Part 3 out of 7
"Made to order!" exclaimed Gaubertin, still scarlet with
mortification. "Lupin," he added, turning to the notary, who was
present, "go to Ville-aux-Fayes and whisper it to Marechal, in case
that big fire-eater asks his advice."
Marechal was the lawyer whom his former patron, when buying Les Aigues
for the general, had recommended to Monsieur de Montcornet as legal
Sibilet, eldest son of the clerk of the court at Ville-aux-Fayes, a
notary's clerk, without a penny of his own, and twenty-five years old,
had fallen in love with the daughter of the chief-magistrate of
Soulanges. The latter, named Sarcus, had a salary of fifteen hundred
francs, and was married to a woman without fortune, the eldest sister
of Monsieur Vermut, the apothecary of Soulanges. Though an only
daughter, Mademoiselle Sarcus, whose beauty was her only dowry, could
scarcely have lived on the salary paid to a notary's clerk in the
provinces. Young Sibilet, a relative of Gaubertin, by a connection
rather difficult to trace through family ramifications which make
members of the middle classes in all the smaller towns cousins to each
other, owed a modest position in a government office to the assistance
of his father and Gaubertin. The unlucky fellow had the terrible
happiness of being the father of two children in three years. His own
father, blessed with five, was unable to assist him. His wife's father
owned nothing beside his house at Soulanges and an income of two
thousand francs. Madame Sibilet the younger spent most of her time at
her father's home with her two children, where Adolphe Sibilet, whose
official duty obliged him to travel through the department, came to
see her from time to time.
Gaubertin's exclamation, though easy to understand from this summary
of young Sibilet's life, needs a few more explanatory details.
Adolphe Sibilet, supremely unlucky, as we have shown by the foregoing
sketch of him, was one of those men who cannot reach the heart of a
woman except by way of the altar and the mayor's office. Endowed with
the suppleness of a steel-spring, he yielded to pressure, certain to
revert to his first thought. This treacherous habit is prompted by
cowardice; but the business training which Sibilet underwent in the
office of a provincial notary had taught him the art of concealing
this defect under a gruff manner which simulated a strength he did not
possess. Many false natures mask their hollowness in this way; be
rough with them in return and the effect produced is that of a balloon
collapsed by a prick. Such was Sibilet. But as most men are not
observers, and as among observers three fourths observe only after a
thing has taken place, Adolphe Sibilet's grumbling manner was
considered the result of an honest frankness, of a capacity much
praised by his master, and of a stubborn uprightness which no
temptation could shake. Some men are as much benefited by their
defects as others by their good qualities.
Adeline Sarcus, a pretty young woman, brought up by a mother (who died
three years before her marriage) as well as a mother can educate an
only daughter in a remote country town, was in love with the handsome
son of Lupin, the Soulanges notary. At the first signs of this
romance, old Lupin, who intended to marry his son to Mademoiselle
Elise Gaubertin, lost no time in sending young Amaury Lupin to Paris,
to the care of his friend and correspondent Crottat, the notary,
where, under pretext of drawing deeds and contracts, Amaury committed
a variety of foolish acts, and made debts, being led thereto by a
certain Georges Marest, a clerk in the same office, but a rich young
man, who revealed to him the mysteries of Parisian life. By the time
Lupin the elder went to Paris to bring back his son, Adeline Sarcus
had become Madame Sibilet. In fact, when the adoring Adolphe offered
himself, her father, the old magistrate, prompted by young Lupin's
father, hastened the marriage, to which Adeline yielded in sheer
The situation of clerk in a government registration office is not a
career. It is, like other such places which admit of no rise, one of
the many holes of the government sieve. Those who start in life in
these holes (the topographical, the professorial, the highway-and-
canal departments) are apt to discover, invariably too late, that
cleverer men then they, seated beside them, are fed, as the Opposition
writers say, on the sweat of the people, every time the sieve dips
down into the taxation-pot by means of a machine called the budget.
Adolphe, working early and late and earning little, soon found out the
barren depths of his hole; and his thoughts busied themselves, as he
trotted from township to township, spending his salary in shoe-leather
and costs of travelling, with how to find a permanent and more
No one can imagine, unless he happens to squint and to have two
legitimate children, what ambitions three years of misery and love had
developed in this young man, who squinted both in mind and vision, and
whose happiness halted, as it were, on one leg. The chief cause of
secret evil deeds and hidden meanness is, perhaps, an incompleted
happiness. Man can better bear a state of hopeless misery than those
terrible alternations of love and sunshine with continual rain. If the
body contracts disease, the mind contracts the leprosy of envy. In
petty minds that leprosy becomes a base and brutal cupidity, both
insolent and shrinking; in cultivated minds it fosters anti-social
doctrines, which serve a man as footholds by which to rise above his
superiors. May we not dignify with the title of proverb the pregnant
saying, "Tell me what thou hast, and I will tell thee of what thou art
Though Adolphe loved his wife, his hourly thought was: "I have made a
mistake; I have three balls and chains, but I have only two legs. I
ought to have made my fortune before I married. I could have found an
Adeline any day; but Adeline stands in the way of my getting a fortune
Adolphe had been to see his relation Gaubertin three times in three
years. A few words exchanged between them let Gaubertin see the muck
of a soul ready to ferment under the hot temptations of legal robbery.
He warily sounded a nature that could be warped to the exigencies of
any plan, provided it was profitable. At each of the three visits
Sibilet grumbled at his fate.
"Employ me, cousin," he said; "take me as a clerk and make me your
successor. You shall see how I work. I am capable of overthrowing
mountains to give my Adeline, I won't say luxury, but a modest
competence. You made Monsieur Leclercq's fortune; why won't you put me
in a bank in Paris?"
"Some day, later on, I'll find you a place," Gaubertin would say;
"meantime make friends and acquaintance; such things help."
Under these circumstances the letter which Madame Soudry hastily
dispatched brought Sibilet to Soulanges through a region of castles in
the air. His father-in-law, Sarcus, whom the Soudrys advised to take
steps in the interest of his daughter, had gone in the morning to see
the general and to propose Adolphe for the vacant post. By advice of
Madame Soudry, who was the oracle of the little town, the worthy man
had taken his daughter with him; and the sight of her had had a
favorable effect upon the Comte de Montcornet.
"I shall not decide," he answered, "without thoroughly informing
myself about all applicants; but I will not look elsewhere until I
have examined whether or not your son-in-law possesses the
requirements for the place." Then, turning to Madame Sibilet he added,
"The satisfaction of settling so charming a person at Les Aigues--"
"The mother of two children, general," said Adeline, adroitly, to
evade the gallantry of the old cuirassier.
All the general's inquiries were cleverly anticipated by the Soudrys,
Gaubertin, and Lupin, who quietly obtained for their candidate the
influence of the leading lawyers in the capital of the department,
where a royal court held sessions,--such as Counsellor Gendrin, a
distant relative of the judge at Ville-aux-Fayes; Baron Bourlac,
attorney-general; and another counsellor named Sarcus, a cousin thrice
removed of the candidate. The verdict of every one to whom the general
applies was favorable to the poor clerk,--"so interesting," as they
called him. His marriage had made Sibilet as irreproachable as a novel
of Miss Edgeworth's, and presented him, moreover, in the light of a
The time which the dismissed steward remained at Les Aigues until his
successor could be appointed was employed in creating troubles and
annoyances for his late master; one of the little scenes which he thus
played off will give an idea of several others.
The morning of his final departure he contrived to meet, as it were
accidentally, Courtecuisse, the only keeper then employed at Les
Aigues, the great extent of which really needed at least three.
"Well, Monsieur Gaubertin," said Courtecuisse, "so you have had
trouble with the count?"
"Who told you that?" answered Gaubertin. "Well, yes; the general
expected to order us about as he did his cavalry; he didn't know
Burgundians. The count is not satisfied with my services, and as I am
not satisfied with his ways, we have dismissed each other, almost with
fisticuffs, for he raged like a whirlwind. Take care of yourself,
Courtecuisse! Ah! my dear fellow, I expected to give you a better
"I know that," said the keeper, "and I'd have served you well. Hang
it, when friends have known each other for twenty years, you know! You
put me here in the days of the poor dear sainted Madame. Ah, what a
good woman she was! none like her now! The place has lost a mother."
"Look here, Courtecuisse, if you are willing, you might help us to a
"Then you are going to stay here? I heard you were off to Paris."
"No; I shall wait to see how things turn out; meantime I shall do
business at Ville-aux-Fayes. The general doesn't know what he is
dealing with in these parts; he'll make himself hated, don't you see?
I shall wait for what turns up. Do your work here gently; he'll tell
you to manage the people with a high hand, for he begins to see where
his crops and his woods are running to; but you'll not be such a fool
as to let the country-folk maul you, and perhaps worse, for the sake
of his timber."
"But he would send me away, dear Monsieur Gaubertin, he would get rid
of me! and you know how happy I am living there at the gate of the
"The general will soon get sick of the whole place," replied
Gaubertin; "you wouldn't be long out even if he did happen to send you
away. Besides, you know those woods," he added, waving his hand at the
landscape; "I am stronger there than the masters."
This conversation took place in an open field.
"Those 'Arminac' Parisian fellows ought to stay in their own mud,"
said the keeper.
Ever since the quarrels of the fifteenth century the word 'Arminac'
(Armagnacs, Parisians, enemies of the Dukes of Burgundy) has continued
to be an insulting term along the borders of Upper Burgundy, where it
is differently corrupted according to locality.
"He'll go back to it when beaten," said Gaubertin, "and we'll plough
up the park; for it is robbing the people to allow a man to keep nine
hundred acres of the best land in the valley for his own pleasure."
"Four hundred families could get their living from it," said
"If you want two acres for yourself you must help us to drive that cur
out," remarked Gaubertin.
At the very moment that Gaubertin was fulminating this sentence of
excommunication, the worthy Sarcus was presenting his son-in-law
Sibilet to the Comte de Montcornet. They had come with Adeline and the
children in a wicker carryall, lent by Sarcus's clerk, a Monsieur
Gourdon, brother of the Soulanges doctor, who was richer than the
magistrate himself. The general, pleased with the candor and dignity
of the justice of the peace, and with the graceful bearing of Adeline
(both giving pledges in good faith, for they were totally ignorant of
the plans of Gaubertin), at once granted all requests and gave such
advantages to the family of the new land-steward as to make the
position equal to that of a sub-prefect of the first class.
A lodge, built by Bouret as an object in the landscape and also as a
home for the steward, an elegant little building, the architecture of
which was sufficiently shown in the description of the gate of Blangy,
was promised to the Sibilets for their residence. The general also
conceded the horse which Mademoiselle Laguerre had provided for
Gaubertin, in consideration of the size of the estate and the distance
he had to go to the markets where the business of the property was
transacted. He allowed two hundred bushels of wheat, three hogsheads
of wine, wood in sufficient quantity, oats and barley in abundance,
and three per cent on all receipts of income. Where the latter in
Mademoiselle Laguerre's time had amounted to forty thousand francs,
the general now, in 1818, in view of the purchases of land which
Gaubertin had made for her, expected to receive at least sixty
thousand. The new land-steward might therefore receive before long
some two thousand francs in money. Lodged, fed, warmed, relieved of
taxes, the costs of a horse and a poultry-yard defrayed for him, and
allowed to plant a kitchen-garden, with no questions asked as to the
day's work of the gardener, certainly such advantages represented much
more than another two thousand francs; for a man who was earning a
miserable salary of twelve hundred francs in a government office to
step into the stewardship of Les Aigues was a change from poverty to
"Be faithful to my interests," said the general, "and I shall have
more to say to you. Doubtless I could get the collection of the rents
of Conches, Blangy, and Cerneux taken away from the collection of
those of Soulanges and given to you. In short, when you bring me in a
clear sixty thousand a year from Les Aigues you shall be still further
Unfortunately, the worthy justice and his daughter, in the flush of
their joy, told Madame Soudry the promise the general had made about
these collections, without reflecting that the present collector of
Soulanges, a man named Guerbet, brother of the postmaster of Conches,
was closely allied, as we shall see later, with Gaubertin and the
"It won't be so easy to do it, my dear," said Madame Soudry; "but
don't prevent the general from making the attempt; it is wonderful how
easily difficult things are done in Paris. I have seen the Chevalier
Gluck at dear Madame's feet to get her to sing his music, and she did,
--she who so adored Piccini, one of the finest men of his day; never
did HE come into Madame's room without catching me round the waist and
calling me a dear rogue."
"Ha!" cried Soudry, when his wife reported this news, "does he think
he is going to lead the notary by the nose, and upset everything to
please himself and make the whole valley march in line, as he did his
cuirassiers? These military fellows have a habit of command!--but
let's have patience; Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de
Ronquerolles will be on our side. Poor Guerbet! he little suspects who
is trying to pluck the best roses out of his garland!"
Pere Guerbet, the collector of Soulanges, was the wit, that is to say,
the jovial companion of the little town, and a hero in Madame Soudry's
salon. Soudry's speech gives a fair idea of the opinion which now grew
up against the master of Les Aigues from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes,
and wherever else the public mind could be reached and poisoned by
The installation of Sibilet took place in the autumn of 1817. The year
1818 went by without the general being able to set foot at Les Aigues,
for his approaching marriage with Mademoiselle de Troisville, which
was celebrated in January, 1819, kept him the greater part of the
summer near Alencon, in the country-house of his prospective father-
in-law. General Montcornet possessed, besides Les Aigues and a
magnificent house in Paris, some sixty thousand francs a year in the
Funds and the salary of a retired lieutenant-general. Though Napoleon
had made him a count of the Empire and given him the following arms, a
field quarterly, the first, azure, bordure or, three pyramids argent;
the second, vert, three hunting horns argent; the third, gules, a
cannon or on a gun-carriage sable, and, in chief, a crescent or; the
fourth, or, a crown vert, with the motto (eminently of the middle
ages!), "Sound the charge,"--Montcornet knew very well that he was the
son of a cabinet-maker in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, though he was
quite ready to forget it. He was eaten up with the desire to be a peer
of France, and dreamed of his grand cordon of the Legion of honor, his
Saint-Louis cross, and his income of one hundred and forty thousand
francs. Bitten by the demon of aristocracy, the sight of the blue
ribbon put him beside himself. The gallant cuirassier of Essling would
have licked up the mud on the Pont-Royal to be invited to the house of
a Navarreins, a Lenoncourt, a Grandlieu, a Maufrigneuse, a d'Espard, a
Vandenesse, a Verneuil, a Herouville, or a Chaulieu.
From 1818, when the impossibility of a change in favor of the
Bonaparte family was made clear to him, Montcornet had himself
trumpeted in the faubourg Saint-Germain by the wives of some of his
friends, who offered his hand and heart, his mansion and his fortune
in return for an alliance with some great family.
After several attempts, the Duchesse de Carigliano found a match for
the general in one of the three branches of the Troisville family,--
that of the viscount in the service of Russia ever since 1789, who had
returned to France in 1815. The viscount, poor as a younger son, had
married a Princess Scherbellof, worth about a million, but the arrival
of two sons and three daughters kept him poor. His family, ancient and
formerly powerful, now consisted of the Marquis de Troisville, peer of
France, head of the house and scutcheon, and two deputies, with
numerous offspring, who were busy, for their part, with the budget and
the ministries and the court, like fishes round bits of bread.
Therefore, when Montcornet was presented by Madame de Carigliano,--the
Napoleonic duchess, who was now a most devoted adherent of the
Bourbons, he was favorably received. The general asked, in return for
his fortune and tender indulgence to his wife, to be appointed to the
Royal Guard, with the rank of marquis and peer of France; but the
branches of the Troisville family would do no more than promise him
"You know what that means," said the duchess to her old friend, who
complained of the vagueness of the promise. "They cannot oblige the
king to do as they wish; they can only influence him."
Montcornet made Virginie de Troisville his heir in the marriage
settlements. Completely under the control of his wife, as Blondet's
letter has already shown, he was still without children, but Louis
XVIII. had received him, and given him the cordon of Saint-Louis,
allowing him to quarter his ridiculous arms with those of the
Troisvilles, and promising him the title of marquis as soon as he had
deserved the peerage by his services.
A few days after the audience at which this promise had been given,
the Duc de Barry was assassinated; the Marsan clique carried the day;
the Villele ministry came into power, and all the wires laid by the
Troisvilles were snapped; it became necessary to find new ways of
fastening them upon the ministry.
"We must bide our time," said the Troisvilles to Montcornet, who was
always overwhelmed with politeness in the faubourg Saint-Germain.
This will explain how it was that the general did not return to Les
Aigues until May, 1820.
The ineffable happiness of the son of a shop-keeper of the faubourg
Saint-Antoine in possessing a young, elegant, intelligent, and gentle
wife, a Troisville, who had given him an entrance into all the salons
of the faubourg Saint-Germain, and the delight of making her enjoy the
pleasures of Paris, had kept him from Les Aigues and made him forget
about Gaubertin, even to his very name. In 1820 he took the countess
to Burgundy to show her the estate, and he accepted Sibilet's accounts
and leases without looking closely into them; happiness never cavils.
The countess, well pleased to find the steward's wife a charming young
woman, made presents to her and to the children, with whom she
occasionally amused herself. She ordered a few changes at Les Aigues,
having sent to Paris for an architect; proposing, to the general's
great delight, to spend six months of every year on this magnificent
estate. Montcornet's savings were soon spent on the architectural work
and the exquisite new furniture sent from Paris. Les Aigues thus
received the last touch which made it a choice example of all the
diverse elegancies of four centuries.
In 1821 the general was almost peremptorily urged by Sibilet to be at
Les Aigues before the month of May. Important matters had to be
decided. A lease of nine years, to the amount of thirty thousand
francs, granted by Gaubertin in 1812 to a wood-merchant, fell in on
the 15th of May of the current year. Sibilet, anxious to prove his
rectitude, was unwilling to be responsible for the renewal of the
lease. "You know, Monsieur le comte," he wrote, "that I do not choose
to profit by such matters." The wood-merchant claimed an indemnity,
extorted from Madame Laguerre, through her hatred of litigation, and
shared by him with Gaubertin. This indemnity was based on the injury
done to the woods by the peasants, who treated the forest of Les
Aigues as if they had a right to cut the timber. Messrs. Gravelot
Brothers, wood-merchants in Paris, refused to pay their last quarter
dues, offering to prove by an expert that the woods were reduced one-
fifth in value, through, they said, the injurious precedent
established by Madame Laguerre.
"I have already," wrote Sibilet, "sued these men in the courts at
Ville-aux-Fayes, for they have taken legal residence there, on account
of this lease, with my old employer, Maitre Corbinet. I fear we shall
lose the suit."
"It is a question of income, my dear," said the general, showing the
letter to his wife. "Will you go down to Les Aigues a little earlier
this year than last?"
"Go yourself, and I will follow you when the weather is warmer," said
the countess, not sorry to remain in Paris alone.
The general, who knew very well the canker that was eating into his
revenues, departed without his wife, resolved to take vigorous
measures. In so doing he reckoned, as we shall see, without his
THE GREAT REVOLUTIONS OF A LITTLE VALLEY
"Well, Maitre Sibilet," said the general to his steward, the morning
after his arrival, giving him a familiar title which showed how much
he appreciated his services, "so we are, to use a ministerial phrase,
at a crisis?"
"Yes, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, following the general.
The fortunate possessor of Les Aigues was walking up and down in front
of the steward's house, along a little terrace where Madame Sibilet
grew flowers, at the end of which was a wide stretch of meadow-land
watered by the canal which Blondet has described. From this point the
chateau of Les Aigues was seen in the distance, and in like manner the
profile, as it were, of the steward's lodge was seen from Les Aigues.
"But," resumed the general, "what's the difficulty? If I do lose the
suit against the Gravelots, a money wound is not mortal, and I'll have
the leasing of my forest so well advertised that there will be
competition, and I shall sell the timber at its true value."
"Business is not done in that way, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet.
"Suppose you get no lessees, what will you do?"
"Cut the timber myself and sell it--"
"You, a wood merchant?" said Sibilet. "Well, without looking at
matters here, how would it be in Paris? You would have to hire a wood-
yard, pay for a license and the taxes, also for the right of
navigation, and duties, and the costs of unloading; besides the salary
of a trustworthy agent--"
"Yes, it is impracticable," said the general hastily, alarmed at the
prospect. "But why can't I find persons to lease the right of cutting
timber as before?"
"Monsieur le comte has enemies."
"Who are they?"
"Well, in the first place, Monsieur Gaubertin."
"Do you mean the scoundrel whose place you took?"
"Not so loud, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, showing fear; "I beg
of you, not so loud,--my cook might hear us."
"Do you mean to tell me that I am not to speak on my own estate of a
villain who robbed me?" cried the general.
"For the sake of your own peace and comfort, come further away,
Monsieur le comte. Monsieur Gaubertin is mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes."
"Ha! I congratulate Ville-aux-Fayes. Thunder! what a nobly governed
"Do me the honor to listen, Monsieur le comte, and to believe that I
am talking of serious matters which may affect your future life in
"I am listening; let us sit down on this bench here."
"Monsieur le comte, when you dismissed Gaubertin, he had to find some
employment, for he was not rich--"
"Not rich! when he stole twenty thousand francs a year from this
"Monsieur le comte, I don't pretend to excuse him," replied Sibilet.
"I want to see Les Aigues prosperous, if it were only to prove
Gaubertin's dishonest; but we ought not to abuse him openly for he is
one of the most dangerous scoundrels to be found in all Burgundy, and
he is now in a position to injure you."
"In what way?" asked the general, sobering down.
"Gaubertin has control of nearly one third of the supplies sent to
Paris. As general agent of the timber business, he orders all the work
of the forests,--the felling, chopping, floating, and sending to
market. Being in close relations with the workmen, he is the arbiter
of prices. It has taken him three years to create this position, but
he holds it now like a fortress. He is essential to all dealers, never
favoring one more than another; he regulates the whole business in
their interests, and their affairs are better and more cheaply looked
after by him than they were in the old time by separate agents for
each firm. For instance, he has so completely put a stop to
competition that he has absolute control of the auction sales; the
crown and the State are both dependent on him. Their timber is sold
under the hammer and falls invariably to Gaubertin's dealers; in fact,
no others attempt now to bid against them. Last year Monsieur
Mariotte, of Auxerre, urged by the commissioner of domains, did
attempt to compete with Gaubertin. At first, Gaubertin let him buy the
standing wood at the usual prices; but when it came to cutting it, the
Avonnais workmen asked such enormous prices that Monsieur Mariotte was
obliged to bring laborers from Auxerre, whom the Ville-aux-Fayes
workmen attacked and drove away. The head of the coalition, and the
ringleader of the brawl were brought before the police court, and the
suits cost Monsieur Mariotte a great deal of money; for, besides the
odium of having convicted and punished poor men, he was forced to pay
all costs, because the losing side had not a farthing to do it with. A
suit against laboring men is sure to result in hatred to those who
live among them. Let me warn you of this; for if you follow the course
you propose, you will have to fight against the poor of this district
at least. But that's not all. Counting it over, Monsieur Mariotte, a
worthy man, found he was the loser by his original lease. Forced to
pay ready money, he was nevertheless obliged to sell on time;
Gaubertin delivered his timber at long credits for the purpose of
ruining his competitor. He undersold him by at least five per cent,
and the end of it is that poor Mariotte's credit is badly shaken.
Gaubertin is now pressing and harassing the poor man so that he is
driven, they tell me, to leave not only Auxerre, but even Burgundy
itself; and he is right. In this way land-owners have long been
sacrificed to dealers who now set the market-prices, just as the
furniture-dealers in Paris dictate values to appraisers. But Gaubertin
saves the owners so much trouble and worry that they are really
"How so?" asked the general.
"In the first place, because the less complicated a business is, the
greater the profits to the owners," answered Sibilet. "Besides which,
their income is more secure; and in all matters of rural improvement
and development that is the main thing, as you will find out. Then,
too, Monsieur Gaubertin is the friend and patron of working-men; he
pays them well and keeps them always at work; therefore, though their
families live on the estates, the woods leased to dealers and
belonging to the land-owners who trust the care of their property to
Gaubertin (such as MM. de Soulanges and de Ronquerolles) are not
devastated. The dead wood is gathered up, but that is all--"
"That rascal Gaubertin has lost no time!" cried the general.
"He is a bold man," said Sibilet. "He really is, as he calls himself,
the steward of the best half of the department, instead of being
merely the steward of Les Aigues. He makes a little out of everybody,
and that little on every two millions brings him in forty to fifty
thousand francs a year. He says himself, 'The fires on the Parisian
hearths pay it all.' He is your enemy, Monsieur le comte. My advice to
you is to capitulate and be reconciled with him. He is intimate, as
you know, with Soudry, the head of the gendarmerie at Soulanges; with
Monsieur Rigou, our mayor at Blangy; the patrols are under his
influence; therefore you will find it impossible to repress the
pilferings which are eating into your estate. During the last two
years your woods have been devastated. Consequently the Gravelots are
more than likely to win their suit. They say, very truly: 'According
to the terms of the lease, the care of the woods is left to the owner;
he does not protect them, and we are injured; the owner is bound to
pay us damages.' That's fair enough; but it doesn't follow that they
should win their case."
"We must be ready to defend this suit at all costs," said the general,
"and then we shall have no more of them."
"You shall gratify Gaubertin," remarked Sibilet.
"Suing the Gravelots is the same as a hand to hand fight with
Gaubertin, who is their agent," answered Sibilet. "He asks nothing
better than such a suit. He declares, so I hear, that he will bring
you if necessary before the Court of Appeals."
"The rascal! the--"
"If you attempt to work your own woods," continued Sibilet, turning
the knife in the wound, "you will find yourself at the mercy of
workmen who will force you to pay rich men's prices instead of market-
prices. In short, they'll put you, as they did that poor Mariotte, in
a position where you must sell at a loss. If you then try to lease the
woods you will get no tenants, for you cannot expect that any one
should take risks for himself which Mariotte only took for the crown
and the State. Suppose a man talks of his losses to the government!
The government is a gentleman who is, like your obedient servant when
he was in its employ, a worthy man with a frayed overcoat, who reads
the newspapers at a desk. Let his salary be twelve hundred or twelve
thousand francs, his disposition is the same, it is not a whit softer.
Talk of reductions and releases from the public treasury represented
by the said gentleman! He'll only pooh-pooh you as he mends his pen.
No, the law is the wrong road for you, Monsieur le comte."
"Then what's to be done?" cried the general, his blood boiling as he
tramped up and down before the bench.
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, abruptly, "what I say to you is not
for my own interests, certainly; but I advise you to sell Les Aigues
and leave the neighborhood."
On hearing these words the general sprang back as if a cannon-ball had
struck him; then he looked at Sibilet with a shrewd, diplomatic eye.
"A general of the Imperial Guard running away from the rascals, when
Madame la comtesse likes Les Aigues!" he said. "No, I'll sooner box
Gaubertin's ears on the market-place of Ville-aux-Fayes, and force him
to fight me that I may shoot him like a dog."
"Monsieur le comte, Gaubertin is not such a fool as to let himself be
brought into collision with you. Besides, you could not openly insult
the mayor of so important a place as Ville-aux-Fayes."
"I'll have him turned out; the Troisvilles can do that for me; it is a
question of income."
"You won't succeed, Monsieur le comte; Gaubertin's arms are long; you
will get yourself into difficulties from which you cannot escape."
"Let us think of the present," interrupted the general. "About that
"That, Monsieur le comte, I can manage to win for you," replied
Sibilet, with a knowing glance.
"Bravo, Sibilet!" said the general, shaking his steward's hand; "how
are you going to do it?"
"You will win it on a writ of error," replied Sibilet. "In my opinion
the Gravelots have the right of it. But it is not enough to be in the
right, they must also be in order as to legal forms, and that they
have neglected. The Gravelots ought to have summoned you to have the
woods better watched. They can't ask for indemnity, at the close of a
lease, for damages which they know have been going on for nine years;
there is a clause in the lease as to this, on which we can file a bill
of exceptions. You will lose the suit at Ville-aux-Fayes, possibly in
the upper court as well, but we will carry it to Paris and you will
win at the Court of Appeals. The costs will be heavy and the expenses
ruinous. You will have to spend from twelve to fifteen thousand francs
merely to win the suit,--but you will win it, if you care to. The suit
will only increase the enmity of the Gravelots, for the expenses will
be even heavier on them. You will be their bugbear; you will be called
litigious and calumniated in every way; still, you can win--"
"Then, what's to be done?" repeated the general, on whom Sibilet's
arguments were beginning to produce the effect of a violent poison.
Just then the remembrance of the blows he had given Gaubertin with his
cane crossed his mind, and made him wish he had bestowed them on
himself. His flushed face was enough to show Sibilet the irritation
that he felt.
"You ask me what can be done, Monsieur le comte? Why, only one thing,
compromise; but of course you can't negotiate that yourself. I must be
thought to cheat you! We, poor devils, whose only fortune and comfort
is in our good name, it is hard on us to even seem to do a
questionable thing. We are always judged by appearances. Gaubertin
himself saved Mademoiselle Laguerre's life during the Revolution, but
it seemed to others that he was robbing her. She rewarded him in her
will with a diamond worth ten thousand francs, which Madame Gaubertin
now wears on her head."
The general gave Sibilet another glance still more diplomatic than the
first; but the steward seemed to take no notice of the challenge it
"If I were to appear dishonest, Monsieur Gaubertin would be so
overjoyed that I could instantly obtain his help," continued Sibilet.
"He would listen with all his ears if I said to him: 'Suppose I were
to extort twenty thousand francs from Monsieur le comte for Messrs.
Gravelot, on condition that they shared them with me?' If your
adversaries consented to that, Monsieur le comte, I should return you
ten thousand francs; you lose only the other ten, you save
appearances, and the suit is quashed."
"You are a fine fellow, Sibilet," said the general, taking his hand
and shaking it. "If you can manage the future as well as you do the
present, I'll call you the prince of stewards."
"As to the future," said Sibilet, "you won't die of hunger if no
timber is cut for two or three years. Let us begin by putting proper
keepers in the woods. Between now and then things will flow as the
water does in the Avonne. Gaubertin may die, or get rich enough to
retire from business; at any rate, you will have sufficient time to
find him a competitor. The cake is too rich not to be shared. Look for
another Gaubertin to oppose the original."
"Sibilet," said the old soldier, delighted with this variety of
solutions. "I'll give you three thousand francs if you'll settle the
matter as you propose. For the rest, we'll think about it."
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, "first and foremost have the forest
properly watched. See for yourself the condition in which the
peasantry have put it during your two years' absence. What could I do?
I am steward; I am not a bailiff. To guard Les Aigues properly you
need a mounted patrol and three keepers."
"I certainly shall have the estate properly guarded. So it is to be
war, is it? Very good, then we shall make war. That doesn't frighten
me," said Montcornet, rubbing his hands.
"A war of francs," said Sibilet; "and you may find that more difficult
than the other kind; men can be killed but you can't kill self-
interest. You will fight your enemy on the battle-field where all
landlords are compelled to fight,--I mean cash results. It is not
enough to produce, you must sell; and in order to sell, you must be on
good terms with everybody."
"I shall have the country people on my side."
"By what means?"
"By doing good among them."
"Doing good to the valley peasants! to the petty shopkeepers of
Soulanges!" exclaimed Sibilet, squinting horribly, by reason of the
irony which flamed brighter in one eye than in the other. "Monsieur le
comte doesn't know what he undertakes. Our Lord Jesus Christ would die
again upon the cross in this valley! If you wish an easy life, follow
the example of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre; let yourself be robbed,
or else make people afraid of you. Women, children, and the masses are
all governed by fear. That was the great secret of the Convention, and
of the Emperor, too."
"Good heavens! is this the forest of Bondy?" cried the general.
"My dear," said Sibilet's wife, appearing at this moment, "your
breakfast is ready. Pray excuse him, Monsieur le comte; he has eaten
nothing since morning for he was obliged to go to Ronquerolles to
deliver some barley."
"Go, go, Sibilet," said the general.
The next morning the count rose early, before daylight, and went to
the gate of the Avonne, intending to talk with the one forester whom
he employed and find out what the man's sentiments really were.
Some seven or eight hundred acres of the forest of Les Aigues lie
along the banks of the Avonne; and to preserve the majestic beauty of
the river the large trees that border it have been left untouched for
a distance of three leagues on both sides in an almost straight line.
The mistress of Henri IV., to whom Les Aigues formerly belonged, was
as fond of hunting as the king himself. In 1593 she ordered a bridge
to be built of a single arch with shelving roadway by which to ride
from the lower side of the forest to a much larger portion of it,
purchased by her, which lay upon the slopes of the hills. The gate of
the Avonne was built as a place of meeting for the huntsmen; and we
know the magnificence bestowed by the architects of that day upon all
buildings intended for the delight of the crown and the nobility. Six
avenues branched away from it, their place of meeting forming a half-
moon. In the centre of the semi-circular space stood an obelisk
surmounted by a round shield, formerly gilded, bearing on one side the
arms of Navarre and on the other those of the Countess de Moret.
Another half-moon, on the side toward the river, communicated with the
first by a straight avenue, at the opposite end of which the steep
rise of the Venetian-shaped bridge could be seen. Between two elegant
iron railings of the same character as that of the magnificent railing
which formerly surrounded the garden of the Place Royale in Paris, now
so unfortunately destroyed, stood a brick pavilion, with stone courses
hewn in facets like those of the chateau, with a very pointed roof and
window-casings of stone cut in the same manner. This old style, which
gave the building a regal air, is suitable only to prisons when used
in cities; but standing in the heart of forests it derives from its
surroundings a splendor of its own. A group of trees formed a screen,
behind which the kennels, an old falconry, a pheasantry, and the
quarters of the huntsmen were falling into ruins, after being in their
day the wonder and admiration of Burgundy.
In 1595, the royal hunting-parties set forth from this magnificent
pavilion, preceded by those fine dogs so dear to Rubens and to Paul
Veronese; the huntsmen mounted on high-steeping steeds with stout and
blue-white satiny haunches, seen no longer except in Wouverman's
amazing work, followed by footmen in livery; the scene enlivened by
whippers-in, wearing the high top-boots with facings and the yellow
leathern breeches which have come down to the present day on the
canvas of Van der Meulen. The obelisk was erected in commemoration of
the visit of the Bearnais, and his hunt with the beautiful Comtesse de
Moret; the date is given below the arms of Navarre. That jealous
woman, whose son was afterwards legitimatized, would not allow the
arms of France to figure on the obelisk, regarding them as a rebuke.
At the time of which we write, when the general's eyes rested on this
splendid ruin, moss had gathered for centuries on the four faces of
the roof; the hewn-stone courses, mangled by time, seemed to cry with
yawning mouths against the profanation; disjointed leaden settings let
fall their octagonal panes, so that the windows seemed blind of an eye
here and there. Yellow wallflowers bloomed about the copings; ivy slid
its white rootlets into every crevice.
All things bespoke a shameful want of care,--the seal set by mere
life-possessors on the ancient glories that they possess. Two windows
on the first floor were stuffed with hay. Through another, on the
ground-floor, was seen a room filled with tools and logs of wood;
while a cow pushed her muzzle through a fourth, proving that
Courtecuisse, to avoid having to walk from the pavilion to the
pheasantry, had turned the large hall of the central building into a
stable,--a hall with panelled ceiling, and in the centre of each panel
the arms of all the various possessors of Les Aigues!
Black and dirty palings disgraced the approach to the pavilion, making
square inclosures with plank roofs for pigs, ducks, and hens, the
manure of which was taken away every six months. A few ragged garments
were hung to dry on the brambles which boldly grew unchecked here and
there. As the general came along the avenue from the bridge, Madame
Courtecuisse was scouring a saucepan in which she had just made her
coffee. The forester, sitting on a chair in the sun, considered his
wife as a savage considers his. When he heard a horse's hoofs he
turned round, saw the count, and seemed taken aback.
"Well, Courtecuisse, my man," said the general, "I'm not surprised
that the peasants cut my woods before Messrs. Gravelot can do so. So
you consider your place a sinecure?"
"Indeed, Monsieur le comte, I have watched the woods so many nights
that I'm ill from it. I've got a chill, and I suffer such pain this
morning that my wife has just made me a poultice in that saucepan."
"My good fellow," said the count, "I don't know of any pain that a
coffee poultice cures except that of hunger. Listen to me, you rascal!
I rode through my forest yesterday, and then through those of Monsieur
de Soulanges and Monsieur de Ronquerolles. Theirs are carefully
watched and preserved, while mine is in a shameful state."
"Ah, monsieur! but they are the old lords of the neighborhood;
everybody respects their property. How can you expect me to fight
against six districts? I care for my life more than for your woods. A
man who would undertake to watch your woods as they ought to be
watched would get a ball in his head for wages in some dark corner of
"Coward!" cried the general, trying to control the anger the man's
insolent reply provoked in him. "Last night was as clear as day, yet
it cost me three hundred francs in actual robbery and over a thousand
in future damages. You will leave my service unless you do better. All
wrong-doing deserves some mercy; therefore these are my conditions:
You may have the fines, and I will pay you three francs for every
indictment you bring against these depredators. If I don't get what I
expect, you know what you have to expect, and no pension either.
Whereas, if you serve me faithfully and contrive to stop these
depredations, I'll give you an annuity of three hundred francs for
life. You can think it over. Here are six ways," continued the count,
pointing to the branching roads; "there's only one for you to take,--
as for me also, who am not afraid of balls; try and find the right
Courtecuisse, a small man about forty-six years of age, with a full-
moon face, found his greatest happiness in doing nothing. He expected
to live and die in that pavilion, now considered by him HIS pavilion.
His two cows were pastured in the forest, from which he got his wood;
and he spent his time in looking after his garden instead of after the
delinquents. Such neglect of duty suited Gaubertin, and Courtecuisse
knew it did. The keeper chased only those depredators who were the
objects of his personal dislike,--young women who would not yield to
his wishes, or persons against whom he held a grudge; though for some
time past he had really felt no dislikes, for every one yielded to him
on account of his easy-going ways with them.
Courtecuisse had a place always kept for him at the table of the
Grand-I-Vert; the wood-pickers feared him no longer; indeed, his wife
and he received many gifts in kind from them; his wood was brought in;
his vineyard dug; in short, all delinquents at whom he blinked did him
Counting on Gaubertin for the future, and feeling sure of two acres
whenever Les Aigues should be brought to the hammer, he was roughly
awakened by the curt speech of the general, who, after four quiescent
years, was now revealing his true character,--that of a bourgeois rich
man who was determined to be no longer deceived. Courtecuisse took his
cap, his game-bag, and his gun, put on his gaiters and his belt (which
bore the very recent arms of Montcornet), and started for Ville-aux-
Fayes, with the careless, indifferent air and manner under which
country-people often conceal very deep reflections, while he gazed at
the woods and whistled to the dogs to follow him.
"What! you complain of the Shopman when he proposes to make your
fortune?" said Gaubertin. "Doesn't the fool offer to give you three
francs for every arrest you make, and the fines to boot? Have an
understanding with your friends and you can bring as many indictments
as you please,--hundreds if you like! With one thousand francs you can
buy La Bachelerie from Rigou, become a property owner, live in your
own house, and work for yourself, or rather, make others work for you,
and take your ease. Only--now listen to me--you must manage to arrest
only such as haven't a penny in the world. You can't shear sheep
unless the wool is on their backs. Take the Shopman's offer and leave
him to collect the costs,--if he wants them; tastes differ. Didn't old
Mariotte prefer losses to profits, in spite of my advice?"
Courtecuisse, filled with admiration for these words of wisdom,
returned home burning with the desire to be a land-owner and a
bourgeois like the rest.
When the general reached Les Aigues he related his expedition to
"Monsieur le comte did very right," said the steward, rubbing his
hands; "but he must not stop short half-way. The field-keeper of the
district who allows the country-people to prey upon the meadows and
rob the harvests ought to be changed. Monsieur le comte should have
himself chosen mayor, and appoint one of his old soldiers, who would
have the courage to carry out his orders, in place of Vaudoyer. A
great land-owner should be master in his own district. Just see what
difficulties we have with the present mayor!"
The mayor of the district of Blangy, formerly a Benedictine, named
Rigou, had married, in the first year of the Republic, the servant-
woman of the late priest of Blangy. In spite of the repugnance which a
married monk excited at the Prefecture, he had continued to be mayor
after 1815, for the reason that there was no-one else at Blangy who
was capable of filling the post. But in 1817, when the bishop sent the
Abbe Brossette to the parish of Blangy (which had then been vacant
over twenty-five years), a violent opposition not unnaturally broke
out between the old apostate and the young ecclesiastic, whose
character is already known to us. The war which was then and there
declared between the mayor's office and the parsonage increased the
popularity of the magistrate, who had hitherto been more or less
despised. Rigou, whom the peasants had disliked for usurious dealings,
now suddenly represented their political and financial interests,
supposed to be threatened by the Restoration, and more especially by
A copy of the "Constitutionnel," that great organ of liberalism, after
making the rounds of the Cafe de la Paix, came back to Rigou on the
seventh day,--the subscription, standing in the name of old Socquard
the keeper of the coffee-house, being shared by twenty persons. Rigou
passed the paper on to Langlume the miller, who, in turn, gave it in
shreds to any one who knew how to read. The "Paris items," and the
anti-religion jokes of the liberal sheet formed the public opinion of
the valley des Aigues. Rigou, like the VENERABLE Abbe Gregoire, became
a hero. For him, as for certain Parisian bankers, politics spread a
mantle of popularity over his shameful dishonesty.
At this particular time the perjured monk, like Francois Keller the
great orator, was looked upon as a defender of the rights of the
people,--he who, not so very long before, dared not walk in the fields
after dark, lest he should stumble into pitfalls where he would seem
to have been killed by accident! Persecute a man politically and you
not only magnify him, but you redeem his past and make it innocent.
The liberal party was a great worker of miracles in this respect. Its
dangerous journal, which had the wit to make itself as commonplace, as
calumniating, as credulous, and as sillily perfidious as every
audience made up the general masses, did in all probability as much
injury to private interests as it did to those of the Church.
Rigou flattered himself that he should find in a Bonapartist general
now laid on the shelf, in a son of the people raised from nothing by
the Revolution, a sound enemy to the Bourbons and the priests. But the
general, bearing in mind his private ambitions, so arranged matters as
to evade the visit of Monsieur and Madame Rigou when he first came to
When you have become better acquainted with the terrible character of
Rigou, the lynx of the valley, you will understand the full extent of
the second capital blunder which the general's aristocratic ambitions
led him to commit, and which the countess made all the greater by an
offence which will be described in the further history of Rigou.
If Montcornet had courted the mayor's good-will, if he had sought his
friendship, perhaps the influence of the renegade might have
neutralized that of Gaubertin. Far from that, three suits were now
pending in the courts of Ville-aux-Fayes between the general and the
ex-monk. Until the present time the general had been so absorbed in
his personal interests and in his marriage that he had never
remembered Rigou, but when Sibilet advised him to get himself made
mayor in Rigou's place, he took post-horses and went to see the
The prefect, Comte Martial de la Roche-Hugon, had been a friend of the
general since 1804; and it was a word from him said to Montcornet in a
conversation in Paris, which brought about the purchase of Les Aigues.
Comte Martial, a prefect under Napoleon, remained a prefect under the
Bourbons, and courted the bishop to retain his place. Now it happened
that Monseigneur had several times requested him to get rid of Rigou.
Martial, to whom the condition of the district was perfectly well
known, was delighted with the general's request; so that in less than
a month the Comte de Montcornet was mayor of Blangy.
By one of those accidents which come about naturally, the general met,
while at the prefecture where his friend put him up, a non-
commissioned officer of the ex-Imperial guard, who had been cheated
out of his retiring pension. The general had already, under other
circumstances, done a service to the brave cavalryman, whose name was
Groison; the man, remembering it, now told him his troubles, admitting
that he was penniless. The general promised to get him his pension,
and proposed that he should take the place of field-keeper to the
district of Blangy, as a way of paying off his score of gratitude by
devotion to the new mayor's interests. The appointments of master and
man were made simultaneously, and the general gave, as may be
supposed, very firm instructions to his subordinate.
Vaudoyer, the displaced keeper, a peasant on the Ronquerolles estate,
was only fit, like most field-keepers, to stalk about, and gossip, and
let himself be petted by the poor of the district, who asked nothing
better than to corrupt at subaltern authority,--the advanced guard, as
it were, of the land-owners. He knew Soudry, the brigadier at
Soulanges, for brigadiers of gendarmerie, performing functions that
are semi-judicial in drawing up criminal indictments, have much to do
with the rural keepers, who are, in fact, their natural spies. Soudry,
being appealed to, sent Vaudoyer to Gaubertin, who received his old
acquaintance very cordially, and invited him to drink while listening
to the recital of his troubles.
"My dear friend," said the mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes, who could talk to
every man in his own language, "what has happened to you is likely to
happen to us all. The nobles are back upon us. The men to whom the
Emperor gave titles make common cause with the old nobility. They all
want to crush the people, re-establish their former rights and take
our property from us. But we are Burgundians; we must resist, and
drive those Arminacs back to Paris. Return to Blangy; you shall be
agent for Monsieur Polissard, the wood-merchant, who is contractor for
the forest of Ronquerolles. Don't be uneasy, my lad; I'll find you
enough to do for the whole of the coming year. But remember one thing;
the wood is for ourselves! Not a single depredation, or the thing is
at an end. Send all interlopers to Les Aigues. If there's brush or
fagots to sell make people buy ours; don't let them buy of Les Aigues.
You'll get back to your place as field-keeper before long; this thing
can't last. The general will get sick of living among thieves. Did you
know that that Shopman called me a thief, me!--son of the stanchest
and most incorruptible of republicans; me!--the son in law of Mouchon,
that famous representative of the people, who died without leaving me
enough to bury him?"
The general raised the salary of the new field-keeper to three hundred
francs; and built a town-hall, in which he gave him a residence. Then
he married him to a daughter of one of his tenant-farmers, who had
lately died, leaving her an orphan with three acres of vineyard.
Groison attached himself to the general as a dog to his master. This
legitimate fidelity was admitted by the whole community. The keeper
was feared and respected, but like the captain of a vessel whose
ship's company hate him; the peasantry shunned him as they would a
leper. Met either in silence or with sarcasms veiled under a show of
good-humor, the new keeper was a sentinel watched by other sentinels.
He could do nothing against such numbers. The delinquents took delight
in plotting depredations which it was impossible for him to prove, and
the old soldier grew furious at his helplessness. Groison found the
excitement of a war of factions in his duties, and all the pleasures
of the chase,--a chase after petty delinquents. Trained in real war to
a loyalty which consists in part of playing a fair game, this enemy of
traitors came at last to hate these people, so treacherous in their
conspiracies, and so clever in their thefts that they mortified his
self-esteem. He soon observed that the depredations were committed
only at Les Aigues; all the other estates were respected. At first he
despised a peasantry ungrateful enough to pillage a general of the
Empire, an essentially kind and generous man; presently, however, he
added hatred to contempt. But multiply himself as he would, he could
not be everywhere, and the enemy pillaged everywhere that he was not.
Groison made the general understand that it was necessary to organize
the defence on a war footing, and proved to him the insufficiency of
his own devoted efforts and the evil disposition of the inhabitants of
"There is something behind it all, general," he said; "these people
are so bold they fear nothing; they seem to rely on the favor of the
"We shall see," replied the count.
Fatal word! The verb "to see" has no future tense for politicians.
At the moment, Montcornet was considering another difficulty, which
seemed to him more pressing. he needed an alter ego to do his work in
the mayor's office during the months he lived in Paris. Obliged to
find some man who knew how to read and write for the position of
assistant mayor, he knew of none and could hear of none throughout the
district but Langlume, the tenant of his own flour-mill. The choice
was disastrous. Not only were the interests of mayor and miller
diametrically opposed, but Langlume had long hatched swindling
projects with Rigou, who lent him money to carry on his business, or
to acquire property. The miller had bought the right to the hay of
certain fields for his horses, and Sibilet could not sell it except to
him. The hay of all the fields in the district was sold at better
prices than that of Les Aigues, though the yield of the latter was the
Langlume, then, became the provisional mayor; but in France the
provisional is eternal,--though Frenchmen are suspected of loving
change. Acting by Rigou's advice, he played a part of great devotion
to the general; and he was still assistant-mayor at the moment when,
by the omnipotence of the historian, this drama begins.
In the absence of the mayor, Rigou, necessarily a member of the
district council, reigned supreme, and brought forward resolutions all
injuriously affecting the general. At one time he caused money to be
spent for purposes that were profitable to the peasants only,--the
greater part of the expenses falling upon Les Aigues, which, by reason
of its great extent, paid two thirds of the taxes; at other times the
council refused, under his influence, certain useful and necessary
allowances, such as an increase in salary for the abbe, repairs or
improvements to the parsonage, or "wages" to the school-master.
"If the peasants once know how to read and write, what will become of
us?" said Langlume, naively, to the general, to excuse this anti-
liberal action taken against a brother of the Christian Doctrine whom
the Abbe Brossette wished to establish as a public school-master in
The general, delighted with his old Groison, returned to Paris and
immediately looked about him for other old soldiers of the late
imperial guard, with whom to organize the defence of Les Aigues on a
formidable footing. By dint of searching out and questioning his
friends and many officers on half-pay, he unearthed Michaud, a former
quartermaster at headquarters of the cuirassiers of the guard; one of
those men whom troopers call "hard-to-cook," a nickname derived from
the mess kitchen where refractory beans are not uncommon. Michaud
picked out from among his friends and acquaintances, three other men
fit to be his helpers, and able to guard the estate without fear and
The first, named Steingel, a pure-blooded Alsacian, was a natural son
of the general of that name, who fell in one of Bonaparte's first
victories with the army of Italy. Tall and strong, he belonged to the
class of soldiers accustomed, like the Russians, to obey, passively
and absolutely. Nothing hindered him in the performance of his duty;
he would have collared an emperor or a pope if such were his orders.
He ignored danger. Perfectly fearless, he had never received the
smallest scratch during his sixteen years' campaigning. He slept in
the open air or in his bed with stoical indifference. At any increased
labor or discomfort, he merely remarked, "It seems to be the order of
The second man, Vatel, son of the regiment, corporal of voltigeurs,
gay as a lark, rather free and easy with the fair sex, brave to
foolhardiness, was capable of shooting a comrade with a laugh if
ordered to execute him. With no future before him and not knowing how
to employ himself, the prospect of finding an amusing little war in
the functions of keeper, attracted him; and as the grand army and the
Emperor had hitherto stood him in place of a religion, so now he swore
to serve the brave Montcornet against and through all and everything.
His nature was of that essentially wrangling quality to which a life
without enemies seems dull and objectless,--the nature, in short, of a
litigant, or a policeman. If it had not been for the presence of the
sheriff's officer, he would have seized Tonsard and the bundle of wood
at the Grand-I-Vert, snapping his fingers at the law on the
inviolability of a man's domicile.
The third man, Gaillard, also an old soldier, risen to the rank of
sub-lieutenant, and covered with wounds, belonged to the class of
mechanical soldiers. The fate of the Emperor never left his mind and
he became indifferent to everything else. With the care of a natural
daughter on his hands, he accepted the place that was now offered to
him as a means of subsistence, taking it as he would have taken
service in a regiment.
When the general reached Les Aigues, whither he had gone in advance of
his troopers, intending to send away Courtecuisse, he was amazed at
discovering the impudent audacity with which the keeper had fulfilled
his commands. There is a method of obeying which makes the obedience
of the servant a cutting sarcasm on the master's order. But all things
in this world can be reduced to absurdity, and Courtecuisse in this
instance went beyond its limits.
One hundred and twenty-six indictments against depredators (most of
whom were in collusion with Courtecuisse) and sworn to before the
justice court of Soulanges, had resulted in sixty-nine commitments for
trial, in virtue of which Brunet, the sheriff's officer, delighted at
such a windfall of fees, had rigorously enforced the warrants in such
a way as to bring about what is called, in legal language, a
declaration of insolvency; a condition of pauperism where the law
becomes of course powerless. By this declaration the sheriff proves
that the defendant possesses no property of any kind, and is therefore
a pauper. Where there is absolutely nothing, the creditor, like the
king, loses his right to sue. The paupers in this case, carefully
selected by Courtecuisse, were scattered through five neighboring
districts, whither Brunet betook himself duly attended by his
satellites, Vermichel and Fourchon, to serve the writs. Later he
transmitted the papers to Sibilet with a bill of costs for five
thousand francs, requesting him to obtain the further orders of
Monsieur le comte de Montcornet.
Just as Sibilet, armed with these papers, was calmly explaining to the
count the result of the rash orders he had given to Courtecuisse, and
witnessing, as calmly, a burst of the most violent anger a general of
the French cavalry was ever known to indulge in, Courtecuisse entered
to pay his respects to his master and to bring his own account of
eleven hundred francs, the sum to which his promised commission now
amounted. The natural man took the bit in his teeth and ran off with
the general, who totally forgot his coronet and his field rank; he was
a trooper once more, vomiting curses of which he probably was ashamed
when he thought of them later.
"Ha! eleven hundred francs!" he shouted, "eleven hundred slaps in your
face! eleven hundred kicks!--Do you think I can't see straight through
your lies? Out of my sight, or I'll strike you flat!"
At the mere look of the general's purple face and before that warrior
could get out the last words, Courtecuisse was off like a swallow.
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, gently, "you are wrong."
"Wrong! I, wrong?"
"Yes, Monsieur le comte, take care, you will have trouble with that
rascal; he will sue you."
"What do I care for that? Tell the scoundrel to leave the place
instantly! See that he takes nothing of mine, and pay him his wages."
Four hours later the whole country-side was gossiping about this
scene. The general, they said, had assaulted the unfortunate
Courtecuisse, and refused to pay his wages and two thousand francs
besides, which he owed him. Extraordinary stories went the rounds, and
the master of Les Aigues was declared insane. The next day Brunet, who
had served all the warrants for the general, now brought him on behalf
of Courtecuisse a summon to appear before the police court. The lion
was stung by gnats; but his misery was only just beginning.
The installation of a keeper is not done without a few formalities; he
must, for instance, file an oath in the civil court. Some days
therefore elapsed before the three keepers really entered upon their
functions. Though the general had written to Michaud to bring his wife
without waiting until the lodge at the gate of the Avonne was ready
for them, the future head-keeper, or rather bailiff, was detained in
Paris by his marriage and his wife's family, and did not reach Les
Aigues until a fortnight later. During those two weeks, and during the
time still further required for certain formalities which were carried
out with very ill grace by the authorities at Ville-aux-Fayes, the
forest of Les Aigues was shamefully devastated by the peasantry, who
took advantage of the fact that there was practically no watch over
The appearance of three keepers handsomely dressed in green cloth, the
Emperor's color, with faces denoting firmness, and each of them well-
made, active, and capable of spending their nights in the woods, was a
great event in the valley, from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes.
Throughout the district Groison was the only man who welcomed these
veterans. Delighted to be thus reinforced, he let fall a few threats
against thieves, who before long, he said, would be watched so closely
that they could do no damage. Thus the usual proclamation of all great
commanders was not lacking to the present war; in this case it was
said aloud and also whispered in secret.
Sibilet called the general's attention to the fact that the
gendarmerie of Soulanges, and especially its brigadier, Soudry, were
thoroughly and hypocritically hostile to Les Aigues. He made him see
the importance of substituting another brigade, which might show a
"With a good brigadier and a company of gendarmes devoted to your
interests, you could manage the country," he said to him.
The general went to the Prefecture and obtained from the general in
command of the division the retirement of Soudry and the substitution
of a man named Viallet, an excellent gendarme at headquarters, who was
much praised by his general and the prefect. The company of gendarmes
at Soulanges were dispersed to other places in the department by the
colonel of the gendarmerie, an old friend of Montcornet, and chosen
men were put in their places with secret orders to keep watch over the
estate of the Comte de Montcornet, and prevent all future attempts to
injure it; they were also particularly enjoined not to allow
themselves to be gained over by the inhabitants of Soulanges.
This last revolutionary measure, carried out with such rapidity that
there was no possibility of countermining it created much astonishment
in Soulanges and in Ville-aux-Fayes. Soudry, who felt himself
dismissed, complained bitterly, and Gaubertin managed to get him
appointed mayor, which put the gendarmerie under his orders. An outcry
was made about tyranny. Montcornet became an object of general hatred.
Not only were five or six lives radically changed by him, but many
personal vanities were wounded. The peasants, taking their cue from
words dropped by the small tradesmen of Ville-aux-Fayes and Soulanges,
and by Rigou, Langlume, Guerbet, and the postmaster at Conches,
thought they were on the eve of losing what they called their rights.
The general stopped the suit brought by Courtecuisse by paying him all
he demanded. The man then purchased, nominally for two thousand
francs, a little property surrounded on all sides but one by the
estate of Les Aigues,--a sort of cover into which the game escaped.
Rigou, the owner, had never been willing to part with La Bachelerie,
as it was called, to the possessors of the estate, but he now took
malicious pleasure in selling it, at fifty per cent discount, to
Courtecuisse; which made the ex-keeper one of Rigou's numerous
henchmen, for all he actually paid for the property was one thousand
The three keepers, with Michaud the bailiff, and Groison the field-
keeper of Blangy, led henceforth the life of guerrillas. Living night
and day in the forest, they soon acquired that deep knowledge of
woodland things which becomes a science among foresters, saving them
much loss of time; they studied the tracks of animals, the species of
the trees, and their habits of growth, training their ears to every
sound and to every murmur of the woods. Still further, they observed
faces, watched and understood the different families in the various
villages of the district, and knew the individuals in each family,
their habits, characters, and means of living,--a far more difficult
matter than most persons suppose. When the peasants who obtained their
living from Les Aigues saw these well-planned measures of defence,
they met them with dumb resistance or sneering submission.
From the first, Michaud and Sibilet mutually disliked each other. The
frank and loyal soldier, with the sense of honor of a subaltern of the
young "garde," hated the servile brutality and the discontented spirit
of the steward. He soon took note of the objections with which Sibilet
opposed all measures that were really judicious, and the reasons he
gave for those that were questionable. Instead of calming the general,
Sibilet, as the reader has already seen, constantly excited him and
drove him to harsh measures, all the while trying to daunt him by
drawing his attention to countless annoyances, petty vexations, and
ever-recurring and unconquerable difficulties. Without suspecting the
role of spy and exasperator undertaken by Sibilet (who secretly
intended to eventually make choice in his own interests between
Gaubertin and the general) Michaud felt that the steward's nature was
bad and grasping, and he was unable to explain to himself its apparent
honesty. The enmity which separated the two functionaries was
satisfactory to the general. Michaud's hatred led him to watch the
steward, though he would not have condescended to play the part of spy
if the general had not required it. Sibilet fawned upon the bailiff
and flattered him, without being able to get anything from him beyond
an extreme politeness which the loyal soldier established between them
as a barrier.
Now, all preliminary details having been made known, the reader will
understand the conduct of the general's enemies and the meaning of the
conversation which he had with what he called his two ministers, after
Madame de Montcornet, the abbe, and Blondet left the breakfast-table.
CONCERNING THE MEDIOCRACY
"Well, Michaud, what's the news?" asked the general as soon as his
wife had left the room.
"General, if you will permit me to say so, it would be better not to
talk over matters in this room. Walls have ears, and I should like to
be certain that what we say reaches none but our own."
"Very good," said the general, "then let us walk towards the steward's
lodge by the path through the fields; no one can overhear us there."
A few moments later the general, with Michaud and Sibilet, was
crossing the meadows, while Madame de Montcornet, with the abbe and
Blondet, was on her way to the gate of the Avonne.
Michaud related the scene that had just taken place at the Grand-I-
"Vatel did wrong," said Sibilet.
"They made that plain to him at once," replied Michaud, "by blinding
him; but that's nothing. General, you remember the plan we agreed
upon,--to seize the cattle of those depredators against whom judgment
was given? Well, we can't do it. Brunet, like his colleague Plissoud,
is not loyal in his support. They both warn the delinquents when they
are about to make a seizure. Vermichel, Brunet's assistant, went to
the Grand-I-Vert this morning, ostensibly after Pere Fourchon; and
Marie Tonsard, who is intimate with Bonnebault, ran off at once to
give the alarm at Conches. The depredations have begun again."
"A strong show of authority is becoming daily more and more
necessary," said Sibilet.
"What did I tell you?" cried the general. "We must demand the
enforcement of the judgment of the court, which carried with it
imprisonment; we must arrest for debt all those who do not pay the
damages I have won and the costs of the suits."
"These fellows imagine the law is powerless, and tell each other that
you dare not arrest them," said Sibilet. "They think they frighten
you! They have confederates at Ville-aux-Fayes; for even the
prosecuting attorney seems to have ignored the verdicts against them."
"I think," said Michaud, seeing that the general looked thoughtful,
"that if you are willing to spend a good deal of money you can still
protect the property."
"It is better to spend money than to act harshly," remarked Sibilet.
"What is your plan?" asked the general of his bailiff.
"It is very simple," said Michaud. "Inclose the whole forest with
walls, like those of the park, and you will be safe; the slightest
depredation then becomes a criminal offence and is taken to the
"At a franc and a half the square foot for the material only, Monsieur
le comte would find his wall would cost him a third of the whole value
of Les Aigues," said Sibilet, with a laugh.
"Well, well," said Montcornet, "I shall go and see the attorney-
general at once."
"The attorney-general," remarked Sibilet, gently, "may perhaps share
the opinion of his subordinate; for the negligence shown by the latter
is probably the result of an agreement between them."
"Then I wish to know it!" cried Montcornet. "If I have to get the
whole of them turned out, judges, civil authorities, and the attorney-
general to boot, I'll do it; I'll go the Keeper of the Seals, or to
the king himself."
At a vehement sign made by Michaud the general stopped short and said
to Sibilet, as he turned to retrace his steps, "Good day, my dear
fellow,"--words which the steward understood.
"Does Monsieur le comte intend, as mayor, to enforce the necessary
measures to repress the abuse of gleaning?" he said, respectfully.
"The harvest is coming on, and if we are to publish the statutes about
certificates of pauperism and the prevention of paupers from other
districts gleaning our land, there is no time to be lost."
"Do it at once, and arrange with Groison," said the count. "With such
a class of people," he added, "we must follow out the law."
So, without a moment's reflection, Montcornet gave in to a measure
that Sibilet had been proposing to him for more than a fortnight, to
which he had hitherto refused to consent; but now, in the violence of
anger caused by Vatel's mishap, he instantly adopted it as the right
thing to do.
When Sibilet was at some distance the general said in a low voice to
"Well, my dear Michaud, what is it; why did you make me that sign?"
"You have an enemy within the walls, general, yet you tell him plans
which you ought not to confide even to the secret police."
"I share your suspicions, my dear friend," replied Montcornet, "but I
don't intend to commit the same fault twice over. I shall not part
with another steward till I'm sure of a better. I am waiting to get
rid of Sibilet, till you understand the business of steward well
enough to take his place, and till Vatel is fit to succeed you. And
yet, I have no ground of complaint against Sibilet. He is honest and
punctual in all his dealings; he hasn't kept back a hundred francs in
all these five years. He has a perfectly detestable nature, and that's
all one can say against him. If it were otherwise, what would be his
plan in acting as he does?"
"General," said Michaud, gravely, "I will find out, for undoubtedly he
has one; and if you would only allow it, a good bribe to that old
scoundrel Fourchon will enable me to get at the truth; though after
what he said just now I suspect the old fellow of having more secrets
than one in his pouch. That swindling old cordwainer told me himself
they want to drive you from Les Aigues. And let me tell you, for you
ought to know it, that from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes there is not a
peasant, a petty tradesman, a farmer, a tavern-keeper who isn't laying
by his money to buy a bit of the estate. Fourchon confided to me that
Tonsard has already put in his claim. The idea that you can be forced
to sell Les Aigues has gone from end to end of the valley like an
infection in the air. It may be that the steward's present house, with
some adjoining land, will be the price paid for Sibilet's spying.
Nothing is ever said among us that is not immediately known at Ville-
aux-Fayes. Sibilet is a relative of your enemy Gaubertin. What you
have just said about the attorney-general and the others will probably
be reported before you have reached the Prefecture. You don't know
what the inhabitants of this district are."
"Don't I know them? I know they are the scum of the earth! Do you
suppose I am going to yield to such blackguards?" cried the general.
"Good heavens, I'd rather burn Les Aigues myself!"
"No need to burn it; let us adopt a line of conduct which will baffle
the schemes of these Lilliputians. Judging by threats, general, they
are resolved on war to the knife against you; and therefore since you
mention incendiarism, let me beg of you to insure all your buildings,
and all your farmhouses."
"Michaud, do you know whom they mean by 'Shopman'? Yesterday, as I was
riding along by the Thune, I heard some little rascals cry out, 'The
Shopman! here's the Shopman!' and then they ran away."
"Ask Sibilet; the answer is in his line, he likes to make you angry,"
said Michaud, with a pained look. "But--if you will have an answer--
well, that's a nickname these brigands have given you, general."
"What does it mean?"
"It means, general--well, it refers to your father."
"Ha! the curs!" cried the count, turning livid. "Yes, Michaud, my
father was a shopkeeper, an upholsterer; the countess doesn't know it.
Oh! that I should ever--well! after all, I have waltzed with queens
and empresses. I'll tell her this very night," he cried, after a
"They also call you a coward," continued Michaud.
"They ask how you managed to save yourself at Essling when nearly all
your comrades perished."
The accusation brought a smile to the general's lips. "Michaud, I
shall go at once to the Prefecture!" he cried, with a sort of fury,
"if it is only to get the policies of insurance you ask for. Let
Madame la comtesse know that I have gone. Ha, ha! they want war, do
they? Well, they shall have it; I'll take my pleasure in thwarting
them,--every one of them, those bourgeois of Soulanges, and their
peasantry! We are in the enemy's country, therefore prudence! Tell the
foresters to keep within the limits of the law. Poor Vatel, take care
of him. The countess is inclined to be timid; she must know nothing of
all this; otherwise I could never get her to come back here."
Neither the general nor Michaud understood their real peril. Michaud
had been too short a time in this Burgundian valley to realize the
enemy's power, though he saw its action. The general, for his part,
believed in the supremacy of the law.
The law, such as the legislature of these days manufactures it, has
not the virtue we attribute to it. It strikes unequally; it is so
modified in many of its modes of application that it virtually refutes
its own principles. This fact may be noted more or less distinctly
throughout all ages. Is there any historian ignorant enough to assert
that the decrees of the most vigilant of powers were ever enforced
throughout France?--for instance, that the requisitions of the
Convention for men, commodities, and money were obeyed in Provence, in
the depths of Normandy, on the borders of Brittany, as they were at
the great centres of social life? What philosopher dares deny that a
head falls to-day in such or such department, while in a neighboring
department another head stays on its shoulders though guilty of a
crime identically the same, and often more horrible? We ask for
equality in life, and inequality reigns in law and in the death
When the population of a town falls below a certain figure the
administrative system is no longer the same. There are perhaps a
hundred cities in France where the laws are vigorously enforced, and
there the intelligence of the citizens rises to the conception of the
problem of public welfare and future security which the law seeks to
solve; but throughout the rest of France nothing is comprehended
beyond immediate gratification; people rebel against all that lessens
it. Therefore in nearly one half of France we find a power of inertia
which defeats all legal action, both municipal and governmental. This
resistance, be it understood, does not affect the essential things of
public polity. The collection of taxes, recruiting, punishment of
great crimes, as a general thing do systematically go on; but outside
of such recognized necessities, all legislative decrees which affect
customs, morals, private interests, and certain abuses, are a dead
letter, owing to the sullen opposition of the people. At the very
moment when this book is going to press, this dumb resistance, which
opposed Louis XIV. in Brittany, may still be seen and felt. See the
unfortunate results of the game-laws, to which we are now sacrificing
yearly the lives of some twenty or thirty men for the sake of
preserving a few animals.
In France the law is, to at least twenty million of inhabitants,
nothing more than a bit of white paper posted on the doors of the
church and the town-hall. That gives rise to the term "papers," which
Mouche used to express legality. Many mayors of cantons (not to speak
of the district mayors) put up their bundles of seeds and herbs with
the printed statutes. As for the district mayors, the number of those
who do not know how to read and write is really alarming, and the
manner in which the civil records are kept is even more so. The danger
of this state of things, well-known to the governing powers, is
doubtless diminishing; but what centralization (against which every
one declaims, as it is the fashion in France to declaim against all
things good and useful and strong),--what centralization cannot touch,
the Power against which it will forever fling itself in vain, is that
which the general was now about to attack, and which we shall take
leave to call the Mediocracy.
A great outcry was made against the tyranny of the nobles; in these
days the cry is against that of capitalists, against abuses of power,
which may be merely the inevitable galling of the social yoke, called
Compact by Rousseau, Constitution by some, Charter by others; Czar
here, King there, Parliament in Great Britain; while in France the
general levelling begun in 1789 and continued in 1830 has paved the
way for the juggling dominion of the middle classes, and delivered the
nation into their hands without escape. The portrayal of one fact
alone, unfortunately only too common in these days, namely, the
subjection of a canton, a little town, a sub-prefecture, to the will
of a family clique,--in short, the power acquired by Gaubertin,--will
show this social danger better than all dogmatic statements put
together. Many oppressed communities will recognize the truth of this
picture; many persons secretly and silently crushed by this tyranny
will find in these words an obituary, as it were, which may half
console them for their hidden woes.
At the very moment when the general imagined himself to be renewing a
warfare in which there had really been no truce, his former steward
had just completed the last meshes of the net-work in which he now
held the whole arrondissement of Ville-aux-Fayes. To avoid too many
explanations it is necessary to state, once for all, succinctly, the
genealogical ramifications by means of which Gaubertin wound himself
about the country, as a boa-constrictor winds around a tree,--with
such art that a passing traveller thinks he beholds some natural
effect of the tropical vegetation.
In 1793 there were three brothers of the name of Mouchon in the valley
of the Avonne. After 1793 they changed the name of the valley to that
of the Valley des Aigues, out of hatred to the old nobility.
The eldest brother, steward of the property of the Ronquerolles
family, was elected deputy of the department to the Convention. Like
his friend, Gaubertin's father, the prosecutor of those days, who
saved the Soulanges family, he saved the property and the lives of the
Ronquerolles. He had two daughters; one married to Gendrin, the
lawyer, the other to Gaubertin. He died in 1804.
The second, through the influence of his elder brother, was made
postmaster at Conches. His only child was a daughter, married to a
rich farmer named Guerbet. He died in 1817.
The last of the Mouchons, who was a priest, and the curate of Ville-
aux-Fayes before the Revolution, was again a priest after the re-
establishment of Catholic worship, and again the curate of the same
little town. He was not willing to take the oath, and was hidden for a
long time in the hermitage of Les Aigues, under the protection of the
Gaubertins, father and son. Now about sixty-seven years of age, he was
treated with universal respect and affection, owing to the harmony of
his nature with that of the inhabitants. Parsimonious to the verge of
avarice, he was thought to be rich, and the credit of being so
increased the respect that was shown to him. Monseigneur the bishop
paid the greatest attention to the Abbe Mouchon, who was always spoken
of as the venerable curate of Ville-aux-Fayes; and the fact that he
had several times refused to go and live in a splendid parsonage
attached to the Prefecture, where Monseigneur wished to settle him,
made him dearer still to his people.
Gaubertin, now mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes, received steady support from
his brother-in-law Gendrin, who was judge of the municipal court.
Gaubertin the younger, the solicitor who had the most practice before
this court and much repute in the arrondissement, was already thinking
of selling his practice after five years' exercise of it. He wanted to
succeed his Uncle Gendrin as counsellor whenever the latter should
retire from the profession. Gendrin's only son was commissioner of
Soudry's son, who for the last two years had been prosecuting-attorney
at the prefecture, was Gaubertin's henchman. The clever Madame Soudry
had secured the future of her husband's son by marrying him to Rigou's
only daughter. The united fortunes of the Soudrys and the ex-monk,
which would come eventually to the attorney, made that young man one
of the most important personages of the department.
The sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes, Monsieur des Lupeaulx, nephew of
the general-secretary of one of the most important ministries in
Paris, was the prospective husband of Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin,
the mayor's youngest daughter, whose dowry, like that of her elder
sister, was two hundred thousand francs, not to speak of
"expectations." This functionary showed much sense, though not aware
of it, in falling in love with Mademoiselle Elise when he first
arrived at Ville-aux-Fayes, in 1819. If it had not been for his social
position, which made him "eligible," he would long ago have been
forced to ask for his exchange. But Gaubertin in marrying him to his
daughter thought much more of the uncle, the general-secretary, than
of the nephew; and in return, the uncle, for the sake of his nephew,
gave all his influence to Gaubertin.
Thus the Church, the magistracy both removable and irremovable, the
municipality, and the prefecture, the four feet of power, walked as
the mayor pleased. Let us now see how that functionary strengthened
himself in the spheres above and below that in which he worked.
The department to which Ville-aux-Fayes belongs is one the number of
whose population gives it the right to elect six deputies. Ever since
the creation of the Left Centre of the Chamber, the arrondissement of
Ville-aux-Fayes had sent a deputy named Leclercq, formerly banking
agent of the wine department of the custom-house, a son-in-law of
Gaubertin, and now a governor of the Bank of France. The number of
electors which this rich valley sent to the electoral college was
sufficient to insure, if only through private dealing, the constant
appointment of Monsieur de Ronquerolles, the patron of the Mouchon
family. The voters of Ville-aux-Fayes lent their support to the
prefect, on condition that the Marquis de Ronquerolles was maintained
in the college. Thus Gaubertin, who was the first to broach the idea
of this arrangement, was favorably received at the Prefecture, which
he often, in return, saved from petty annoyances. The prefect always
selected three firm ministerialists, and two deputies of the Left
Centre. The latter, one of them being the Marquis de Ronquerolles,
brother-in-law of the Comte de Serisy, and the other a governor of the
Bank of France, gave little or no alarm to the cabinet, and the
elections in this department were rated excellent at the ministry of
The Comte de Soulanges, peer of France, selected to be the next
marshal, and faithful to the Bourbons, knew that his forests and other
property were all well-managed by the notary Lupin, and well-watched
by Soudry. He was a patron of Gendrin's, having obtained his
appointment as judge partly by the help of Monsieur de Ronquerolles.
Messieurs Leclercq and de Ronquerolles sat in the Left Centre, but
nearer to the left than to the centre,--a political position which
offers great advantages to those who regard their political conscience
as a garment.
The brother of Monsieur Leclercq had obtained the situation of
collector at Ville-aux-Fayes, and Leclercq himself, Gaubertin's son-
in-law, had lately bought a fine estate beyond the valley of the
Avonne, which brought him in a rental of thirty thousand francs, with
park and chateau and a controlling influence in its own canton.
Thus, in the upper regions of the State, in both Chambers, and in the
chief ministerial department, Gaubertin could rely on an influence
that was powerful and also active, and which he was careful not to
weary with unimportant requests.
The counsellor Gendrin, appointed judge by the Chamber, was the
leading spirit of the Supreme Court; for the chief justice, one of the
three ministerial deputies, left the management of it to Gendrin
during half the year. The counsel for the Prefecture, a cousin of
Sarcus, called "Sarcus the rich," was the right-hand man of the
prefect, himself a deputy. Even without the family reasons which
allied Gaubertin and young des Lupeaulx, a brother of Madame Sarcus
would still have been desirable as sub-prefect to the arrondissement
of Ville-aux-Fayes. Madame Sarcus, the counsellor's wife, was a Vallat
of Soulanges, a family connected with the Gaubertins, and she was said
to have "distinguished" the notary Lupin in her youth. Though she was
now forty-five years old, with a son in the school of engineers, Lupin
never went to the Prefecture without paying his respects and dining
The nephew of Guerbet, the postmaster, whose father was, as we have
seen, collector of Soulanges, held the important situation of
examining judge in the municipal court of Ville-aux-Fayes. The third
judge, son of Corbinet, the notary, belonged body and soul to the all-
powerful mayor; and, finally, young Vigor, son of the lieutenant of
the gendarmerie, was the substitute judge.
Sibilet's father, sheriff of the court, had married his sister to
Monsieur Vigor the lieutenant, and that individual, father of six
children, was cousin of the father of Gaubertin through his wife, a
Gaubertin-Vallat. Eighteen months previously the united efforts of the
two deputies, Monsieur de Soulanges and Gaubertin, had created the
place of commissary of police for the sheriff's second son.
Sibilet's eldest daughter married Monsieur Herve, a school-master,
whose school was transformed into a college as a result of this
marriage, so that for the past year Soulanges had rejoiced in the
presence of a professor.
The sheriff's youngest son was employed on the government domains,
with the promise of succeeding the clerk of registrations so soon as
that officer had completed the term of service which enabled him to
retire on a pension.
The youngest Sibilet girl, now sixteen years old, was betrothed to
Corbinet, brother of the notary. And an old maid, Mademoiselle
Gaubertin-Vallat, sister of Madame Sibilet, the sheriff's wife, held
the office for the sale of stamped paper.
Thus, wherever we turn in Ville-aux-Fayes we meet some member of the
invisible coalition, whose avowed chief, recognized as such by every
one, great and small, was the mayor of the town, the general agent for
the entire timber business, Gaubertin!
If we turn to the other end of the valley of the Avonne we shall see
that Gaubertin ruled at Soulanges through the Soudrys, through Lupin
the assistant mayor and steward of the Soulanges estate, who was
necessarily in constant communication with the Comte de Soulanges,
through Sarcus, justice of the peace, through Guerbet, the collector,
through Gourdon, the doctor, who had married a Gendrin-Vatebled. He
governed Blangy through Rigou, Conches through the post-master, the
despotic ruler of his own district.
Gaubertin's influence was so great and powerful that even the
investments and the savings of Rigou, Soudry, Gendrin, Guerbet, Lupin,
even Sarcus the rich himself, were managed by his advice. The town of
Ville-aux-Fayes believed implicitly in its mayor. Gaubertin's ability
was not less extolled than his honesty and his kindness; he was the
servant of his relatives and constituents (always with an eye to a
return of benefits), and the whole municipality adored him. The town
never ceased to blame Monsieur Mariotte, of Auxerre, for having
opposed and thwarted that worthy Monsieur Gaubertin.
Not aware of their strength, no occasion for displaying it having
arisen, the bourgeoisie of Ville-aux-Fayes contented themselves with
boasting that no strangers intermeddled in their affairs and they
believed themselves excellent citizens and faithful public servants.
Nothing, however, escaped their despotic rule, which in itself was not
perceived, the result being considered a triumph of the locality.
The only stranger in this family community was the government engineer
in the highway department; and his dismissal in favor of the son of
Sarcus the rich was now being pressed, with a fair chance that this
one weak thread in the net would soon be strengthened. And yet this
powerful league, which monopolized all duties both public and private,
sucked the resources of the region, and fastened on power like limpets
to a ship, escaped all notice so completely that General Montcornet
had no suspicion of it. The prefect boasted of the prosperity of
Ville-aux-Fayes and its arrondissement; even the minister of the
interior was heard to remark: "There's a model sub-prefecture, which
runs on wheels; we should be lucky indeed if all were like it." Family
designs were so involved with local interests that here, as in many
other little towns and even prefectures, a functionary who did not
belong to the place would have been forced to resign within a year.
When this despotic middle-class cousinry seizes a victim, he is so
carefully gagged and bound that complaint is impossible; he is smeared
with slime and wax like a snail in a beehive. This invisible,
imperceptible tyranny is upheld by powerful reasons,--such as the wish
to be surrounded by their own family, to keep property in their own
hands, the mutual help they ought to lend each other, the guarantees
given to the administration by the fact that their agent is under the
eyes of his fellow-citizens and neighbors. What does all this lead to?
To the fact that local interests supersede all questions of public
interest; the centralized will of Paris is frequently overthrown in
the provinces, the truth of things is disguised, and country
communities snap their fingers at government. In short, after the main
public necessities have been attended to, it will be seen that the
laws, instead of acting upon the masses, receive their impulse from
them; the populations adapt the law to themselves and not themselves
to the law.
Whoever has travelled in the south or west of France, or in Alsace, in
any other way than from inn to inn to see buildings and landscapes,
will surely admit the truth of these remarks. The results of middle-
class nepotism may be, at present, merely isolated evils; but the
tendency of existing laws is to increase them. This low-level
despotism can and will cause great disasters, and the events of the
drama about to be played in the valley of Les Aigues will prove it.
The monarchical and imperial systems, more rashly overthrown than
people realize, remedied these abuses by means of certain consecrated
lives, by classifications and categories and by those particular
counterpoises since so absurdly defined as "privileges." There are no
privileges now, when every human being is free to climb the greased
pole of power. But surely it would be safer to allow open and avowed
privileges than those which are underhand, based on trickery,
subversive of what should be public spirit, and continuing the work of
despotism to a lower and baser level than heretofore. May we not have
overthrown noble tyrants devoted to their country's good, to create
the tyranny of selfish interests? Shall power lurk in secret places,
instead of radiating from its natural source? This is worth thinking
about. The spirit of local sectionalism, such as we have now depicted,
will soon be seen to invade the Chamber.
Montcornet's friend, the late prefect, Comte de la Roche-Hugon, had
lost his position just before the last arrival of the general at Les
Aigues. This dismissal drove him into the ranks of the Liberal
opposition, where he became one of the chorus of the Left, a position
he soon after abandoned for an embassy. His successor, luckily for
Montcornet, was a son-in-law of the Marquis de Troisville, uncle of
the countess, the Comte de Casteran. He welcomed Montcornet as a
relation and begged him to continue his intimacy at the Prefecture.
After listening to the general's complaints the Comte de Casteran
invited the bishop, the attorney-general, the colonel of the
gendarmerie, counsellor Sarcus, and the general commanding the
division to meet him the next day at breakfast.
The attorney-general, Baron Bourlac (so famous in the Chanterie and
Rifael suits), was one of those men well-known to all governments, who
attach themselves to power, no matter in whose hands it is, and who
make themselves invaluable by such devotion. Having owed his elevation
in the first place to his fanaticism for the Emperor, he now owed the
retention of his official rank to his inflexible character and the
conscientiousness with which he fulfilled his duties. He who once
implacably prosecuted the remnant of the Chouans now prosecuted the
Bonapartists as implacably. But years and turmoils had somewhat
subdued his energy and he had now become, like other old devils
incarnate, perfectly charming in manner and ways.
The general explained his position and the fears of his bailiff, and
spoke of the necessity of making an example and enforcing the rights
The high functionaries listened gravely, making, however, no reply
beyond mere platitudes, such as, "Undoubtedly, the laws must be
upheld"; "Your cause is that of all land-owners"; "We will consider
it; but, situated as we are, prudence is very necessary"; "A monarchy
could certainly do more for the people than the people would do for
itself, even if it were, as in 1793, the sovereign people"; "The
masses suffer, and we are bound to do as much for them as for
The relentless attorney-general expressed such kindly and benevolent
views respecting the condition of the lower classes that our future
Utopians, had they heard him, might have thought that the higher grade
of government officials were already aware of the difficulties of that
problem which modern society will be forced to solve.
It may be well to say here that at this period of the Restoration,
various bloody encounters had taken place in remote parts of the
kingdom, caused by this very question of the pillage of woods, and the
marauding rights which the peasants were everywhere arrogating to
themselves. Neither the government nor the court liked these
outbreaks, nor the shedding of blood which resulted from repression.
Though they felt the necessity of rigorous measures, they nevertheless
treated as blunderers the officials who were compelled to employ them,
and dismissed them on the first pretence. The prefects were therefore
anxious to shuffle out of such difficulties whenever possible.
At the very beginning of the conversation Sarcus (the rich) had made a
sign to the prefect and the attorney-general which Montcornet did not
see, but which set the tone of the discussion. The attorney-general
was well aware of the state of mind of the inhabitants of the valley
des Aigues through his subordinate, Soudry the young attorney.
"I foresee a terrible struggle," the latter had said to him. "They
mean to kill the gendarmes; my spies tell me so. It will be very hard
to convict them for it. The instant the jury feel they are incurring
the hatred of the friends of the twenty or thirty prisoners, they will
not sustain us,--we could not get them to convict for death, nor even
for the galleys. Possibly by prosecuting in person you might get a few
years' imprisonment for the actual murderers. Better shut our eyes
than open them, if by opening them we bring on a collision which costs
bloodshed and several thousand francs to the State,--not to speak of
the cost of keeping the guilty in prison. It is too high a price to
pay for a victory which will only reveal our judicial weakness to the
eyes of all."
Montcornet, who was wholly without suspicion of the strength and
influence of the Mediocracy in his happy valley, did not even mention
Gaubertin, whose hand kept these embers of opposition always alive,
though smouldering. After breakfast the attorney-general took
Montcornet by the arm and led him to the Prefect's study. When the
general left that room after their conference, he wrote to his wife
that he was starting for Paris and should be absent a week. We shall
see, after the execution of certain measures suggested by Baron
Bourlac, the attorney-general, whether the secret advice he gave to
Montcornet was wise, and whether in conforming to it the count and Les
Aigues were enabled to escape the "Evil grudge."
Some minds, eager for mere amusement, will complain that these various
explanations are far too long; but we once more call attention to the
fact that the historian of the manners, customs, and morals of his
time must obey a law far more stringent than that imposed on the
historian of mere facts. He must show the probability of everything,
even the truth; whereas, in the domain of history, properly so-called,
the impossible must be accepted for the sole reason that it did
happen. The vicissitudes of social or private life are brought about
by a crowd of little causes derived from a thousand conditions. The
man of science is forced to clear away the avalanche under which whole
villages lie buried, to show you the pebbles brought down from the
summit which alone can determine the formation of the mountain. If the
historian of human life were simply telling you of a suicide, five
hundred of which occur yearly in Paris, the melodrama is so
commonplace that brief reasons and explanations are all that need be
given; but how shall he make you see that the self-destruction of an
estate could happen in these days when property is reckoned of more
value than life? "De re vestra agitur," said a maker of fables; this
tale concerns the affairs and interests of all those, no matter who
they be, who possess anything.
Remember that this coalition of a whole canton and of a little town
against a general, who, in spite of his rash courage, had escaped the
dangers of actual war, is going on in other districts against other
men who seek only to do what is right by those districts. It is a
coalition which to-day threatens every man, the man of genius, the
statesman, the modern agriculturalist,--in short, all innovators.
This last explanation not only gives a true presentation of the
personages of this drama, and a serious meaning even to its petty
details, but it also throws a vivid light upon the scene where so many
social interests are now marshalling.
THE SADNESS OF A HAPPY WOMAN
At the moment when the general was getting into his caleche to go to
the Prefecture, the countess and the two gentlemen reached the gate of
the Avonne, where, for the last eighteen months, Michaud and his wife
Olympe had made their home.
Whose remembered the pavilion in the state in which we lately
described it would have supposed it had been rebuilt. The bricks
fallen or broken by time, and the cement lacking to their edges, were
replaced; the slate roof had been cleaned, and the effect of the white
balustrade against its bluish background restored the gay character of
the architecture. The approaches to the building, formerly choked up
and sandy, were now cared for by the man whose duty it was to keep the
park roadways in order. The poultry-yard, stables, and cow-shed,
relegated to the buildings near the pheasantry and hidden by clumps of
trees, instead of afflicting the eye with their foul details, now
blended those soft murmurs and cooings and the sound of flapping
wings, which are among the most delightful accompaniments of Nature's
eternal harmony, with the peculiar rustling sounds of the forest. The
whole scene possessed the double charm of a natural, untouched forest
and the elegance of an English park. The surroundings of the pavilion,
in keeping with its own exterior, presented a certain noble,
dignified, and cordial effect; while the hand of a young and happy
woman gave to its interior a very different look from what it wore
under the coarse neglect of Courtecuisse.
Just now the rich season of the year was putting forth its natural
splendors. The perfume of the flowerbeds blended with the wild odor of
the woods; and the meadows near by, where the grass had been lately
cut, sent up the fragrance of new-mown hay.
When the countess and her guests reached the end of one of the winding
paths which led to the pavilion, they saw Madame Michaud, sitting in
the open air before the door, employed in making a baby's garment. The
young woman thus placed, thus employed, added the human charm that was
needed to complete the scene,--a charm so touching in its actuality
that painters have committed the error of endeavoring to convey it in
their pictures. Such artists forget that the SOUL of a landscape, if
they represent it truly, is so grand that the human element is crushed
by it; whereas such a scene added to Nature limits her to the
proportions of the personality, like a frame to which the mind of the
spectator confines it. When Poussin, the Raffaelle of France, made a
landscape accessory to his Shepherds of Arcadia he perceived plainly
enough that man becomes diminutive and abject when Nature is made the
principal feature on a canvas. In that picture August is in its glory,
the harvest is ready, all simple and strong human interests are
represented. There we find realized in nature the dream of many men
whose uncertain life of mingled good and evil harshly mixed makes them
long for peace and rest.
Let us now relate, in few words, the romance of this home. Justin
Michaud did not reply very cordially to the advances made to him by
the illustrious colonel of cuirassiers when first offered the
situation of bailiff at Les Aigues. He was then thinking of re-