Part 6 out of 7
"Conversation!" interrupted the justice of the peace. "What kind of
conversation was it which produced all the little Bourniers?"
"--but ever since it has been called, in honor of the Bourbons, the
Cafe de la Paix, fights take place there every day," said Abbe Taupin,
finishing the sentence which the magistrate had taken the liberty of
This idea of the abbe was, like the quotations from "The Cup-and-
Ball," of frequent recurrence.
"Do you mean that Burgundy will always be the land of fisticuffs?"
asked Pere Guerbet.
"That's not ill said," remarked the abbe; "not at all; in fact it's
almost an exact history of our country."
"I don't know anything about the history of France," blurted Soudry;
"and before I try to learn it, it is more important to me to know why
old Rigou has gone into the Cafe de la Paix with Socquard."
"Oh!" returned the abbe, "wherever he goes and wherever he stays, you
may be quite certain it is for no charitable purpose."
"That man gives me goose-flesh whenever I see him," said Madame
"He is so much to be feared," remarked the doctor, "that if he had a
spite against me I should have no peace till he was dead and buried;
he would get out of his coffin to do you an ill-turn."
"If any one can force the Shopman to come to the fair, and manage to
catch him in a trap, it'll be Rigou," said Soudry to his wife, in a
"Especially," she replied, in a loud one, "if Gaubertin and you, my
love, help him."
"There! didn't I tell you so?" cried Guerbet, poking the justice of
the peace. "I knew he would find some pretty girl at Socquard's,--
there he is, putting her into his carriage."
"You are quite wrong, gentlemen," said Madame Soudry; "Monsieur Rigou
is thinking of nothing but the great affair; and if I'm not mistaken,
that girl is only Tonsard's daughter."
"He is like the chemist who lays in a stock of vipers," said old
"One would think you were intimate with Monsieur Vermut to hear you
talk," said the doctor, pointing to the little apothecary, who was
then crossing the square.
"Poor fellow!" said the poet, who was suspected of occasionally
sharpening his wit with Madame Vermut; "just look at that waddle of
his! and they say he is learned!"
"Without him," said the justice of the peace, "we should be hard put
to it about post-mortems; he found poison in poor Pigeron's stomach so
cleverly that the chemists of Paris testified in the court at Auxerre
that they couldn't have done better--"
"He didn't find anything at all," said Soudry; "but, as President
Gendrin says, it is a good thing to let people suppose that poison
will always be found--"
"Madame Pigeron was very wise to leave Auxerre," said Madame Vermut;
"she was silly and wicked both. As if it were necessary to have
recourse to drugs to annul a husband! Are not there other ways quite
as sure, but innocent, to rid ourselves of that incumbrance? I would
like to have a man dare to question my conduct! The worthy Monsieur
Vermut doesn't hamper me in the least,--but he has never been ill yet.
As for Madame de Montcornet, just see how she walks about the woods
and the hermitage with that journalist whom she brought from Paris at
her own expense, and how she pets him under the very eyes of the
"At her own expense!" cried Madame Soudry. "Are you sure? If we could
only get proof of it, what a fine subject for an anonymous letter to
"The general!" cried Madame Vermut, "he won't interfere with things;
he plays his part."
"What part, my dear?" asked Madame Soudry.
"Oh! the paternal part."
"If poor little Pigeron had had the wisdom to play it, instead of
harassing his wife, he'd be alive now," said the poet.
Madame Soudry leaned over to her neighbor, Monsieur Guerbet, and made
one of those apish grimaces which she had inherited from dear
mistress, together with her silver, by right of conquest, and twisting
her face into a series of them she made him look at Madame Vermut, who
was coquetting with the author of "The Cup-and-Ball."
"What shocking style that woman has! what talk, what manners!" she
said. "I really don't think I can admit her any longer into OUR
SOCIETY,--especially," she added, "when Monsieur Gourdon, the poet, is
"There's social morality!" said the abbe, who had heard and observed
all without saying a word.
After this epigram, or rather, this satire on the company, so true and
so concise that it hit every one, the usual game of boston was
Is not this a picture of life as it is at all stages of what we agree
to call society? Change the style, and you will find that nothing more
and nothing less is said in the gilded salons of Paris.
THE CAFE DE LA PAIX
It was about seven o'clock when Rigou drove by the Cafe de la Paix.
The setting sun, slanting its beams across the little town, was
diffusing its ruddy tints, and the clear mirror of the lake contrasted
with the flashing of the resplendent window-panes, which originated
the strangest and most improbable colors.
The deep schemer, who had grown pensive as he revolved his plots, let
his horse proceed so slowly that in passing the Cafe de la Paix he
heard his own name banded about in one of those noisy disputes which,
according to the Abbe Taupin, made the name of the establishment a
gain-saying of its customary condition.
For a clear understanding of the following scene we must explain the
topography of this region of plenty and of misrule, which began with
the cafe on the square, and ended on the country road with the famous
Tivoli where the conspirators proposed to entrap the general. The
ground-floor of the cafe, which stood at the angle of the square and
the road, and was built in the style of Rigou's house, had three
windows on the road and two on the square, the latter being separated
by a glass door through which the house was entered. The cafe had,
moreover, a double door which opened on a side alley that separated it
from the neighboring house (that of Vallet the Soulanges mercer),
which led to an inside courtyard.
The house, which was painted wholly in yellow, except the blinds,
which were green, is one of the few houses in the little town which
has two stories and an attic. And this is why: Before the astonishing
rise in the prosperity of Ville-aux-Fayes the first floor of this
house, which had four chambers, each containing a bed and the meagre
furniture thought necessary to justify the term "furnished lodgings,"
was let to strangers who were obliged to come to Soulanges on matters
connected with the courts, or to visitors who did not sleep at the
chateau; but for the last twenty-five years these rooms had had no
other occupants than the mountebanks, the merchants, the vendors of
quack medicines who came to the fair, or else commercial travellers.
During the fair-time they were let for four francs a day; and brought
Socquard about two hundred and fifty francs, not to speak of the
profits on the consumption of food which the guests took in his cafe.
The front of the house on the square was adorned with painted signs;
on the spaces that separated the windows from the glass door billiard-
cues were represented, lovingly tied together with ribbons, and above
these bows were depicted smoking bowls of punch, the bowls being in
the form of Greek vases. The words "Cafe de la Paix" were over the
door, brilliantly painted in yellow on a green ground, at each end of
which rose pyramids of tricolored billiard-balls. The window-sashes,
painted green, had small panes of the commonest glass.
A dozen arbor-vitae, which ought to be called cafe-trees, stood to the
left and right in pots, and presented their usual pretensions and
sickly appearance. Awnings, with which shopkeepers of the large cities
protect their windows from the head of the sun, were as yet an unknown
luxury in Soulanges. The beneficent liquids in the bottles which stood
on boards just behind the window-panes went through a periodic
cooking. When the sun concentrated its rays through the lenticular
knobs in the glass it boiled the Madeira, the syrups, the liqueurs,
the preserved plums, and the cherry-brandy set out for show; for the
heat was so great that Aglae, her father, and the waiter were forced
to sit outside on benches poorly shaded by the wilted shrubs,--which
Mademoiselle kept alive with water that was almost hot. All three,
father, daughter, and servant, might be seen at certain hours of the
day stretched out there, fast asleep, like domestic animals.
In 1804, the period when "Paul and Virginia" was the rage, the inside
of the cafe was hung with a paper which represented the chief scenes
of that romance. There could be seen Negroes gathering the coffee-
crop, though coffee was seldom seen in the establishment, not twenty
cups of that beverage being served in the month. Colonial products
were of so little account in the consumption of the place that if a
stranger had asked for a cup of chocolate Socquard would have been
hard put to it to serve him. Still, he would have done so with a
nauseous brown broth made from tablets in which there were more flour,
crushed almonds, and brown sugar than pure sugar and cacao,
concoctions which were sold at two sous a cake by village grocers, and
manufactured for the purpose of ruining the sale of the Spanish
As for coffee, Pere Socquard simply boiled it in a utensil known to
all such households as the "big brown pot"; he let the dregs (that
were half chicory) settle, and served the decoction, with a coolness
worthy of a Parisian waiter, in a china cup which, if flung to the
ground, would not have cracked.
At this period the sacred respect felt for sugar under the Emperor was
not yet dispelled in the town of Soulanges, and Aglae Socquard boldly
served three bits of it of the size of hazel-nuts to a foreign
merchant who had rashly asked for the literary beverage.
The wall decoration of the cafe, relieved by mirrors in gilt frames
and brackets on which the hats were hung, had not been changed since
the days when all Soulanges came to admire the romantic paper, also a
counter painted like mahogany with a Saint-Anne marble top, on which
shone vessels of plated metal and lamps with double-burners, which
were, rumor said, given to the beautiful Madame Socquard by Gaubertin.
A sticky coating of dirt covered everything, like that found on old
pictures put away and long forgotten in a garret. The tables painted
to resemble marble, the benches covered in red Utrecht velvet, the
hanging glass lamp full of oil, which fed two lights, fastened by a
chain to the ceiling and adorned with glass pendants, were the
beginning of the celebrity of the then Cafe de la Guerre.
There, from 1802 to 1804, all the bourgeois of Soulanges played at
dominoes and a game of cards called "brelan," drank tiny glasses of
liqueur or boiled wine, and ate brandied fruits and biscuits; for the
dearness of colonial products had banished coffee, sugar, and
chocolate. Punch was a great luxury; so was "bavaroise." These
infusions were made with a sugary substance resembling molasses, the
name of which is now lost, but which, at the time, made the fortune of
These succinct details will recall to the memory of all travellers
many others that are analogous; and those persons who have never left
Paris can imagine the ceiling blackened with smoke and the mirrors
specked with millions of spots, showing in what freedom and
independence the whole order of diptera lived in the Cafe de la Paix.
The beautiful Madame Socquard, whose gallant adventures surpassed
those of the mistress of the Grand-I-Vert, sat there, enthroned,
dressed in the last fashion. She affected the style of a sultana, and
wore a turban. Sultanas, under the Empire, enjoyed a vogue equal to
that of the "angel" of to-day. The whole valley took pattern from the
turbans, the poke-bonnets, the fur caps, the Chinese head-gear of the
handsome Socquard, to whose luxury the big-wigs of Soulanges
contributed. With a waist beneath her arm-pits, after the fashion of
our mothers, who were proud of their imperial graces, Junie (she was
named Junie!) made the fortune of the house of Socquard. Her husband
owed to her the ownership of a vineyard, of the house they lived in,
and also the Tivoli. The father of Monsieur Lupin was said to have
committed some follies for the handsome Madame Socquard; and
Gaubertin, who had taken her from him, certainly owed him the little
These details, together with the deep mystery with which Socquard
manufactured his boiled wine, are sufficient to explain why his name
and that of the Cafe de la Paix were popular; but there were other
reasons for their renown. Nothing better than wine could be got at
Tonsard's and the other taverns in the valley; from Conches to Ville-
aux-Fayes, in a circumference of twenty miles, the Cafe Socquard was
the only place where the guests could play billiards and drink the
punch so admirably concocted by the proprietor. There alone could be
found a display of foreign wines, fine liqueurs, and brandied fruits.
Its name resounded daily throughout the valley, accompanied by ideas
of superfine sensual pleasures such as men whose stomachs are more
sensitive than their hearts dream about. To all these causes of
popularity was added that of being an integral part of the great
festival of Soulanges. The Cafe de la Paix was to the town, in a
superior degree, what the tavern of the Grand-I-Vert was to the
peasantry,--a centre of venom; it was the point of contact and
transmission between the gossip of Ville-aux-Fayes and that of the
valley. The Grand-I-Vert supplied the milk and the Cafe de la Paix the
cream, and Tonsard's two daughters were in daily communication between
To Socquard's mind the square of Soulanges was merely an appendage to
his cafe. Hercules went from door to door, talking with this one and
that one, and wearing in summer no other garment than a pair of
trousers and a half-buttoned waistcoat. If any one entered the tavern,
the people with whom he gossiped warned him, and he slowly and
Rigou stopped his horse, and getting out of the chaise, fastened the
bridle to one of the posts near the gate of the Tivoli. Then he made a
pretext to listen to what was going on without being noticed, and
placed himself between two windows through one of which he could, by
advancing his head, see the persons in the room, watch their gestures,
and catch the louder tones which came through the glass of the windows
and which the quiet of the street enabled him to hear.
"If I were to tell old Rigou that your brother Nicolas is after La
Pechina," cried an angry voice, "and that he waylays her, he'd rip the
entrails out of every one of you,--pack of scoundrels that you are at
"If you play me such a trick as that, Aglae," said the shrill voice of
Marie Tonsard, "you sha'n't tell anything more except to the worms in
your coffin. Don't meddle with my brother's business or with mine and
Marie, instigated by her grandmother, had, as we see, followed
Bonnebault; she had watched him through the very window where Rigou
was now standing, and had seen him displaying his graces and paying
compliments so agreeable to Mademoiselle Socquard that she was forced
to smile upon him. That smile had brought about the scene in the midst
of which the revelation that interested Rigou came out.
"Well, well, Pere Rigou, what are you doing here?" said Socquard,
slapping the usurer on the shoulder; he was coming from a barn at the
end of the garden, where he kept various contrivances for the public
games, such as weighing-machines, merry-go-rounds, see-saws, all in
readiness for the Tivoli when opened. Socquard stepped noiselessly,
for he was wearing a pair of those yellow leather-slippers which cost
so little by the gross that they have an enormous sale in the
"If you have any fresh lemons, I'd like a glass of lemonade," said
Rigou; "it is a warm evening."
"Who is making that racket?" said Socquard, looking through the window
and seeing his daughter and Marie Tonsard.
"They are quarrelling for Bonnebault," said Rigou, sardonically.
The anger of the father was at once controlled by the interest of the
tavern-keeper. The tavern-keeper judged it prudent to listen outside,
as Rigou was doing; the father was inclined to enter and declare that
Bonnebault, possessed of admirable qualities in the eyes of a tavern-
keeper, had none at all as son-in-law to one of the notables of
Soulanges. And yet Pere Socquard had received but few offers for his
daughter. At twenty-two Aglae already rivalled in size and weight
Madame Vermichel, whose agility seemed phenomenal. Sitting behind a
counter increased the adipose tendency which she derived from her
"What devil is it that gets into girls?" said Socquard to Rigou.
"Ha!" replied the ex-Benedictine, "of all the devils, that's the one
the Church has most to do with."
Just then Bonnebault came out of the billiard-room with a cue in his
hand, and struck Marie sharply, saying:--
"You've made me miss my stroke; but I'll not miss you, and I'll give
it to you till you muffle that clapper of yours."
Socquard and Rigou, who now thought it wise to interfere, entered the
cafe by the front door, raising such a crowd of flies that the light
from the windows was obscured; the sound was like that of the distant
practising of a drum-corps. After their first excitement was over, the
big flies with the bluish bellies, accompanied by the stinging little
ones, returned to their quarters in the windows, where on three tiers
of planks, the paint of which was indistinguishable under the fly-
specks, were rows of viscous bottles ranged like soldiers.
Marie was crying. To be struck before a rival by the man she loves is
one of those humiliations that no woman can endure, no matter what her
place on the social ladder may be; and the lower that place is, the
more violent is the expression of her wrath. The Tonsard girl took no
notice of Rigou or of Socquard; she flung herself on a bench, in
gloomy and sullen silence, which the ex-monk carefully watched.
"Get a fresh lemon, Aglae," said Pere Socquard, "and go and rinse that
"You did right to send her away," whispered Rigou, "or she might have
been hurt"; and he glanced significantly at the hand with which Marie
grasped a stool she had caught up to throw at Aglae's head.
"Now, Marie," said Socquard, standing before her, "people don't come
here to fling stools; if you were to break one of my mirrors, the milk
of your cows wouldn't pay for the damage."
"Pere Socquard, your daughter is a reptile; I'm worth a dozen of her,
I'd have you know. If you don't want Bonnebault for a son-in-law, it
is high time for you to tell him to go and play billiards somewhere
else; he's losing a hundred sous every minute."
In the middle of this flux of words, screamed rather than said,
Socquard took Marie round the waist and flung her out of the door, in
spite of her cries and resistance. It was none too soon; for
Bonnebault rushed out of the billiard-room, his eyes blazing.
"It sha'n't end so!" cried Marie Tonsard.
"Begone!" shouted Bonnebault, whom Viollet held back round the body
lest he should do the girl some hurt. "Go to the devil, or I will
never speak to you or look at you again!"
"You!" said Marie, flinging him a furious glance. "Give me back my
money, and I'll leave you to Mademoiselle Socquard if she is rich
enough to keep you."
Thereupon Marie, frightened when she saw that even Socquard-Alcides
could scarcely hold Bonnebault, who sprang after her like a tiger,
took to flight along the road.
Rigou followed, and told her to get into his carriole to escape
Bonnebault, whose shouts reached the hotel Soudry; then, after hiding
Marie under the leather curtains, he came back to the cafe to drink
his lemonade and examine the group it now contained, composed of
Plissoud, Amaury, Viollet, and the waiter, who were all trying to
"Come, hussar, it's your turn to play," said Amaury, a small, fair
young man, with a dull eye.
"Besides, she's taken herself off," said Viollet.
If any one ever betrayed astonishment it was Plissoud when he beheld
the usurer of Blangy sitting at one of the tables, and more occupied
in watching him, Plissoud, than in noticing the quarrel that was going
on. In spite of himself, the sheriff allowed his face to show the
species of bewilderment which a man feels at an unexpected meeting
with a person whom he hates and is plotting against, and he speedily
withdrew into the billiard-room.
"Adieu, Pere Socquard," said Rigou.
"I'll get your carriage," said the innkeeper; "take your time."
"How shall I find out what those fellows have been saying over their
pool?" Rigou was asking himself, when he happened to see the waiter's
face in the mirror beside him.
The waiter was a jack at all trades; he cultivated Socquard's vines,
swept out the cafe and the billiard-room, kept the garden in order,
and watered the Tivoli, all for fifty francs a year. He was always
without a jacket, except on grand occasions; usually his sole garments
were a pair of blue linen trousers, heavy shoes, and a striped velvet
waistcoat, over which he wore an apron of homespun linen when at work
in the cafe or billiard-room. This apron, with strings, was the badge
of his functions. The fellow had been hired by Socquard at the last
annual fair; for in this valley, as throughout Burgundy, servants are
hired in the market-place by the year, exactly as one buys horses.
"What's your name?" said Rigou.
"Michel, at your service," replied the waiter.
"Doesn't old Fourchon come here sometimes?"
"Two or three times a week, with Monsieur Vermichel, who gives me a
couple of sous to warn him if his wife's after them."
"He's a fine old fellow, Pere Fourchon; knows a great deal and is full
of good sense," said Rigou, paying for his lemonade and leaving the
evil-smelling place when he saw Pere Socquard leading his horse round.
Just as he was about to get into the carriage, Rigou noticed the
chemist crossing the square and hailed him with a "Ho, there, Monsieur
Vermut!" Recognizing the rich man, Vermut hurried up. Rigou joined
him, and said in a low voice:--
"Are there any drugs that can eat into the tissue of the skin so as to
produce a real disease, like a whitlow on the finger, for instance?"
"If Monsieur Gourdon would help, yes," answered the little chemist.
"Vermut, not a word of all this, or you and I will quarrel; but speak
of the matter to Monsieur Gourdon, and tell him to come and see me the
day after to-morrow. I may be able to procure him the delicate
operation of cutting off a forefinger."
Then, leaving the little man thoroughly bewildered, Rigou got into the
carriole beside Marie Tonsard.
"Well, you little viper," he said, taking her by the arm when he had
fastened the reins to a hook in front of the leathern apron which
closed the carriole and the horse had started on a trot, "do you think
you can keep Bonnebault by giving way to such violence? If you were a
wise girl you would promote his marriage with that hogshead of
stupidity and take your revenge afterwards."
Marie could not help smiling as she answered:--
"Ah, how bad you are! you are the master of us all in wickedness."
"Listen to me, Marie; I like the peasants, but it won't do for any one
of you to come between my teeth and a mouthful of game. Your brother
Nicolas, as Aglae said, is after La Pechina. That must not be; I
protect her, that girl. She is to be my heiress for thirty thousand
francs, and I intend to marry her well. I know that Nicolas, helped by
your sister Catherine, came near killing the little thing this
morning. You are to see your brother and sister at once, and say to
them: 'If you let La Pechina alone, Pere Rigou will save Nicolas from
"You are the devil incarnate!" cried Marie. "They do say you've signed
a compact with him. Is that true?"
"Yes," replied Rigou, gravely.
"I heard it, but I didn't believe it."
"He has guaranteed that no attacks aimed at me shall hurt me; that I
shall never be robbed; that I shall live a hundred years and succeed
in everything I undertake, and be as young to the day of my death as a
two-year old cockerel--"
"Well, if that's so," said Marie, "it must be DEVILISHLY easy for you
to save my brother from the conscription--"
"If he chooses, that's to say. He'll have to lose a finger," returned
Rigou. "I'll tell him how."
"Look out, you are taking the upper road!" exclaimed Marie.
"I never go by the lower at night," said the ex-monk.
"On account of the cross?" said Marie, naively.
"That's it, sly-boots," replied her diabolical companion.
They had reached a spot where the high-road cuts through a slight
elevation of ground, making on each side of it a rather steep slope,
such as we often see on the mail-roads of France. At the end of this
little gorge, which is about a hundred feet long, the roads to
Ronquerolles and to Cerneux meet and form an open space, in the centre
of which stands a cross. From either slope a man could aim at a victim
and kill him at close quarters, with all the more ease because the
little hill is covered with vines, and the evil-doer could lie in
ambush among the briers and brambles that overgrow them. We can
readily imagine why the usurer did not take that road after dark. The
Thune flows round the little hill; and the place is called the Close
of the Cross. No spot was ever more adapted for revenge or murder, for
the road to Ronquerolles continues to the bridge over the Avonne in
front of the pavilion of the Rendezvous, while that to Cerneux leads
off above the mail-road; so that between the four roads,--to Les
Aigues, Ville-aux-Fayes, Ronquerolles, and Cerneux,--a murderer could
choose his line of retreat and leave his pursuers in uncertainty.
"I shall drop you at the entrance of the village," said Rigou when
they neared the first houses of Blangy.
"Because you are afraid of Annette, old coward!" cried Marie. "When
are you going to send her away? you have had her now three years. What
amuses me is that your old woman still lives; the good God knows how
to revenge himself."
THE TRIUMVIRATE OF VILLE-AUX-FAYES
The cautious usurer compelled his wife and Jean to go to bed and to
rise by daylight; assuring them that the house would never be attacked
if he sat up till midnight, and he never himself rose till late. Not
only had he thus secured himself from interruption between seven at
night and five the next morning but he had accustomed his wife and
Jean to respect his morning sleep and that of Hagar, whose room was
directly behind his.
So, on the following morning, about half past six, Madame Rigou, who
herself took care of the poultry-yard with some assistance from Jean,
knocked timidly at her husband's door.
"Monsieur Rigou," she said, "you told me to wake you."
The tones of that voice, the attitude of the woman, her frightened air
as she obeyed an order the execution of which might be ill-received,
showed the utter self-abnegation in which the poor creature lived, and
the affection she still bore to her petty tyrant.
"Very good," replied Rigou.
"Shall I wake Annette?" she asked.
"No, let her sleep; she has been up half the night," he replied,
The man was always grave, even when he allowed himself to jest.
Annette had in fact opened the door secretly to Sibilet, Fourchon, and
Catherine Tonsard, who all came at different hours between eleven and
Ten minutes later Rigou, dressed with more care than usual, came
downstairs and greeted his wife with a "Good-morning, my old woman,"
which made her happier than if counts had knelt at her feet.
"Jean," he said to the ex-lay-brother, "don't leave the house; if any
one robs me it will be worse for you than for me."
By thus mingling mildness and severity, hopes and rebuffs, the clever
egoist kept his three slaves faithful and close at his heels, like
Taking the upper-road, so-called, to avoid the Close of the Cross,
Rigou reached the square of Soulanges about eight o'clock.
Just as he was fastening his rein to the post nearest the little door
with three steps, a blind opened and Soudry showed his face, pitted
with the small-pox, which the expression of his small black eyes
"Let's begin by taking a crust here before we start," he said; "we
sha'n't get breakfast at Ville-aux-Fayes before one o'clock."
Then he softly called a servant-girl, as young and pretty as Annette,
who came down noiselessly, and received his order for ham and bread;
after which he went himself to the cellar and fetched some wine.
Rigou contemplated for the hundredth time the well-known dining-room,
floored in oak, with stuccoed ceiling and cornice, its high wainscot
and handsome cupboards finely painted, its porcelain stone and
magnificent tall clock,--all the property of Mademoiselle Laguerre.
The chair-backs were in the form of lyres, painted white and highly
varnished; the seats were of green morocco with gilt nails. A massive
mahogany table was covered with green oilcloth, with large squares of
a deeper shade of green, and a plain border of the lighter. The floor,
laid in Hungarian point, was carefully waxed by Urbain and showed the
care which ex-waiting-women know how to exact out of their servants.
"Bah! it cost too much," thought Rigou for the hundredth time. "I can
eat as good a dinner in my room as here, and I have the income of the
money this useless splendor would have wasted. Where is Madame
Soudry?" he asked, as the mayor returned armed with a venerable
"And you no longer disturb her slumbers?" said Rigou.
The ex-gendarme winked with a knowing air, and pointed to the ham
which Jeannette, the pretty maid, was just bringing in.
"That will pick you up, a pretty bit like that," he said. "It was
cured in the house; we cut into it only yesterday."
"Where did you find her?" said the ex-Benedictine in Soudry's ear.
"She is like the ham," replied the ex-gendarme, winking again; "I have
had her only a week."
Jeannette, still in her night-cap, with a short petticoat and her bare
feet in slippers, had slipped on a bodice made with straps over the
arms in true peasant fashion, over which she had crossed a neckerchief
which did not entirely hide her fresh and youthful attractions, which
were at least as appetizing as the ham she carried. Short and plump,
with bare arms mottled red, ending in large, dimpled hands with short
but well-made fingers, she was a picture of health. The face was that
of a true Burgundian,--ruddy, but white about the temples, throat, and
ears; the hair was chestnut; the corners of the eyes turned up towards
the top of the ears; the nostrils were wide, the mouth sensual, and a
little down lay along the cheeks; all this, together with a jaunty
expression, tempered however by a deceitfully modest attitude, made
her the model of a roguish servant-girl.
"On my honor, Jeannette is as good as the ham," said Rigou. "If I
hadn't an Annette I should want a Jeannette."
"One is as good as the other," said the ex-gendarme, "for your Annette
is fair and delicate. How is Madame Rigou,--is she asleep?" added
Soudry, roughly, to let Rigou see he understood his joke.
"She wakes with the cock, but she goes to roost with the hens,"
replied Rigou. "As for me, I sit up and read the 'Constitutionnel.' My
wife lets me sleep at night and in the morning too; she wouldn't come
into my room for all the world."
"It's just the other way here," replied Jeanette. "Madame sits up with
the company playing cards; sometimes there are sixteen of them in the
salon; Monsieur goes to bed at eight o'clock, and we get up at
"You think that's different," said Rigou, "but it comes to the same
thing in the end. Well, my dear, you come to me and I'll send Annette
here, and that will be the same thing and different too."
"Old scamp, you'll make her ashamed," said Soudry.
"Ha! gendarme; you want your field to yourself! Well, we all get our
happiness where we can find it."
Jeanette, by her master's order, disappeared to lay out his clothes.
"You must have promised to marry her when your wife dies," said Rigou.
"At your age and mine," replied Soudry, "there's no other way."
"With girls of any ambition it would be one way to become a widower,"
added Rigou; "especially if Madame Soudry found fault with Jeannette
for her way of scrubbing the staircase."
The remark made the two husbands pensive. When Jeannette returned and
announced that all was ready, Soudry said to her, "Come and help me!"
--a precaution which made the ex-monk smile.
"There's a difference, indeed!" said he. "As for me, I'd leave you
alone with Annette, my good friend."
A quarter of an hour later Soudry, in his best clothes, got into the
wicker carriage, and the two friends drove round the lake of Soulanges
"Look at it!" said Rigou, as they reached an eminence from which the
chateau of Soulanges could be seen in profile.
The old revolutionary put into the tone of his words all the hatred
which the rural middle classes feel to the great chateaux and the
"Yes, but I hope it will never be destroyed as long as I live," said
Soudry. "The Comte de Soulanges was my general; he did me kindness; he
got my pension, and he allows Lupin to manage the estate. After Lupin
some of us will have it, and as long as the Soulanges family exists
they and their property will be respected. Such folks are large-
minded; they let every one make his profit, and they find it pays."
"Yes, but the Comte de Soulanges has three children, who, at his
death, may not agree," replied Rigou. "The husband of his daughter and
his sons may go to law, and end by selling the lead and iron mines to
manufacturers, from whom we shall manage to get them back."
The chateau just then showed up in profile, as if to defy the ex-monk.
"Ah! look at it; in those days they built well," cried Soudry. "But
just now Monsieur le Comte is economizing, so as to make Soulanges the
entailed estate of his peerage."
"My dear friend," said Rigou, "entailed estates won't exist much
When the topic of public matters was exhausted, the worthy pair began
to discuss the merits of their pretty maids in terms too Burgundian to
be printed here. That inexhaustible subject carried them so far that
before they knew it they saw the capital of the arrondissement over
which Gaubertin reigned, and which we hope excites enough curiosity in
the reader's mind to justify a short digression.
The name of Ville-aux-Fayes, singular as it is, is explained as the
corruption of the words (in low Latin) "Villa in Fago,"--the manor of
the woods. This name indicates that a forest once covered the delta
formed by the Avonne before it joins its confluent the Yonne. Some
Frank doubtless built a fortress on the hill which slopes gently to
the long plain. The savage conqueror separated his vantage-ground from
the delta by a wide and deep moat and made the position a formidable
one, essentially seignorial, convenient for enforcing tolls across the
bridges and for protecting his rights of profit on all grains ground
in the mills.
That is the history of the beginning of Ville-aux-Fayes. Wherever
feudal or ecclesiastical dominion established there we find gathered
together interests, inhabitants, and, later, towns when the localities
were in a position to maintain them and to found and develop great
industries. The method of floating timber discovered by Jean Rouvet in
1549, which required certain convenient stations to intercept it, was
the making of Ville-aux-Fayes, which, up to that time, had been,
compared to Soulanges, a mere village. Ville-aux-Fayes became a
storage place for timber, which covered the shores of the two rivers
for a distance of over thirty miles. The work of taking out of the
water, computing the lost logs, and making the rafts which the Yonne
carried down to the Seine, brought together a large concourse of
workmen. Such a population increased consumption and encouraged trade.
Thus Ville-aux-Fayes, which had but six hundred inhabitants at the end
of the seventeenth century, had two thousand in 1790, and Gaubertin
had now raised the number to four thousand, by the following means.
When the legislative assembly decreed the new laying out of territory,
Ville-aux-Fayes, which was situated where, geographically, a sub-
prefecture was needed, was chosen instead of Soulanges as chief town
or capital of the arrondissement. The increased population of Paris,
by increasing the demand for and the value of wood as fuel,
necessarily increased the commerce of Ville-aux-Fayes. Gaubertin had
founded his fortune, after losing his stewardship, on this growing
business, estimating the effect of peace on the population of Paris,
which did actually increase by over one-third between 1815 and 1825.
The shape of Ville-aux-Fayes followed the conformation of the ground.
Each side of the promontory was lined with wharves. The dam to stop
the timber from floating further down was just below a hill covered by
the forest of Soulanges. Between the dam and the town lay a suburb.
The lower town, covering the greater part of the delta, came down to
the shores of the lake of the Avonne.
Above the lower town some five hundred houses with gardens, standing
on the heights, were grouped round three sides of the promontory, and
enjoyed the varied scene of the diamond waters of the lake, the rafts
in construction along its edge, and the piles of wood upon the shores.
The waters, laden with timber from the river and the rapids which fed
the mill-races and the sluices of a few manufactories, presented an
animated scene, all the more charming because inclosed in the greenery
of forests, while the long valley of Les Aigues offered a glorious
contrast to the dark foil of the heights above the town itself.
Gaubertin had built himself a house on the level of the delta,
intending to make a place which should improve the locality and render
the lower town as desirable as the upper. It was a modern house built
of stone, with a balcony of iron railings, outside blinds, painted
windows, and no ornament but a line of fret-work under the eaves, a
slate roof, one story in height with a garret, a fine courtyard, and
behind it an English garden bathed by the waters of the Avonne. The
elegance of the place compelled the department to build a fine edifice
nearly opposite to it for the sub-prefecture, provisionally lodged in
a mere kennel. The town itself also built a town-hall. The law-courts
had lately been installed in a new edifice; so that Ville-aux-Fayes
owed to the active influence of its present mayor a number of really
imposing public buildings. The gendarmerie had also built barracks
which completed the square formed by the marketplace.
These changes, on which the inhabitants prided themselves, were due to
the impetus given by Gaubertin, who within a day or two had received
the cross of the Legion of honor, in anticipation of the coming
birthday of the king. In a town so situated and so modern there was of
course, neither aristocracy nor nobility. Consequently, the rich
merchants of Ville-aux-Fayes, proud of their own independence,
willingly espoused the cause of the peasantry against a count of the
Empire who had taken sides with the Restoration. To them the
oppressors were the oppressed. The spirit of this commercial town was
so well known to the government that they send there as sub-prefect a
man with a conciliatory temper, a pupil of his uncle, the well-known
des Lupeaulx, one of those men, accustomed to compromise, who are
familiar with the difficulties and necessities of administration, but
whom puritan politicians, doing infinitely worse things, call corrupt.
The interior of Gaubertin's house was decorated with the unmeaning
commonplaces of modern luxury. Rich papers with gold borders, bronze
chandeliers, mahogany furniture of a new pattern, astral lamps, round
tables with marble tops, white china with gilt lines for dessert, red
morocco chairs and mezzo-tint engravings in the dining-room, and blue
cashmere furniture in the salon,--all details of a chilling and
perfectly unmeaning character, but which to the eyes of Ville-aux-
Fayes seemed the last efforts of Sardanapalian luxury. Madame
Gaubertin played the role of elegance with great effect; she assumed
little airs and was lackadaisical at forty-five years of age, as
though certain of the homage of her court.
We ask those who really know France, if these houses--those of Rigou,
Soudry, and Gaubertin--are not a perfect presentation of the village,
the little town, and the seat of a sub-prefecture?
Without being a man of mind, or a man of talent, Gaubertin had the
appearance of being both. He owed the accuracy of his perception and
his consummate art to an extreme keenness after gain. He desired
wealth, not for his wife, not for his children, not for himself, not
for his family, not for the reputation that money gives; after the
gratification of his revenge (the hope of which kept him alive) he
loved the touch of money, like Nucingen, who, it was said, kept
fingering the gold in his pockets. The rush of business was
Gaubertin's wine; and though he had his belly full of it, he had all
the eagerness of one who was empty. As with valets of the drama,
intrigues, tricks to play, mischief to organize, deceptions,
commercial over-reachings, accounts to render and receive, disputes,
and quarrels of self-interest, exhilarated him, kept his blood in
circulation, and his bile flowing. He went and came on foot, on
horseback, in a carriage, by water; he was at all auctions and timber
sales in Paris, thinking of everything, keeping hundreds of wires in
his hands and never getting them tangled.
Quick, decided in his movements as in his ideas, short and squat in
figure, with a thin nose, a fiery eye, an ear on the "qui vive," there
was something of the hunting-dog about him. His brown face, very round
and sunburned, from which the tanned ears stood out predominantly,--
for he always wore a cap,--was in keeping with that character. His
nose turned up; his tightly-closed lips could never have opened to say
a kindly thing. His bushy whiskers formed a pair of black and shiny
tufts beneath the highly-colored cheek-bones, and were lost in his
cravat. Hair that was pepper-and-salt in color and frizzled naturally
in stages like those of a judge's wig, seeming scorched by the fury of
the fire which heated his brown skull and gleamed in his gray eyes
surrounded by circular wrinkles (no doubt from a habit of always
blinking when he looked across the country in full sunlight),
completed the characteristics of his physiognomy. His lean and
vigorous hands were hairy, knobbed, and claw-like, like those of men
who do their share of labor. His personality was agreeable to those
with whom he had to do, for he wrapped it in a misleading gayety; he
knew how to talk a great deal without saying a word of what he meant
to keep unsaid. He wrote little, so as to deny anything that escaped
him which might prove unfavorable in its after effects upon his
interests. His books and papers were kept by a cashier,--an honest
man, whom men of Gaubertin's stamp always seek to get hold of, and
whom they make, in their own selfish interests, their first dupe.
When Rigou's little green chaise appeared, towards twelve o'clock, in
the broad avenue which skirts the river, Gaubertin, in cap, boots, and
jacket, was returning from the wharves. He hastened his steps,--
feeling very sure that Rigou's object in coming over could only be
"the great affair."
"Good morning, gendarme; good morning, paunch of gall and wisdom," he
said, giving a little slap to the stomachs of his two visitors. "We
have business to talk over, and, faith! we'll do it glass in hand;
that's the true way to take things."
"If you do your business that way, you ought to be fatter than you
are," said Rigou.
"I work too hard; I'm not like you two, confined to the house and
bewitched there, like old dotards. Well, well, after all that's the
best way; you can do your business comfortably in an arm-chair, with
your back to the fire and your belly at table; custom goes to you, I
have to go after it. But now, come in, come in! the house is yours for
the time you stay."
A servant, in blue livery edged with scarlet, took the horse by the
bridle and led him into the courtyard, where were the offices and the
Gaubertin left his guests to walk about the garden for a moment, while
he went to give his orders and arrange about the breakfast.
"Well, my wolves," he said, as he returned, rubbing his hands, "the
gendarmerie of Soulanges were seen this morning at daybreak, marching
towards Conches; no doubt they mean to arrest the peasants for
depredations; ha, ha! things are getting warm, warm! By this time," he
added, looking at his watch, "those fellows may have been arrested."
"Probably," said Rigou.
"Well, what do you all say over there? Has anything been decided?"
"What is there to decide?" asked Rigou. "We have no part in it," he
added, looking at Soudry.
"How do you mean nothing to decide? If Les Aigues is sold as the
result of our coalition, who is to gain five or six hundred thousand
francs out of it? Do you expect me to, all alone? No, my inside is not
strong enough to split up two millions, with three children to
establish, and a wife who hasn't the first idea about the value of
money; no, I must have associates. Here's the gendarme, he has plenty
of funds all ready. I know he doesn't hold a single mortgage that
isn't ready to mature; he only lends now on notes at sight of which I
endorse. I'll go into this thing by the amount of eight hundred
thousand francs; my son, the judge, two hundred thousand; and I count
on the gendarme for two hundred thousand more; now, how much will you
put in, skull-cap?"
"All the rest," replied Rigou, stiffly.
"The devil! well, I wish I had my hand where your heart is!" exclaimed
Gaubertin. "Now what are you going to do?"
"Whatever you do; tell your plan."
"My plan," said Gaubertin, "is to take double, and sell half to the
Conches, and Cerneux, and Blangy folks who want to buy. Soudry has his
clients, and you yours, and I, mine. That's not the difficulty. The
thing is, how are we going to arrange among ourselves? How shall we
divide up the great lots?"
"Nothing easier," said Rigou. "We'll each take what we like best. I,
for one, shall stand in nobody's way; I'll take the woods in common
with Soudry and my son-in-law; the timber has been so injured that you
won't care for it now, and you may have all the rest. Faith, it is
worth the money you'll put into it!"
"Will you sign that agreement?" said Soudry.
"A written agreement is worth nothing," replied Gaubertin. "Besides,
you know I am playing above board; I have perfect confidence in
Rigou, and he shall be the purchaser."
"That will satisfy me," said Rigou.
"I will make only one condition," added Gaubertin. "I must have the
pavilion of the Rendezvous, with all its appurtenances, and fifty
acres of the surrounding land. I shall make it my country-house, and
it shall be near my woods. Madame Gaubertin--Madame Isaure, for that's
what she wants people to call her--says she shall make it her villa."
"I'm willing," said Rigou.
"Well, now, between ourselves," continued Gaubertin, after looking
about him on all sides and making sure that no one could overhear him,
"do you think they are capable of striking a blow?"
"Such as?" asked Rigou, who never allowed himself to understand a
"Well, if the worst of the band, the best shot, sent a ball whistling
round the ears of the count--just to frighten him?"
"He's a man to rush at an assailant and collar him."
"Michaud would do nothing at the moment, but he'd watch and spy till
he found out the man and those who instigated him."
"You are right," said Gaubertin; "those peasants must make a riot and
a few must be sent to the galleys. Well, so much the better for us;
the authorities will catch the worst, whom we shall want to get rid of
after they've done the work. There are those blackguards, the Tonsards
"Tonsard is ready for mischief," said Soudry, "I know that; and we'll
work him up by Vaudoyer and Courtecuisse."
"I'll answer for Courtecuisse," said Rigou.
"And I hold Vaudoyer in the hollow of my hand."
"Be cautious!" said Rigou; "before everything else be cautious."
"Now, papa skull-cap, do you mean to tell me that there's any harm in
speaking of things as they are? Is it we who are indicting and
arresting, or gleaning or depredating? If Monsieur le comte knows what
he's about and leases the woods to the receiver-general it is all up
with our schemes,--'Farewell baskets, the vintage is o'er'; in that
case you will lose more than I. What we say here is between ourselves
and for ourselves; for I certainly wouldn't say a word to Vaudoyer
that I couldn't repeat to God and man. But it is not forbidden, I
suppose, to profit by any events that may take place. The peasantry of
this canton are hot-headed; the general's exactions, his severity,
Michaud's persecutions, and those of his keepers have exasperated
them; to-day things have come to a crisis and I'll bet there's a
rumpus going on now with the gendarmerie. And so, let's go and
Madame Gaubertin came into the garden just then. She was a rather fair
woman with long curls, called English, hanging down her cheeks, who
played the style of sentimental virtue, pretended never to have known
love, talked platonics to all the men about her, and kept the
prosecuting-attorney at her beck and call. She was given to caps with
large bows, but preferred to wear only her hair. She danced, and at
forty-five years of age had the mincing manner of a girl; her feet,
however, were large and her hands frightful. She wished to be called
Isaure, because among her other oddities and absurdities she had the
taste to repudiate the name of Gaubertin as vulgar. Her eyes were
light and her hair of an undecided color, something like dirty
nankeen. Such as she was, she was taken as a model by a number of
young ladies, who stabbed the skies with their glances, and posed as
"Well, gentlemen," she said, bowing, "I have some strange news for
you. The gendarmerie have returned."
"Did they make any prisoners?"
"None; the general, it seems, had previously obtained the pardon of
the depredators. It was given in honor of this happy anniversary of
the king's restoration to France."
The three associates looked at each other.
"He is cleverer than I thought for, that big cuirassier!" said
Gaubertin. "Well, come to breakfast. After all, the game is not lost,
only postponed; it is your affair now, Rigou."
Soudry and Rigou drove back disappointed, not being able as yet to
plan any other catastrophe to serve their ends and relying, as
Gaubertin advised, on what might turn up. Like certain Jacobins at the
outset of the Revolution who were furious with Louis XVI.'s
conciliations, and who provoked severe measures at court in the hope
of producing anarchy, which to them meant fortune and power, the
formidable enemies of General Montcornet staked their present hopes on
the severity which Michaud and his keepers were likely to employ
against future depredators. Gaubertin promised them his assistance,
without explaining who were his co-operators, for he did not wish them
to know about his relations with Sibilet. Nothing can equal the
prudence of a man of Gaubertin's stamp, unless it be that of an ex-
gendarme or an unfrocked priest. This plot could not have been brought
to a successful issue,--a successfully evil issue,--unless by three
such men as these, steeped in hatred and self-interest.
VICTORY WITHOUT A FIGHT
Madame Michaud's fears were the effect of that second sight which
comes of true passion. Exclusively absorbed by one only being, the
soul finally grasps the whole moral world which surrounds that being;
it sees clearly. A woman when she loves feels the same presentiments
which disquiet her later when a mother.
While the poor young woman listened to the confused voices coming from
afar across an unknown space, a scene was really happening in the
tavern of the Grand-I-Vert which threatened her husband's life.
About five o'clock that morning early risers had seen the gendarmerie
of Soulanges on its way to Conches. The news circulated rapidly; and
those whom it chiefly interested were much surprised to learn from
others, who lived on high ground, that a detachment commanded by the
lieutenant of Ville-aux-Fayes had marched through the forest of Les
Aigues. As it was a Monday, there were already good reasons why the
peasants should be at the tavern; but it was also the eve of the
anniversary of the restoration of the Bourbons, and though the
frequenters of Tonsard's den had no need of that "august cause" (as
they said in those days) to explain their presence at the Grand-I-
Vert, they did not fail to make the most of it if the mere shadow of
an official functionary appeared.
Vaudoyer, Courtecuisse, Tonsard and his family, Godain, and an old
vine-dresser named Laroche, were there early in the morning. The
latter was a man who scratched a living from day to day; he was one of
the delinquents collected in Blangy under the sort of subscription
invented by Sibilet and Courtecuisse to disgust the general by the
results of his indictments. Blangy had supplied three men, twelve
women, also eight girls and five boys for whom parent were answerable,
all of whom were in a condition of pauperism; but they were the only
ones who could be found that were so. The year 1823 had been a very
profitable one to the peasantry, and 1826 as likely, through the
enormous quantity of wine yielded, to bring them in a good deal of
money; add to this the works at Les Aigues, undertaken by the general,
which had put a great deal more in circulation throughout the three
districts which bordered on the estate. It had therefore been quite
difficult to find in Blangy, Conches, and Cerneux, one hundred and
twenty indigent persons against whom to bring the suits; and in order
to do so, they had taken old women, mothers, and grandmothers of those
who owned property but who possessed nothing of their own, like
Tonsard's mother. Laroche, an old laborer, possessed absolutely
nothing; he was not, like Tonsard, hot-blooded and vicious,--his
motive power was a cold, dull hatred; he toiled in silence with a
sullen face; work was intolerable to him, but he had to work to live;
his features were hard and their expression repulsive. Though sixty
years old, he was still strong, except that his back was bent; he saw
no future before him, no spot that he could call his own, and he
envied those who possessed the land; for this reason he had no pity on
the forests of Les Aigues, and took pleasure in despoiling them
"Will they be allowed to put us in prison?" he was saying. "After
Conches they'll come to Blangy. I'm an old offender, and I shall get
"What can we do against the gendarmerie, old drunkard?" said Vaudoyer.
"Why! cut the legs of their horses with our scythes. That'll bring
them down; their muskets are not loaded, and when they find us ten to
one against them they'll decamp. If the three villages all rose and
killed two or three gendarmes, they couldn't guillotine the whole of
us. They'd have to give way, as they did on the other side of
Burgundy, where they sent a regiment. Bah! that regiment came back
again, and the peasants cut the woods just as much as they ever did."
"If we kill," said Vaudoyer; "it is better to kill one man; the
question is, how to do it without danger and frighten those Arminacs
so that they'll be driven out of the place."
"Which one shall we kill?" asked Laroche.
"Michaud," said Courtecuisse. "Vaudoyer is right, he's perfectly
right. You'll see that when a keeper is sent to the shades there won't
be one of them willing to stay even in broad daylight to watch us. Now
they're there night and day,--demons!"
"Wherever one goes," said old Mother Tonsard,--who was seventy-eight
years old, and presented a parchment face honey-combed with the small-
pox, lighted by a pair of green eyes, and framed with dirty-white
hair, which escaped in strands from a red handkerchief,--"wherever one
goes, there they are! they stop us, they open our bundles, and if
there's a single branch, a single twig of a miserable hazel, they
seize the whole bundle, and they say they'll arrest us. Ha, the
villains! there's no deceiving them; if they suspect you, you've got
to undo the bundle. Dogs! all three are not worth a farthing! Yes,
kill 'em, and it won't ruin France, I tell you."
"Little Vatel is not so bad," said Madame Tonsard.
"He!" said Laroche, "he does his business, like the others; when
there's a joke going he'll joke with you, but you are none the better
with him for that. He's worse than the rest,--heartless to poor folks,
like Michaud himself."
"Michaud has got a pretty wife, though," said Nicolas Tonsard.
"She's with young," said the old woman; "and if this thing goes on
there'll be a queer kind of baptism for the little one when she
"Oh! those Arminacs!" cried Marie Tonsard; "there's no laughing with
them; and if you did, they'd threaten to arrest you."
"You've tried your hand at cajoling them, have you?" said
"You may bet on that."
"Well," said Tonsard with a determined air, "they are men like other
men, and they can be got rid of."
"But I tell you," said Marie, continuing her topic, "they won't be
cajoled; I don't know what's the matter with them; that bully at the
pavilion, he's married, but Vatel, Gaillard, and Steingel are not;
they've not a woman belonging to them; indeed, there's not a woman in
the place who would marry them."
"Well, we shall see how things go at the harvest and the vintage,"
"They can't stop the gleaning," said the old woman.
"I don't know that," remarked Madame Tonsard. "Groison said that the
mayor was going to publish a notice that no one should glean without a
certificate of pauperism; and who's to give that certificate? Himself,
of course. He won't give many, I tell you! And they say he is going to
issue an order that no one shall enter the fields till the carts are
"Why, the fellow's a pestilence!" cried Tonsard, beside himself with
"I heard that only yesterday," said Madame Tonsard. "I offered Groison
a glass of brandy to get something out of him."
"Groison! there's another lucky fellow!" said Vaudoyer, "they've built
him a house and given him a good wife, and he's got an income and
clothes fit for a king. There was I, field-keeper for twenty years,
and all I got was the rheumatism."
"Yes, he's very lucky," said Godain, "he owns property--"
"And we go without, like the fools that we are," said Vaudoyer. "Come,
let's be off and find out what's going on at Conches; they are not so
patient over there as we are."
"Come on," said Laroche, who was none too steady on his legs. "If I
don't exterminate one of two of those fellows may I lose my name."
"You!" said Tonsard, "you'd let them put the whole district in prison;
but I--if they dare to touch my old mother, there's my gun and it
"Well," said Laroche to Vaudoyer, "I tell you that if they make a
single prisoner at Conches one gendarme shall fall."
"He has said it, old Laroche!" cried Courtecuisse.
"He has said it," remarked Vaudoyer, "but he hasn't done it, and he
won't do it. What good would it do to get yourself guillotined for
some gendarme or other? No, if you kill, I say, kill Michaud."
During this scene Catherine Tonsard stood sentinel at the door to warn
the drinkers to keep silent if any one passed. In spite of their half-
drunken legs they sprang rather than walked out of the tavern, and
their bellicose temper started them at a good pace on the road to
Conches, which led for over a mile along the park wall of Les Aigues.
Conches was a true Burgundian village, with one street, which was
crossed by the main road. The houses were built either of brick or of
cobblestones, and were squalid in aspect. Following the mail-road from
Ville-aux-Fayes, the village was seen from the rear and there it
presented rather a picturesque effect. Between the road and the
Ronquerolles woods, which continued those of Les Aigues and crowned
the heights, flowed a little river, and several houses, rather
prettily grouped, enlivened the scene. The church and the parsonage
stood alone and were seen from the park of Les Aigues, which came
nearly up to them. In front of the church was a square bordered by
trees, where the conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert saw the gendarmerie
and hastened their already hasty steps. Just then three men on
horseback rode rapidly out of the park of Les Aigues and the peasants
at once recognized the general, his groom, and Michaud the bailiff,
who came at a gallop into the square. Tonsard and his party arrived a
minute or two after them. The delinquents, men and women, had made no
resistance, and were standing between five of the Soulanges gendarmes
and fifteen of those from Ville-aux-Fayes. The whole village had
assembled. The fathers, mothers, and children of the prisoners were
going and coming and bringing them what they might want in prison. It
was a curious scene, that of a population one and all exasperated, but
nearly all silent, as though they had made up their minds to a course
of action. The old women and the young ones alone spoke. The children,
boys and girls, were perched on piles of wood and heaps of stones to
get a better sight of what was happening.
"They have chosen their time, those hussars of the guillotine," said
one old woman; "they are making a fete of it."
"Are you going to let 'em carry of your man like that? How shall you
manage to live for three months?--the best of the year, too, when he
could earn so much."
"It's they who rob us," replied the woman, looking at the gendarmes
with a threatening air.
"What do you mean by that, old woman?" said the sergeant. "If you
insult us it won't take long to settle you."
"I meant nothing," said the old woman, in a humble and piteous tone.
"I heard you say something just now you may have cause to repent of."
"Come, come, be calm, all of you," said the mayor of Conches, who was
also the postmaster. "What the devil is the use of talking? These men,
as you know very well, are under orders and must obey."
"That's true; it's the owner of Les Aigues who persecutes us-- But
Just then the general rode into the square and his arrival caused a
few groans which did not trouble him in the least. He rode straight up
to the lieutenant in command, and after saying a few words gave him a
paper; the officer then turned to his men and said: "Release your
prisoners; the general has obtained their pardon."
General Montcornet was then speaking to the mayor; after a few
moments' conversation in a low tone, the latter, addressing the
delinquents, who expected to sleep in prison and were a good deal
surprised to find themselves free, said to them:--
"My friends, thank Monsieur le comte. You owe your release to him. He
went to Paris and obtained your pardon in honor of the anniversary of
the king's restoration. I hope that in future you will conduct
yourself properly to a man who has behaved so well to you, and that
you will in future respect his property. Long live the King!"
The peasants shouted "Long live the King!" with enthusiasm, to avoid
shouting, "Hurrah for the Comte de Montcornet!"
The scene was a bit of policy arranged between the general, the
prefect, and the attorney-general; for they were all anxious, while
showing enough firmness to keep the local authorities up to their duty
and awe the country-people, to be as gentle as possible, fully
realizing as they did the difficulties of the question. In fact, if
resistance had occurred, the government would have been in a tight
place. As Laroche truly said, they could not guillotine or even
convict a whole community.
The general invited the mayor of Conches, the lieutenant, and the
sergeant to breakfast. The conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert adjourned
to the tavern of Conches, where the delinquents spent in drink the
money their relations had given them to take to prison, sharing it
with the Blangy people, who were naturally part of the wedding,--the
word "wedding" being applied indiscriminately in Burgundy to all such
rejoicings. To drink, quarrel, fight, eat and go home drunk and sick,
--that is a wedding to these peasants.
The general, who had come by the park, took his guests back through
the forest that they might see for themselves the injury done to the
timber, and so judge of the importance of the question.
Just as Rigou and Soudry were on their way back to Blangy, the count
and countess, Emile Blondet, the lieutenant of gendarmerie, the
sergeant, and the mayor of Conches were finishing their breakfast in
the splendid dining-room where Bouret's luxury had left the delightful
traces already described by Blondet in his letter to Nathan.
"It would be a terrible pity to abandon this beautiful home," said the
lieutenant, who had never before been at Les Aigues, and who was
glancing over a glass of champagne at the circling nymphs that
supported the ceiling.
"We intend to defend it to the death," said Blondet.
"If I say that," continued the lieutenant, looking at his sergeant as
if to enjoin silence, "it is because the general's enemies are not
only among the peasantry--"
The worthy man was quite moved by the excellence of the breakfast, the
magnificence of the silver service, the imperial luxury that
surrounded him, and Blondet's clever talk excited him as much as the
champagne he had imbibed.
"Enemies! have I enemies?" said the general, surprised.
"He, so kind!" added the countess.
"But you are on bad terms with our mayor, Monsieur Gaubertin," said
the lieutenant. "It would be wise, for the sake of the future, to be
reconciled with him."
"With him!" cried the count. "Then you don't know that he was my
former steward, and a swindler!"
"A swindler no longer," said the lieutenant, "for he is mayor of
"Ha, ha!" laughed Blondet, "the lieutenant's wit is keen; evidently a
mayor is essentially an honest man."
The lieutenant, convinced by the count's words that it was useless to
attempt to enlighten him, said no more on that subject, and the
THE FOREST AND THE HARVEST
The scene at Conches had, apparently, a good effect on the peasantry;
on the other hand, the count's faithful keepers were more than ever
watchful that only dead wood should be gathered in the forest of Les
Aigues. But for the last twenty years the woods had been so thoroughly
cleared out that very little else than live wood was now there; and
this the peasantry set about killing, in preparation for winter, by a
simple process, the results of which could only be discovered in the
course of time. Tonsard's mother went daily into the forest; the
keepers saw her enter; knew where she would come out; watched for her
and made her open her bundle, where, to be sure, were only fallen
branches, dried chips, and broken and withered twigs. The old woman
would whine and complain at the distance she had to go at her age to
gather such a miserable bunch of fagots. But she did not tell that she
had been in the thickest part of the wood and had removed the earth at
the base of certain young trees, round which she had then cut off a
ring of bark, replacing the earth, moss, and dead leaves just as they
were before she touched them. It was impossible that any one could
discover this annular incision, made, not like a cut, but more like
the ripping or gnawing of animals or those destructive insects called
in different regions borers, or turks, or white worms, which are the
first stage of cockchafers. These destructive pests are fond of the
bark of trees; they get between the bark and the sap-wood and eat
their way round. If the tree is large enough for the insect to pass
into its second state (of larvae, in which it remains dormant until
its second metamorphose) before it has gone round the trunk, the tree
lives, because so long as even a small bit of the sap-wood remains
covered by the bark, the tree will still grow and recover itself. To
realize to what a degree entomology affects agriculture, horticulture,
and all earth products, we must know that naturalists like Latreille,
the Comte Dejean, Klugg of Berlin, Gene of Turin, etc., find that the
vast majority of all known insects live at the sacrifice of
vegetation; that the coleoptera (a catalogue of which has lately been
published by Monsieur Dejean) have twenty-seven thousand species, and
that, in spite of the most earnest research on the part of
entomologists of all countries, there is an enormous number of species
of whom they cannot trace the triple transformations which belong to
all insects; that there is, in short, not only a special insect to
every plant, but that all terrestrial products, however much they may
be manipulated by human industry, have their particular parasite. Thus
flax, after covering the human body and hanging the human being, after
roaming the world on the back of an army, becomes writing-paper; and
those who write or who read are familiar with the habits and morals of
an insect called the "paper-louse," an insect of really marvellous
celerity and behavior; it undergoes its mysterious transformations in
a ream of white paper which you have carefully put away; you see it
gliding and frisking along in its shining robe, that looks like
isinglass or mica,--truly a little fish of another element.
The borer is the despair of the land-owner; he works underground; no
Sicilian vespers for him until he becomes a cockchafer! If the
populations only realized with what untold disasters they are
threatened in case they let the cockchafers and the caterpillars get
the upper hand, they would pay more attention than they do to
Holland came near perishing; its dikes were undermined by the teredo,
and science is unable to discover the insect from which that mollusk
derives, just as science still remains ignorant of the metamorphoses
of the cochineal. The ergot, or spur, of rye is apparently a
population of insects where the genius of science has been able, so
far, to discover only one slight movement. Thus, while awaiting the
harvest and gleaning, fifty old women imitated the borer at the feet
of five or six hundred trees which were fated to become skeletons and
to put forth no more leaves in the spring. They were carefully chosen
in the least accessible places, so that the surrounding branches
Who conveyed the secret information by which this was done? No one.
Courtecuisse happened to complain in Tonsard's tavern of having found
a tree wilting in his garden; it seemed he said, to have a disease,
and he suspected a borer; for he, Courtecuisse, knew what borers were,
and if they once circled a tree just below the ground, the tree died.
Thereupon he explained the process. The old women at once set to work
at the same destruction, with the mystery and cleverness of gnomes;
and their efforts were doubled by the rules now enforced by the mayor
of Blangy and necessarily followed by the mayors of the adjoining
The great land-owners of the department applauded General de
Montcornet's course; and the prefect in his private drawing-room
declared that if, instead of living in Paris, other land-owners would
come and live on their estates and follow such a course together, a
solution of the difficulty could be obtained; for certain measures,
added the prefect, ought to be taken, and taken in concert, modified
by benefactions and by an enlightened philanthropy, such as every one
could see actuated in General Montcornet.
The general and his wife, assisted by the abbe, tried the effects of
such benevolence. They studied the subject, and endeavored to show by
incontestable results to those who pillaged them that more money could
be made by legitimate toil. They supplied flax and paid for the
spinning; the countess had the thread woven into linen suitable for
towels, aprons, and coarse napkins for kitchen use, and for
underclothing for the very poor. The general began improvements which
needed many laborers, and he employed none but those in the adjoining
districts. Sibilet was in charge of the works and the Abbe Brossette
gave the countess lists of the most needy, and often brought them to
her himself. Madame de Montcornet attended to these matters personally
in the great antechamber which opened upon the portico. It was a
beautiful waiting-room, floored with squares of white and red marble,
warmed by a porcelain stove, and furnished with benches covered with
It was there that one morning, just before harvest, old Mother Tonsard
brought her granddaughter Catherine, who had to make, she said, a
dreadful confession,--dreadful for the honor of a poor but honest
family. While the old woman addressed the countess Catherine stood in
an attitude of conscious guilt. Then she related on her own account
the unfortunate "situation" in which she was placed, which she had
confided to none but her grandmother; for her mother, she knew, would
turn her out, and her father, an honorable man, might kill her. If she
only had a thousand francs she could be married to a poor laborer
named Godain, who KNEW ALL, and who loved her like a brother; he could
buy a poor bit of ground and build a cottage if she had that sum. It
was very touching. The countess promised the money; resolving to
devote the price of some fancy to this marriage. The happy marriages
of Michaud and Groison encouraged her. Besides, such a wedding would
be a good example to the people of the neighborhood and stimulate to
virtuous conduct. The marriage of Catherine Tonsard and Godain was
accordingly arranged by means of the countess's thousand francs.
Another time a horrible old woman, Mother Bonnebault, who lived in a
hut between the gate of Conches and the village, brought back a great
bundle of skeins of linen thread.
"Madame la comtesse has done wonders," said the abbe, full of hope as
to the moral progress of his savages. "That old woman did immense
damage to your woods, but now she has no time for it; she stays at
home and spins from morning till night; her time is all taken up and
well paid for."
Peace reigned everywhere. Groison made very satisfactory reports;
depredations seemed to have ceased, and it is even possible that the
state of the neighborhood and the feeling of the inhabitants might
really have changed if it had not been for the revengeful eagerness of
Gaubertin, the cabals of the leading society of Soulanges, and the
intrigues of Rigou, who one and all, with "the affair" in view, blew
the embers of hatred and crime in the hearts of the peasantry of the
valley des Aigues.
The keepers still complained of finding a great many branches cut with
shears in the deeper parts of the wood and left to dry, evidently as a
provision for winter. They watched for the delinquents without ever
being able to catch them. The count, assisted by Groison, had given
certificates of pauperism to only thirty or forty of the real poor of
the district; but the other two mayors had been less strict. The more
clement the count showed himself in the affair at Conches the more
determined he was to enforce the laws about gleaning, which had now
degenerated into theft. He did not interfere with the management of
three of his farms which were leased to tenants, nor with those whose
tenants worked for his profit, of which he had a number; but he
managed six farms himself, each of about two hundred acres, and he now
published a notice that it was forbidden, under pain of being arrested
and made to pay the fine imposed by the courts, to enter those fields
before the crop was carried away. The order concerned only his own
immediate property. Rigou, who knew the country well, had let his
farm-lands in portions and on short leases to men who knew how to get
in their own crops, and who paid him in grain; therefore gleaning did
not affect him. The other proprietors were peasants, and no nefarious
gleaning was attempted on their land.
When the harvest began the count went himself to Michaud to see how
things were going on. Groison, who advised him to do this, was to be
present himself at the gleaning of each particular field. The
inhabitants of cities can have no idea what gleaning is to the
inhabitants of the country; the passion of these sons of the soil for
it seems inexplicable; there are women who will give up well-paid
employments to glean. The wheat they pick up seems to them sweeter
than any other; and the provision they thus make for their chief and
most substantial food has to them an extraordinary attraction. Mothers
take their babes and their little girls and boys; the feeblest old men
drag themselves into the wheat-fields; and even those who own property
are paupers for the nonce. All gleaners appear in rags.
The count and Michaud were present on horseback when the first
tattered batch entered the first fields from which the wheat had been
carried. It was ten o'clock in the morning. August had been a hot
month, the sky was cloudless, blue as a periwinkle; the earth was
baked, the wheat flamed, the harvestmen worked with their faces
scorched by the reflection of the sun-rays on the hard and arid earth.
All were silent, their shirts wet with perspiration; while from time
to time, they slaked their thirst with water from round, earthenware
jugs, furnished with two handles and a mouth-piece stoppered with a
At the father end of the stubble-field stood the carts which contained
the sheaves, and near them a group of at least a hundred beings who
far exceeded the hideous conceptions of Murillo and Teniers, the
boldest painters of such scenes, or of Callot, that poet of the
fantastic in poverty. The pictured bronze legs, the bare heads, the
ragged garments so curiously faded, so damp with grease, so darned and
spotted and discolored, in short, the painters' ideal of the material
of abject poverty was far surpassed by this scene; while the
expression on those faces, greedy, anxious, doltish, idiotic, savage,
showed the everlasting advantage which nature possesses over art by
its comparison with the immortal compositions of those princes of
color. There were old women with necks like turkeys, and hairless,
scarlet eyelids, who stretched their heads forward like setters before
a partridge; there were children, silent as soldiers under arms,
little girls who stamped like animals waiting for their food; the
natures of childhood and old age were crushed beneath the fierceness
of a savage greed,--greed for the property of others now their own by
long abuse. All eyes were savage, all gestures menacing; but every one
kept silence in presence of the count, the field-keeper, and the
bailiff. At this moment all classes were represented,--the great land-
owners, the farmers, the working men, the paupers; the social question
was defined to the eye; hunger had convoked the actors in the scene.
The sun threw into relief the hard and hollow features of those faces;
it burned the bare feet dusty with the soil; children were present
with no clothing but a torn blouse, their blond hair tangled with
straw and chips; some women brought their babes just able to walk, and
left them rolling in the furrows.
The gloomy scene was harrowing to the old soldier, whose heart was
kind, and he said to Michaud: "It pains me to see it. One must know
the importance of these measures to be able to insist upon them."
"If every land-owner followed your example, lived on his property, and
did the good that you and yours are doing, general, there would be, I
won't say no poor, for they are always with us, but no poor man who
could not live by his labor."
"The mayors of Conches, Cerneux, and Soulanges have sent us all their
paupers," said Groison, who had now looked at the certificates; "they
had no right to do so."
"No, but our people will go to their districts," said the general.
"For the time being we have done enough by preventing the gleaning
before the sheaves were taken away; we had better go step by step," he
added, turning to leave the field.
"Did you hear him?" said Mother Tonsard to the old Bonnebault woman,
for the general's last words were said in a rather louder tone than
the rest, and reached the ears of the two old women who were posted in
the road which led beside the field.
"Yes, yes! we haven't got to the end yet,--a tooth to-day and to-
morrow an ear; if they could find a sauce for our livers they'd eat
'em as they do a calf's!" said old Bonnebault, whose threatening face
was turned in profile to the general as he passed her, though in the
twinkling of an eye she changed its expression to one of hypocritical
softness and submission as she hastened to make him a profound
"So you are gleaning, are you, though my wife helps you to earn so
"Hey! my dear gentleman, may God preserve you in good health! but,
don't you see, my grandson squanders all I earn, and I'm forced to
scratch up a little wheat to get bread in the winter,--yes, yes, I
glean just a bit; it all helps."
The gleaning proved of little profit to the gleaners. The farmers and
tenant-farmers, finding themselves backed up, took care that their
wheat was well reaped, and superintended the making of the sheaves and
their safe removal, so that little or none of the pillage of former
years could take place.
Accustomed to get a good proportion of wheat in their gleaning, the
false as well as the true poor, forgetting the count's pardon at
Conches, now felt a deep but silent anger against him, which was
aggravated by the Tonsards, Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Laroche,
Vaudoyer, Godain, and their adherents. Matters went worse still after
the vintage; for the gathering of the refuse grape was not allowed
until Sibilet had examined the vines with extreme care. This last
restriction exasperated these sons of the soil to the highest pitch;
but when so great a social distance separates the angered class from
the threatened class, words and threats are lost; nothing comes to the
surface or is perceived but facts; meantime the malcontents work
underground like moles.
The fair of Soulanges took place as usual quite peacefully, except for
certain jarrings between the leading society and the second-class
society of Soulanges, brought about by the despotism of the queen, who
could not tolerate the empire founded and established over the heart
of the brilliant Lupin by the beautiful Euphemie Plissoud, for she
herself laid permanent claim to his fickle fervors.
The count and countess did not appear at the fair nor at the Tivoli
fete; and that, again, was counted a wrong by the Soudrys, the
Gaubertins, and their adherents; it was pride, it was disdain, said
the Soudry salon. During this time the countess was filling the void
caused by Emile's return to Paris with the immense interest and
pleasure all fine souls take in the good they are doing, or think they
do; and the count, for his part, applied himself no less zealously to
changes and ameliorations in the management of his estate, which he
expected and believed would modify and benefit the condition of the
people and hence their characters. Madame de Montcornet, assisted by
the advice and experience of the Abbe Brossette, came, little by
little, to have a thorough and statistical knowledge of all the poor
families of the district, their respective condition, their wants,
their means of subsistence, and the sort of help she must give to each
to obtain work so as not to make them lazy or idle.
The countess had placed Genevieve Niseron, La Pechina, in a convent at
Auxerre, under pretext of having her taught to sew that she might
employ her in her own house, but really to save her from the shameful
attempts of Nicolas Tonsard, whom Rigou had managed to save from the
conscription. The countess also believed that a religious education,
the cloister, and monastic supervision, would subdue the ardent
passions of the precocious little girl, whose Montenegrin blood seemed
to her like a threatening flame which might one day set fire to the
domestic happiness of her faithful Olympe.
So all was at peace at the chateau des Aigues. The count, misled by
Sibilet, reassured by Michaud, congratulated himself on his firmness,
and thanked his wife for having contributed by her benevolence to the
immense comfort of their tranquillity. The question of the sale of his
timber was laid aside till he should go to Paris and arrange with the
dealers. He had not the slightest notion of how to do business, and he
was in total ignorance of the power wielded by Gaubertin over the
current of the Yonne,--the main line of conveyance which supplied the
timber of the Paris market.
Towards the middle of September Emile Blondet, who had gone to Paris
to publish a book, returned to refresh himself at Les Aigues and to
think over the work he was planning for the winter. At Les Aigues, the
loving and sincere qualities which succeed adolescence in a young
man's soul reappeared in the used-up journalist.
"What a fine soul!" was the comment of the count and the countess when
they spoke of him.
Men who are accustomed to move among the abysses of social nature, to
understand all and to repress nothing, make themselves an oasis in the
heart, where they forget their perversities and those of others; they
become within that narrow and sacred circle,--saints; there, they
possess the delicacy of women, they give themselves up to a momentary
realization of their ideal, they become angelic for some one being who
adores them, and they are not playing comedy; they join their soul to
innocence, so to speak; they feel the need to brush off the mud, to
heal their sores, to bathe their wounds. At Les Aigues Emile Blondet
was without bitterness, without sarcasm, almost without wit; he made
no epigrams, he was gentle as a lamb, and platonically tender.
"He is such a good young fellow that I miss him terribly when he is
not here," said the general. "I do wish he could make a fortune and
not lead that Paris life of his."
Never did the glorious landscape and park of Les Aigues seem as
luxuriantly beautiful as it did just then. The first autumn days were
beginning, when the earth, languid from her procreations and delivered
of her products, exhales the delightful odors of vegetation. At this
time the woods, especially, are delicious; they begin to take the
russet warmth of Sienna earth, and the green-bronze tones which form
the lovely tapestry beneath which they hide from the cold of winter.
Nature, having shown herself in springtime jaunty and joyous as a
brunette glowing with hope, becomes in autumn sad and gentle as a
blonde full of pensive memories; the turf yellows, the last flowers
unfold their pale corollas, the white-eyed daisies are fewer in the
grass, only their crimson calices are seen. Yellows abound; the shady
places are lighter for lack of leafage, but darker in tone; the sun,
already oblique, slides its furtive orange rays athwart them, leaving
long luminous traces which rapidly disappear, like the train of a
woman's gown as she bids adieu.
On the morning of the second day after his arrival, Emile was at a
window of his bedroom, which opened upon a terrace with a balustrade
from which a noble view could be seen. This balcony ran the whole
length of the apartments of the countess, on the side of the chateau
towards the forests and the Blangy landscape. The pond, which would
have been called a lake were Les Aigues nearer Paris, was partly in
view, so was the long canal; the Silver-spring, coming from across the
pavilion of the Rendezvous, crossed the lawn with its sheeny ribbon,
reflecting the yellow sand.
Beyond the park, between the village and the walls, lay the cultivated
parts of Blangy,--meadows where the cows were grazing, small
properties surrounded by hedges, filled with fruit of all kinds, nut
and apple trees. By way of frame, the heights on which the noble
forest-trees were ranged, tier above tier, closed in the scene. The
countess had come out in her slippers to look at the flowers in her
balcony, which were sending up their morning fragrance; she wore a
cambric dressing-gown, beneath which the rosy tints of her white
shoulders could be seen; a coquettish little cap was placed in a
bewitching manner on her hair, which escaped it recklessly; her little
feet showed their warm flesh color through the transparent stockings;
the cambric gown, unconfined at the waist, floated open as the breeze
took it, and showed an embroidered petticoat.
"Oh! are you there?" she said.
"What are you looking at?"
"A pretty question! You have torn me from the contemplation of Nature.
Tell me, countess, will you go for a walk in the woods this morning
"What an idea! You know I have a horror of walking."
"We will only walk a little way; I'll drive you in the tilbury and
take Joseph to hold the horses. You have never once set foot in your
forest; and I have just noticed something very curious, a phenomenon;
there are spots where the tree-tops are the color of Florentine
bronze, the leaves are dried--"
"Well, I'll dress."
"Oh, if you do, we can't get off for two hours. Take a shawl, put on a
bonnet, and boots; that's all you want. I shall tell them to harness."
"You always make me do what you want; I'll be ready in a minute."
"General," said Blondet, waking the count, who grumbled and turned
over, like a man who wants his morning sleep. "We are going for a
drive; won't you come?"
A quarter of an hour later the tilbury was slowly rolling along the
park avenue, followed by a liveried groom on horseback.
The morning was a September morning. The dark blue of the sky burst
forth here and there from the gray of the clouds, which seemed the sky
itself, the ether seeming to be the accessory; long lines of
ultramarine lay upon the horizon, but in strata, which alternated with
other lines like sand-bars; these tones changed and grew green at the
level of the forests. The earth beneath this overhanging mantle was
moistly warm, like a woman when she rises; it exhaled sweet, luscious
odors, which yet were wild, not civilized,--the scent of cultivation
was added to the scents of the woods. Just then the Angelus was
ringing at Blangy, and the sounds of the bell, mingling with the wild
concert of the forest, gave harmony to the silence. Here and there
were rising vapors, white, diaphanous.
Seeing these lovely preparations of Nature, the fancy had seized
Olympe Michaud to accompany her husband, who had to give an order to a
keeper whose house was not far off. The Soulanges doctor advised her
to walk as long as she could do so without fatigue; she was afraid of
the midday heat and went out only in the early morning or evening.
Michaud now took her with him, and they were followed by the dog he
loved best,--a handsome greyhound, mouse-colored with white spots,
greedy, like all greyhounds, and as full of vices as most animals who
know they are loved and petted.
So, then the tilbury reached the pavilion of the Rendezvous, the
countess, who stopped to ask how Madame Michaud felt, was told she had
gone into the forest with her husband.
"Such weather inspires everybody," said Blondet, turning his horse at
hazard into one of the six avenues of the forest; "Joseph, you know
the woods, don't you?"
And away they went. The avenue they took happened to be one of the
most delightful in the forest; it soon turned and grew narrower, and
presently became a winding way, on which the sunshine flickered
through rifts in the leafy roof, and where the breeze brought odors of
lavender, and thyme, and the wild mint, and that of falling leaves,
which sighed as they fell. Dew-drops on the trees and on the grass
were scattered like seeds by the passing of the light carriage; the
occupants as they rolled along caught glimpses of the mysterious
visions of the woods,--those cool depths, where the verdure is moist
and dark, where the light softens as it fades; those white-birch
glades o'ertopped by some centennial tree, the Hercules of the forest;
those glorious assemblages of knotted, mossy trunks, whitened and
furrowed, and the banks of delicate wild plants and fragile flowers
which grow between a woodland road and the forest. The brooks sang.
Truly there is a nameless pleasure in driving a woman along the ups
and downs of a slippery way carpeted with moss, where she pretends to
be afraid or really is so, and you are conscious that she is drawing
closer to you, letting you feel, voluntarily or involuntarily, the
cool moisture of her arm, the weight of her round, white shoulder,
though she merely smiles when told that she hinders you in driving.
The horse seems to know the secret of these interruptions, and he
looks about him from right to left.
It was a new sight to the countess; this nature so vigorous in its
effects, so little seen and yet so grand, threw her into a languid
revery; she leaned back in the tilbury and yielded herself up to the
pleasure of being there with Emile; her eyes were charmed, her heart
spoke, she answered to the inward voice that harmonized with hers. He,
too, glanced at her furtively; he enjoyed that dreamy meditation,
while the ribbons of the bonnet floated on the morning breeze with the
silky curls of the golden hair. In consequence of going they knew not
where, they presently came to a locked gate, of which they had not the
key. Joseph was called up, but neither had he a key.
"Never mind, let us walk; Joseph can take care of the tilbury; we
shall easily find it again."
Emile and the countess plunged into the forest, and soon reached a
small interior cleared space, such as is often met with in the woods.
Twenty years earlier the charcoal-burners had made it their kiln, and
the place still remained open, quite a large circumference having been
burned over. But during those twenty years Nature had made herself a
garden of flowers, a blooming "parterre" for her own enjoyment, just
as an artist gives himself the delight of painting a picture for his
own happiness. The enchanting spot was surrounded by fine trees, whose
tops hung over like vast fringes and made a dais above this flowery
couch where slept the goddess. The charcoal-burners had followed a
path to a pond, always full of water. The path is there still; it
invites you to step into it by a turn full of mystery; then suddenly
it stops short and you come upon a bank where a thousand roots run
down to the water and make a sort of canvas in the air. This hidden
pond has a narrow grassy edge, where a few willows and poplars lend
their fickle shade to a bank of turf which some lazy or pensive
charcoal-burner must have made for his enjoyment. The frogs hop about,
the teal bathe in the pond, the water-fowl come and go, a hare starts;
you are the master of this delicious bath, decorated with iris and
bulrushes. Above your head the trees take many attitudes; here the
trunks twine down like boa-constrictors, there the beeches stand erect
as a Greek column. The snails and the slugs move peacefully about. A
tench shows its gills, a squirrel looks at you; and at last, after
Emile and the countess, tired with her walk, were seated, a bird, but
I know not what bird it was, sang its autumn song, its farewell song,
to which the other songsters listened,--a song welcome to love, and
heard by every organ of the being.
"What silence!" said the countess, with emotion and in a whisper, as
if not to trouble this deep peace.
They looked at the green patches on the water,--worlds where life was
organizing; they pointed to the lizard playing in the sun and escaping
at their approach,--behavior which has won him the title of "the
friend of man." "Proving, too, how well he knows him," said Emile.
They watched the frogs, who, less distrustful, returned to the surface
of the pond, winking their carbuncle eyes as they sat upon the water-
cresses. The sweet and simple poetry of Nature permeated these two
souls surfeited with the conventional things of life, and filled them
with contemplative emotion. Suddenly Blondet shuddered. Turning to the
countess he said,--
"Did you hear that?"
"What?" she asked.
"A curious noise."
"Ah, you literary men who live in your studies and know nothing of the
country! that is only a woodpecker tapping a tree. I dare say you
don't even know the most curious fact in the history of that bird. As
soon as he has given his tap, and he gives millions to pierce an oak,
he flies behind the tree to see if he is yet through it; and he does
this every instant."
"The noise I heard, dear instructress of natural history, was not a
noise made by an animal; there was evidence of mind in it, and that
proclaims a man."
The countess was seized with panic, and she darted back through the
wild flower-garden, seeking the path by which to leave the forest.
"What is the matter?" cried Blondet, rushing after her.
"I thought I saw eyes," she said, when they regained the path through
which they had reached the charcoal-burner's open.
Just then they heard the low death-rattle of a creature whose throat
was suddenly cut, and the countess, with her fears redoubled, fled so
quickly that Blondet could scarcely follow her. She ran like a will-
o'-the-wisp, and did not listen to Blondet who called to her, "You are
mistaken." On she ran, and Emile with her, till they suddenly came
upon Michaud and his wife, who were walking along arm-in-arm. Emile
was panting and the countess out of breath, and it was some time
before they could speak; then they explained. Michaud joined Blondet
in laughing at the countess's terror; then the bailiff showed the two
wanderers the way to find the tilbury. When they reached the gate
Madame Michaud called, "Prince!"
"Prince! Prince!" called the bailiff; then he whistled,--but no
Emile mentioned the curious noise that began their adventure.
"My wife heard that noise," said Michaud, "and I laughed at her."
"They have killed Prince!" exclaimed the countess. "I am sure of it;
they killed him by cutting his throat at one blow. What I heard was
the groan of a dying animal."
"The devil!" cried Michaud; "the matter must be cleared up."
Emile and the bailiff left the two ladies with Joseph and the horses,
and returned to the wild garden of the open. They went down the bank
to the pond; looked everywhere along the slope, but found no clue.
Blondet jumped back first, and as he did so he saw, in a thicket which
stood on higher ground, one of those trees he had noticed in the
morning with withered heads. He showed it to Michaud, and proposed to
go to it. The two sprang forward in a straight line across the forest,
avoiding the trunks and going round the matted tangles of brier and
holly until they found the tree.
"It is a fine elm," said Michaud, "but there's a worm in it,--a worm
which gnaws round the bark close to the roots."
He stopped and took up a bit of the bark, saying: "See how they work."
"You have a great many worms in this forest," said Blondet.
Just then Michaud noticed a red spot; a moment more and he saw the
head of his greyhound. He sighed.
"The scoundrels!" he said. "Madame was right."
Michaud and Blondet examined the body and found, just as the countess
had said, that some one had cut the greyhound's throat. To prevent his
barking he had been decoyed with a bit of meat, which was still
between his tongue and his palate.
"Poor brute; he died of self-indulgence."
"Like all princes," said Blondet.
"Some one, whoever it is, has just gone, fearing that we might catch
him or her," said Michaud. "A serious offence has been committed. But
for all that, I see no branches about and no lopped trees."
Blondet and the bailiff began a cautious search, looking at each spot
where they set their feet before setting them. Presently Blondet
pointed to a tree beneath which the grass was flattened down and two
"Some one knelt there, and it must have been a woman, for a man would
not have left such a quantity of flattened grass around the impression
of his two knees; yes, see! that is the outline of a petticoat."
The bailiff, after examining the base of the tree, found the beginning
of a hole beneath the bark; but he did not find the worm with the
tough skin, shiny and squamous, covered with brown specks, ending in a
tail not unlike that of a cockchafer, and having also the latter's
head, antennae, and the two vigorous hooks or shears with which the
creature cuts into the wood.