinary years for twenty francs a cask to a
wine-dealer at Soulanges with whom Tonsard was intimate. In very
prolific years he got as much as twelve casks from his vines; but
eight was the average; and Tonsard kept half for his own traffic. In
all wine-growing districts the gleaning of the large vineyards gives a
good perquisite, and out of it the Tonsard family usually managed to
obtain three casks more. But being, as we have seen, sheltered and
protected by the keepers, they showed no conscience in their
proceedings,--entering vineyards before the harvesters were out of
them, just as they swarmed into the wheat-fields before the sheaves
were made. So, the seven or eight casks of wine, as much gleaned as
harvested, were sold for a good price. However, out of these various
proceeds the Grand-I-Vert was mulcted in a good sum for the personal
consumption of Tonsard and his wife, who wanted the best of everything
to eat, and better wine than they sold,--which they obtained from
their friend at Soulanges in payment for their own. In short, the
money scraped together by this family amounted to about nine hundred
francs, for they fattened two pigs a year, one for themselves and the
other to sell.
The idlers and scapegraces and also the laborers took a fancy to the
tavern of the Grand-I-Vert, partly because of La Tonsard's merits, and
partly on account of the hail-fellow-well-met relation existing
between this family and the lower classes of the valley. The two
daughters, both remarkably handsome, followed the example of their
mother as to morals. Moreover, the long established fame of the Grand-
I-Vert, dating from 1795, made it a venerable spot in the eyes of the
common people. From Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes, workmen came there to
meet and make their bargains and hear the news collected by the
Tonsard women and by Mouche and old Fourchon, or supplied by Vermichel
and Brunet, that renowned official, when he came to the tavern in
search of his practitioner. There the price of hay and of wine was
settled; also that of a day's work and of piece-work. Tonsard, a
sovereign judge in such matters, gave his advice and opinion while
drinking with his guests. Soulanges, according to a saying in these
parts, was a town for society and amusement only, while Blangy was a
business borough; crushed, however, by the great commercial centre of
Ville-aux-Fayes, which had become in the last twenty-five years the
capital of this flourishing valley. The cattle and grain market was
held at Blangy, in the public square, and the prices there obtained
served as a tariff for the whole arrondissement.
By staying in the house and doing no out-door work, La Tonsard
continued fresh and fair and dimpled, in comparison with the women who
worked in the fields and faded as rapidly as the flowers, becoming old
and haggard before they were thirty. She liked to be well-dressed. In
point of fact, she was only clean, but in a village cleanliness is a
luxury. The daughters, better dressed than their means warranted,
followed their mother's example. Beneath their outer garment, which
was relatively handsome, they wore linen much finer than that of the
richest peasant women. On fete-days they appeared in dresses that were
really pretty, obtained, Heaven knows how! For one thing, the men-
servants at Les Aigues sold to them, at prices that were easily paid,
the cast-off clothing of the lady's-maids, which, after sweeping the
streets of Paris and being made over to fit Marie and Catherine,
appeared triumphantly in the precincts of the Grand-I-Vert. These
girls, bohemians of the valley, received not one penny in money from
their parents, who gave them food only, and the wretched pallets on
which they slept with their grandmother in the barn, where their
brothers also slept, curled up in the hay like animals. Neither father
nor mother paid any heed to this propinquity.
The iron age and the age of gold are more alike than we think for. In
the one nothing aroused vigilance; in the other, everything rouses it;
the result to society is, perhaps, very much the same. The presence of
old Mother Tonsard, which was more a necessity than a precaution, was
simply one immorality the more. And thus it was that the Abbe
Brossette, after studying the morals of his parishioners, made this
pregnant remark to his bishop:--
"Monseigneur, when I observe the stress that the peasantry lay on
their poverty, I realize how they fear to lose that excuse for their
Though everybody knew that the family had no principles and no
scruples, nothing was ever said against the morals of the Grand-I-
Vert. At the beginning of this book it is necessary to explain, once
for all, to persons accustomed to the decencies of middle-class life,
that the peasants have no decency in their domestic habits and
customs. They make no appeal to morality when their daughters are
seduced, unless the seducer is rich and timid. Children, until the
State takes possession of them, are used either as capital or as
instruments of convenience. Self-interest has become, specially since
1789, the sole motive of the masses; they never ask if an action is
legal or immoral, but only if it is profitable. Morality, which is not
to be confounded with religion, begins only at a certain competence,--
just as one sees, in a higher sphere, how delicacy blossoms in the
soul when fortune decorates the furniture. A positively moral and
upright man is rare among the peasantry. Do you ask why? Among the
many reasons that may be given for this state of things, the principal
one is this: Through the nature of their social functions, the
peasants live a purely material life which approximates to that of
savages, and their constant union with nature tends to foster it. When
toil exhausts the body it takes from the mind its purifying action,
especially among the ignorant. The Abbe Brossette was right in saying
that the state policy of the peasant is his poverty.
Meddling in everybody's interests, Tonsard heard everybody's
complaints, and often instigated frauds to benefit the needy. His
wife, a kindly appearing woman, had a good word for evil-doers, and
never withheld either approval or personal help from her customers in
anything they undertook against the rich. This inn, a nest of vipers,
brisk and venomous, seething and active, was a hot-bed for the hatred
of the peasants and the workingmen against the masters and the
The prosperous life of the Tonsards was, therefore, an evil example.
Others asked themselves why they should not take their wood, as the
Tonsards did, from the forest; why not pasture their cows and have
game to eat and to sell as well as they; why not harvest without
sowing the grapes and the grain. Accordingly, the pilfering thefts
which thin the woods and tithe the ploughed lands and meadows and
vineyards became habitual in this valley, and soon existed as a right
throughout the districts of Blangy, Conches, and Cerneux, all adjacent
to the domain of Les Aigues. This sore, for certain reasons which will
be given in due time, did far greater injury to Les Aigues than to the
estates of Ronquerolles or Soulanges. You must not, however, fancy
that Tonsard, his wife and children, and his old mother ever
deliberately said to themselves, "We will live by theft, and commit it
as cleverly as we can." Such habits grow slowly. To the dried sticks
they added, in the first instance, a single bit of good wood; then,
emboldened by habit and a carefully prepared immunity (necessary to
plans which this history will unfold), they ended at last in cutting
"their wood," and stealing almost their entire livelihood. Pasturage
for the cows and the abuses of gleaning were established as customs
little by little. When the Tonsards and the do-nothings of the valley
had tasted the sweets of these four rights (thus captured by rural
paupers, and amounting to actual robbery) we can easily imagine they
would never give them up unless compelled by a power greater than
their own audacity.
At the time when this history begins Tonsard, then about fifty years
of age, tall and strong, rather stout than thin, with curly black
hair, skin highly colored and marbled like a brick with purple
blotches, yellow whites to the eyes, large ears with broad flaps, a
muscular frame, encased, however, in flabby flesh, a retreating
forehead, and a hanging lip,--Tonsard, such as you see him, hid his
real character under an external stupidity, lightened at times by a
show of experience, which seemed all the more intelligent because he
had acquired in the company of his father-in-law a sort of bantering
talk, much affected by old Fourchon and Vermichel. His nose, flattened
at the end as if the finger of God intended to mark him, gave him a
voice which came from his palate, like that of all persons disfigured
by a disease which thickens the nasal passages, through which the air
then passes with difficulty. His upper teeth overlapped each other,
and this defect (which Lavater calls terrible) was all the more
apparent because they were as white as those of a dog. But for a
certain lawless and slothful good humor, and the free-and-easy ways of
a rustic tippler, the man would have alarmed the least observing of
If the portraits of Tonsard, his inn, and his father-in-law take a
prominent place in this history, it is because that place belongs to
him and to the inn and to the family. In the first place, their
existence, so minutely described, is the type of a hundred other
households in the valley of Les Aigues. Secondly, Tonsard, without
being other than the instrument of deep and active hatreds, had an
immense influence on the struggle that was about to take place, being
the friend and counsellor of all the complainants of the lower
classes. His inn, as we shall presently see, was the rendezvous for
the aggressors; in fact, he became their chief, partly on account of
the fear he inspired throughout the valley--less, however, by his
actual deeds than by those that were constantly expected of him. The
threat of this man was as much dreaded as the thing threatened, so
that he never had occasion to execute it.
Every revolt, open or concealed, has its banner. The banner of the
marauders, the drunkards, the idlers, the sluggards of the valley des
Aigues was the terrible tavern of the Grand-I-Vert. Its frequenters
found amusement there,--as rare and much-desired a thing in the
country as in a city. Moreover, there was no other inn along the
country-road for over twelve miles, a distance which conveyances (even
when laden) could easily do in three hours; so that those who went
from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes always stopped at the Grand-I-Vert, if
only to refresh themselves. The miller of Les Aigues, who was also
assistant-mayor, and his men came there. The grooms and valets of the
general were not averse to Tonsard's wine, rendered attractive by
Tonsard's daughters; so the Grand-I-Vert held subterraneous
communication with the chateau through the servants, and knew
immediately everything that they knew. It is impossible either by
benefits or through their own self-interests, to break up the
perpetual understanding that exists between the servants of a
household and the people from whom they come. Domestic service is of
the masses, and to the masses it will ever remain attached. This fatal
comradeship explains the reticence of the last words of Charles the
groom, as he and Blondet reached the portico of the chateau.
"Ha! by my pipe, papa!" exclaimed Tonsard, seeing his father-in-law as
the old man entered and supposing him in quest of food, "your stomach
is lively this morning! We haven't anything to give you. How about
that rope,--the rope, you know, you were to make for us? It is amazing
how much you make over night and how little there is made in the
morning! You ought long ago to have twisted the one that is to twist
you out of existence; you are getting too costly for us."
The wit of a peasant or laborer is very Attic; it consists in speaking
out his mind and giving it a grotesque expression. We find the same
thing in a drawing-room. Delicacy of wit takes the place of
picturesque vulgarity, and that is really all the difference there is.
"That's enough for the father-in-law!" said the old man. "Talk
business; I want a bottle of the best."
So saying, Fourchon rapped a five-franc piece that gleamed in his hand
on the old table at which he was seated,--which, with its coating of
grease, its scorched black marks, its wine stains, and its gashes, was
singular to behold. At the sound of coin Marie Tonsard, as trig as a
sloop about to start on a cruise, glanced at her grandfather with a
covetous look that shot from her eyes like a spark. La Tonsard came
out of her bedroom, attracted by the music of metal.
"You are always rough to my poor father," she said to her husband,
"and yet he has earned a deal of money this year; God grant he came by
it honestly. Let me see that," she added, springing at the coin and
snatching it from Fourchon's fingers.
"Marie," said Tonsard, gravely, "above the board you'll find some
bottled wine. Go and get a bottle."
Wine is of only one quality in the country, but it is sold as of two
kinds,--cask wine and bottled wine.
"Where did you get this, papa" demanded La Tonsard, slipping the coin
into her pocket.
"Philippine! you'll come to a bad end," said the old man, shaking his
head but not attempting to recover his money. Doubtless he had long
realized the futility of a struggle between his daughter, his terrible
son-in-law, and himself.
"Another bottle of wine for which you get five francs out of me," he
added, in a peevish tone. "But it shall be the last. I shall give my
custom to the Cafe de la Paix."
"Hold your tongue, papa!" remarked his fair and fat daughter, who bore
some resemblance to a Roman matron. "You need a shirt, and a pair of
clean trousers, and a hat; and I want to see you with a waistcoat.
That's what I take the money for."
"I have told you again and again that such things would ruin me," said
the old man. "People would think me rich and stop giving me anything."
The bottle brought by Marie put an end to the loquacity of the old
man, who was not without that trait, characteristic of those whose
tongues are ready to tell out everything, and who shrink from no
expression of their thought, no matter how atrocious it may be.
"Then you don't want to tell where you filched that money?" said
Tonsard. "We might go and get more where that came from,--the rest of
He was making a snare, and as he finished it the ferocious innkeeper
happened to glance at his father-in-law's trousers, and there he spied
a raised round spot which clearly defined a second five-franc piece.
"Having become a capitalist I drink your health," said Pere Fourchon.
"If you choose to be a capitalist you can be," said Tonsard; "you have
the means, you have! But the devil has bored a hole in the back of
your head through which everything runs out."
"Hey! I only played the otter trick on that young fellow they have got
at Les Aigues. He's from Paris. That's all there is to it."
"If crowds of people would come to see the sources of the Avonne,
you'd be rich, Grandpa Fourchon," said Marie.
"Yes," he said, drinking the last glassful the bottle contained, "and
I've played the sham otter so long, the live otters have got angry,
and one of them came right between my legs to-day; Mouche caught it,
and I am to get twenty francs for it."
"I'll bet your otter is made of tow," said Tonsard, looking slyly at
"If you will give me a pair of trousers, a waistcoat, and some list
braces, so as not to disgrace Vermichel on the music stand at Tivoli
(for old Socquard is always scolding about my clothes), I'll let you
keep that money, my daughter; your idea is a good one. I can squeeze
that rich young fellow at Les Aigues; may be he'll take to otters."
"Go and get another bottle," said Tonsard to his daughter. "If your
father really had an otter, he would show it to us," he added,
speaking to his wife and trying to touch up Fourchon.
"I'm too afraid it would get into your frying-pan," said the old man,
winking one of his little green eyes at his daughter. "Philippine has
already hooked my five-franc piece; and how many more haven't you
bagged under pretence of clothing me and feeding me? and now you say
that my stomach is too lively, and that I go half-naked."
"You sold your last clothes to drink boiled wine at the Cafe de la
Paix, papa," said his daughter, "though Vermichel tried to prevent
"Vermichel! the man I treated! Vermichel is incapable of betraying my
friendship. It must have been that lump of old lard on two legs that
he is not ashamed to call his wife!"
"He or she," replied Tonsard, "or Bonnebault."
"If it was Bonnebault," cried Fourchon, "he who is one of the pillars
of the place, I'll--I'll--Enough!"
"You old sot, what has all that got to do with having sold your
clothes? You sold them because you did sell them; you're of age!" said
Tonsard, slapping the old man's knee. "Come, do honor to my drink and
redden up your throat! The father of Mam Tonsard has a right to do so;
and isn't that better than spending your silver at Socquard's?"
"What a shame it is that you have been fifteen years playing for
people to dance at Tivoli and you have never yet found out how
Socquard cooks his wine,--you who are so shrewd!" said his daughter;
"and yet you know very well that if we had the secret we should soon
get as rich as Rigou."
Throughout the Morvan, and in that region of Burgundy which lies at
its feet on the side toward Paris, this boiled wine with which Mam
Tonsard reproached her father is a rather costly beverage which plays
a great part in the life of the peasantry, and is made by all grocers
and wine-dealers, and wherever a drinking-shop exists. This precious
liquor, made of choice wine, sugar, and cinnamon and other spices, is
preferable to all those disguises or mixtures of brandy called
ratafia, one-hundred-and-seven, brave man's cordial, black currant
wine, vespetro, spirit-of-sun, etc. Boiled wine is found throughout
France and Switzerland. Among the Jura, and in the wild districts
trodden only by a few special tourists, the innkeepers call it, on the
word of commercial travellers, the wine of Syracuse. Excellent it is,
however, and their guests, hungry as hounds after ascending the
surrounding peaks, very gladly pay three and four francs a bottle for
it. In the homes of the Morvan and in Burgundy the least illness or
the slightest agitation of the nerves is an excuse for boiled wine.
Before and after childbirth the women take it with the addition of
burnt sugar. Boiled wine has soaked up the property of many a peasant,
and more than once the seductive liquid has been the cause of marital
"Ha! there's no chance of grabbing that secret," replied Fourchon,
"Socquard always locks himself in when he boils his wine; he never
told how he does it to his late wife. He sends to Paris for his
"Don't plague your father," cried Tonsard; "doesn't he know? well,
then, he doesn't know! People can't know everything!"
Fourchon grew very uneasy on seeing how his son-in-law's countenance
softened as well as his words.
"What do you want to rob me of now?" he asked, candidly.