The Country Doctor
Honore de Balzac
Part 1 out of 5
Produced by Dagny
THE COUNTRY DOCTOR
HONORE DE BALZAC
Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell
"For a wounded heart--shadow and silence."
To my Mother
In hardly any of his books, with the possible exception of /Eugenie
Grandet/, does Balzac seem to have taken a greater interest than in
/Le Medecin de Campagne/; and the fact of this interest, together with
the merit and intensity of the book in each case, is, let it be
repeated, a valid argument against those who would have it that there
was something essentially sinister both in his genius and his
/Le Medecin de Campagne/ was an early book; it was published in 1833,
a date of which there is an interesting mark in the selection of the
name "Evelina," the name of Madame Hanska, whom Balzac had just met,
for the lost Jansenist love of Benassis; and it had been on the stocks
for a considerable time. It is also noteworthy, as lying almost
entirely outside the general scheme of the /Comedie Humaine/ as far as
personages go. Its chief characters in the remarkable, if not
absolutely impeccable, /repertoire/ of MM. Cerfberr and Christophe
(they have, a rare thing with them, missed Agathe the forsaken
mistress) have no references appended to their articles, except to the
book itself; and I cannot remember that any of the more generally
pervading /dramatis personae/ of the Comedy makes even an incidental
appearance here. The book is as isolated as its scene and subject--I
might have added, as its own beauty, which is singular and unique, nor
wholly easy to give a critical account of. The transformation of the
/cretin/-haunted desert into a happy valley is in itself a commonplace
of the preceding century; it may be found several times over in
Marmontel's /Contes Moraux/, as well as in other places. The extreme
minuteness of detail, effective as it is in the picture of the house
and elsewhere, becomes a little tedious even for well-tried and
well-affected readers, in reference to the exact number of cartwrights
and harness-makers, and so forth; while the modern reader pure and
simple, though schooled to endure detail, is schooled to endure it
only of the ugly. The minor characters and episodes, with the
exception of the wonderful story or legend of Napoleon by Private
Goguelat, and the private himself, are neither of the first interest,
nor always carefully worked out: La Fosseuse, for instance, is a very
tantalizingly unfinished study, of which it is nearly certain that
Balzac must at some time or other have meant to make much more than he
has made; Genestas, excellent as far as he goes, is not much more than
a type; and there is nobody else in the foreground at all except the
It is, however, beyond all doubt in the very subordination of these
other characters to Benassis, and in the skilful grouping of the whole
as background and adjunct to him, that the appeal of the book as art
consists. From that point of view there are grounds for regarding it
as the finest of the author's work in the simple style, the least
indebted to super-added ornament or to mere variety. The dangerous
expedient of a /recit/, of which the eighteenth-century novelists were
so fond, has never been employed with more successful effect than in
the confession of Benassis, at once the climax and the centre of the
story. And one thing which strikes us immediately about this
confession is the universality of its humanity and its strange freedom
from merely national limitations. To very few French novelists--to few
even of those who are generally credited with a much softer mould and
a much purer morality than Balzac is popularly supposed to have been
able to boast--would inconstancy to a mistress have seemed a fault
which could be reasonably punished, which could be even reasonably
represented as having been punished in fact, by the refusal of an
honest girl's love in the first place. Nor would many have conceived
as possible, or have been able to represent in lifelike colors, the
lifelong penance which Benassis imposes on himself. The tragic end,
indeed, is more in their general way, but they would seldom have known
how to lead up to it.
In almost all ways Balzac has saved himself from the dangers incident
to his plan in this book after a rather miraculous fashion. The
Goguelat myth may seem disconnected, and he did as a matter of fact
once publish it separately; yet it sets off (in the same sort of
felicitous manner of which Shakespeare's clown-scenes and others are
the capital examples in literature) both the slightly matter-of-fact
details of the beatification of the valley and the various minute
sketches of places and folk, and the almost superhuman goodness of
Benassis, and his intensely and piteously human suffering and remorse.
It is like the red cloak in a group; it lights, warms, inspirits the
And perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is the way in which
Balzac in this story, so full of goodness of feeling, of true religion
(for if Benassis is not an ostensible practiser of religious rites, he
avows his orthodoxy in theory, and more than justifies it in
practice), has almost entirely escaped the sentimentality /plus/
unorthodoxy of similar work in the eighteenth century, and the
sentimentality /plus/ orthodoxy of similar work in the nineteenth.
Benassis no doubt plays Providence in a manner and with a success
which it is rarely given to mortal man to achieve; but we do not feel
either the approach to sham, or the more than approach to gush, with
which similar handling on the part of Dickens too often affects some
of us. The sin and the punishment of the Doctor, the thoroughly human
figures of Genestas and the rest, save the situation from this and
other drawbacks. We are not in the Cockaigne of perfectibility, where
Marmontel and Godwin disport themselves; we are in a very practical
place, where time-bargains in barley are made, and you pay the
respectable, if not lavish board of ten francs per day for
entertainment to man and beast.
And yet, explain as we will, there will always remain something
inexplicable in the appeal of such a book as the /Medecin de
Campagne/. This helps, and that, and the other; we can see what change
might have damaged the effect, and what have endangered it altogether.
We must, of course, acknowledge that as it is there are /longueurs/,
intrusion of Saint Simonian jargon, passages of /galimatias/, and of
preaching. But of what in strictness produces the good effect we can
only say one thing, and that is, it was the genius of Balzac working
as it listed and as it knew how to work.
The book was originally published by Mme. Delaunay in September 1833
in two volumes and thirty-six chapters with headings. Next year it was
republished in four volumes by Werdet, and the last fifteen chapters
were thrown together into four. In 1836 it reappeared with dedication
and date, but with the divisions further reduced to seven; being those
which here appear, with the addition of two, "La Fosseuse" and "Propos
de Braves Gens" between "A Travers Champs" and "Le Napoleon du
Peuple." These two were removed in 1839, when it was published in a
single volume by Charpentier. In all these issues the book was
independent. It became a "Scene de la Vie de Campagne" in 1846, and
was then admitted into the /Comedie/. The separate issues of
Goguelat's story referred to above made their appearances first in
/L'Europe Litteraire/ for June 19, 1833 (/before/ the book form), and
then with the imprint of a sort of syndicate of publishers in 1842.
THE COUNTRYSIDE AND THE MAN
On a lovely spring morning in the year 1829, a man of fifty or
thereabouts was wending his way on horseback along the mountain road
that leads to a large village near the Grande Chartreuse. This village
is the market town of a populous canton that lies within the limits of
a valley of some considerable length. The melting of the snows had
filled the boulder-strewn bed of the torrent (often dry) that flows
through this valley, which is closely shut in between two parallel
mountain barriers, above which the peaks of Savoy and of Dauphine
tower on every side.
All the scenery of the country that lies between the chain of the two
Mauriennes is very much alike; yet here in the district through which
the stranger was traveling there are soft undulations of the land, and
varying effects of light which might be sought for elsewhere in vain.
Sometimes the valley, suddenly widening, spreads out a soft
irregularly-shaped carpet of grass before the eyes; a meadow
constantly watered by the mountain streams that keep it fresh and
green at all seasons of the year. Sometimes a roughly-built sawmill
appears in a picturesque position, with its stacks of long pine trunks
with the bark peeled off, and its mill stream, brought from the bed of
the torrent in great square wooden pipes, with masses of dripping
filament issuing from every crack. Little cottages, scattered here and
there, with their gardens full of blossoming fruit trees, call up the
ideas that are aroused by the sight of industrious poverty; while the
thought of ease, secured after long years of toil, is suggested by
some larger houses farther on, with their red roofs of flat round
tiles, shaped like the scales of a fish. There is no door, moreover,
that does not duly exhibit a basket in which the cheeses are hung up
to dry. Every roadside and every croft is adorned with vines; which
here, as in Italy, they train to grow about dwarf elm trees, whose
leaves are stripped off to feed the cattle.
Nature, in her caprice, has brought the sloping hills on either side
so near together in some places, that there is no room for fields, or
buildings, or peasants' huts. Nothing lies between them but the
torrent, roaring over its waterfalls between two lofty walls of
granite that rise above it, their sides covered with the leafage of
tall beeches and dark fir trees to the height of a hundred feet. The
trees, with their different kinds of foliage, rise up straight and
tall, fantastically colored by patches of lichen, forming magnificent
colonnades, with a line of straggling hedgerow of guelder rose, briar
rose, box and arbutus above and below the roadway at their feet. The
subtle perfume of this undergrowth was mingled just then with scents
from the wild mountain region and with the aromatic fragrance of young
larch shoots, budding poplars, and resinous pines.
Here and there a wreath of mist about the heights sometimes hid and
sometimes gave glimpses of the gray crags, that seemed as dim and
vague as the soft flecks of cloud dispersed among them. The whole face
of the country changed every moment with the changing light in the
sky; the hues of the mountains, the soft shades of their lower slopes,
the very shape of the valleys seemed to vary continually. A ray of
sunlight through the tree-stems, a clear space made by nature in the
woods, or a landslip here and there, coming as a surprise to make a
contrast in the foreground, made up an endless series of pictures
delightful to see amid the silence, at the time of year when all
things grow young, and when the sun fills a cloudless heaven with a
blaze of light. In short, it was a fair land--it was the land of
The traveler was a tall man, dressed from head to foot in a suit of
blue cloth, which must have been brushed just as carefully every
morning as the glossy coat of his horse. He held himself firm and
erect in the saddle like an old cavalry officer. Even if his black
cravat and doeskin gloves, the pistols that filled his holsters, and
the valise securely fastened to the crupper behind him had not
combined to mark him out as a soldier, the air of unconcern that sat
on his face, his regular features (scarred though they were with the
smallpox), his determined manner, self-reliant expression, and the way
he held his head, all revealed the habits acquired through military
discipline, of which a soldier can never quite divest himself, even
after he has retired from service into private life.
Any other traveler would have been filled with wonder at the
loveliness of this Alpine region, which grows so bright and smiling as
it becomes merged in the great valley systems of southern France; but
the officer, who no doubt had previously traversed a country across
which the French armies had been drafted in the course of Napoleon's
wars, enjoyed the view before him without appearing to be surprised by
the many changes that swept across it. It would seem that Napoleon has
extinguished in his soldiers the sensation of wonder; for an impassive
face is a sure token by which you may know the men who served erewhile
under the short-lived yet deathless Eagles of the great Emperor. The
traveler was, in fact, one of those soldiers (seldom met with
nowadays) whom shot and shell have respected, although they have borne
their part on every battlefield where Napoleon commanded.
There had been nothing unusual in his life. He had fought valiantly in
the ranks as a simple and loyal soldier, doing his duty as faithfully
by night as by day, and whether in or out of his officer's sight. He
had never dealt a sabre stroke in vain, and was incapable of giving
one too many. If he wore at his buttonhole the rosette of an officer
of the Legion of Honor, it was because the unanimous voice of his
regiment had singled him out as the man who best deserved to receive
it after the battle of Borodino.
He belonged to that small minority of undemonstrative retiring
natures, who are always at peace with themselves, and who are
conscious of a feeling of humiliation at the mere thought of making a
request, no matter what its nature may be. So promotion had come to
him tardily, and by virtue of the slowly-working laws of seniority. He
had been made a sub-lieutenant in 1802, but it was not until 1829 that
he became a major, in spite of the grayness of his moustaches. His
life had been so blameless that no man in the army, not even the
general himself, could approach him without an involuntary feeling of
respect. It is possible that he was not forgiven for this indisputable
superiority by those who ranked above him; but, on the other hand,
there was not one of his men that did not feel for him something of
the affection of children for a good mother. For them he knew how to
be at once indulgent and severe. He himself had also once served in
the ranks, and knew the sorry joys and gaily-endured hardships of the
soldier's lot. He knew the errors that may be passed over and the
faults that must be punished in his men--"his children," as he always
called them--and when on campaign he readily gave them leave to forage
for provision for man and horse among the wealthier classes.
His own personal history lay buried beneath the deepest reserve. Like
almost every military man in Europe, he had only seen the world
through cannon smoke, or in the brief intervals of peace that occurred
so seldom during the Emperor's continual wars with the rest of Europe.
Had he or had he not thought of marriage? The question remained
unsettled. Although no one doubted that Commandant Genestas had made
conquests during his sojourn in town after town and country after
country where he had taken part in the festivities given and received
by the officers, yet no one knew this for a certainty. There was no
prudery about him; he would not decline to join a pleasure party; he
in no way offended against military standards; but when questioned as
to his affairs of the heart, he either kept silence or answered with a
jest. To the words, "How are you, commandant?" addressed to him by an
officer over the wine, his reply was, "Pass the bottle, gentlemen."
M. Pierre Joseph Genestas was an unostentatious kind of Bayard. There
was nothing romantic nor picturesque about him--he was too thoroughly
commonplace. His ways of living were those of a well-to-do man.
Although he had nothing beside his pay, and his pension was all that
he had to look to in the future, the major always kept two years' pay
untouched, and never spent his allowances, like some shrewd old men of
business with whom cautious prudence has almost become a mania. He was
so little of a gambler that if, when in company, some one was wanted
to cut in or to take a bet at ecarte, he usually fixed his eyes on his
boots; but though he did not allow himself any extravagances, he
conformed in every way to custom.
His uniforms lasted longer than those of any other officer in his
regiment, as a consequence of the sedulously careful habits that
somewhat straitened means had so instilled into him, that they had
come to be like a second nature. Perhaps he might have been suspected
of meannesss if it had not been for the fact that with wonderful
disinterestedness and all a comrade's readiness, his purse would be
opened for some harebrained boy who had ruined himself at cards or by
some other folly. He did a service of this kind with such thoughtful
tact, that it seemed as though he himself had at one time lost heavy
sums at play; he never considered that he had any right to control the
actions of his debtor; he never made mention of the loan. He was the
child of his company; he was alone in the world, so he had adopted the
army for his fatherland, and the regiment for his family. Very rarely,
therefore, did any one seek the motives underlying his praiseworthy
turn for thrift; for it pleased others, for the most part, to set it
down to a not unnatural wish to increase the amount of the savings
that were to render his old age comfortable. Till the eve of his
promotion to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of cavalry it was fair to
suppose that it was his ambition to retire in the course of some
campaign with a colonel's epaulettes and pension.
If Genestas' name came up when the officers gossiped after drill, they
were wont to classify him among the men who begin with taking the
good-conduct prize at school, and who, throughout the term of their
natural lives, continue to be punctilious, conscientious, and
passionless--as good as white bread, and just as insipid. Thoughtful
minds, however, regarded him very differently. Not seldom it would
happen that a glance, or an expression as full of significance as the
utterance of a savage, would drop from him and bear witness to past
storms in his soul; and a careful study of his placid brow revealed a
power of stifling down and repressing his passions into inner depths,
that had been dearly bought by a lengthy acquaintance with the perils
and disastrous hazards of war. An officer who had only just joined the
regiment, the son of a peer of France, had said one day of Genestas,
that he would have made one of the most conscientious of priests, or
the most upright of tradesmen.
"Add, the least of a courtier among marquises," put in Genestas,
scanning the young puppy, who did not know that his commandant could
There was a burst of laughter at the words, for the lieutenant's
father cringed to all the powers that be; he was a man of supple
intellect, accustomed to jump with every change of government, and his
son took after him.
Men like Genestas are met with now and again in the French army;
natures that show themselves to be wholly great at need, and relapse
into their ordinary simplicity when the action is over; men that are
little mindful of fame and reputation, and utterly forgetful of
danger. Perhaps there are many more of them than the shortcomings of
our own characters will allow us to imagine. Yet, for all that, any
one who believed that Genestas was perfect would be strangely
deceiving himself. The major was suspicious, given to violent
outbursts of anger, and apt to be tiresome in argument; he was full of
national prejudices, and above all things, would insist that he was in
the right, when he was, as a matter of fact, in the wrong. He retained
the liking for good wine that he had acquired in the ranks. If he rose
from a banquet with all the gravity befitting his position, he seemed
serious and pensive, and had no mind at such times to admit any one
into his confidence.
Finally, although he was sufficiently acquainted with the customs of
society and with the laws of politeness, to which he conformed as
rigidly as if they had been military regulations; though he had real
mental power, both natural and acquired; and although he had mastered
the art of handling men, the science of tactics, the theory of sabre
play, and the mysteries of the farrier's craft, his learning had been
prodigiously neglected. He knew in a hazy kind of way that Caesar was
a Roman Consul, or an Emperor, and that Alexander was either a Greek
or a Macedonian; he would have conceded either quality or origin in
both cases without discussion. If the conversation turned on science
or history, he was wont to become thoughtful, and to confine his share
in it to little approving nods, like a man who by dint of profound
thought has arrived at scepticism.
When, at Schonbrunn, on May 13, 1809, Napoleon wrote the bulletin
addressed to the Grand Army, then the masters of Vienna, in which he
said that /like Medea, the Austrian princes had slain their children
with their own hands/; Genestas, who had been recently made a captain,
did not wish to compromise his newly conferred dignity by asking who
Medea was; he relied upon Napoleon's character, and felt quite sure
that the Emperor was incapable of making any announcement not in
proper form to the Grand Army and the House of Austria. So he thought
that Medea was some archduchess whose conduct was open to criticism.
Still, as the matter might have some bearing on the art of war, he
felt uneasy about the Medea of the bulletin until a day arrived when
Mlle. Raucourt revived the tragedy of Medea. The captain saw the
placard, and did not fail to repair to the Theatre Francais that
evening, to see the celebrated actress in her mythological role,
concerning which he gained some information from his neighbors.
A man, however, who as a private soldier had possessed sufficient
force of character to learn to read, write, and cipher, could clearly
understand that as a captain he ought to continue his education. So
from this time forth he read new books and romances with avidity, in
this way gaining a half-knowledge, of which he made a very fair use.
He went so far in his gratitude to his teachers as to undertake the
defence of Pigault-Lebrun, remarking that in his opinion he was
instructive and not seldom profound.
This officer, whose acquired practical wisdom did not allow him to
make any journey in vain, had just come from Grenoble, and was on his
way to the Grande Chartreuse, after obtaining on the previous evening
a week's leave of absence from his colonel. He had not expected that
the journey would be a long one; but when, league after league, he had
been misled as to the distance by the lying statements of the
peasants, he thought it would be prudent not to venture any farther
without fortifying the inner man. Small as were his chances of finding
any housewife in her dwelling at a time when every one was hard at
work in the fields, he stopped before a little cluster of cottages
that stood about a piece of land common to all of them, more or less
describing a square, which was open to all comers.
The surface of the soil thus held in conjoint ownership was hard and
carefully swept, but intersected by open drains. Roses, ivy, and tall
grasses grew over the cracked and disjointed walls. Some rags were
drying on a miserable currant bush that stood at the entrance of the
square. A pig wallowing in a heap of straw was the first inhabitant
encountered by Genestas. At the sound of horse hoofs the creature
grunted, raised its head, and put a great black cat to flight. A young
peasant girl, who was carrying a bundle of grass on her head, suddenly
appeared, followed at a distance by four little brats, clad in rags,
it is true, but vigorous, sunburned, picturesque, bold-eyed, and
riotous; thorough little imps, looking like angels. The sun shone down
with an indescribable purifying influence upon the air, the wretched
cottages, the heaps of refuse, and the unkempt little crew.
The soldier asked whether it was possible to obtain a cup of milk. All
the answer the girl made him was a hoarse cry. An old woman suddenly
appeared on the threshold of one of the cabins, and the young peasant
girl passed on into a cowshed, with a gesture that pointed out the
aforesaid old woman, towards whom Genestas went; taking care at the
same time to keep a tight hold on his horse, lest the children who
were already running about under his hoofs should be hurt. He repeated
his request, with which the housewife flatly refused to comply. She
would not, she said, disturb the cream on the pans full of milk from
which butter was to be made. The officer overcame this objection by
undertaking to repay her amply for the wasted cream, and then tied up
his horse at the door, and went inside the cottage.
The four children belonging to the woman all appeared to be of the
same age--an odd circumstance which struck the commandant. A fifth
clung about her skirts; a weak, pale, sickly-looking child, who
doubtless needed more care than the others, and who on that account
was the best beloved, the Benjamin of the family.
Genestas seated himself in a corner by the fireless hearth. A sublime
symbol met his eyes on the high mantel-shelf above him--a colored
plaster cast of the Virgin with the Child Jesus in her arms. Bare
earth made the flooring of the cottage. It had been beaten level in
the first instance, but in course of time it had grown rough and
uneven, so that though it was clean, its ruggedness was not unlike
that of the magnified rind of an orange. A sabot filled with salt, a
frying-pan, and a large kettle hung inside the chimney. The farther
end of the room was completely filled by a four-post bedstead, with a
scalloped valance for decoration. The walls were black; there was an
opening to admit the light above the worm-eaten door; and here and
there were a few stools consisting of rough blocks of beech-wood, each
set upon three wooden legs; a hutch for bread, a large wooden dipper,
a bucket and some earthen milk-pans, a spinning-wheel on the top of
the bread-hutch, and a few wicker mats for draining cheeses. Such were
the ornaments and household furniture of the wretched dwelling.
The officer, who had been absorbed in flicking his riding-whip against
the floor, presently became a witness to a piece of by-play, all
unsuspicious though he was that any drama was about to unfold itself.
No sooner had the old woman, followed by her scald-headed Benjamin,
disappeared through a door that led into her dairy, than the four
children, after having stared at the soldier as long as they wished,
drove away the pig by way of a beginning. This animal, their
accustomed playmate, having come as far as the threshold, the little
brats made such an energetic attack upon him, that he was forced to
beat a hasty retreat. When the enemy had been driven without, the
children besieged the latch of a door that gave way before their
united efforts, and slipped out of the worn staple that held it; and
finally they bolted into a kind of fruit-loft, where they very soon
fell to munching the dried plums, to the amusement of the commandant,
who watched this spectacle. The old woman, with the face like
parchment and the dirty ragged clothing, came back at this moment,
with a jug of milk for her visitor in her hand.
"Oh! you good-for-nothings!" cried she.
She ran to the children, clutched an arm of each child, bundled them
into the room, and carefully closed the door of her storeroom of
plenty. But she did not take their prunes away from them.
"Now, then, be good, my pets! If one did not look after them," she
went on, looking at Genestas, "they would eat up the whole lot of
prunes, the madcaps!"
Then she seated herself on a three-legged stool, drew the little
weakling between her knees, and began to comb and wash his head with a
woman's skill and with motherly assiduity. The four small thieves hung
about. Some of them stood, others leant against the bed or the
bread-hutch. They gnawed their prunes without saying a word, but they
kept their sly and mischievous eyes fixed upon the stranger. In spite
of grimy countenances and noses that stood in need of wiping, they all
looked strong and healthy.
"Are they your children?" the soldier asked the old woman.
"Asking your pardon, sir, they are charity children. They give me
three francs a month and a pound's weight of soap for each of them."
"But it must cost you twice as much as that to keep them, good woman?"
"That is just what M. Benassis tells me, sir; but if other folk will
board the children for the same money, one has to make it do. Nobody
wants the children, but for all that there is a good deal of
performance to go through before they will let us have them. When the
milk we give them comes to nothing, they cost us scarcely anything.
Besides that, three francs is a great deal, sir; there are fifteen
francs coming in, to say nothing of the five pounds' weight of soap.
In our part of the world you would simply have to wear your life out
before you would make ten sous a day."
"Then you have some land of your own?" asked the commandant.
"No, sir. I had some land once when my husband was alive; since he
died I have done so badly that I had to sell it"
"Why, how do you reach the year's end without debts?" Genestas went
on, "when you bring up children for a livelihood and wash and feed
them on two sous a day?"
"Well, we never go to St. Sylvester's Day without debt, sir," she went
on without ceasing to comb the child's hair. "But so it is--Providence
helps us out. I have a couple of cows. Then my daughter and I do some
gleaning at harvest-time, and in winter we pick up firewood. Then at
night we spin. Ah! we never want to see another winter like this last
one, that is certain! I owe the miller seventy-five francs for flour.
Luckily he is M. Benassis' miller. M. Benassis, ah! he is a friend to
poor people. He has never asked for his due from anybody, and he will
not begin with us. Besides, our cow has a calf, and that will set us a
The four orphans for whom the old woman's affection represented all
human guardianship had come to an end of their prunes. As their
foster-mother's attention was taken up by the officer with whom she
was chatting, they seized the opportunity, and banded themselves
together in a compact file, so as to make yet another assault upon the
latch of the door that stood between them and the tempting heap of
dried plums. They advanced to the attack, not like French soldiers,
but as stealthily as Germans, impelled by frank animal greediness.
"Oh! you little rogues! Do you want to finish them up?"
The old woman rose, caught the strongest of the four, administered a
gentle slap on the back, and flung him out of the house. Not a tear
did he shed, but the others remained breathless with astonishment.
"They give you a lot of trouble----"
"Oh! no, sir, but they can smell the prunes, the little dears. If I
were to leave them alone here for a moment, they would stuff
themselves with them."
"You are very fond of them?"
The old woman raised her head at this, and looked at him with gentle
malice in her eyes.
"Fond of them!" she said. "I have had to part with three of them
already. I only have the care of them until they are six years old,"
she went on with a sigh.
"But where are your own children?"
"I have lost them."
"How old are you?" Genestas asked, to efface the impression left by
his last question.
"I am thirty-eight years old, sir. It will be two years come next St.
John's Day since my husband died."
She finished dressing the poor sickly mite, who seemed to thank her by
a loving look in his faded eyes.
"What a life of toil and self-denial!" thought the cavalry officer.
Beneath a roof worthy of the stable wherein Jesus Christ was born, the
hardest duties of motherhood were fulfilled cheerfully and without
consciousness of merit. What hearts were these that lay so deeply
buried in neglect and obscurity! What wealth, and what poverty!
Soldiers, better than other men, can appreciate the element of
grandeur to be found in heroism in sabots, in the Evangel clad in
rags. The Book may be found elsewhere, adorned, embellished, tricked
out in silk and satin and brocade, but here, of a surety, dwelt the
spirit of the Book. It was impossible to doubt that Heaven had some
holy purpose underlying it all, at the sight of the woman who had
taken a mother's lot upon herself, as Jesus Christ had taken the form
of a man, who gleaned and suffered and ran into debt for her little
waifs; a woman who defrauded herself in her reckonings, and would not
own that she was ruining herself that she might be a Mother. One was
constrained to admit, at the sight of her, that the good upon earth
have something in common with the angels in heaven; Commandant
Genestas shook his head as he looked at her.
"Is M. Benassis a clever doctor?" he asked at last.
"I do not know, sir, but he cures poor people for nothing."
"It seems to me that this is a man and no mistake!" he went on,
speaking to himself.
"Oh! yes, sir, and a good man too! There is scarcely any one
hereabouts that does not put his name in their prayers, morning and
"That is for you, mother," said the soldier, as he gave her several
coins, "and that is for the children," he went on, as he added another
crown. "Is M. Benassis' house still a long way off?" he asked, when he
had mounted his horse.
"Oh! no, sir, a bare league at most."
The commandant set out, fully persuaded that two leagues remained
ahead of him. Yet after all he soon caught a glimpse through the trees
of the little town's first cluster of houses, and then of all the
roofs that crowded about a conical steeple, whose slates were secured
to the angles of the wooden framework by sheets of tin that glittered
in the sun. This sort of roof, which has a peculiar appearance,
denotes the nearness of the borders of Savoy, where it is very common.
The valley is wide at this particular point, and a fair number of
houses pleasantly situated, either in the little plain or along the
side of the mountain stream, lend human interest to the well-tilled
spot, a stronghold with no apparent outlet among the mountains that
It was noon when Genestas reined in his horse beneath an avenue of
elm-trees half-way up the hillside, and only a few paces from the
town, to ask the group of children who stood before him for M.
Benassis' house. At first the children looked at each other, then they
scrutinized the stranger with the expression that they usually wear
when they set eyes upon anything for the first time; a different
curiosity and a different thought in every little face. Then the
boldest and the merriest of the band, a little bright-eyed urchin,
with bare, muddy feet, repeated his words over again, in child
"M. Benassis' house, sir?" adding, "I will show you the way there."
He walked along in front of the horse, prompted quite as much by a
wish to gain a kind of importance by being in the stranger's company,
as by a child's love of being useful, or the imperative craving to be
doing something, that possesses mind and body at his age. The officer
followed him for the entire length of the principal street of the
country town. The way was paved with cobblestones, and wound in and
out among the houses, which their owners had erected along its course
in the most arbitrary fashion. In one place a bake-house had been
built out into the middle of the roadway; in another a gable
protruded, partially obstructing the passage, and yet farther on a
mountain stream flowed across it in a runnel. Genestas noticed a fair
number of roofs of tarred shingle, but yet more of them were thatched;
a few were tiled, and some seven or eight (belonging no doubt to the
cure, the justice of the peace, and some of the wealthier townsmen)
were covered with slates. There was a total absence of regard for
appearances befitting a village at the end of the world, which had
nothing beyond it, and no connection with any other place. The people
who lived in it seemed to belong to one family that dwelt beyond the
limits of the bustling world, with which the collector of taxes and a
few ties of the very slenderest alone served to connect them.
When Genestas had gone a step or two farther, he saw on the mountain
side a broad road that rose above the village. Clearly there must be
an old town and a new town; and, indeed, when the commandant reached a
spot where he could slacken the pace of his horse, he could easily see
between the houses some well-built dwellings whose new roofs
brightened the old-fashioned village. An avenue of trees rose above
these new houses, and from among them came the confused sounds of
several industries. He heard the songs peculiar to busy toilers, a
murmur of many workshops, the rasping of files, and the sound of
falling hammers. He saw the thin lines of smoke from the chimneys of
each household, and the more copious outpourings from the forges of
the van-builder, the blacksmith, and the farrier. At length, at the
very end of the village towards which his guide was taking him,
Genestas beheld scattered farms and well-tilled fields and plantations
of trees in thorough order. It might have been a little corner of
Brie, so hidden away in a great fold of the land, that at first sight
its existence would not be suspected between the little town and the
mountains that closed the country round.
Presently the child stopped.
"There is the door of /his/ house," he remarked.
The officer dismounted and passed his arm through the bridle. Then,
thinking that the laborer is worthy of his hire, he drew a few sous
from his waistcoat pocket, and held them out to the child, who looked
astonished at this, opened his eyes very wide, and stayed on, without
thanking him, to watch what the stranger would do next.
"Civilization has not made much headway hereabouts," thought Genestas;
"the religion of work is in full force, and begging has not yet come
His guide, more from curiosity than from any interested motive,
propped himself against the wall that rose to the height of a man's
elbow. Upon this wall, which enclosed the yard belonging to the house,
there ran a black wooden railing on either side of the square pillars
of the gates. The lower part of the gates themselves was of solid wood
that had been painted gray at some period in the past; the upper part
consisted of a grating of yellowish spear-shaped bars. These
decorations, which had lost all their color, gradually rose on either
half of the gates till they reached the centre where they met; their
spikes forming, when both leaves were shut, an outline similar to that
of a pine-cone. The worm-eaten gates themselves, with their patches of
velvet lichen, were almost destroyed by the alternate action of sun
and rain. A few aloe plants and some chance-sown pellitory grew on the
tops of the square pillars of the gates, which all but concealed the
stems of a couple of thornless acacias that raised their tufted
spikes, like a pair of green powder-puffs, in the yard.
The condition of the gateway revealed a certain carelessness of its
owner which did not seem to suit the officer's turn of mind. He
knitted his brows like a man who is obliged to relinquish some
illusion. We usually judge others by our own standard; and although we
indulgently forgive our own shortcomings in them, we condemn them
harshly for the lack of our special virtues. If the commandant had
expected M. Benassis to be a methodical or practical man, there were
unmistakable indications of absolute indifference as to his material
concerns in the state of the gates of his house. A soldier possessed
by Genestas' passion for domestic economy could not help at once
drawing inferences as to the life and character of its owner from the
gateway before him; and this, in spite of his habits of
circumspection, he in nowise failed to do. The gates were left ajar,
moreover--another piece of carelessness!
Encouraged by this countrified trust in all comers, the officer
entered the yard without ceremony, and tethered his horse to the bars
of the gate. While he was knotting the bridle, a neighing sound from
the stable caused both horse and rider to turn their eyes
involuntarily in that direction. The door opened, and an old servant
put out his head. He wore a red woolen bonnet, exactly like the
Phrygian cap in which Liberty is tricked out, a piece of head-gear in
common use in this country.
As there was room for several horses, this worthy individual, after
inquiring whether Genestas had come to see M. Benassis, offered the
hospitality of the stable to the newly-arrived steed, a very fine
animal, at which he looked with an expression of admiring affection.
The commandant followed his horse to see how things were to go with
it. The stable was clean, there was plenty of litter, and there was
the same peculiar air of sleek content about M. Benassis' pair of
horses that distinguished the cure's horse from all the rest of his
tribe. A maid-servant from within the house came out upon the flight
of steps and waited. She appeared to be the proper authority to whom
the stranger's inquiries were to be addressed, although the stableman
had already told him that M. Benassis was not at home.
"The master has gone to the flour-mill," said he. "If you like to
overtake him, you have only to go along the path that leads to the
meadow; and the mill is at the end of it."
Genestas preferred seeing the country to waiting about indefinitely
for Benassis' return, so he set out along the way that led to the
flour-mill. When he had gone beyond the irregular line traced by the
town upon the hillside, he came in sight of the mill and the valley,
and of one of the loveliest landscapes that he had ever seen.
The mountains bar the course of the river, which forms a little lake
at their feet, and raise their crests above it, tier on tier. Their
many valleys are revealed by the changing hues of the light, or by the
more or less clear outlines of the mountain ridges fledged with their
dark forests of pines. The mill had not long been built. It stood just
where the mountain stream fell into the little lake. There was all the
charm about it peculiar to a lonely house surrounded by water and
hidden away behind the heads of a few trees that love to grow by the
water-side. On the farther bank of the river, at the foot of a
mountain, with a faint red glow of sunset upon its highest crest,
Genestas caught a glimpse of a dozen deserted cottages. All the
windows and doors had been taken away, and sufficiently large holes
were conspicuous in the dilapidated roofs, but the surrounding land
was laid out in fields that were highly cultivated, and the old garden
spaces had been turned into meadows, watered by a system of irrigation
as artfully contrived as that in use in Limousin. Unconsciously the
commandant paused to look at the ruins of the village before him.
How is it that men can never behold any ruins, even of the humblest
kind, without feeling deeply stirred? Doubtless it is because they
seem to be a typical representation of evil fortune whose weight is
felt so differently by different natures. The thought of death is
called up by a churchyard, but a deserted village puts us in mind of
the sorrows of life; death is but one misfortune always foreseen, but
the sorrows of life are infinite. Does not the thought of the infinite
underlie all great melancholy?
The officer reached the stony path by the mill-pond before he could
hit upon an explanation of this deserted village. The miller's lad was
sitting on some sacks of corn near the door of the house. Genestas
asked for M. Benassis.
"M. Benassis went over there," said the miller, pointing out one of
the ruined cottages.
"Has the village been burned down?" asked the commandant.
"Then how did it come to be in this state?" inquired Genestas.
"Ah! how?" the miller answered, as he shrugged his shoulders and went
indoors; "M. Benassis will tell you that."
The officer went over a rough sort of bridge built up of boulders
taken from the torrent bed, and soon reached the house that had been
pointed out to him. The thatched roof of the dwelling was still
entire; it was covered with moss indeed, but there were no holes in
it, and the door and its fastenings seemed to be in good repair.
Genestas saw a fire on the hearth as he entered, an old woman kneeling
in the chimney-corner before a sick man seated in a chair, and another
man, who was standing with his face turned toward the fireplace. The
house consisted of a single room, which was lighted by a wretched
window covered with linen cloth. The floor was of beaten earth; the
chair, a table, and a truckle-bed comprised the whole of the
furniture. The commandant had never seen anything so poor and bare,
not even in Russia, where the moujik's huts are like the dens of wild
beasts. Nothing within it spoke of ordinary life; there were not even
the simplest appliances for cooking food of the commonest description.
It might have been a dog-kennel without a drinking-pan. But for the
truckle-bed, a smock-frock hanging from a nail, and some sabots filled
with straw, which composed the invalid's entire wardrobe, this cottage
would have looked as empty as the others. The aged peasant woman upon
her knees was devoting all her attention to keeping the sufferer's
feet in a tub filled with a brown liquid. Hearing a footstep and the
clank of spurs, which sounded strangely in ears accustomed to the
plodding pace of country folk, the man turned to Genestas. A sort of
surprise, in which the old woman shared was visible in his face.
"There is no need to ask if you are M. Benassis," said the soldier.
"You will pardon me, sir, if, as a stranger impatient to see you, I
have come to seek you on your field of battle, instead of awaiting you
at your house. Pray do not disturb yourself; go on with what you are
doing. When it is over, I will tell you the purpose of my visit."
Genestas half seated himself upon the edge of the table, and remained
silent. The firelight shone more brightly in the room than the faint
rays of the sun, for the mountain crests intercepted them, so that
they seldom reached this corner of the valley. A few branches of
resinous pinewood made a bright blaze, and it was by the light of this
fire that the soldier saw the face of the man towards whom he was
drawn by a secret motive, by a wish to seek him out, to study and to
know him thoroughly well. M. Benassis, the local doctor, heard
Genestas with indifference, and with folded arms he returned his bow,
and went back to his patient, quite unaware that he was being
subjected to a scrutiny as earnest as that which the soldier turned
Benassis was a man of ordinary height, broad-shouldered and
deep-chested. A capacious green overcoat, buttoned up to the chin,
prevented the officer from observing any characteristic details of his
personal appearance; but his dark and motionless figure served as a
strong relief to his face, which caught the bright light of the
blazing fire. The face was not unlike that of a satyr; there was the
same slightly protruding forehead, full, in this case, of prominences,
all more or less denoting character; the same turned-up nose, with a
sprightly cleavage at the tip; the same high cheek-bones. The lines of
the mouth were crooked; the lips, thick and red. The chin turned
sharply upwards. There was an alert, animated look in the brown eyes,
to which their pearly whites gave great brightness, and which
expressed passions now subdued. His iron-gray hair, the deep wrinkles
in his face, the bushy eyebrows that had grown white already, the
veins on his protuberant nose, the tanned face covered with red
blotches, everything about him, in short, indicated a man of fifty and
the hard work of his profession. The officer could come to no
conclusion as to the capacity of the head, which was covered by a
close cap; but hidden though it was, it seemed to him to be one of the
square-shaped kind that gave rise to the expression "square-headed."
Genestas was accustomed to read the indications that mark the features
of men destined to do great things, since he had been brought into
close relations with the energetic natures sought out by Napoleon; so
he suspected that there must be some mystery in this life of
obscurity, and said to himself as he looked at the remarkable face
"How comes it that he is still a country doctor?"
When he had made a careful study of this countenance, that, in spite
of its resemblance to other human faces, revealed an inner life nowise
in harmony with a commonplace exterior, he could not help sharing the
doctor's interest in his patient; and the sight of that patient
completely changed the current of his thoughts.
Much as the old cavalry officer had seen in the course of his
soldier's career, he felt a thrill of surprise and horror at the sight
of a human face which could never have been lighted up with thought--a
livid face in which a look of dumb suffering showed so plainly--the
same look that is sometimes worn by a child too young to speak, and
too weak to cry any longer; in short, it was the wholly animal face of
an old dying cretin. The cretin was the one variety of the human
species with which the commandant had not yet come in contact. At the
sight of the deep, circular folds of skin on the forehead, the sodden,
fish-like eyes, and the head, with its short, coarse, scantily-growing
hair--a head utterly divested of all the faculties of the senses--who
would not have experienced, as Genestas did, an instinctive feeling of
repulsion for a being that had neither the physical beauty of an
animal nor the mental endowments of man, who was possessed of neither
instinct nor reason, and who had never heard nor spoken any kind of
articulate speech? It seemed difficult to expend any regrets over the
poor wretch now visibly drawing towards the very end of an existence
which had not been life in any sense of the word; yet the old woman
watched him with touching anxiety, and was rubbing his legs where the
hot water did not reach them with as much tenderness as if he had been
her husband. Benassis himself, after a close scrutiny of the dull eyes
and corpse-like face, gently took the cretin's hand and felt his
"The bath is doing no good," he said, shaking his head; "let us put
him to bed again."
He lifted the inert mass himself, and carried him across to the
truckle-bed, from whence, no doubt, he had just taken him. Carefully
he laid him at full length, and straightened the limbs that were
growing cold already, putting the head and hand in position, with all
the heed that a mother could bestow upon her child.
"It is all over, death is very near," added Benassis, who remained
standing by the bedside.
The old woman gazed at the dying form, with her hands on her hips. A
few tears stole down her cheeks. Genestas remained silent. He was
unable to explain to himself how it was that the death of a being that
concerned him so little should affect him so much. Unconsciously he
shared the feeling of boundless pity that these hapless creatures
excite among the dwellers in the sunless valleys wherein Nature has
placed them. This sentiment has degenerated into a kind of religious
superstition in families to which cretins belong; but does it not
spring from the most beautiful of Christian virtues--from charity, and
from a belief in a reward hereafter, that most effectual support of
our social system, and the one thought that enables us to endure our
miseries? The hope of inheriting eternal bliss helps the relations of
these unhappy creatures and all others round about them to exert on a
large scale, and with sublime devotion, a mother's ceaseless
protecting care over an apathetic creature who does not understand it
in the first instance, and who in a little while forgets it all.
Wonderful power of religion! that has brought a blind beneficence to
the aid of an equally blind misery. Wherever cretins exist, there is a
popular belief that the presence of one of these creatures brings luck
to a family--a superstition that serves to sweeten lives which, in the
midst of a town population, would be condemned by a mistaken
philanthropy to submit to the harsh discipline of an asylum. In the
higher end of the valley of Isere, where cretins are very numerous,
they lead an out-of-door life with the cattle which they are taught to
herd. There, at any rate, they are at large, and receive the reverence
due to misfortune.
A moment later the village bell clinked at slow regular intervals, to
acquaint the flock with the death of one of their number. In the sound
that reached the cottage but faintly across the intervening space,
there was a thought of religion which seemed to fill it with a
melancholy peace. The tread of many feet echoed up the road, giving
notice of an approaching crowd of people--a crowd that uttered not a
word. Then suddenly the chanting of the Church broke the stillness,
calling up the confused thoughts that take possession of the most
sceptical minds, and compel them to yield to the influence of the
touching harmonies of the human voice. The Church was coming to the
aid of a creature that knew her not. The cure appeared, preceded by a
choir-boy, who bore the crucifix, and followed by the sacristan
carrying the vase of holy water, and by some fifty women, old men, and
children, who had all come to add their prayers to those of the
Church. The doctor and the soldier looked at each other, and silently
withdrew to a corner to make room for the kneeling crowd within and
without the cottage. During the consoling ceremony of the Viaticum,
celebrated for one who had never sinned, but to whom the Church on
earth was bidding a last farewell, there were signs of real sorrow on
most of the rough faces of the gathering, and tears flowed over the
rugged cheeks that sun and wind and labor in the fields had tanned and
wrinkled. The sentiment of voluntary kinship was easy to explain.
There was not one in the place who had not pitied the unhappy
creature, not one who would not have given him his daily bread. Had he
not met with a father's care from every child, and found a mother in
the merriest little girl?
"He is dead!" said the cure.
The words struck his hearers with the most unfeigned dismay. The tall
candles were lighted, and several people undertook to watch with the
dead that night. Benassis and the soldier went out. A group of
peasants in the doorway stopped the doctor to say:
"Ah! if you have not saved his life, sir, it was doubtless because God
wished to take him to Himself."
"I did my best, children," the doctor answered.
When they had come a few paces from the deserted village, whose last
inhabitant had just died, the doctor spoke to Genestas.
"You would not believe, sir, what real solace is contained for me in
what those peasants have just said. Ten years ago I was very nearly
stoned to death in this village. It is empty to-day, but thirty
families lived in it then."
Genestas' face and gesture so plainly expressed an inquiry, that, as
they went along, the doctor told him the story promised by this
"When I first settled here, sir, I found a dozen cretins in this part
of the canton," and the doctor turned round to point out the ruined
cottages for the officer's benefit. "All the favorable conditions for
spreading the hideous disease are there; the air is stagnant, the
hamlet lies in the valley bottom, close beside a torrent supplied with
water by the melted snows, and the sunlight only falls on the
mountain-top, so that the valley itself gets no good of the sun.
Marriages among these unfortunate creatures are not forbidden by law,
and in this district they are protected by superstitious notions, of
whose power I had no conception--superstitions which I blamed at
first, and afterwards came to admire. So cretinism was in a fair way
to spread all over the valley from this spot. Was it not doing the
country a great service to put a stop to this mental and physical
contagion? But imperatively as the salutary changes were required,
they might cost the life of any man who endeavored to bring them
about. Here, as in other social spheres, if any good is to be done, we
come into collision not merely with vested interests, but with
something far more dangerous to meddle with--religious ideas
crystallized into superstitions, the most permanent form taken by
human thought. I feared nothing.
"In the first place, I sought for the position of mayor in the canton,
and in this I succeeded. Then, after obtaining a verbal sanction from
the prefect, and by paying down the money, I had several of these
unfortunate creatures transported over to Aiguebelle, in Savoy, by
night. There are a great many of them there, and they were certain to
be very kindly treated. When this act of humanity came to be known,
the whole countryside looked upon me as a monster. The cure preached
against me. In spite of all the pains I took to explain to all the
shrewder heads of the little place the immense importance of being rid
of the idiots, and in spite of the fact that I gave my services
gratuitously to the sick people of the district, a shot was fired at
me from the corner of a wood.
"I went to the Bishop of Grenoble and asked him to change the cure.
Monseigneur was good enough to allow me to choose a priest who would
share in my labors, and it was my happy fortune to meet with one of
those rare natures that seemed to have dropped down from heaven. Then
I went on with my enterprise. After preparing people's minds, I made
another transportation by night, and six more cretins were taken away.
In this second attempt I had the support of several people to whom I
had rendered some service, and I was backed by the members of the
Communal Council, for I had appealed to their parsimonious instincts,
showing them how much it cost to support the poor wretches, and
pointing out how largely they might gain by converting their plots of
ground (to which the idiots had no proper title) into allotments which
were needed in the township.
"All the rich were on my side; but the poor, the old women, the
children, and a few pig-headed people were violently opposed to me.
Unluckily it so fell out that my last removal had not been completely
carried out. The cretin whom you have just seen, not having returned
to his house, had not been taken away, so that the next morning he was
the sole remaining example of his species in the village. There were
several families still living there; but though they were little
better than idiots, they were, at any rate, free from the taint of
cretinism. I determined to go through with my work, and came
officially in open day to take the luckless creature from his
dwelling. I had no sooner left my house than my intention got abroad.
The cretin's friends were there before me, and in front of his hovel I
found a crowd of women and children and old people, who hailed my
arrival with insults accompanied by a shower of stones.
"In the midst of the uproar I should perhaps have fallen a victim to
the frenzy that possesses a crowd excited by its own outcries and
stirred up by one common feeling, but the cretin saved my life! The
poor creature came out of his hut, and raised the clucking sound of
his voice. He seemed to be an absolute ruler over the fanatical mob,
for the sight of him put a sudden stop to the clamor. It occurred to
me that I might arrange a compromise, and thanks to the quiet so
opportunely restored, I was able to propose and explain it. Of course,
those who approved of my schemes would not dare to second me in this
emergency, their support was sure to be of a purely passive kind,
while these superstitious folk would exert the most active vigilance
to keep their last idol among them; it was impossible, it seemed to
me, to take him away from them. So I promised to leave the cretin in
peace in his dwelling, with the understanding that he should live
quite by himself, and that the remaining families in the village
should cross the stream and come to live in the town, in some new
houses which I myself undertook to build, adding to each house a piece
of ground for which the Commune was to repay me later on.
"Well, my dear sir, it took me fully six months to overcome their
objection to this bargain, however much it may have been to the
advantage of the village families. The affection which they have for
their wretched hovels in country districts is something quite
unexplainable. No matter how unwholesome his hovel may be, a peasant
clings far more to it than a banker does to his mansion. The reason of
it? That I do not know. Perhaps thoughts and feelings are strongest in
those who have but few of them, simply because they have but few.
Perhaps material things count for much in the lives of those who live
so little in thought; certain it is that the less they have, the
dearer their possessions are to them. Perhaps, too, it is with the
peasant as with the prisoner--he does not squander the powers of his
soul, he centres them all upon a single idea, and this is how his
feelings come to be so exceedingly strong. Pardon these reflections on
the part of a man who seldom exchanges ideas with any one. But,
indeed, you must not suppose, sir, that I am much taken up with these
far-fetched considerations. We all have to be active and practical
"Alas! the fewer ideas these poor folk have in their heads, the harder
it is to make them see where their real interests lie. There was
nothing for it but to give my whole attention to every trifling detail
of my enterprise. One and all made me the same answer, one of those
sayings, filled with homely sense, to which there is no possible
reply, 'But your houses are not yet built, sir!' they used to say.
'Very good,' said I, 'promise me that as soon as they are finished you
will come and live in them.'
"Luckily, sir, I obtained a decision to the effect that the whole of
the mountain side above the now deserted village was the property of
the township. The sum of money brought in by the woods on the higher
slopes paid for the building of the new houses and for the land on
which they stood. They were built forthwith; and when once one of my
refractory families was fairly settled in, the rest of them were not
slow to follow. The benefits of the change were so evident that even
the most bigoted believer in the village, which you might call
soulless as well as sunless, could not but appreciate them. The final
decision in this matter, which gave some property to the Commune, in
the possession of which we were confirmed by the Council of State,
made me a person of great importance in the canton. But what a lot of
worry there was over it!" the doctor remarked, stopping short, and
raising a hand which he let fall again--a gesture that spoke volumes.
"No one knows, as I do, the distance between the town and the
Prefecture--whence nothing comes out--and from the Prefecture to the
Council of State--where nothing can be got in.
"Well, after all," he resumed, "peace be to the powers of this world!
They yielded to my importunities, and that is saying a great deal. If
you only knew the good that came of a carelessly scrawled signature!
Why, sir, two years after I had taken these momentous trifles in hand,
and had carried the matter through to the end, every poor family in
the Commune had two cows at least, which they pastured on the mountain
side, where (without waiting this time for an authorization from the
Council of State) I had established a system of irrigation by means of
cross trenches, like those in Switzerland, Auvergne, and Limousin.
Much to their astonishment, the townspeople saw some capital meadows
springing up under their eyes, and thanks to the improvement in the
pasturage, the yield of milk was very much larger. The results of this
triumph were great indeed. Every one followed the example set by my
system of irrigation; cattle were multiplied; the area of meadow land
and every kind of out-turn increased. I had nothing to fear after
that. I could continue my efforts to improve this, as yet, untilled
corner of the earth; and to civilize those who dwelt in it, whose
minds had hitherto lain dormant.
"Well, sir, folk like us, who live out of the world, are very
talkative. If you ask us a question, there is no knowing where the
answer will come to an end; but to cut it short--there were about
seven hundred souls in the valley when I came to it, and now the
population numbers some two thousand. I had gained the good opinion of
every one in that matter of the last cretin; and when I had constantly
shown that I could rule both mildly and firmly, I became a local
oracle. I did everything that I could to win their confidence; I did
not ask for it, nor did I appear to seek it; but I tried to inspire
every one with the deepest respect for my character, by the scrupulous
way in which I always fulfilled my engagements, even when they were of
the most trifling kind. When I had pledged myself to care for the poor
creature whose death you have just witnessed, I looked after him much
more effectually than any of his previous guardians had done. He has
been fed and cared for as the adopted child of the Commune. After a
time the dwellers in the valley ended by understanding the service
which I had done them in spite of themselves, but for all that, they
still cherish some traces of that old superstition of theirs. Far be
it from me to blame them for it; has not their cult of the cretin
often furnished me with an argument when I have tried to induce those
who had possession of their faculties to help the unfortunate? But
here we are," said Benassis, when after a moment's pause he saw the
roof of his own house.
Far from expecting the slightest expression of praise or of thanks
from his listener, it appeared from his way of telling the story of
this episode in his administrative career, that he had been moved by
an unconscious desire to pour out the thoughts that filled his mind,
after the manner of folk that live very retired lives.
"I have taken the liberty of putting my horse in your stable, sir,"
said the commandant, "for which in your goodness you will perhaps
pardon me when you learn the object of my journey hither."
"Ah! yes, what is it?" asked Benassis, appearing to shake off his
preoccupied mood, and to recollect that his companion was a stranger
to him. The frankness and unreserve of his nature had led him to
accept Genestas as an acquaintance.
"I have heard of the almost miraculous recovery of M. Gravier of
Grenoble, whom you received into your house," was the soldier's
answer. "I have come to you, hoping that you will give a like
attention to my case, although I have not a similar claim to your
benevolence; and yet, I am possibly not undeserving of it. I am an old
soldier, and wounds of long standing give me no peace. It will take
you at least a week to study my condition, for the pain only comes
back at intervals, and----"
"Very good, sir," Benassis broke in; "M. Gravier's room is in
readiness. Come in."
They went into the house, the doctor flinging open the door with an
eagerness that Genestas attributed to his pleasure at receiving a
"Jacquotte!" Benassis called out. "This gentleman will dine with us."
"But would it not be as well for us to settle about the payment?"
"Payment for what?" inquired the doctor.
"For my board. You cannot keep me and my horse as well, without----"
"If you are wealthy, you will repay me amply," Benassis replied; "and
if you are not, I will take nothing whatever."
"Nothing whatever seems to me to be too dear," said Genestas. "But,
rich or poor, will ten francs a day (not including your professional
services) be acceptable to you?"
"Nothing could be less acceptable to me than payment for the pleasure
of entertaining a visitor," the doctor answered, knitting his brows;
"and as to my advice, you shall have it if I like you, and not unless.
Rich people shall not have my time by paying for it; it belongs
exclusively to the folk here in the valley. I do not care about fame
or fortune, and I look for neither praise or gratitude from my
patients. Any money which you may pay me will go to the druggists in
Grenoble, to pay for the medicine required by the poor of the
Any one who had heard the words flung out, abruptly, it is true, but
without a trace of bitterness in them, would have said to himself with
Genestas, "Here is a man made of good human clay."
"Well, then, I will pay you ten francs a day, sir," the soldier
answered, returning to the charge with wonted pertinacity, "and you
will do as you choose after that. We shall understand each other
better, now that the question is settled," he added, grasping the
doctor's hand with eager cordiality. "In spite of my ten francs, you
shall see that I am by no means a Tartar."
After this passage of arms, in which Benassis showed not the slightest
sign of a wish to appear generous or to pose as a philanthropist, the
supposed invalid entered his doctor's house. Everything within it was
in keeping with the ruinous state of the gateway, and with the
clothing worn by its owner. There was an utter disregard for
everything not essentially useful, which was visible even in the
smallest trifles. Benassis took Genestas through the kitchen, that
being the shortest way to the dining-room.
Had the kitchen belonged to an inn, it could not have been more
smoke-begrimed; and if there was a sufficiency of cooking pots within
its precincts, this lavish supply was Jacquotte's doing--Jacquotte who
had formerly been the cure's housekeeper--Jacquotte who always said
"we," and who ruled supreme over the doctor's household. If, for
instance, there was a brightly polished warming-pan above the
mantelshelf, it probably hung there because Jacquotte liked to sleep
warm of a winter night, which led her incidentally to warm her master's
sheets. He never took a thought about anything; so she was wont to say.
It was on account of a defect, which any one else would have found
intolerable, that Benassis had taken her into his service. Jacquotte
had a mind to rule the house, and a woman who would rule his house was
the very person that the doctor wanted. So Jacquotte bought and sold,
made alterations about the place, set up and took down, arranged and
disarranged everything at her own sweet will; her master had never
raised a murmur. Over the yard, the stable, the man-servant and the
kitchen, in fact, over the whole house and garden and its master,
Jacquotte's sway was absolute. She looked out fresh linen, saw to the
washing, and laid in provisions without consulting anybody. She
decided everything that went on in the house, and the date when the
pigs were to be killed. She scolded the gardener, decreed the menu at
breakfast and dinner, and went from cellar to garret, and from garret
to cellar, setting everything to rights according to her notions,
without a word of opposition of any sort or description. Benassis had
made but two stipulations--he wished to dine at six o'clock, and that
the household expenses should not exceed a certain fixed sum every
A woman whom every one obeys in this way is always singing, so
Jacquotte laughed and warbled on the staircase; she was always humming
something when she was not singing, and singing when she was not
humming. Jacquotte had a natural liking for cleanliness, so she kept
the house neat and clean. If her tastes had been different, it would
have been a sad thing for M. Benassis (so she was wont to say), for
the poor man was so little particular that you might feed him on
cabbage for partridges, and he would not find it out; and if it were
not for her, he would very often wear the same shirt for a week on
end. Jacquotte, however, was an indefatigable folder of linen, a born
rubber and polisher of furniture, and a passionate lover of a
perfectly religious and ceremonial cleanliness of the most scrupulous,
the most radiant, and most fragrant kind. A sworn foe to dust, she
swept and scoured and washed without ceasing.
The condition of the gateway caused her acute distress. On the first
day of every month for the past ten years, she had extorted from her
master a promise that he would replace the gate with a new one, that
the walls of the house should be lime-washed, and that everything
should be made quite straight and proper about the place; but so far,
the master had not kept his word. So it happened that whenever she
fell to lamenting over Benassis' deeply-rooted carelessness about
things, she nearly always ended solemnly in these words with which all
her praises of her master usually terminated:
"You cannot say that he is a fool, because he works such miracles, as
you may say, in the place; but, all the same, he is a fool at times,
such a fool that you have to do everything for him as if he were a
Jacquotte loved the house as if it had belonged to her; and when she
had lived in it for twenty-two years, had she not some grounds for
deluding herself on that head? After the cure's death the house had
been for sale; and Benassis, who had only just come into the country,
had bought it as it stood, with the walls about it and the ground
belonging to it, together with the plate, wine, and furniture, the old
sundial, the poultry, the horse, and the woman-servant. Jacquotte was
the very pattern of a working housekeeper, with her clumsy figure, and
her bodice, always of the same dark brown print with large red spots
on it, which fitted her so tightly that it looked as if the material
must give way if she moved at all. Her colorless face, with its double
chin, looked out from under a round plaited cap, which made her look
paler than she really was. She talked incessantly, and always in a
loud voice--this short, active woman, with the plump, busy hands.
Indeed, if Jacquotte was silent for a moment, and took a corner of her
apron so as to turn it up in a triangle, it meant that a lengthy
expostulation was about to be delivered for the benefit of master or
man. Jacquotte was beyond all doubt the happiest cook in the kingdom;
for, that nothing might be lacking in a measure of felicity as great
as may be known in this world below, her vanity was continually
gratified--the townspeople regarded her as an authority of an
indefinite kind, and ranked her somewhere between the mayor and the
The master of the house found nobody in the kitchen when he entered
"Where the devil are they all gone?" he asked. "Pardon me for bringing
you in this way," he went on, turning to Genestas. "The front entrance
opens into the garden, but I am so little accustomed to receive
visitors that--Jacquotte!" he called in rather peremptory tones.
A woman's voice answered to the name from the interior of the house. A
moment later Jacquotte, assuming the offensive, called in her turn to
Benassis, who forthwith went into the dining-room.
"Just like you, sir!" she exclaimed; "you never do like anybody else.
You always ask people to dinner without telling me beforehand, and you
think that everything is settled as soon as you have called for
Jacquotte! You are not going to have the gentleman sit in the kitchen,
are you? Is not the salon to be unlocked and a fire to be lighted?
Nicolle is there, and will see after everything. Now take the
gentleman into the garden for a minute; that will amuse him; if he
likes to look at pretty things, show him the arbor of hornbeam trees
that the poor dear old gentleman made. I shall have time then to lay
the cloth, and to get everything ready, the dinner and the salon too."
"Yes. But, Jacquotte," Benassis went on, "the gentleman is going to
stay with us. Do not forget to give a look round M. Gravier's room,
and see about the sheets and things, and----"
"Now you are not going to interfere about the sheets, are you?" asked
Jacquotte. "If he is to sleep here, I know what must be done for him
perfectly well. You have not so much as set foot in M. Gravier's room
these ten months past. There is nothing to see there, the place is as
clean as a new pin. Then will the gentleman make some stay here?" she
continued in a milder tone.
"How long will he stay?"
"Faith, I do not know: What does it matter to you?"
"What does it matter to me, sir? Oh! very well, what does it matter to
me? Did any one ever hear the like! And the provisions and all that
At any other time she would have overwhelmed her master with
reproaches for his breach of trust, but now she followed him into the
kitchen before the torrent of words had come to an end. She had
guessed that there was a prospect of a boarder, and was eager to see
Genestas, to whom she made a very deferential courtesy, while she
scanned him from head to foot. A thoughtful and dejected expression
gave a harsh look to the soldier's face. In the dialogue between
master and servant the latter had appeared to him in the light of a
nonentity; and although he regretted the fact, this revelation had
lessened the high opinion that he had formed of the man whose
persistent efforts to save the district from the horrors of cretinism
had won his admiration.
"I do not like the looks of that fellow at all!" said Jacquotte to
"If you are not tired, sir," said the doctor to his supposed patient,
"we will take a turn round the garden before dinner."
"Willingly," answered the commandant.
They went through the dining-room, and reached the garden by way of a
sort of vestibule at the foot of the staircase between the salon and
the dining-room. Beyond a great glass door at the farther end of the
vestibule lay a flight of stone steps which adorned the garden side of
the house. The garden itself was divided into four large squares of
equal size by two paths that intersected each other in the form of a
cross, a box edging along their sides. At the farther end there was a
thick, green alley of hornbeam trees, which had been the joy and pride
of the late owner. The soldier seated himself on a worm-eaten bench,
and saw neither the trellis-work nor the espaliers, nor the vegetables
of which Jacquotte took such great care. She followed the traditions
of the epicurean churchman to whom this valuable garden owed its
origin; but Benassis himself regarded it with sufficient indifference.
The commandant turned their talk from the trivial matters which had
occupied them by saying to the doctor:
"How comes it, sir, that the population of the valley has been trebled
in ten years? There were seven hundred souls in it when you came, and
to-day you say that they number more than two thousand."
"You are the first person who has put that question to me," the doctor
answered. "Though it has been my aim to develop the capabilities of
this little corner of the earth to the utmost, the constant pressure
of a busy life has not left me time to think over the way in which
(like the mendicant brother) I have made 'broth from a flint' on a
large scale. M. Gravier himself, who is one of several who have done a
great deal for us, and to whom I was able to render a service by
re-establishing his health, has never given a thought to the theory,
though he has been everywhere over our mountain sides with me, to see
its practical results."
There was a moment's silence, during which Benassis followed his own
thoughts, careless of the keen glance by which his guest friend tried
to fathom him.
"You ask how it came about, my dear sir?" the doctor resumed. "It came
about quite naturally through the working of the social law by which
the need and the means of supplying it are correlated. Herein lies the
whole story. Races who have no wants are always poor. When I first
came to live here in this township, there were about a hundred and
thirty peasant families in it, and some two hundred hearths in the
valley. The local authorities were such as might be expected in the
prevailing wretchedness of the population. The mayor himself could not
write, and the deputy-mayor was a small farmer, who lived beyond the
limits of the Commune. The justice of the peace was a poor devil who
had nothing but his salary, and who was forced to relinquish the
registration of births, marriages, and deaths to his clerk, another
hapless wretch who was scarcely able to understand his duties. The old
cure had died at the age of seventy, and his curate, a quite
uneducated man, had just succeeded to his position. These people
comprised all the intelligence of the district over which they ruled.
"Those who dwelt amidst these lovely natural surroundings groveled in
squalor and lived upon potatoes, milk, butter, and cheese. The only
produce that brought in any money was the cheese, which most of them
carried in small baskets to Grenoble or its outskirts. The richer or
the more energetic among them sowed buckwheat for home consumption;
sometimes they raised a crop of barley or oats, but wheat was unknown.
The only trader in the place was the mayor, who owned a sawmill and
bought up timber at a low price to sell again. In the absence of
roads, his tree trunks had to be transported during the summer season;
each log was dragged along one at a time, and with no small
difficulty, by means of a chain attached to a halter about his horse's
neck, and an iron hook at the farther end of the chain, which was
driven into the wood. Any one who went to Grenoble, whether on
horseback or afoot, was obliged to follow a track high up on the
mountain side, for the valley was quite impassable. The pretty road
between this place and the first village that you reach as you come
into the canton (the way along which you must have come) was nothing
but a slough at all seasons of the year.
"Political events and revolutions had never reached this inaccessible
country--it lay completely beyond the limits of social stir and
change. Napoleon's name, and his alone, had penetrated hither; he is
held in great veneration, thanks to one or two old soldiers who have
returned to their native homes, and who of evenings tell marvelous
tales about his adventures and his armies for the benefit of these
simple folk. Their coming back is, moreover, a puzzle that no one can
explain. Before I came here, the young men who went into the army all
stayed in it for good. This fact in itself is a sufficient revelation
of the wretched condition of the country. I need not give you a
detailed description of it.
"This, then, was the state of things when I first came to the canton,
which has several contented, well-tilled, and fairly prosperous
communes belonging to it upon the other side of the mountains. I will
say nothing about the hovels in the town; they were neither more nor
less than stables, in which men and animals were indiscriminately
huddled together. As there was no inn in the place, I was obliged to
ask the curate for a bed, he being in possession, for the time being,
of this house, then offered for sale. Putting to him question after
question, I came to have some slight knowledge of the lamentable
condition of the country with the pleasant climate, the fertile soil,
and the natural productiveness that had impressed me so much.
"At that time, sir, I was seeking to shape a future for myself that
should be as little as possible like the troubled life that had left
me weary; and one of those thoughts came into my mind that God gives
us at times, to enable us to take up our burdens and bear them. I
resolved to develop all the resources of this country, just as a tutor
develops the capacities of a child. Do not think too much of my
benevolence; the pressing need that I felt for turning my thoughts
into fresh channels entered too much into my motives. I had determined
to give up the remainder of my life to some difficult task. A lifetime
would be required to bring about the needful changes in a canton that
Nature had made so wealthy, and man so poor; and I was tempted by the
practical difficulties that stood in the way. As soon as I found that
I could secure the cure's house and plenty of waste land at a small
cost, I solemnly devoted myself to the calling of a country surgeon
--the very last position that a man aspires to take. I determined to
become the friend of the poor, and to expect no reward of any kind
from them. Oh! I did not indulge in any illusions as to the nature of
the country people, nor as to the hindrances that lie in the way of
every attempt to bring about a better state of things among men or
their surroundings. I have never made idyllic pictures of my people; I
have taken them at their just worth--as poor peasants, neither wholly
good nor wholly bad, whose constant toil never allows them to indulge
in emotion, though they can feel acutely at times. Above all things,
in fact, I clearly understood that I should do nothing with them
except through an appeal to their selfish interests, and by schemes
for their immediate well-being. The peasants are one and all the sons
of St. Thomas, the doubting apostle--they always like words to be
supported by visible facts.
"Perhaps you will laugh at my first start, sir," the doctor went on
after a pause. "I began my difficult enterprise by introducing the
manufacture of baskets. The poor folks used to buy the wicker mats on
which they drain their cheeses, and all the baskets needed for the
insignificant trade of the district. I suggested to an intelligent
young fellow that he might take a lease on a good-sized piece of land
by the side of the torrent. Every year the floods deposited a rich
alluvial soil on this spot, where there should be no difficulty in
growing osiers. I reckoned out the quantity of wicker-work of various
kinds required from time to time by the canton, and went over to
Grenoble, where I found a young craftsman, a clever worker, but
without any capital. When I had discovered him, I soon made up my mind
to set him up in business here. I undertook to advance the money for
the osiers required for his work until my osier-farmer should be in a
position to supply him. I induced him to sell his baskets at rather
lower prices than they asked for them in Grenoble, while, at the same
time, they were better made. He entered into my views completely. The
osier-beds and the basket-making were two business speculations whose
results were only appreciated after a lapse of four years. Of course,
you know that osiers must be three years old before they are fit to
"At the commencement of operations, the basket-maker was boarded and
lodged gratuitously. Before very long he married a woman from Saint
Laurent du Pont, who had a little money. Then he had a house built, in
a healthy and very airy situation which I chose, and my advice was
followed as to the internal arrangements. Here was a triumph! I had
created a new industry, and had brought a producer and several workers
into the town. I wonder if you will regard my elations as childish?
"For the first few days after my basket-maker had set up his business,
I never went past his shop but my heart beat somewhat faster. And when
I saw the newly-built house, with the green-painted shutters, the vine
beside the doorway, and the bench and bundles of osiers before it;
when I saw a tidy, neatly-dressed woman within it, nursing a plump,
pink and white baby among the workmen, who were singing merrily and
busily plaiting their wicker-work under the superintendence of a man
who but lately had looked so pinched and pale, but now had an
atmosphere of prosperity about him; when I saw all this, I confess
that I could not forego the pleasure of turning basket-maker for a
moment, of going into the shop to hear how things went with them, and
of giving myself up to a feeling of content that I cannot express in
words, for I had all their happiness as well as my own to make me
glad. All my hopes became centered on this house, where the man dwelt
who had been the first to put a steady faith in me. Like the
basket-maker's wife, clasping her first nursling to her breast, did
not I already fondly cherish the hopes of the future of this poor
"I had to do so many things at once," he went on, "I came into
collision with other people's notions, and met with violent
opposition, fomented by the ignorant mayor to whose office I had
succeeded, and whose influence had dwindled away as mine increased. I
determined to make him my deputy and a confederate in my schemes of
benevolence. Yes, in the first place, I endeavored to instil
enlightened ideas into the densest of all heads. Through his self-love
and cupidity I gained a hold upon my man. During six months as we
dined together, I took him deeply into my confidence about my
projected improvements. Many people would think this intimacy one of
the most painful inflictions in the course of my task; but was he not
a tool of the most valuable kind? Woe to him who despises his axe, or
flings it carelessly aside! Would it not have been very inconsistent,
moreover, if I, who wished to improve a district, had shrunk back at
the thought of improving one man in it?
"A road was our first and most pressing need in bringing about a
better state of things. If we could obtain permission from the
Municipal Council to make a hard road, so as to put us in
communication with the highway to Grenoble, the deputy-mayor would be
the first gainer by it; for instead of dragging his timber over rough
tracks at a great expense, a good road through the canton would enable
him to transport it more easily, and to engage in a traffic on a large
scale, in all kinds of wood, that would bring in money--not a
miserable six hundred francs a year, but handsome sums which would
mean a certain fortune for him some day. Convinced at last, he became
"Through the whole of one winter the ex-mayor got into the way of
explaining to our citizens that a good road for wheeled traffic would
be a source of wealth to the whole country round, for it would enable
every one to do a trade with Grenoble; he held forth on this head at
the tavern while drinking with his intimates. When the Municipal
Council had authorized the making of the road, I went to the prefect
and obtained some money from the charitable funds at the disposal of
the department, in order to pay for the hire of carts, for the Commune
was unable to undertake the transport of road metal for lack of
wheeled conveyances. The ignorant began to murmur against me, and to
say that I wanted to bring the days of the corvee back again; this
made me anxious to finish this important work, that they might
speedily appreciate its benefits. With this end in view, every Sunday
during my first year of office I drew the whole population of the
township, willing or unwilling, up on to the mountain, where I myself
had traced out on a hard bottom the road between our village and the
highway to Grenoble. Materials for making it were fortunately to be
had in plenty along the site.
"The tedious enterprise called for a great deal of patience on my
part. Some who were ignorant of the law would refuse at times to give
their contribution of labor; others again, who had not bread to eat,
really could not afford to lose a day. Corn had to be distributed
among these last, and the others must be soothed with friendly words.
Yet by the time we had finished two-thirds of the road, which in all
is about two leagues in length, the people had so thoroughly
recognized its advantages that the remaining third was accomplished
with a spirit that surprised me. I added to the future wealth of the
Commune by planting a double row of poplars along the ditch on either
side of the way. The trees are already almost worth a fortune, and
they make our road look like a king's highway. It is almost always
dry, by reason of its position, and it was so well made that the
annual cost of maintaining it is a bare two hundred francs. I must
show it to you, for you cannot have seen it; you must have come by the
picturesque way along the valley bottom, a road which the people
decided to make for themselves three years later, so as to connect the
various farms that were made there at that time. In three years ideas
had rooted themselves in the common sense of this township, hitherto
so lacking in intelligence that a passing traveler would perhaps have
thought it hopeless to attempt to instil them. But to continue.
"The establishment of the basket-maker was an example set before these
poverty-stricken folk that they might profit by it. And if the road
was to be a direct cause of the future wealth of the canton, all the
primary forms of industry must be stimulated, or these two germs of a
better state of things would come to nothing. My own work went forward
by slow degrees, as I helped my osier farmer and wicker-worker and saw
to the making of the road.
"I had two horses, and the timber merchant, the deputy-mayor, had
three. He could only have them shod whenever he went over to Grenoble,
so I induced a farrier to take up his abode here, and undertook to
find him plenty of work. On the same day I met with a discharged
soldier, who had nothing but his pension of a hundred francs, and was
sufficiently perplexed about his future. He could read and write, so I
engaged him as secretary to the mayor; as it happened, I was lucky
enough to find a wife for him, and his dreams of happiness were
"Both of these new families needed houses, as well as the basket-maker
and twenty-two others from the cretin village, soon afterwards twelve
more households were established in the place. The workers in each of
these families were at once producers and consumers. They were masons,
carpenters, joiners, slaters, blacksmiths, and glaziers; and there was
work enough to last them for a long time, for had they not their own
houses to build when they had finished those for other people?
Seventy, in fact, were build in the Commune during my second year of
office. One form of production demands another. The additions to the
population of the township had created fresh wants, hitherto unknown
among these dwellers in poverty. The wants gave rise to industries,
and industries to trade, and the gains of trade raised the standard of
comfort, which in its turn gave them practical ideas.
"The various workmen wished to buy their bread ready baked, so we came
to have a baker. Buckwheat could no longer be the food of a population
which, awakened from its lethargy, had become essentially active. They
lived on buckwheat when I first came among them, and I wished to
effect a change to rye, or a mixture of rye and wheat in the first
instance, and finally to see a loaf of white bread even in the poorest
household. Intellectual progress, to my thinking, was entirely
dependent on a general improvement in the conditions of life. The
presence of a butcher in the district says as much for its
intelligence as for its wealth. The worker feeds himself, and a man
who feeds himself thinks. I had made a very careful study of the soil,
for I foresaw a time when it would be necessary to grow wheat. I was
sure of launching the place in a very prosperous agricultural career,
and of doubling the population, when once it had begun to work. And
now the time had come.
"M. Gravier, of Grenoble, owned a great deal of land in the commune,
which brought him in no rent, but which might be turned into
corn-growing land. He is the head of a department in the Prefecture,
as you know. It was a kindness for his own countryside quite as much
as my earnest entreaties that won him over. He had very benevolently
yielded to my importunities on former occasions, and I succeeded in
making it clear to him that in so doing he had wrought unconsciously
for his own benefit. After several days spent in pleadings,
consultation, and talk, the matter was thrashed out. I undertook to
guarantee him against all risks in the undertaking, from which his
wife, a woman of no imagination, sought to frighten him. He agreed to
build four farmhouses with a hundred acres of land attached to each,
and promised to advance the sums required to pay for clearing the
ground, for seeds, ploughing gear, and cattle, and for making
"I myself also started two farms, quite as much for the sake of
bringing my waste land into cultivation as with a view to giving an
object-lesson in the use of modern methods in agriculture. In six
weeks' time the population of the town increased to three hundred
people. Homes for several families must be built on the six farms;
there was a vast quantity of land to be broken up; the work called for
laborers. Wheelwrights, drainmakers, journeymen, and laborers of all
kinds flocked in. The road to Grenoble was covered with carts that
came and went. All the countryside was astir. The circulation of money
had made every one anxious to earn it, apathy had ceased, the place
"The story of M. Gravier, one of those who did so much for this
canton, can be concluded in a few words. In spite of cautious
misgivings, not unnatural in a man occupying an official position in a
provincial town, he advanced more than forty thousand francs, on the
faith of my promises, without knowing whether he should ever see them
back again. To-day every one of his farms is let for a thousand
francs. His tenants have thriven so well that each of them owns at
least a hundred acres, three hundred sheep, twenty cows, ten oxen, and
five horses, and employs more than twenty persons.
"But to resume. Our farms were ready by the end of the fourth year.
Our wheat harvest seemed miraculous to the people in the district,
heavy as the first crop off the land ought to be. How often during
that year I trembled for the success of my work! Rain or drought might
spoil everything by diminishing the belief in me that was already
felt. When we began to grow wheat, it necessitated the mill that you
have seen, which brings me in about five hundred francs a year. So the
peasants say that 'there is luck about me' (that is the way they put
it), and believe in me as they believe in their relics. These new
undertakings--the farms, the mill, the plantations, and the roads
--have given employment to all the various kinds of workers whom I had
called in. Although the buildings fully represent the value of the
sixty thousand francs of capital, which we sunk in the district, the
outlay was more than returned to us by the profits on the sales which
the consumers occasioned. I never ceased my efforts to put vigor into
this industrial life which was just beginning. A nurseryman took my
advice and came to settle in the place, and I preached wholesome
doctrine to the poor concerning the planting of fruit trees, in order
that some day they should obtain a monopoly of the sale of fruit in
"'You take your cheeses there as it is,' I used to tell them, 'why
not take poultry, eggs, vegetables, game, hay and straw, and so
forth?' All my counsels were a source of fortune; it was a question of
who should follow them first. A number of little businesses were
started; they went on at first but slowly, but from day to day their
progress became more rapid; and now sixty carts full of the various
products of the district set out every Monday for Grenoble, and there
is more buckwheat grown for poultry food than they used to sow for
human consumption. The trade in timber grew to be so considerable that
it was subdivided, and since the fourth year of our industrial era, we
have had dealers in firewood, squared timber, planks, bark, and later
on, in charcoal. In the end four new sawmills were set up, to turn out
the planks and beams of timber.
"When the ex-mayor had acquired a few business notions, he felt the
necessity of learning to read and write. He compared the prices that
were asked for wood in various neighborhoods, and found such
differences in his favor, that he secured new customers in one place
after another, and now a third of the trade in the department passes
through his hands. There has been such a sudden increase in our
traffic that we find constant work for three wagon-builders and two
harness-makers, each of them employing three hands at least. Lastly,
the quantity of ironware that we use is so large that an agricultural
implement and tool-maker has removed into the town, and is very well
satisfied with the result.
"The desire of gain develops a spirit of ambition, which has ever
since impelled our workers to extend their field from the township to
the canton, and from the canton to the department, so as to increase
their profits by increasing their sales. I had only to say a word to
point out new openings to them, and their own sense did the rest. Four
years had been sufficient to change the face of the township. When I
had come through it first, I did not catch the slightest sound; but in
less than five years from that time, there was life and bustle
everywhere. The gay songs, the shrill or murmuring sounds made by the
tools in the workshops rang pleasantly in my ears. I watched the
comings and goings of a busy population congregated in the clean and
wholesome new town, where plenty of trees had been planted. Every one
of them seemed conscious of a happy lot, every face shone with the
content that comes through a life of useful toil.
"I look upon these five years as the first epoch of prosperity in the
history of our town," the doctor went on after a pause. "During that
time I have prepared the ground and sowed the seed in men's minds as
well as in the land. Henceforward industrial progress could not be
stayed, the population was bound to go forward. A second epoch was
about to begin. This little world very soon desired to be better clad.
A shoemaker came, and with him a haberdasher, a tailor, and a hatter.
This dawn of luxury brought us a butcher and a grocer, and a midwife,
who became very necessary to me, for I lost a great deal of time over
maternity cases. The stubbed wastes yielded excellent harvests, and
the superior quality of our agricultural produce was maintained
through the increased supply of manure. My enterprise could now
develop itself; everything followed on quite naturally.
"When the houses had been rendered wholesome, and their inmates
gradually persuaded to feed and clothe themselves better, I wanted the
dumb animals to feel the benefit of these beginnings of civilization.
All the excellence of cattle, whether as a race or as individuals,
and, in consequence, the quality of the milk and meat, depends upon
the care that is expended upon them. I took the sanitation of cowsheds
for the text of my sermons. I showed them how an animal that is
properly housed and well cared for is more profitable than a lean
neglected beast, and the comparison wrought a gradual change for the
better in the lot of the cattle in the Commune. Not one of them was
ill treated. The cows and oxen were rubbed down as in Switzerland and
Auvergne. Sheep-folds, stables, byres, dairies, and barns were rebuilt
after the pattern of the roomy, well-ventilated, and consequently
healthy steadings that M. Gravier and I had constructed. Our tenants
became my apostles. They made rapid converts of unbelievers,
demonstrating the soundness of my doctrines by their prompt results. I
lent money to those who needed it, giving the preference to
hardworking poor people, because they served as an example. Any
unsound or sickly cattle or beasts of poor quality were quickly
disposed of by my advice, and replaced by fine specimens. In this way
our dairy produce came, in time, to command higher prices in the
market than that sent by other communes. We had splendid herds, and as
a consequence, capital leather.
"This step forward was of great importance, and in this wise. In rural
economy nothing can be regarded as trifling. Our hides used to fetch
scarcely anything, and the leather we made was of little value, but
when once our leather and hides were improved, tanneries were easily
established along the waterside. We became tanners, and business
"Wine, properly speaking, had been hitherto unknown; a thin, sour
beverage like verjuice had been their only drink, but now wineshops
were established to supply a natural demand. The oldest tavern was
enlarged and transformed into an inn, which furnished mules to
pilgrims to the Grand Chartreuse who began to come our way, and after
two years there was just enough business for two innkeepers.
"The justice of the peace died just as our second prosperous epoch
began, and luckily for us, his successor had formerly been a notary in
Grenoble who had lost most of his fortune by a bad speculation, though
enough of it yet remained to cause him to be looked upon in the
village as a wealthy man. It was M. Gravier who induced him to settle
among us. He built himself a comfortable house and helped me by
uniting his efforts to mine. He also laid out a farm, and broke up and
cleaned some of the waste land, and at this moment he has three
chalets up above on the mountain side. He has a large family. He
dismissed the old registrar and the clerk, and in their place
installed better-educated men, who worked far harder, moreover, than
their predecessors had done. One of the heads of these two new
households started a distillery of potato-spirit, and the other was a
wool-washer; each combined these occupations with his official work,
and in this way two valuable industries were created among us.
"Now that the Commune had some revenues of its own, no opposition was
raised in any quarter when they were spent on building a town-hall,
with a free school for elementary education in the building and
accommodation for a teacher. For this important post I had selected a
poor priest who had taken the oath, and had therefore been cast out by
the department, and who at last found a refuge among us for his old
age. The schoolmistress is a very worthy woman who had lost all that
she had, and was in great distress. We made up a nice little sum for
her, and she has just opened a boarding-school for girls to which the
wealthy farmers hereabouts are beginning to send their daughters.
"If so far, sir, I have been entitled to tell you the story of my own
doings as the chronicle of this little spot of earth, I have reached
the point where M. Janvier, the new parson, began to divide the work
of regeneration with me. He has been a second Fenelon, unknown beyond
the narrow limits of a country parish, and by some secret of his own
has infused a spirit of brotherliness and of charity among these folk
that has made them almost like one large family. M. Dufau, the justice
of the peace, was a late comer, but he in an equal degree deserves the
gratitude of the people here.
"I will put the whole position before you in figures that will make it
clearer than any words of mine. At this moment the Commune owns two
hundred acres of woodland, and a hundred and sixty acres of meadow.
Without running up the rates, we give a hundred crowns to supplement
the cure's stipend, we pay two hundred francs to the rural policeman,
and as much again to the schoolmaster and schoolmistress. The
maintenance of the roads costs us five hundred francs, while necessary
repairs to the townhall, the parsonage, and the church, with some few
other expenses, also amount to a similar sum. In fifteen years' time
there will be a thousand francs worth of wood to fell for every
hundred francs' worth cut now, and the taxes will not cost the
inhabitants a penny. This Commune is bound to become one of the
richest in France. But perhaps I am taxing your patience, sir?" said
Benassis, suddenly discovering that his companion wore such a pensive
expression that it seemed as though his attention was wandering.
"No! no!" answered the commandant.
"Our trade, handicrafts, and agriculture so far only supplied the
needs of the district," the doctor went on. "At a certain point our
prosperity came to a standstill. I wanted a post-office, and sellers
of tobacco, stationery, powder and shot. The receiver of taxes had
hitherto preferred to live elsewhere, but now I succeeded in
persuading him to take up his abode in the town, holding out as
inducements the pleasantness of the place and of the new society. As
time and place permitted I had succeeded in producing a supply of
everything for which I had first created a need, in attracting
families of hardworking people into the district, and in implanting a
desire to own land in them all. So by degrees, as they saved a little
money, the waste land began to be broken up; spade husbandry and small
holdings increased; so did the value of property on the mountain.
"Those struggling folk who, when I knew them first, used to walk over
to Grenoble carrying their few cheeses for sale, now made the journey
comfortably in a cart, and took fruit, eggs, chickens and turkeys, and
before they were aware of it, everyone was a little richer. Even those
who came off worst had a garden at any rate, and grew early vegetables
and fruit. It became the children's work to watch the cattle in the
fields, and at last it was found to be a waste of time to bake bread
at home. Here were signs of prosperity!
"But if this place was to be a permanent forge of industry, fuel must
be constantly added to the fire. The town had not as yet a renascent
industry which could maintain this commercial process, an industry
which should make great transactions, a warehouse, and a market
necessary. It is not enough that a country should lose none of the
money that forms its capital; you will not increase its prosperity by
more or less ingenious devices for causing this amount to circulate,
by means of production and consumption, through the greatest possible
number of hands. That is not where your problem lies. When a country
is fully developed and its production keeps pace with its consumption,
if private wealth is to increase as well as the wealth of the
community at large, there must be exchanges with other communities,
which will keep a balance on the right side of the balance-sheet. This
thought has let states with a limited territorial basis like Tyre,
Carthage, Venice, Holland, and England, for instance, to secure the
carrying trade. I cast about for some such notion as this to apply to
our little world, so as to inaugurate a third commercial epoch. Our
town is so much like any other, that our prosperity was scarcely
visible to a passing stranger; it was only for me that it was
astonishing. The folk had come together by degrees; they themselves
were a part of the change, and could not judge of its effects as a
"Seven years had gone by when I met with two strangers, the real
benefactors of the place, which perhaps some day they will transform
into a large town. One of them is a Tyrolese, an exceedingly clever
fellow, who makes rough shoes for country people's wear, and boots for
people of fashion in Grenoble as no one can make them, not even in
Paris itself. He was a poor strolling musician, who, singing and
working, had made his way through Italy; one of those busy Germans who
fashion the tools of their own work, and make the instrument that they
play upon. When he came to the town he asked if any one wanted a pair
of shoes. They sent him to me, and I gave him an order for two pairs
of boots, for which he made his own lasts. The foreigner's skill
surprised me. He gave accurate and consistent answers to the questions
I put, and his face and manner confirmed the good opinion I had formed
of him. I suggested that he should settle in the place, undertaking to
assist him in business in every way that I could; in fact, I put a
fairly large sum of money at his disposal. He accepted my offer. I had
my own ideas in this. The quality of our leather had improved; and why
should we not use it ourselves, and before very long make our own
shoes at moderate prices?
"It was the basket-maker's business over again on a larger scale.
Chance had put an exceedingly clever hard-working man in my way, and
he must be retained so that a steady and profitable trade might be
given to the place. There is a constant demand for foot-gear, and a
very slight difference in price is felt at once by the purchaser.
"This was my reasoning, sir, and fortunately events have justified it.
At this time we have five tanyards, each of which has its bark-mill.
They take all the hides produced in the department itself, and even
draw part of their supply from Provence; and yet the Tyrolese uses
more leather than they can produce, and has forty work-people in his
"I happened on the other man after a fashion no whit less strange, but
you might find the story tedious. He is just an ordinary peasant, who
discovered a cheaper way of making the great broad-brimmed hats that
are worn in this part of the world. He sells them in other cantons,
and even sends them into Switzerland and Savoy. So long as the quality
and the low prices can be maintained, here are two inexhaustible
sources of wealth for the canton, which suggested to my mind the idea
of establishing three fairs in the year. The prefect, amazed at our
industrial progress, lent his aid in obtaining the royal ordinance
which authorized them, and last year we held our three fairs. They are
known as far as Savoy as the Shoe Fair and the Hat Fair.
"The head clerk of a notary in Grenoble heard of these changes. He was
poor, but he was a well-educated, hardworking young fellow, and Mlle.
Gravier was engaged to be married to him. He went to Paris to ask for
an authorization to establish himself here as a notary, and his
request was granted. As he had not to pay for his appointment, he
could afford to build a house in the market square of the new town,
opposite the house of the justice of the peace. We have a market once
a week, and a considerable amount of business is transacted in corn
"Next year a druggist surely ought to come among us, and next we want
Back to Full Books