Part 2 out of 7
"I?" said Tonsard, "I take none but my legitimate dues; if I get
anything from you it is in payment of your daughter's portion, which
you promised me and never paid."
Fourchon, reassured by the harshness of this remark, dropped his head
on his breast as though vanquished and convinced.
"Look at that pretty snare," resumed Tonsard, coming up to his father-
in-law and laying the trap upon his knee. "Some of these days they'll
want game at Les Aigues, and we shall sell them their own, or there
will be no good God for the poor folks."
"A fine piece of work," said the old man, examining the mischievous
"It is very well to pick up the sous now, papa," said Mam Tonsard,
"but you know we are to have our share in the cake of Les Aigues."
"Oh, what chatterers women are!" cried Tonsard. "If I am hanged it
won't be for a shot from my gun, but for the gabble of your tongue."
"And do you really suppose that Les Aigues will be cut up and sold in
lots for your pitiful benefit?" asked Fourchon. "Pshaw! haven't you
discovered in the last thirty years that old Rigou has been sucking
the marrow out of your bones that the middle-class folks are worse
than the lords? Mark my words, when that affair happens, my children,
the Soudrys, the Gaubertins, the Rigous, will make you kick your heels
in the air. 'I've the good tobacco, it never shall be thine,' that's
the national air of the rich man, hey? The peasant will always be the
peasant. Don't you see (but you never did understand anything of
politics!) that government puts such heavy taxes on wine only to
hinder our profits and keep us poor? The middle classes and the
government, they are all one. What would become of them if everybody
was rich? Could they till their fields? Would they gather the harvest?
No, they WANT the poor! I was rich for ten years and I know what I
thought of paupers."
"Must hunt with them, though," replied Tonsard, "because they mean to
cut up the great estates; after that's done, we can turn against them.
If I'd been Courtecuisse, whom that scoundrel Rigou is ruining, I'd
have long ago paid his bill with other balls than the poor fellow
"Right enough, too," replied Fourchon. "As Pere Niseron says (and he
stayed republican long after everybody else), 'The people are tough;
they don't die; they have time before them.'"
Fourchon fell into a sort of reverie; Tonsard profited by his
inattention to take back the trap, and as he took it up he cut a slip
below the coin in his father-in-law's pocket at the moment when the
old man raised his glass to his lips; then he set his foot on the
five-franc piece as it dropped on the earthen floor just where it was
always kept damp by the heel-taps which the customers flung from their
glasses. Though quickly and lightly done, the old man might, perhaps,
have felt the theft, if Vermichel had not happened to appear at that
"Tonsard, do you know where you father is?" called that functionary
from the foot of the steps.
Vermichel's shout, the theft of the money, and the emptying of old
Fourchon's glass, were simultaneous.
"Present, captain!" cried Fourchon, holding out a hand to Vermichel to
help him up the steps.
Of all Burgundian figures, Vermichel would have seemed to you the most
Burgundian. The practitioner was not red, he was scarlet. His face,
like certain tropical portions of the globe, was fissured, here and
there, with small extinct volcanoes, defined by flat and greenish
patches which Fourchon called, not unpoetically, the "flowers of
wine." This fiery face, the features of which were swelled out of
shape by continual drunkenness, looked cyclopic; for it was lighted on
the right side by a gleaming eye, and darkened on the other by a
yellow patch over the left orb. Red hair, always tousled, and a beard
like that of Judas, made Vermichel as formidable in appearance as he
was meek in reality. His prominent nose looked like an interrogation-
mark, to which the wide-slit mouth seemed to be always answering, even
when it did not open. Vermichel, a short man, wore hob-nail shoes,
bottle-green velveteen trousers, an old waistcoat patched with diverse
stuffs which seemed to have been originally made of a counterpane, a
jacket of coarse blue cloth and a gray hat with a broad brim. All this
luxury, required by the town of Soulanges where Vermichel fulfilled
the combined functions of porter at the town-hall, drummer, jailer,
musician, and practitioner, was taken care of by Madame Vermichel, an
alarming antagonist of Rabelaisian philosophy. This virago with
moustachios, about one yard in width and one hundred and twenty
kilograms in weight (but very active), ruled Vermichel with a rod of
iron. Thrashed by her when drunk, he allowed her to thrash him still
when sober; which caused Pere Fourchon to say, with a sniff at
Vermichel's clothes, "It is the livery of a slave."
"Talk of the sun and you'll see its beams," cried Fourchon, repeating
a well-worn allusion to the rutilant face of Vermichel, which really
did resemble those copper suns painted on tavern signs in the
provinces. "Has Mam Vermichel spied too much dust on your back, that
you're running away from your four-fifths,--for I can't call her your
better half, that woman! What brings you here at this hour, drum-
"Politics, always politics," replied Vermichel, who seemed accustomed
to such pleasantries.
"Ah! business is bad in Blangy, and there'll be notes to protest, and
writs to issue," remarked Pere Fourchon, filling a glass for his
"That APE of ours is right behind me," replied Vermichel, with a
In workmen's slang "ape" meant master. The word belonged to the
dictionary of the worthy pair.
"What's Monsieur Brunet coming bothering about here?" asked Tonsard.
"Hey, by the powers, you folks!" said Vermichel, "you've brought him
in for the last three years more than you are worth. Ha! that master
at Les Aigues, he has his eye upon you; he'll punch you in the ribs;
he's after you, the Shopman! Brunet says, if there were three such
landlords in the valley his fortune would be made."
"What new harm are they going to do to the poor?" asked Marie.
"A pretty wise thing for themselves," replied Vermichel. "Faith!
you'll have to give in, in the end. How can you help it? They've got
the power. For the last two years haven't they had three foresters and
a horse-patrol, all as active as ants, and a field-keeper who is a
terror? Besides, the gendarmerie is ready to do their dirty work at
any time. They'll crush you--"
"Bah!" said Tonsard, "we are too flat. That which can't be crushed
isn't the trees, it's ground."
"Don't you trust to that," said Fourchon to his son-in-law; "you own
"Those rich folks must love you," continued Vermichel, "for they think
of nothing else from morning till night! They are saying to themselves
now like this: 'Their cattle eat up our pastures; we'll seize their
cattle; they can't eat grass themselves.' You've all been condemned,
the warrants are out, and they have told our ape to take your cows. We
are to begin this morning at Conches by seizing old mother
Bonnebault's cow and Godin's cow and Mitant's cow."
The moment the name of Bonnebault was mentioned, Marie, who was in
love with the old woman's grandson, sprang into the vineyard with a
nod to her father and mother. She slipped like an eel through a break
in the hedge, and was off on the way to Conches with the speed of a
"They'll do so much," remarked Tonsard, tranquilly, "that they'll get
their bones broken; and that will be a pity, for their mothers can't
make them any new ones."
"Well, perhaps so," said old Fourchon, "but see here, Vermichel, I
can't go with you for an hour or more, for I have important business
at the chateau."
"More important than serving three warrants at five sous each? 'You
shouldn't spit into the vintage,' as Father Noah says."
"I tell you, Vermichel, that my business requires me to go to the
chateau des Aigues," repeated the old man, with an air of laughable
"And anyhow," said Mam Tonsard, "my father had better keep out of the
way. Do you really mean to find the cows?"
"Monsieur Brunet, who is a very good fellow, would much rather find
nothing but their dung," answered Vermichel. "A man who is obliged to
be out and about day and night had better be careful."
"If he is, he has good reason to be," said Tonsard, sententiously.
"So," continued Vermichel, "he said to Monsieur Michaud, 'I'll go as
soon as the court is up.' If he had wanted to find the cows he'd have
gone at seven o'clock in the morning. But that didn't suit Michaud,
and Brunet has had to be off. You can't take in Michaud, he's a
trained hound! Ha, the brigand!"
"Ought to have stayed in the army, a swaggerer like that," said
Tonsard; "he is only fit to deal with enemies. I wish he would come
and ask me my name. He may call himself a veteran of the young guard,
but I know very well that if I measured spurs with him, I'd keep my
feathers up longest."
"Look here!" said Mam Tonsard to Vermichel, "when are the notices for
the ball at Soulanges coming out? Here it is the eighth of August."
"I took them yesterday to Monsieur Bournier at Ville-aux-Fayes, to be
printed," replied Vermichel; "they do talk of fireworks on the lake."
"What crowds of people we shall have!" cried Fourchon.
"Profits for Socquard!" said Tonsard, spitefully.
"If it doesn't rain," said his wife, by way of comfort.
At this moment the trot of a horse coming from the direction of
Soulanges was heard, and five minutes later the sheriff's officer
fastened his horse to a post placed for the purpose near the wicket
gate through which the cows were driven. Then he showed his head at
the door of the Grand-I-Vert.
"Come, my boys, let's lose no time," he said, pretending to be in a
"Hey!" said Vermichel. "Here's a refractory, Monsieur Brunet; Pere
Fourchon wants to drop off."
"He has had too many drops already," said the sheriff; "but the law in
this case does not require that he shall be sober."
"Please excuse me, Monsieur Brunet," said Fourchon, "I am expected at
Les Aigues on business; they are in treaty for an otter."
Brunet, a withered little man dressed from head to foot in black
cloth, with a bilious skin, a furtive eye, curly hair, lips tight-
drawn, pinched nose, anxious expression, and gruff in speech,
exhibited the phenomenon of a character and bearing in perfect harmony
with his profession. He was so well-informed as to the law, or, to
speak more correctly, the quibbles of the law, that he had come to be
both the terror and the counsellor of the whole canton. He was not
without a certain popularity among the peasantry, from whom he usually
took his pay in kind. The compound of his active and negative
qualities and his knowledge of how to manage matters got him the
custom of the canton, to the exclusion of his coadjutor Plissoud,
about whom we shall have something to say later. This chance
combination of a sheriff's officer who does everything and a sheriff's
officer who does nothing is not at all uncommon in the country justice
"So matters are getting warm, are they?" said Tonsard to little
"What can you expect? you pilfer the man too much, and he's going to
protect himself," replied the officer. "It will be a bad business for
you in the end; government will interfere."
"Then we, poor unfortunates, must give up the ghost!" said Mam
Tonsard, offering him a glass of brandy on a saucer.
"The unfortunate may all die, yet they'll never be lacking in the
land," said Fourchon, sententiously.
"You do great damage to the woods," retorted the sheriff.
"Now don't believe that, Monsieur Brunet," said Mam Tonsard; "they
make such a fuss about a few miserable fagots!"
"We didn't crush the rich low enough during the Revolution, that's
what's the trouble," said Tonsard.
Just then a horrible, and quite incomprehensible noise was heard. It
seemed to be a rush of hurried feet, accompanied with a rattle of
arms, half-drowned by the rustling of leaves, the dragging of
branches, and the sound of still more hasty feet. Two voices, as
different as the two footsteps, were venting noisy exclamations.
Everybody inside the inn guessed at once that a man was pursuing a
woman; but why? The uncertainty did not last long.
"It is mother!" said Tonsard, jumping up; "I know her shriek."
Then suddenly, rushing up the broken steps of the Grand-I-Vert by a
last effort that can be made only by the sinews of smugglers, old
Mother Tonsard fell flat on the floor in the middle of the room. The
immense mass of wood she carried on her head made a terrible noise as
it crashed against the top of the door and then upon the ground. Every
one had jumped out of the way. The table, the bottles, the chairs were
knocked over and scattered. The noise was as great as if the cottage
itself had come tumbling down.
"I'm dead! The scoundrel has killed me!"
The words and the flight of the old woman were explained by the
apparition on the threshold of a keeper, dressed in green livery,
wearing a hat edged with silver cord, a sabre at his side, a leathern
shoulder-belt bearing the arms of Montcornet charged with those of the
Troisvilles, the regulation red waistcoat, and buckskin gaiters which
came above the knee.
After a moment's hesitation the keeper said, looking at Brunet and
Vermichel, "Here are witnesses."
"Witnesses of what?" said Tonsard.
"That woman has a ten-year-old oak, cut into logs, inside those
fagots; it is a regular crime!"
The moment the word "witness" was uttered Vermichel thought best to
breathe the fresh air of the vineyard.
"Of what? witnesses of what?" cried Tonsard, standing in front of the
keeper while his wife helped up the old woman. "Do you mean to show
your claws, Vatel? Accuse persons and arrest them on the highway,
brigand,--that's your domain; but get out of here! A man's house is
"I caught her in the act, and your mother must come with me."
"Arrest my mother in my house? You have no right to do it. My house is
inviolable,--all the world knows that, at least. Have you got a
warrant from Monsieur Guerbet, the magistrate? Ha! you must have the
law behind you before you come in here. You are not the law, though
you have sworn an oath to starve us to death, you miserable forest-
The fury of the keeper waxed so hot that he was on the point of
seizing hold of the wood, when the old woman, a frightful bit of black
parchment endowed with motion, the like of which can be seen only in
David's picture of "The Sabines," screamed at him, "Don't touch it, or
I'll fly at your eyes!"
"Well, then, undo that pile in presence of Monsieur Brunet," said the
Though the sheriff's officer had assumed the indifference that the
routine of business does really give to officials of his class, he
threw a glance at Tonsard and his wife which said plainly, "A bad
business!" Old Fourchon looked at his daughter, and slyly pointed at a
pile of ashes in the chimney. Mam Tonsard, who understood in a moment
from that significant gesture both the danger of her mother-in-law and
the advice of her father, seized a handful of ashes and flung them in
the keeper's eyes. Vatel roared with pain; Tonsard pushed him roughly
upon the broken door-steps where the blinded man stumbled and fell,
and then rolled nearly down to the gate, dropping his gun on the way.
In an instant the load of sticks was unfastened, and the oak logs
pulled out and hidden with a rapidity no words can describe. Brunet,
anxious not to witness this manoeuvre, which he readily foresaw,
rushed after the keeper to help him up; then he placed him on the bank
and wet his handkerchief in water to wash the eyes of the poor fellow,
who, in spite of his agony, was trying to reach the brook.
"You are in the wrong, Vatel," said Brunet; "you have no right to
enter houses, don't you see?"
The old woman, a little hump-backed creature, stood on the sill of the
door, with her hands on her hips, darting flashes from her eyes and
curses from her foaming lips shrill enough to be heard at Blangy.
"Ha! the villain, 'twas well done! May hell get you! To suspect me of
cutting trees!--ME, the most honest woman in the village. To hunt me
like vermin! I'd like to see you lose your cursed eyes, for then we'd
have peace. You are birds of ill-omen, the whole of you; you invent
shameful stories to stir up strife between your master and us."
The keeper allowed the sheriff to bathe his eyes and all the while the
latter kept telling him that he was legally wrong.
"The old thief! she has tired us out," said Vatel at last. "She has
been at work in the woods all night."
As the whole family had taken an active hand in hiding the live wood
and putting things straight in the cottage, Tonsard presently appeared
at the door with an insolent air. "Vatel, my man, if you ever again
dare to force your way into my domain, my gun shall answer you," he
said. "To-day you have had the ashes; the next time you shall have the
fire. You don't know your own business. That's enough. Now if you feel
hot after this affair take some wine, I offer it to you; and you may
come in and see that my old mother's bundle of fagots hadn't a scrap
of live wood in it; it is every bit brushwood."
"Scoundrel!" said the keeper to the sheriff, in a low voice, more
enraged by this speech than by the smart of his eyes.
Just then Charles, the groom, appeared at the gate of the Grand-I-
"What is the matter, Vatel?" he said.
"Ah!" said the keeper, wiping his eyes, which he had plunged wide open
into the rivulet to give them a final cleansing. "I have some debtors
in there that I'll cause to rue the day they saw the light."
"If you take it that way, Monsieur Vatel," said Tonsard, coldly, "you
will find we don't want for courage in Burgundy."
Vatel departed. Not feeling much curiosity to know what the trouble
was, Charles went up the steps and looked into the house.
"Come to the chateau, you and your otter,--if you really have one," he
said to Pere Fourchon.
The old man rose hurriedly and followed him.
"Well, where is it,--that otter of yours?" said Charles, smiling
"This way," said the old fellow, going toward the Thune.
The name is that of a brook formed by the overflow of the mill-race
and of certain springs in the park of Les Aigues. It runs by the side
of the county road as far as the lakelet of Soulanges, which it
crosses, and then falls into the Avonne, after feeding the mills and
ponds on the Soulanges estate.
"Here it is; I hid it in the brook, with a stone around its neck."
As he stooped and rose again the old man missed the coin out of his
pocket, where metal was so uncommon that he was likely to notice its
presence or its absence immediately.
"Ah, the sharks!" he cried. "If I hunt otters they hunt fathers-in-
law! They get out of me all I earn, and tell me it is for my good! If
it were not for my poor Mouche, who is the comfort of my old age, I'd
drown myself. Children! they are the ruin of their fathers. You
haven't married, have you, Monsieur Charles? Then don't; never get
married, and then you can't reproach yourself for spreading bad blood.
I, who expected to buy my tow with that money, and there it is
filched, stolen! That monsieur up at Les Aigues, a fine young fellow,
gave me ten francs; ha! well! it'll put up the price of my otter now."
Charles distrusted the old man so profoundly that he took his
grievances (this time very sincere) for the preliminary of what he
called, in servant's slang, "varnish," and he made the great mistake
of letting his opinion appear in a satirical grin, which the spiteful
old fellow detected.
"Come, come! Pere Fourchon, now behave yourself; you are going to see
Madame," said Charles, noticing how the rubies flashed on the nose and
cheeks of the old drunkard.
"I know how to attend to business, Charles; and the proof is that if
you will get me out of the kitchen the remains of the breakfast and a
bottle or two of Spanish wine, I'll tell you something which will save
you from a 'foul.'"
"Tell me, and Francois shall get Monsieur's own order to give you a
glass of wine," said the groom.
"Well then, I know you meet my granddaughter Catherine under the
bridge of the Avonne. Godain is in love with her; he saw you, and he
is fool enough to be jealous,--I say fool, for a peasant oughtn't to
have feelings which belong only to rich folks. If you go to the ball
of Soulanges at Tivoli and dance with her, you'll dance higher than
you'll like. Godain is rich and dangerous; he is capable of breaking
your arm without your getting a chance to arrest him."
"That would be too dear; Catherine is a fine girl, but she is not
worth all that," replied Charles. "Why should Godain be so angry?
others are not."
"He loves her enough to marry her."
"If he does, he'll beat her," said Charles.
"I don't know about that," said the old man. "She takes after her
mother, against whom Tonsard never raised a finger,--he's too afraid
she'll be off, hot foot. A woman who knows how to hold her own is
mighty useful. Besides, if it came to fisticuffs with Catherine,
Godain, though he's pretty strong, wouldn't give the last blow."
"Well, thank you, Pere Fourchon; here's forty sous to drink my health
in case I can't get you the sherry."
Pere Fourchon turned his head aside as he pocketed the money lest
Charles should see the expression of amusement and sarcasm which he
was unable to repress.
"Catherine," he resumed, "is a proud minx; she likes sherry. You had
better tell her to go and get it at Les Aigues."
Charles looked at Pere Fourchon with naive admiration, not suspecting
the eager interest the general's enemies took in slipping one more spy
into the chateau.
"The general ought to feel happy now," continued Fourchon; "the
peasants are all quiet. What does he say? Is he satisfied with
"It is only Monsieur Michaud who finds fault with Sibilet. They say
he'll get him sent away."
"Professional jealousy!" exclaimed Fourchon. "I'll bet you would like
to get rid of Francois and take his place."
"Hang it! he has twelve hundred francs wages," said Charles; "but they
can't send him off,--he knows the general's secrets."
"Just as Madame Michaud knows the countess's," remarked Fourchon,
watching the other carefully. "Look here, my boy, do you know whether
Monsieur and Madame have separate rooms?"
"Of course; if they didn't, Monsieur wouldn't be so fond of Madame."
"Is that all you know?" said Fourchon.
As they were now before the kitchen windows nothing more was said.
ENEMIES FACE TO FACE
While breakfast was in progress at the chateau, Francois, the head
footman, whispered to Blondet, but loud enough for the general to
"Monsieur, Pere Fourchon's boy is here; he says they have caught the
otter, and wants to know if you would like it, or whether they shall
take it to the sub-prefect at Ville-aux-Fayes."
Emile Blondet, though himself a past-master of hoaxing, could not keep
his cheeks from blushing like those of a virgin who hears an
indecorous story of which she knows the meaning.
"Ha! ha! so you have hunted the otter this morning with Pere
Fourchon?" cried the general, with a roar of laughter.
"What is it?" asked the countess, uneasy at her husband's laugh.
"When a man of wit and intelligence is taken in by old Fourchon,"
continued the general, "a retired cuirassier need not blush for having
hunted that otter; which bears an enormous resemblance to the third
posthorse we are made to pay for and never see." With that he went off
into further explosions of laughter, in the midst of which he
contrived to say: "I am not surprised you had to change your boots--
and your trousers; I have no doubt you have been wading! The joke
didn't go as far as that with me,--I stayed on the bank; but then, you
know, you are so much more intelligent than I--"
"But you forget," interrupted Madame de Montcornet, "that I do not
know what you are talking of."
At these words, said with some pique, the general grew serious, and
Blondet told the story of his fishing for the otter.
"But if they really have an otter," said the countess, "those poor
people are not to blame."
"Oh, but it is ten years since an otter has been seen about here,"
said the pitiless general.
"Monsieur le comte," said Francois, "the boy swears by all that's
sacred that he has got one."
"If they have one I'll buy it," said the general.
"I don't suppose," remarked the Abbe Brossette, "that God has
condemned Les Aigues to never have otters."
"Ah, Monsieur le cure!" cried Blondet, "if you bring the Almighty
"But what is all this? Who is here?" said the countess, hastily.
"Mouche, madame,--the boy who goes about with old Fourchon," said the
"Bring him in--that is, if Madame will allow it?" said the general;
"he may amuse you."
Mouche presently appeared, in his usual state of comparative nudity.
Beholding this personification of poverty in the middle of this
luxurious dining-room, the cost of one panel of which would have been
a fortune to the bare-legged, bare-breasted, and bare-headed child, it
was impossible not to be moved by an impulse of charity. The boy's
eyes, like blazing coals, gazed first at the luxuries of the room, and
then at those on the table.
"Have you no mother?" asked Madame de Montcornet, unable otherwise to
explain the child's nakedness.
"No, ma'am; m'ma died of grief for losing p'pa, who went to the army
in 1812 without marrying her with papers, and got frozen, saving your
presence. But I've my Grandpa Fourchon, who is a good man,--though he
does beat me bad sometimes."
"How is it, my dear, that such wretched people can be found on your
estate?" said the countess, looking at the general.
"Madame la comtesse," said the abbe, "in this district we have none
but voluntary paupers. Monsieur le comte does all he can; but we have
to do with a class of persons who are without religion and who have
but one idea, that of living at your expense."
"But, my dear abbe," said Blondet, "you are here to improve their
"Monsieur," replied the abbe, "my bishop sent me here as if on a
mission to savages; but, as I had the honor of telling him, the
savages of France cannot be reached. They make it a law unto
themselves not to listen to us; whereas the church does get some hold
on the savages of America."
"M'sieur le cure, they do help me a bit now," remarked Mouche; "but if
I went to your church they WOULDN'T, and the other folks would make
game of my breeches."
"Religion ought to begin by giving him trousers, my dear abbe," said
Blondet. "In your foreign missions don't you begin by coaxing the
"He would soon sell them," answered the abbe, in a low tone; "besides,
my salary does not enable me to begin on that line."
"Monsieur le cure is right," said the general, looking at Mouche.
The policy of the little scamp was to appear not to hear what they
were saying when it was against himself.
"The boy is intelligent enough to know good from evil," continued the
count, "and he is old enough to work; yet he thinks of nothing but how
to commit evil without being found out. All the keepers know him. He
is very well aware that the master of an estate may witness a trespass
on his property and yet have no right to arrest the trespasser. I have
known him keep his cows boldly in my meadows, though he knew I saw
him; but now, ever since I have been mayor, he runs away fast enough."
"Oh, that is very wrong," said the countess; "you should not take
other people's things, my little man."
"Madame, we must eat. My grandpa gives me more slaps than food, and
they don't fill my stomach, slaps don't. When the cows come in I milk
'em just a little and I live on that. Monseigneur isn't so poor but
what he'll let me drink a drop o' milk the cows get from his grass?"
"Perhaps he hasn't eaten anything to-day," said the countess, touched
by his misery. "Give him some bread and the rest of that chicken; let
him have his breakfast," she added, looking at the footman. "Where do
you sleep, my child?"
"Anywhere, madame; under the stars in summer, and wherever they'll let
us in winter."
"How old are you?"
"There is still time to bring him up to better ways," said the
countess to her husband.
"He will make a good soldier," said the general, gruffly; "he is well
toughened. I went through that kind of thing myself, and here I am."
"Excuse me, general, I don't belong to nobody," said the boy. "I can't
be drafted. My poor mother wasn't married, and I was born in a field.
I'm a son of the 'airth,' as grandpa says. M'ma saved me from the
army, that she did! My name ain't no more Mouche than nothing at all.
Grandpa keeps telling me all my advantages. I'm not on the register,
and when I'm old enough to be drafted I can go all over France and
they can't take me."
"Are you fond of your grandfather?" said the countess, trying to look
into the child's heart.
"My! doesn't he box my ears when he feels like it! but then, after
all, he's such fun; he's such good company! He says he pays himself
that way for having taught me to read and write."
"Can you read?" asked the count.
"Yah, I should think so, Monsieur le comte, and fine writing too--just
as true as we've got that otter."
"Read that," said the count, giving him a newspaper.
"The Qu-o-ti-dienne," read Mouche, hesitating only three times.
Every one, even the abbe, laughed.
"Why do you make me read that newspaper?" cried Mouche, angrily. "My
grandpa says it is made up to please the rich, and everybody knows
later just what's in it."
"The child is right, general," said Blondet; "and he makes me long to
see my hoaxing friend again."
Mouche understood perfectly that he was posing for the amusement of
the company; the pupil of Pere Fourchon was worthy of his master, and
he forthwith began to cry.
"How can you tease a child with bare feet?" said the countess.
"And who thinks it quite natural that his grandfather should recoup
himself for his education by boxing his ears," said Blondet.
"Tell me, my poor little fellow, have you really caught an otter?"
"Yes, madame; as true as that you are the prettiest lady I have seen,
or ever shall see," said the child, wiping his eyes.
"Then show me the otter," said the general.
"Oh M'sieur le comte, my grandpa has hidden it; but it was kicking
still when we were at work at the rope-walk. Send for my grandpa,
please; he wants to sell it to you himself."
"Take him into the kitchen," said the countess to Francois, "and give
him his breakfast, and send Charles to fetch Pere Fourchon. Find some
shoes, and a pair of trousers and a waistcoat for the poor child;
those who come here naked must go away clothed."
"May God bless you, my beautiful lady," said Mouche, departing.
"M'sieur le cure may feel quite sure that I'll keep the things and
wear 'em fete-days, because you give 'em to me."
Emile and Madame Montcornet looked at each other with some surprise,
and seemed to say to the abbe, "The boy is not a fool!"
"It is quite true, madame," said the abbe after the child had gone,
"that we cannot reckon with Poverty. I believe it has hidden excuses
of which God alone can judge,--physical excuses, often congenital;
moral excuses, born in the character, produced by an order of things
that are often the result of qualities which, unhappily for society,
have no vent. Deeds of heroism performed upon the battle-field ought
to teach us that the worst scoundrels may become heroes. But here in
this place you are living under exceptional circumstances; and if your
benevolence is not controlled by reflection and judgment you run the
risk of supporting your enemies."
"Our enemies?" exclaimed the countess.
"Cruel enemies," said the general, gravely.
"Pere Fourchon and his son-in-law Tonsard," said the abbe, "are the
strength and the intelligence of the lower classes of this valley, who
consult them on all occasions. The Machiavelism of these people is
beyond belief. Ten peasants meeting in a tavern are the small change
of great political questions."
Just then Francois announced Monsieur Sibilet.
"He is my minister of finance," said the general, smiling; "ask him
in. He will explain to you the gravity of the situation," he added,
looking at his wife and Blondet.
"Because he has reasons of his own for not concealing it," said the
cure, in a low tone.
Blondet then beheld a personage of whom he had heard much ever since
his arrival, and whom he desired to know, the land-steward of Les
Aigues. He saw a man of medium height, about thirty years of age, with
a sulky look and a discontented face, on which a smile sat ill.
Beneath an anxious brow a pair of greenish eyes evaded the eyes of
others, and so disguised their thought. Sibilet was dressed in a brown
surtout coat, black trousers and waistcoat, and wore his hair long and
flat to the head, which gave him a clerical look. His trousers barely
concealed that he was knock-kneed. Though his pallid complexion and
flabby flesh gave the impression of an unhealthy constitution, Sibilet
was really robust. The tones of his voice, which were a little thick,
harmonized with this unflattering exterior.
Blondet gave a hasty look at the abbe, and the glance with which the
young priest answered it showed the journalist that his own suspicions
about the steward were certainties to the curate.
"Did you not tell me, my dear Sibilet," said the general, "that you
estimate the value of what the peasants steal from us at a quarter of
the whole revenue?"
"Much more than that, Monsieur le comte," replied the steward. "The
poor about here get more from your property than the State exacts in
taxes. A little scamp like Mouche can glean his two bushels a day. Old
women, whom you would really think at their last gasp, become at the
harvest and vintage times as active and healthy as girls. You can
witness that phenomenon very soon," said Sibilet, addressing Blondet,
"for the harvest, which was put back by the rains in July will begin
next week, when they cut the rye. The gleaners must have a certificate
of pauperism from the mayor of the district, and no district should
allow any one to glean except the paupers; but the districts of one
canton do glean in those of another without certificate. If we have
sixty real paupers in our district, there are at least forty others
who could support themselves if they were not so idle. Even persons
who have a business leave it to glean in the fields and in the
vineyards. All these people, taken together, gather in this
neighborhood something like three hundred bushels a day; the harvest
lasts two weeks, and that makes four thousand five hundred bushels in
this district alone. The gleaning takes more from an estate than the
taxes. As to the abuse of pasturage, it robs us of fully one-sixth the
produce of the meadows; and as to that of the woods, it is
incalculable,--they have actually come to cutting down six-year-old
trees. The loss to you, Monsieur le comte, amounts to fully twenty-odd
thousand francs a year."
"Do you hear that, madame?" said the general to his wife.
"Is it not exaggerated?" asked Madame de Montcornet.
"No, madame, unfortunately not," said the abbe. "Poor Niseron, that
old fellow with the white head, who combines the functions of bell-
ringer, beadle, grave-digger, sexton, and clerk, in defiance of his
republican opinions,--I mean the grandfather of the little Genevieve
whom you placed with Madame Michaud--"
"La Pechina," said Sibilet, interrupting the abbe.
"Pechina!" said the countess, "whom do you mean?"
"Madame la comtesse, when you met little Genevieve on the road in a
miserable condition, you cried out in Italian, 'Piccina!' The word
became a nickname, and is now corrupted all through the district into
Pechina," said the abbe. "The poor girl comes to church with Madame
Michaud and Madame Sibilet."
"And she is none the better for it," said Sibilet, "for the others
ill-treat her on account of her religion."
"Well, that poor old man of seventy gleans, honestly, about a bushel
and a half a day," continued the priest; "but his natural uprightness
prevents him from selling his gleanings as others do,--he keeps them
for his own consumption. Monsieur Langlume, your miller, grinds his
flour gratis at my request, and my servant bakes his bread with mine."
"I had quite forgotten my little protegee," said the countess,
troubled at Sibilet's remark. "Your arrival," she added to Blondet,
"has quite turned my head. But after breakfast I will take you to the
gate of the Avonne and show you the living image of those women whom
the painters of the fifteenth century delighted to perpetuate."
The sound of Pere Fourchon's broken sabots was now heard; after
depositing them in the antechamber, he was brought to the door of the
dining-room by Francois. At a sign from the countess, Francois allowed
him to pass in, followed by Mouche with his mouth full and carrying
the otter, hanging by a string tied to its yellow paws, webbed like
those of a palmiped. He cast upon his four superiors sitting at table,
and also upon Sibilet, that look of mingled distrust and servility
which serves as a veil to the thoughts of the peasantry; then he
brandished his amphibian with a triumphant air.
"Here it is!" he cried, addressing Blondet.
"My otter!" returned the Parisian, "and well paid for."
"Oh, my dear gentleman," replied Pere Fourchon, "yours got away; she
is now in her burrow, and she won't come out, for she's a female,--
this is a male; Mouche saw him coming just as you went away. As true
as you live, as true as that Monsieur le comte covered himself and his
cuirassiers with glory at Waterloo, the otter is mine, just as much as
Les Aigues belongs to Monseigneur the general. But the otter is YOURS
for twenty francs; if not I'll take it to the sub-prefect. If Monsieur
Gourdon thinks it too dear, then I'll give you the preference; that's
only fair, as we hunted together this morning!"
"Twenty francs!" said Blondet. "In good French you can't call that
GIVING the preference."
"Hey, my dear gentleman," cried the old fellow. "Perhaps I don't know
French, and I'll ask it in good Burgundian; as long as I get the
money, I don't care, I'll talk Latin: 'latinus, latina, latinum'!
Besides, twenty francs is what you promised me this morning. My
children have already stolen the silver you gave me; I wept about it,
coming along,--ask Charles if I didn't. Not that I'd arrest 'em for
the value of ten francs and have 'em up before the judge, no! But just
as soon as I earn a few pennies, they make me drink and get 'em out of
me. Ah! it is hard, hard to be reduced to go and get my wine
elsewhere. But just see what children are these days! That's what we
got by the Revolution; it is all for the children now-a-days, and
parents are suppressed. I'm bringing up Mouche on another tack; he
loves me, the little scamp,"--giving his grandson a poke.
"It seems to me you are making him a little thief, like all the rest,"
said Sibilet; "he never lies down at night without some sin on his
"Ha! Monsieur Sibilet, his conscience is as clean as yours any day!
Poor child! what can he steal? A little grass! that's better than
throttling a man! He don't know mathematics like you, nor subtraction,
nor addition, nor multiplication,--you are very unjust to us, that you
are! You call us a nest of brigands, but you are the cause of the
misunderstandings between our good landlord here, who is a worthy man,
and the rest of us, who are all worthy men,--there ain't an honester
part of the country than this. Come, what do you mean? do I own
property? don't I go half-naked, and Mouche too? Fine sheets we slept
in, washed by the dew every morning! and unless you want the air we
breathe and the sunshine we drink, I should like to know what we have
that you can take away from us! The rich folks rob as they sit in
their chimney-corners,--and more profitably, too, than by picking up a
few sticks in the woods. I don't see no game-keepers or patrols after
Monsieur Gaubertin, who came here as naked as a worm and is now worth
his millions. It's easy said, 'Robbers!' Here's fifteen years that old
Guerbet, the tax-gatherer at Soulanges, carries his money along the
roads by the dead of night, and nobody ever took a farthing from him;
is that like a land of robbers? has robbery made us rich? Show me
which of us two, your class or mine, live the idlest lives and have
the most to live on without earning it."
"If you were to work," said the abbe, "you would have property. God
"I don't want to contradict you, M'sieur l'abbe, for you are wiser
than I, and perhaps you'll know how to explain something that puzzles
me. Now see, here I am, ain't I?--that drunken, lazy, idle, good-for-
nothing old Fourchon, who had an education and was a farmer, and got
down in the mud and never got up again,--well, what difference is
there between me and that honest and worthy old Niseron, seventy years
old (and that's my age) who has dug the soil for sixty years and got
up every day before it was light to go to his work, and has made
himself an iron body and a fine soul? Well, isn't he as bad off as I
am? His little granddaughter, Pechina, is at service with Madame
Michaud, whereas my little Mouche is as free as air. So that poor good
man gets rewarded for his virtues in exactly the same way that I get
punished for my vices. He don't know what a glass of good wine is,
he's as sober as an apostle, he buries the dead, and I--I play for the
living to dance. He is always in a peck o' troubles, while I slip
along in a devil-may-care way. We have come along about even in life;
we've got the same snow on our heads, the same funds in our pockets,
and I supply him with rope to ring his bell. He's a republican and I'm
not even a publican,--that's all the difference as far as I can see. A
peasant may do good or do evil (according to your ideas) and he'll go
out of the world just as he came into it, in rags; while you wear the
No one interrupted Pere Fourchon, who seemed to owe his eloquence to
his potations. At first Sibilet tried to cut him short, but desisted
at a sign from Blondet. The abbe, the general, and the countess, all
understood from the expression of the writer's eye that he wanted to
study the question of pauperism from life, and perhaps take his
revenge on Pere Fourchon.
"What sort of education are you giving Mouche?" asked Blondet. "Do you
expect to make him any better than your daughters?"
"Does he ever speak to him of God?" said the priest.
"Oh, no, no! Monsieur le cure, I don't tell him to fear God, but men.
God is good; he has promised us poor folks, so you say, the kingdom of
heaven, because the rich people keep the earth to themselves. I tell
him: 'Mouche! fear the prison, and keep out of it,--for that's the way
to the scaffold. Don't steal anything, make people give it to you.
Theft leads to murder, and murder brings down the justice of men. The
razor of justice,--THAT'S what you've got to fear; it lets the rich
sleep easy and keeps the poor awake. Learn to read. Education will
teach you ways to grab money under cover of the law, like that fine
Monsieur Gaubertin; why, you can even be a land-steward like Monsieur
Sibilet here, who gets his rations out of Monsieur le comte. The thing
to do is to keep well with the rich, and pick up the crumbs that fall
from their tables.' That's what I call giving him a good, solid
education; and you'll always find the little rascal on the side of the
law,--he'll be a good citizen and take care of me."
"What do you mean to make of him?" asked Blondet.
"A servant, to begin with," returned Fourchon, "because then he'll see
his masters close by, and learn something; he'll complete his
education, I'll warrant you. Good example will be a fortune to him,
with the law on his side like the rest of you. If M'sieur le comte
would only take him in his stables and let him learn to groom the
horses, the boy will be mighty pleased, for though I've taught him to
fear men, he don't fear animals."
"You are a clever fellow, Pere Fourchon," said Blondet; "you know what
you are talking about, and there's sense in what you say."
"Oh, sense? no; I left my sense at the Grand-I-Vert when I lost those
"How is it that a man of your capacity should have dropped so low? As
things are now, a peasant can only blame himself for his poverty; he
is a free man, and he can become a rich one. It is not as it used to
be. If a peasant lays by his money, he can always buy a bit of land
and become his own master."
"I've seen the olden time and I've seen the new, my dear wise
gentleman," said Fourchon; "the sign over the door has changed, that's
true, but the wine is the same,--to-day is the younger brother of
yesterday, that's all. Put that in your newspaper! Are we poor folks
free? We still belong to the same parish, and its lord is always
there,--I call him Toil. The hoe, our sole property, has never left
our hands. Let it be the old lords or the present taxes which take the
best of our earnings, the fact remains that we sweat our lives out in
"But you could undertake a business, and try to make your fortune,"
"Try to make my fortune! And where shall I try? If I wish to leave my
own province, I must get a passport, and that costs forty sous. Here's
forty years that I've never had a slut of a forty-sous piece jingling
against another in my pocket. If you want to travel you need as many
crowns as there are villages, and there are mighty few Fourchons who
have enough to get to six of 'em. It is only the draft that gives us a
chance to get away. And what good does the army do us? The colonels
live by the solider, just as the rich folks live by the peasant; and
out of every hundred of 'em you won't find more than one of our breed.
It is just as it is the world over, one rolling in riches, for a
hundred down in the mud. Why are we in the mud? Ask God and the
usurers. The best we can do is to stay in our own parts, where we are
penned like sheep by the force of circumstances, as our fathers were
by the rule of the lords. As for me, what do I care what shackles they
are that keep me here? let it be the law of public necessity or the
tyranny of the old lords, it is all the same; we are condemned to dig
the soil forever. There, where we are born, there we dig it, that
earth! and spade it, and manure it, and delve in it, for you who are
born rich just as we are born poor. The masses will always be what
they are, and stay what they are. The number of us who manage to rise
is nothing like the number of you who topple down! We know that well
enough, if we have no education! You mustn't be after us with your
sheriff all the time,--not if you're wise. We let you alone, and you
must let us alone. If not, and things get worse, you'll have to feed
us in your prisons, where we'd be much better off than in our homes.
You want to remain our masters, and we shall always be enemies, just
as we were thirty years ago. You have everything, we have nothing; you
can't expect we should ever be friends."
"That's what I call a declaration of war," said the general.
"Monseigneur," retorted Fourchon, "when Les Aigues belonged to that
poor Madame (God keep her soul and forgive her the sins of her youth!)
we were happy. SHE let us get our food from the fields and our fuel
from the forest; and was she any the poorer for it? And you, who are
at least as rich as she, you hunt us like wild beasts, neither more
nor less, and drag the poor before the courts. Well, evil will come of
it! you'll be the cause of some great calamity. Haven't I just seen
your keeper, that shuffling Vatel, half kill a poor old woman for a
stick of wood? It is such fellows as that who make you an enemy to the
poor; and the talk is very bitter against you. They curse you every
bit as hard as they used to bless the late Madame. The curse of the
poor, monseigneur, is a seed that grows,--grows taller than your tall
oaks, and oak-wood builds the scaffold. Nobody here tells you the
truth; and here it is, yes, the truth! I expect to die before long,
and I risk very little in telling it to you, the TRUTH! I, who play
for the peasants to dance at the great fetes at Soulanges, I heed what
the people say. Well, they're all against you; and they'll make it
impossible for you to stay here. If that damned Michaud of yours
doesn't change, they'll force you to change him. There! that
information AND the otter are worth twenty francs, and more too."
As the old fellow uttered the last words a man's step was heard, and
the individual just threatened by Fourchon entered unannounced. It was
easy to see from the glance he threw at the old man that the threat
had reached his ears, and all Fourchon's insolence sank in a moment.
The look produced precisely the same effect upon him that the eye of a
policeman produces on a thief. Fourchon knew he was wrong, and that
Michaud might very well accuse him of saying these things merely to
terrify the inhabitants of Les Aigues.
"This is the minister of war," said the general to Blondet, nodding at
"Pardon me, madame, for having entered without asking if you were
willing to receive me," said the newcomer to the countess; "but I have
urgent reasons for speaking to the general at once."
Michaud, as he said this, took notice of Sibilet, whose expression of
keen delight in Fourchon's daring words was not seen by the four
persons seated at the table, because they were so preoccupied by the
old man; whereas Michaud, who for secret reasons watched Sibilet
constantly, was struck with his air and manner.
"He has earned his twenty francs, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet;
"the otter is fully worth it."
"Give him twenty francs," said the general to the footman.
"Do you mean to take my otter away from me?" said Blondet to the
"I shall have it stuffed," replied the latter.
"Ah! but that good gentleman said I might keep the skin," cried
"Well, then," exclaimed the countess, hastily, "you shall have five
francs more for the skin; but go away now."
The powerful odor emitted by the pair made the dining-room so horribly
offensive that Madame de Montcornet, whose senses were very delicate,
would have been forced to leave the room if Fourchon and Mouche had
remained. To this circumstance the old man was indebted for his
twenty-five francs. He left the room with a timid glance at Michaud,
making him an interminable series of bows.
"What I was saying to monseigneur, Monsieur Michaud," he added, "was
really for your good."
"Or for that of those who pay you," replied Michaud, with a searching
"When you have served the coffee, leave the room," said the general to
the servants, "and see that the doors are shut."
Blondet, who had not yet seen the bailiff of Les Aigues, was
conscious, as he now saw him, of a totally different impression from
that conveyed by Sibilet. Just as the steward inspired distrust and
repulsion, so Michaud commanded respect and confidence. The first
attraction of his presence was a happy face, of a fine oval, pure in
outline, in which the nose bore part,--a regularity which is lacking
in the majority of French faces. Though the features were correct in
drawing, they were not without expression, due, perhaps, to the
harmonious coloring of the warm brown and ochre tints, indicative of
physical health and strength. The clear brown eyes, which were bright
and piercing, kept no reserves in the expression of his thought; they
looked straight into the eyes of others. The broad white forehead was
thrown still further into relief by his abundant black hair. Honesty,
decision, and a saintly serenity were the animating points of this
noble face, where a few deep lines upon the brow were the result of
the man's military career. Doubt and suspicion could there be read the
moment they had entered his mind. His figure, like that of all men
selected for the elite of the cavalry service, though shapely and
elegant, was vigorously built. Michaud, who wore moustachios,
whiskers, and a chin beard, recalled that martial type of face which a
deluge of patriotic paintings and engravings came very near to making
ridiculous. This type had the defect of being common in the French
army; perhaps the continuance of the same emotions, the same camp
sufferings from which none were exempt, neither high nor low, and more
especially the same efforts of officers and men upon the battle-
fields, may have contributed to produce this uniformity of
countenance. Michaud, who was dressed in dark blue cloth, still wore
the black satin stock and high boots of a soldier, which increased the
slight stiffness and rigidity of his bearing. The shoulders sloped,
the chest expanded, as though the man were still under arms. The red
ribbon of the Legion of honor was in his buttonhole. In short, to give
a last touch in one word about the moral qualities beneath this purely
physical presentment, it may be said that while the steward, from the
time he first entered upon his functions, never failed to call his
master "Monsieur le comte," Michaud never addressed him otherwise than
Blondet exchanged another look with the Abbe Brossette, which meant,
"What a contrast!" as he signed to him to observe the two men. Then,
as if to know whether the character and mind and speech of the bailiff
harmonized with his form and countenance, he turned to Michaud and
"I was out early this morning, and found your under-keepers still
"At what hour?" said the late soldier, anxiously.
Michaud gave a half-roguish glance at the general.
"By what gate did monsieur leave the park?" he asked.
"By the gate of Conches. The keeper, in his night-shirt, looked at me
through the window," replied Blondet.
"Gaillard had probably just gone to bed," answered Michaud. "You said
you were out early, and I thought you meant day-break. If my man were
at home at that time, he must have been ill; but at half-past seven he
was sure to be in bed. We are up all night," added Michaud, after a
slight pause, replying to a surprised look on the countess's face,
"but our watchfulness is often wasted. You have just given twenty-five
francs to a man who, not an hour ago, was quietly helping to hide the
traces of a robbery committed upon you this very morning. I came to
speak to you about it, general, when you have finished breakfast; for
something will have to be done."
"You are always for maintaining the right, my dear Michaud, and
'summum jus, summum injuria.' If you are not more tolerant, you will
get into trouble, so Sibilet here tells me. I wish you could have
heard Pere Fourchon just now; the wine he had been drinking made him
"He frightened me," said the countess.
"He said nothing I did not know long ago," replied the general.
"Oh! the rascal wasn't drunk; he was playing a part; for whose benefit
I leave you to guess. Perhaps you know?" returned Michaud, fixing an
eye on Sibilet which caused the latter to turn red.
"O rus!" cried Blondet, with another look at the abbe.
"But these poor creatures suffer," said the countess, "and there is a
great deal of truth in what old Fourchon has just screamed at us,--for
I cannot call it speaking."
"Madame," replied Michaud, "do you suppose that for fourteen years the
soldiers of the Emperor slept on a bed of roses? My general is a
count, he is a grand officer of the Legion of honor, he has had
perquisites and endowments given to him; am I jealous of him, I who
fought as he did? Do I wish to cheat him of his glory, to steal his
perquisites, to deny him the honor due to his rank? The peasant should
obey as the soldier obeys; he should feel the loyalty of a soldier,
his respect for acquired rights, and strive to become an officer
himself, honorably, by labor and not by theft. The sabre and the
plough are twins; though the soldier has something more than the
peasant,--he has death hanging over him at any minute."
"I want to say that from the pulpit," cried the abbe.
"Tolerant!" continued the keeper, replying to the general's remark
about Sibilet, "I would tolerate a loss of ten per cent upon the gross
returns of Les Aigues; but as things are now thirty per cent is what
you lose, general; and, if Monsieur Sibilet's accounts show it, I
don't understand his tolerance, for he benevolently gives up a
thousand or twelve hundred francs a year."
"My dear Monsieur Michaud," replied Sibilet, in a snappish tone, "I
have told Monsieur le comte that I would rather lose twelve hundred
francs a year than my life. Think of it seriously; I have warned you
"Life!" exclaimed the countess; "you can't mean that anybody's life is
"Don't let us argue about state affairs here," said the general,
laughing. "All this, my dear, merely means that Sibilet, in his
capacity of financier, is timid and cowardly, while the minister of
war is brave and, like his general, fears nothing."
"Call me prudent, Monsieur le comte," interposed Sibilet.
"Well, well!" cried Blondet, laughing, "so here we are, like Cooper's
heroes in the forests of America, in the midst of sieges and savages."
"Come, gentlemen, it is your business to govern without letting me
hear the wheels of the administration," said Madame de Montcornet.
"Ah! madame," said the cure, "but it may be right that you should know
the toil from which those pretty caps you wear are derived."
"Well, then, I can go without them," replied the countess, laughing.
"I will be very respectful to a twenty-franc piece, and grow as
miserly as the country people themselves. Come, my dear abbe, give me
your arm. Leave the general with his two ministers, and let us go to
the gate of the Avonne to see Madame Michaud, for I have not had time
since my arrival to pay her a visit, and I want to inquire about my
And the pretty woman, already forgetting the rags and tatters of
Mouche and Fourchon, and their eyes full of hatred, and Sibilet's
warnings, went to have herself made ready for the walk.
The abbe and Blondet obeyed the behest of the mistress of the house
and followed her from the dining-room, waiting till she was ready on
the terrace before the chateau.
"What do you think of all this?" said Blondet to the abbe.
"I am a pariah; they dog me as they would a common enemy. I am forced
to keep my eyes and ears perpetually open to escape the traps they are
constantly laying to get me out of the place," replied the abbe. "I am
even doubtful, between ourselves, as to whether they will not shoot
"Why do you stay?" said Blondet.
"We can't desert God's cause any more than that of an emperor,"
replied the priest, with a simplicity that affected Blondet. He took
the abbe's hand and shook it cordially.
"You see how it is, therefore, that I know very little of the plots
that are going on," continued the abbe. "Still, I know enough to feel
sure that the general is under what in Artois and in Belgium is called
an 'evil grudge.'"
A few words are here necessary about the curate of Blangy.
This priest, the fourth son of a worthy middle-class family of Autun,
was an intelligent man carrying his head high in his collar. Small and
slight, he redeemed his rather puny appearance by the precise and
carefully dressed air that belongs to Burgundians. He accepted the
second-rate post of Blangy out of pure devotion, for his religious
convictions were joined to political opinions that were equally
strong. There was something of the priest of the olden time about him;
he held to the Church and to the clergy passionately; saw the bearings
of things, and no selfishness marred his one ambition, which was TO
SERVE. That was his motto,--to serve the Church and the monarchy
wherever it was most threatened; to serve in the lowest rank like a
soldier who feels that he is destined, sooner or later, to attain
command through courage and the resolve to do his duty. He made no
compromises with his vows of chastity, and poverty, and obedience; he
fulfilled them, as he did the other duties of his position, with that
simplicity and cheerful good-humor which are the sure indications of
an honest heart, constrained to do right by natural impulses as much
as by the power and consistency of religious convictions.
The priest had seen at first sight Blondet's attachment to the
countess; he saw that between a Troisville and a monarchical
journalist he could safely show himself to be a man of broad
intelligence, because his calling was certain to be respected. He
usually came to the chateau very evening to make the fourth at a game
of whist. The journalist, able to recognize the abbe's real merits,
showed him so much deference that the pair grew into sympathy with
each other; as usually happens when men of intelligence meet their
equals, or, if you prefer it, the ears that are able to hear them.
Swords are fond of their scabbards.
"But to what do you attribute this state of things, Monsieur l'abbe,
you who are able, through your disinterestedness, to look over the
heads of things?"
"I shall not talk platitudes after such a flattering speech as that,"
said the abbe, smiling. "What is going on in this valley is spreading
more or less throughout France; it is the outcome of the hopes which
the upheaval of 1789 caused to infiltrate, if I may use that
expression, the minds of the peasantry, the sons of the soil. The
Revolution affected certain localities more than others. This side of
Burgundy, nearest to Paris, is one of those places where the
revolutionary ideas spread like the overrunning of the Franks by the
Gauls. Historically, the peasants are still on the morrow of the
Jacquerie; that defeat is burnt in upon their brain. They have long
forgotten the facts which have now passed into the condition of an
instinctive idea. That idea is bred in the peasant blood, just as the
idea of superiority was once bred in noble blood. The revolution of
1789 was the retaliation of the vanquished. The peasants then set foot
in possession of the soil which the feudal law had denied them for
over twelve hundred years. Hence their desire for land, which they now
cut up among themselves until actually they divide a furrow into two
parts; which, by the bye, often hinders or prevents the collection of
taxes, for the value of such fractions of property is not sufficient
to pay the legal costs of recovering them."
"Very true, for the obstinacy of the small owners--their
aggressiveness, if you choose--on this point is so great that in at
least one thousand cantons of the three thousand of French territory,
it is impossible for a rich man to buy an inch of land from a
peasant," said Blondet, interrupting the abbe. "The peasants who are
willing to divide up their scraps of land among themselves would not
sell a fraction on any condition or at any price to the middle
classes. The more money the rich man offers, the more the vague
uneasiness of the peasant increases. Legal dispossession alone is able
to bring the landed property of the peasant into the market. Many
persons have noticed this fact without being able to find a reason for
"This is the reason," said the abbe, rightly believing that a pause
with Blondet was equivalent to a question: "twelve centuries have done
nothing for a caste whom the historic spectacle of civilization has
never yet diverted from its one predominating thought,--a caste which
still wears proudly the broad-brimmed hat of its masters, ever since
an abandoned fashion placed it upon their heads. That all-pervading
thought, the roots of which are in the bowels of the people, and which
attached them so vehemently to Napoleon (who was personally less to
them than he thought he was) and which explains the miracle of his
return in 1815,--that desire for land is the sole motive power of the
peasant's being. In the eyes of the masses Napoleon, ever one with
them through his million of soldiers, is still the king born of the
Revolution; the man who gave them possession of the soil and sold to
them the national domains. His anointing was saturated with that
"An idea to which 1814 dealt a blow, an idea which monarchy should
hold sacred," said Blondet, quickly; "for the people may some day find
on the steps of the throne a prince whose father bequeathed to him the
head of Louis XVI. as an heirloom."
"Here is madame; don't say any more," said the abbe, in a low voice.
"Fourchon has frightened her; and it is very desirable to keep her
here in the interests of religion and of the throne, and, indeed, in
those of the people themselves."
Michaud, the bailiff of Les Aigues, had come to the chateau in
consequence of the assault on Vatel's eyes. But before we relate the
consultation which then and there took place, the chain of events
requires a succinct account of the circumstances under which the
general purchased Les Aigues, the serious causes which led to the
appointment of Sibilet as steward of that magnificent property, and
the reasons why Michaud was made bailiff, with all the other
antecedents to which were due the tension of the minds of all, and the
fears expressed by Sibilet.
This rapid summary will have the merit of introducing some of the
principal actors in this drama, and of exhibiting their individual
interests; we shall thus be enabled to show the dangers which
surrounded the General comte de Montcornet at the moment when this
A TALE OF THIEVES
When Mademoiselle Laguerre first visited her estate, in 1791, she took
as steward the son of the ex-bailiff of Soulanges, named Gaubertin.
The little town of Soulanges, at present nothing more than the chief
town of a canton, was once the capital of a considerable county, in
the days when the House of Burgundy made war upon France. Ville-aux-
Fayes, now the seat of the sub-prefecture, then a mere fief, was a
dependency of Soulanges, like Les Aigues, Ronquerolles, Cerneux,
Conches, and a score of other parishes. The Soulanges have remained
counts, whereas the Ronquerolles are now marquises by the will of that
power, called the Court, which made the son of Captain du Plessis duke
over the heads of the first families of the Conquest. All of which
serves to prove that towns, like families, are variable in their
Gaubertin, a young man without property of any kind, succeeded a
steward enriched by a management of thirty years, who preferred to
become a partner in the famous firm of Minoret rather than continue to
administer Les Aigues. In his own interests he introduced into his
place as land-steward Francois Gaubertin, his accountant for five
years, whom he now relied on to cover his retreat, and who, out of
gratitude for his instructions, promised to obtain for him a release
in full of all claims from Madame Laguerre, who by this time was
terrified at the Revolution. Gaubertin's father, the attorney-general
of the department, henceforth protected the timid woman. This
provincial Fouquier-Tinville raised a false alarm of danger in the
mind of the opera-divinity on the ground of her former relations to
the aristocracy, so as to give his son the equally false credit of
saving her life; on the strength of which Gaubertin the younger
obtained very easily the release of his predecessor. Mademoiselle
Laguerre then made Francois Gaubertin her prime minister, as much
through policy as from gratitude. The late steward had not spoiled
her. He sent her, every year, about thirty thousand francs, though Les
Aigues brought in at that time at least forty thousand. The
unsuspecting opera-singer was therefore much delighted when the new
steward Gaubertin promised her thirty-six thousand.
To explain the present fortune of the land-steward of Les Aigues
before the judgment-seat of probability, it is necessary to state its
beginnings. Pushed by his father's influence, he became mayor of
Blangy. Thus he was able, contrary to law, to make the debtors pay in
coin, by "terrorizing" (a phrase of the day) such of them as might, in
his opinion, be subjected to the crushing demands of the Republic. He
himself paid the citizens in assignats as long as the system of paper
money lasted,--a system which, if it did not make the nation
prosperous, at least made the fortunes of private individuals. From
1793 to 1795, that is, for three years, Francois Gaubertin wrung one
hundred and fifty thousand francs out of Les Aigues, with which he
speculated on the stock-market in Paris. With her purse full of
assignats Mademoiselle was actually obliged to obtain ready money from
her diamonds, now useless to her. She gave them to Gaubertin, who sold
them, and faithfully returned to her their full price. This proof of
honesty touched her heart; henceforth she believed in Gaubertin as she
did in Piccini.
In 1796, at the time of his marriage with the citoyenne Isaure
Mouchon, daughter of an old "conventional," a friend of his father,
Gaubertin possessed about three hundred and fifty thousand francs in
money. As the Directory seemed to him likely to last, he determined,
before marrying, to have the accounts of his five years' stewardship
ratified by Mademoiselle, under pretext of a new departure.
"I am to be the head of a family," he said to her; "you know the
reputation of land-stewards; my father-in-law is a republican of Roman
austerity, and a man of influence as well; I want to prove to him that
I am as upright as he."
Mademoiselle Laguerre accepted his accounts at once in very flattering
In those earlier days the steward had endeavored, in order to win the
confidence of Madame des Aigues (as Mademoiselle was then called) to
repress the depredations of the peasantry; fearing, and not without
reason, that the revenues would suffer too severely, and that his
private bonus from the buyers of the timber would sensibly diminish.
But in those days the sovereign people felt the soil was their own
everywhere; Madame was afraid of the surrounding kings and told her
Richelieu that the first desire of her soul was to die in peace. The
revenues of the late singer were so far in excess of her expenses that
she allowed all the worst, and, as it proved, fatal precedents to be
established. To avoid a lawsuit, she allowed the neighbors to encroach
upon her land. Knowing that the park walls were sufficient protection,
she did not fear any interruption of her personal comfort, and cared
for nothing but her peaceful existence, true philosopher that she was!
A few thousand a year more or less, the indemnities exacted by the
wood-merchants for the damages committed by the peasants,--what were
they to a careless and extravagant Opera-girl, who had gained her
hundred thousand francs a year at the cost of pleasure only, and who
had just submitted, without a word of remonstrance, to a reduction of
two thirds of an income of sixty thousand francs?
"Dear me!" she said, in the easy tone of the wantons of the old time,
"people must live, even if they are republicans."
The terrible Mademoiselle Cochet, her maid and female vizier, had
tried to enlighten her mistress when she saw the ascendency Gaubertin
was obtaining over one whom he began by calling "Madame" in defiance
of the revolutionary laws about equality; but Gaubertin, in his turn,
enlightened Mademoiselle Cochet by showing her a so-called
denunciation sent to his father, the prosecuting attorney, in which
she was vehemently accused of corresponding with Pitt and Coburg. From
that time forward the two powers went on shares--shares a la
Montgomery. Cochet praised Gaubertin to Madame, and Gaubertin praised
Cochet. The waiting-maid had already made her own bed, and knew she
was down for sixty thousand francs in the will. Madame could not do
without Cochet, to whom she was accustomed. The woman knew the secrets
of dear mistress's toilet; she alone could put dear mistress to sleep
at night with her gossip, and get her up in the morning with her
flattery; to the day of dear mistress's death the maid never could see
the slightest change in her, and when dear mistress lay in her coffin,
she doubtless thought she had never seen her looking so well.
The annual pickings of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet, their wages
and perquisites, became so large that the most affectionate relative
could not possibly have been more devoted than they to their kindly
mistress. There is really no describing how a swindler cossets his
dupe. A mother is not so tender nor so solicitous for a beloved
daughter as the practitioner of tartuferie for his milch cow. What
brilliant success attends the performance of Tartufe behind the closed
doors of a home! It is worth more than friendship. Moliere died too
soon; he would otherwise have shown us the misery of Orgon, wearied by
his family, harassed by his children, regretting the blandishments of
Tartufe, and thinking to himself, "Ah, those were the good times!"
During the last eight years of her life the mistress of Les Aigues
received only thirty thousand francs of the fifty thousand really
yielded by the estate. Gaubertin had reached the same administrative
results as his predecessor, though farm rents and territorial products
were notably increased between 1791 and 1815,--not to speak of
Madame's continual purchases. But Gaubertin's fixed idea of acquiring
Les Aigues at the old lady's death led him to depreciate the value of
the magnificent estate in the matter of its ostensible revenues.
Mademoiselle Cochet, a sharer in the scheme, was also to share the
profits. As the ex-divinity in her declining years received an income
of twenty thousand francs from the Funds called consolidated (how
readily the tongue of politics can jest!), and with difficulty spent
the said sum yearly, she was much surprised at the annual purchases
made by her steward to use up the accumulating revenues, remembering
how in former times she had always drawn them in advance. The result
of having few wants in her old age seemed, to her mind, a proof of the
honesty and uprightness of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet.
"Two pearls!" she said to the persons who came to see her.
Gaubertin kept his accounts with apparent honesty. He entered all
rentals duly. Everything that could strike the feeble mind of the late
singer, so far as arithmetic went, was clear and precise. The steward
took his commission on all disbursements,--on the costs of working the
estate, on rentals made, on suits brought, on work done, on repairs of
every kind,--details which Madame never dreamed of verifying, and for
which he sometimes charged twice over by collusion with the
contractors, whose silence was bought by permission to charge the
highest prices. These methods of dealing conciliated public opinion in
favor of Gaubertin, while Madame's praise was on every lip; for
besides the payments she disbursed for work, she gave away large sums
of money in alms.
"May God preserve her, the dear lady!" was heard on all sides.
The truth was, everybody got something out of her, either indirectly
or as a downright gift. In reprisals, as it were, of her youth the old
actress was pillaged; so discreetly pillaged, however, that those who
throve upon her kept their depredations within certain limits lest
even her eyes might be opened and she should sell Les Aigues and
return to Paris.
This system of "pickings" was, alas! the cause of Paul-Louis Carter's
assassination; he committed the mistake of advertising the sale of his
estate and allowing it to be known that he should take away his wife,
on whom a number of the Tonsards of Lorraine were battening. Fearing
to lose Madame des Aigues, the marauders on the estate forbore to cut
the young trees, unless pushed to extremities by finding no branches
within reach of shears fastened to long poles. In the interests of
robbery, they did as little harm as they could; although, during the
last years of Madame's life, the habit of cutting wood became more and
more barefaced. On certain clear nights not less than two hundred
bundles were taken. As to the gleaning of fields and vineyards, Les
Aigues lost, as Sibilet had pointed out, not less than one quarter of
Madame des Aigues had forbidden Cochet to marry during her lifetime,
with the selfishness often shown in all countries by a mistress to a
maid; which is not more irrational than the mania for keeping
possession, until our last gasp, of property that is utterly useless
to our material comfort, at the risk of being poisoned by impatient
heirs. Twenty days after the old lady's burial Mademoiselle Cochet
married the brigadier of the gendarmerie of Soulanges, named Soudry, a
handsome man, forty-two years of age, who, ever since 1800 (in which
year the gendarmerie was formed) had come every day to Les Aigues to
see the waiting-maid, and dined with her at least three times a week
at the Gaubertins'.
During Madame's lifetime dinner was served to her and to her company
by themselves. Neither Cochet nor Gaubertin, in spite of their great
familiarity with the mistress, was ever admitted to her table; the
leading lady of the Academie Royale retained, to her last hour, her
sense of etiquette, her style of dress, her rouge and her heeled
slippers, her carriage, her servants, and the majesty of her
deportment. A divinity at the Opera, a divinity within her range of
Parisian social life, she continued a divinity in the country
solitudes, where her memory is still worshipped, and still holds its
own against that of the old monarchy in the minds of the "best
society" of Soulanges.
Soudry, who had paid his addresses to Mademoiselle Cochet from the
time he first came into the neighborhood, owned the finest house in
Soulanges, an income of six thousand francs, and the prospect of a
retiring pension whenever he should quit the service. As soon as
Cochet became Madame Soudry she was treated with great consideration
in the town. Though she kept the strictest secrecy as to the amount of
her savings,--which were intrusted, like those of Gaubertin, to the
commissary of wine-merchants of the department in Paris, a certain
Leclercq, a native of Soulanges, to whom Gaubertin supplied funds as
sleeping partner in his business,--public opinion credited the former
waiting-maid with one of the largest fortunes in the little town of
twelve hundred inhabitants.
To the great astonishment of every one, Monsieur and Madame Soudry
acknowledged as legitimate, in their marriage contract, a natural son
of the gendarme, to whom, in future, Madame Soudry's fortune was to
descend. At the time when this son was legally supplied with a mother,
he had just ended his law studies in Paris and was about to enter into
practice, with the intention of fitting himself for the magistracy.
It is scarcely necessary to remark that a mutual understanding of
twenty years had produced the closest intimacy between the families of
Gaubertin and Soudry. Both reciprocally declared themselves, to the
end of their days, "urbi et orbi," to be the most upright and
honorable persons in all France. Such community of interests, based on
the mutual knowledge of the secret spots on the white garment of
conscience, is one of the ties least recognized and hardest to untie
in this low world. You who read this social drama, have you never felt
a conviction as to two persons which has led you to say to yourself,
in order to explain the continuance of a faithful devotion which made
your own egotism blush, "They must surely have committed some crime
After an administration of twenty-five years, Gaubertin, the land-
steward, found himself in possession of six hundred thousand francs in
money, and Cochet had accumulated nearly two hundred and fifty
thousand. The rapid and constant turning over and over of their funds
in the hands of Leclercq and Company (on the quai Bethume, Ile Saint
Louis, rivals of the famous house of Grandet) was a great assistance
to the fortunes of all parties. On the death of Mademoiselle Laguerre,
Jenny, the steward's eldest daughter was asked in marriage by
Leclercq. Gaubertin expected at that time to become owner of Les
Aigues by means of a plot laid in the private office of Lupin, the
notary, whom the steward had set up and maintained in business within
the last twelve years.
Lupin, a son of the former steward of the estate of Soulanges, had
lent himself to various slight peculations,--investments at fifty per
cent below par, notices published surreptitiously, and all the other
manoeuvres, unhappily common in the provinces, to wrap a mantle, as
the saying is, over the clandestine manipulations of property. Lately
a company has been formed in Paris, so they say, to levy contributions
upon such plotters under a threat of outbidding them. But in 1816
France was not, as it is now, lighted by a flaming publicity; the
accomplices might safely count on dividing Les Aigues among them, that
is, between Cochet, the notary, and Gaubertin, the latter of whom
reserved to himself, "in petto," the intention of buying the others
out for a sum down, as soon as the property fairly stood in his own
name. The lawyer employed by the notary to manage the sale of the
estate was under personal obligations to Gaubertin, so that he favored
the spoliation of the heirs, unless any of the eleven farmers of
Picardy should take it into their heads to think they were cheated,
and inquire into the real value of the property.
Just as those interested expected to find their fortunes made, a
lawyer came from Paris on the evening before the final settlement, and
employed a notary at Ville-aux-Fayes, who happened to be one of his
former clerks, to buy the estate of Les Aigues, which he did for
eleven hundred thousand francs. None of the conspirators dared outbid
an offer of eleven hundred thousand francs. Gaubertin suspected some
treachery on Soudry's part, and Soudry and Lupin thought they were
tricked by Gaubertin. But a statement on the part of the purchasing
agent, the notary of Ville-aux-Fayes, disabused them of these
suspicions. The latter, though suspecting the plan formed by
Gaubertin, Lupin, and Soudry, refrained from informing the lawyer in
Paris, for the reason that if the new owners indiscreetly repeated his
words, he would have too many enemies at his heels to be able to stay
where he was. This reticence, peculiar to provincials, was in this
particular case amply justified by succeeding events. If the dwellers
in the provinces are dissemblers, they are forced to be so; their
excuse lies in the danger expressed in the old proverb, "We must howl
with the wolves," a meaning which underlies the character of
When General Montcornet took possession of Les Aigues, Gaubertin was
no longer rich enough to give up his place. In order to marry his
daughter to a rich banker he was obliged to give her a dowry of two
hundred thousand francs; he had to pay thirty thousand for his son's
practice; and all that remained of his accumulations was three hundred
and seventy thousand, out of which he would be forced, sooner or
later, to pay the dowry of his remaining daughter, Elise, for whom he
hoped to arrange a marriage at least as good as that of her sister.
The steward determined to study the general, in order to find out if
he could disgust him with the place,--hoping still to be able to carry
out his defeated plan in his own interests.
With the peculiar instinct which characterizes those who make their
fortunes by craft, Gaubertin believed in a resemblance of nature
(which was not improbable) between an old soldier and an Opera-singer.
An actress, and a general of the Empire,--surely they would have the
same extravagant habits, the same careless prodigality? To the one as
to the other, riches came capriciously and by lucky chances. If some
soldiers are wily and astute and clever politicians, they are
exceptions; a soldier is, usually, especially an accomplished cavalry
officer like Montcornet, guileless, confident, a novice in business,
and little fitted to understand details in the management of an
estate. Gaubertin flattered himself that he could catch and hold the
general with the same net in which Mademoiselle Laguerre had finished
her days. But it so happened that the Emperor had once, intentionally,
allowed Montcornet to play the same game in Pomerania that Gaubertin
was playing at Les Aigues; consequently, the general fully understood
a system of plundering.
In planting cabbages, to use the expression of the first Duc de Biron,
the old cuirassier sought to divert his mind, by occupation, from
dwelling on his fall. Though he had yielded his "corps d'armee" to the
Bourbons, that duty (performed by other generals and termed the
disbanding of the army of the Loire) could not atone for the crime of
having followed the man of the Hundred-Days to his last battle-field.
In presence of the allied army it was impossible for the peer of 1815
to remain in the service, still less at the Luxembourg. Accordingly,
Montcornet betook himself to the country by advice of a dismissed
marshal, to plunder Nature herself. The general was not deficient in
the special cunning of an old military fox; and after he had spent a
few days in examining his new property, he saw that Gaubertin was a
steward of the old system,--a swindler, such as the dukes and marshals
of the Empire, those mushrooms bred from the common earth, were well
The wily general, soon aware of Gaubertin's great experience in rural
administration, felt it was politic to keep well with him until he had
himself learned the secrets of it; accordingly, he passed himself off
as another Mademoiselle Laguerre, a course which lulled the steward
into false security. This apparent simple-mindedness lasted all the
time it took the general to learn the strength and weakness of Les
Aigues, to master the details of its revenues and the manner of
collecting them, and to ascertain how and where the robberies
occurred, together with the betterments and economies which ought to
be undertaken. Then, one fine morning, having caught Gaubertin with
his hand in the bag, as the saying is, the general flew into one of
those rages peculiar to the imperial conquerors of many lands. In
doing so he committed a capital blunder,--one that would have ruined
the whole life of a man of less wealth and less consistency than
himself, and from which came the evils, both small and great, with
which the present history teems. Brought up in the imperial school,
accustomed to deal with men as a dictator, and full of contempt for
"civilians," Montcornet did not trouble himself to wear gloves when it
came to putting a rascal of a land-steward out of doors. Civil life
and its precautions were things unknown to the soldier already
embittered by his loss of rank. He humiliated Gaubertin ruthlessly,
though the latter drew the harsh treatment upon himself by a cynical
reply which roused Montcornet's anger.
"You are living off my land," said the general, with jesting severity.
"Do you think I can live off the sky?" returned Gaubertin, with a
"Out of my sight, blackguard! I dismiss you!" cried the general,
striking him with his whip,--blows which the steward always denied
having received, for they were given behind closed doors.
"I shall not go without my release in full," said Gaubertin, coldly,
keeping at a distance from the enraged soldier.
"We will see what is thought of you in a police court," replied
Montcornet, shrugging his shoulders.
Hearing the threat, Gaubertin looked at the general and smiled. The
smile had the effect of relaxing Montcornet's arms as though the
sinews had been cut. We must explain that smile.
For the last two years, Gaubertin's brother-in-law, a man named
Gendrin, long a justice of the municipal court of Ville-aux-Fayes, had
become the president of that court through the influence of the Comte
de Soulanges. The latter was made peer of France in 1814, and remained
faithful to the Bourbons during the Hundred-Days, therefore the Keeper
of the Seals readily granted an appointment at his request. This
relationship gave Gaubertin a certain importance in the country. The
president of the court of a little town is, relatively, a greater
personage than the president of one of the royal courts of a great
city, who has various equals, such as generals, bishops, and prefects;
whereas the judge of the court of a small town has none,--the
attorney-general and the sub-prefect being removable at will. Young
Soudry, a companion of Gaubertin's son in Paris as well as at Les
Aigues, had just been appointed assistant attorney in the capital of
the department. Before the elder Soudry, a quartermaster in the
artillery, became a brigadier of gendarmes, he had been wounded in a
skirmish while defending Monsieur de Soulanges, then adjutant-general.
At the time of the creation of the gendarmerie, the Comte de
Soulanges, who by that time had become a colonel, asked for a brigade
for his former protector, and later still he solicited the post we
have named for the younger Soudry. Besides all these influences, the
marriage of Mademoiselle Gaubertin with a wealthy banker of the quai
Bethume made the unjust steward feel that he was far stronger in the
community than a lieutenant-general driven into retirement.
If this history provided no other instruction that that offered by the
quarrel between the general and his steward, it would still be useful
to many persons as a lesson for their conduct in life. He who reads
Machiavelli profitably, knows that human prudence consists in never
threatening; in doing but not saying; in promoting the retreat of an
enemy and never stepping, as the saying is, on the tail of the
serpent; and in avoiding, as one would murder, the infliction of a
blow to the self-love of any one lower than one's self. An injury done
to a person's interest, no matter how great it may be at the time, is
forgiven or explained in the long run; but self-love, vanity, never
ceases to bleed from a wound given, and never forgives it. The moral
being is actually more sensitive, more living as it were, than the
physical being. The heart and the blood are less impressible than the
nerves. In short, our inward being rules us, no matter what we do. You
may reconcile two families who have half-killed each other, as in
Brittany and in La Vendee during the civil wars, but you can no more
reconcile the calumniators and the calumniated than you can the
spoilers and the despoiled. It is only in epic poems that men curse
each other before they kill. The savage, and the peasant who is much
like a savage, seldom speak unless to deceive an enemy. Ever since
1789 France has been trying to make man believe, against all evidence,
that they are equal. To say to a man, "You are a swindler," may be
taken as a joke; but to catch him in the act and prove it to him with
a cane on his back, to threaten him with a police-court and not follow
up the threat, is to remind him of the inequality of conditions. If
the masses will not brook any species of superiority, is it likely
that a swindler will forgive that of an honest man?
Montcornet might have dismissed his steward under pretext of paying
off a military obligation by putting some old soldier in his place;
Gaubertin and the general would have understood the matter, and the
latter, by sparing the steward's self-love would have given him a
chance to withdraw quietly. Gaubertin, in that case, would have left
his late employer in peace, and possibly he might have taken himself
and his savings to Paris for investment. But being, as he was,
ignominiously dismissed, the man conceived against his late master one
of those bitter hatreds which are literally a part of existence in
provincial life, the persistency, duration, and plots of which would
astonish diplomatists who are trained to let nothing astonish them. A
burning desire for vengeance led him to settle at Ville-aux-Fayes, and
to take a position where he could injure Montcornet and stir up
sufficient enmity against to force him to sell Les Aigues.
The general was deceived by appearances; for Gaubertin's external
behavior was not of a nature to warn or to alarm him. The late steward
followed his old custom of pretending, not exactly poverty, but
limited means. For years he had talked of his wife and three children,
and the heavy expenses of a large family. Mademoiselle Laguerre, to
whom he had declared himself too poor to educate his son in Paris,
paid the costs herself, and allowed her dear godson (for she was
Claude Gaubertin's sponsor) two thousand francs a year.
The day after the quarrel, Gaubertin came, with a keeper named
Courtecuisse, and demanded with much insolence his release in full of
all claims, showing the general the one he had obtained from his late
mistress in such flattering terms, and asking, ironically, that a
search should be made for the property, real and otherwise, which he
was supposed to have stolen. If he had received fees from the wood-
merchants on their purchases and from the farmers on their leases,
Mademoiselle Laguerre, he said, had always allowed it; not only did
she gain by the bargains he made, but everything went on smoothly
without troubling her. The country-people would have died, he
remarked, for Mademoiselle, whereas the general was laying up for
himself a store of difficulties.
Gaubertin--and this trait is frequently to be seen in the majority of
those professions in which the property of others can be taken by
means not foreseen by the Code--considered himself a perfectly honest
man. In the first place, he had so long had possession of the money
extorted from Mademoiselle Laguerre's farmers through fear, and paid
in assignats, that he regarded it as legitimately acquired. It was a
mere matter of exchange. He thought that in the end he should have
quite as much risk with coin as with paper. Besides, legally,
Mademoiselle had no right to receive any payment except in assignats.
"Legally" is a fine, robust adverb, which bolsters up many a fortune!
Moreover, he reflected that ever since great estates and land-agents
had existed, that is, ever since the origin of society, the said
agents had set up, for their own use, an argument such as we find our
cooks using in this present day. Here it is, in its simplicity:--
"If my mistress," says the cook, "went to market herself, she would
have to pay more for her provisions than I charge her; she is the
gainer, and the profits I make do more good in my hands than in those
of the dealers."
"If Mademoiselle," thought Gaubertin, "were to manage Les Aigues
herself, she would never get thirty thousand francs a year out of it;
the peasants, the dealers, the workmen would rob her of the rest. It
is much better that I should have it, and so enable her to live in
The Catholic religion, and it alone, is able to prevent these
capitulations of conscience. But, ever since 1789 religion has no
influence on two thirds of the French people. The peasants, whose
minds are keen and whose poverty drives them to imitation, had
reached, specially in the valley of Les Aigues, a frightful state of
demoralization. They went to mass on Sundays, but only at the outside
of the church, where it was their custom to meet and transact business
and make their weekly bargains.
We can now estimate the extent of the evil done by the careless
indifference of the great singer to the management of her property.
Mademoiselle Laguerre betrayed, through mere selfishness, the
interests of those who owned property, who are held in perpetual
hatred by those who own none. Since 1792 the land-owners of Paris have
become of necessity a combined body. If, alas, the feudal families,
less numerous than the middle-class families, did not perceive the
necessity of combining in 1400 under Louis XI., nor in 1600 under
Richelieu, can we expect that in this nineteenth century of progress
the middle classes will prove to be more permanently and solidly
combined that the old nobility? An oligarchy of a hundred thousand
rich men presents all the dangers of a democracy with none of its
advantages. The principle of "every man for himself and for his own,"
the selfishness of individual interests, will kill the oligarchical
selfishness so necessary to the existence of modern society, and which
England has practised with such success for the last three centuries.
Whatever may be said or done, land-owners will never understand the
necessity of the sort of internal discipline which made the Church
such an admirable model of government, until, too late, they find
themselves in danger from one another. The audacity with which
communism, that living and acting logic of democracy, attacks society
from the moral side, shows plainly that the Samson of to-day, grown
prudent, is undermining the foundations of the cellar, instead of
shaking the pillars of the hall.
CERTAIN LOST SOCIAL SPECIES
The estate of Les Aigues could not do without a steward; for the
general had no intention of renouncing his winter pleasures in Paris,
where he owned a fine house in the rue Neuve-des-Mathurines. He
therefore looked about for a successor to Gaubertin; but it is very
certain that his search was not as eager as that of Gaubertin himself,
who was seeking for the right person to put in his way.
Of all confidential positions there is none that requires more trained
knowledge of its kind, or more activity, than that of land-steward to
a great estate. The difficulty of finding the right man is only fully
known to those wealthy landlords whose property lies beyond a certain
circle around Paris, beginning at a distance of about one hundred and
fifty miles. At that point agricultural productions for the markets of
Paris, which warrant rentals on long leases (collected often by other
tenants who are rich themselves), cease to be cultivated. The farmers
who raise them drive to the city in their own cabriolets to pay their
rents in good bank-bills, unless they send the money through their
agents in the markets. For this reason, the farms of the Seine-et-
Oise, Seine-et-Marne, the Oise, the Eure-et-Loir, the Lower Seine, and
the Loiret are so desirable that capital cannot always be invested
there at one and a half per cent. Compared to the returns on estates
in Holland, England, and Belgium, this result is enormous. But at one
hundred miles from Paris an estate requires such variety of working,
its products are so different in kind, that it becomes a business,
with all the risks attendant on manufacturing. The wealthy owner is
really a merchant, forced to look for a market for his products, like
the owner of ironworks or cotton factories. He does not even escape
competition; the peasant, the small proprietor, is at his heels with
an avidity which leads to transactions to which well-bred persons
A land-steward must understand surveying, the customs of the locality,
the methods of sale and of labor, together with a little quibbling in
the interests of those he serves; he must also understand book-keeping
and commercial matters, and be in perfect health, with a liking for
active life and horse exercise. His duty being to represent his master
and to be always in communication with him, the steward ought not to
be a man of the people. As the salary of his office seldom exceeds
three thousand francs, the problem seems insoluble. How is it possible
to obtain so many qualifications for such a very moderate price,--in a
region, moreover, where the men who are provided with them are
admissible to all other employments? Bring down a stranger to fill the
place, and you will pay dear for the experience he must acquire. Train
a young man on the spot, and you are more than likely to get a thorn
of ingratitude in your side. It therefore becomes necessary to choose
between incompetent honesty, which injures your property through its
blindness and inertia, and the cleverness which looks out for itself.
Hence the social nomenclature and natural history of land-stewards as
defined by a great Polish noble.
"There are," he said, "two kinds of stewards: he who thinks only of
himself, and he who thinks of himself and of us; happy the land-owner
who lays his hands on the latter! As for the steward who would think
only of us, he is not to be met with."
Elsewhere can be found a steward who thought of this master's
interests as well as of his own. ("Un Debut dans la vie," "Scenes de
la vie privee.") Gaubertin is the steward who thinks of himself only.
To represent the third figure of the problem would be to hold up to
public admiration a very unlikely personage, yet one that was not
unknown to the old nobility, though he has, alas! disappeared with
them. (See "Le Cabinet des Antiques," "Scenes de la vie de province.")
Through the endless subdivision of fortunes aristocratic habits and
customs are inevitably changed. If there be not now in France twenty
great fortunes managed by intendants, in fifty years from now there
will not be a hundred estates in the hands of stewards, unless a great
change is made in the law. Every land-owner will be brought by that
time to look after his own interests.
This transformation, already begun, suggested the following answer of
a clever woman when asked why, since 1830, she stayed in Paris during
the summer. "Because," she said, "I do not care to visit chateaux
which are now turned into farms." What is to be the future of this
question, getting daily more and more imperative,--that of man to man,
the poor man and the rich man? This book is written to throw some
light upon that terrible social question.
It is easy to understand the perplexities which assailed the general
after he had dismissed Gaubertin. While saying to himself, vaguely,
like other persons free to do or not to do a thing, "I'll dismiss that
scamp"; he had overlooked the risk and forgotten the explosion of his
boiling anger,--the anger of a choleric fire-eater at the moment when
a flagrant imposition forced him to raise the lids of his wilfully
Montcornet, a land-owner for the first time and a denizen of Paris,
had not provided himself with a steward before coming to Les Aigues;
but after studying the neighborhood carefully he saw it was
indispensable to a man like himself to have an intermediary to manage
so many persons of low degree.
Gaubertin, who discovered during the excitement of the scene (which
lasted more than two hours) the difficulties in which the general
would soon be involved, jumped on his pony after leaving the room
where the quarrel took place, and galloped to Soulanges to consult the
Soudrys. At his first words, "The general and I have parted; whom can
we put in my place without his suspecting it?" the Soudrys understood
their friend's wishes. Do not forget that Soudry, for the last
seventeen years chief of police of the canton, was doubly shrewd
through his wife, an adept in the particular wiliness of a waiting-
maid of an Opera divinity.
"We may go far," said Madame Soudry, "before we find any one to suit
the place as well as our poor Sibilet."