The Country Doctor
Honore de Balzac
Part 2 out of 5
a clockmaker, a furniture dealer, and a bookseller; and so, by
degrees, we shall have all the desirable luxuries of life. Who knows
but that at last we shall have a number of substantial houses, and
give ourselves all the airs of a small city? Education has made such
strides that there has never been any opposition made at the
council-board when I proposed that we should restore our church and
build a parsonage; nor when I brought forward a plan for laying out a
fine open space, planted with trees, where the fairs could be held,
and a further scheme for a survey of the township, so that its future
streets should be wholesome, spacious, and wisely planned.
"This is how we came to have nineteen hundred hearths in the place of
a hundred and thirty-seven; three thousand head of cattle instead of
eight hundred; and for a population of seven hundred, no less than two
thousand persons are living in the township, or three thousand, if the
people down the valley are included. There are twelve houses belonging
to wealthy people in the Commune, there are a hundred well-to-do
families, and two hundred more which are thriving. The rest have their
own exertions to look to. Every one knows how to read and write, and
we subscribe to seventeen different newspapers.
"We have poor people still among us--there are far too many of them,
in fact; but we have no beggars, and there is work enough for all. I
have so many patients that my daily round taxes the powers of two
horses. I can go anywhere for five miles round at any hour without
fear; for if any one was minded to fire a shot at me, his life would
not be worth ten minutes' purchase. The undemonstrative affection of
the people is my sole gain from all these changes, except the radiant
'Good-day, M. Benassis,' that every one gives me as I pass. You will
understand, of course, that the wealth incidentally acquired through
my model farms has only been a means and not an end."
"If every one followed your example in other places, sir, France would
be great indeed, and might laugh at the rest of Europe!" cried
"But I have kept you out here for half an hour," said Benassis; "it is
growing dark, let us go in to dinner."
The doctor's house, on the side facing the garden, consists of a
ground floor and a single story, with a row of five windows in each,
dormer windows also project from the tiled mansard-roof. The
green-painted shutters are in startling contrast with the gray tones
of the walls. A vine wanders along the whole side of the house, a
pleasant strip of green like a frieze, between the two stories. A
few struggling Bengal roses make shift to live as best they may,
half drowned at times by the drippings from the gutterless eaves.
As you enter the large vestibule, the salon lies to your right; it
contains four windows, two of which look into the yard, and two into
the garden. Ceiling and wainscot are paneled, and the walls are hung
with seventeenth century tapestry--pathetic evidence that the room had
been the object of the late owner's aspiration, and that he had
lavished all that he could spare upon it. The great roomy armchairs,
covered with brocaded damask; the old fashioned, gilded candle-sconces
above the chimney-piece, and the window curtains with their heavy
tassels, showed that the cure had been a wealthy man. Benassis had
made some additions to this furniture, which was not without a
character of its own. He had placed two smaller tables, decorated with
carved wooden garlands, between the windows on opposite sides of the
room, and had put a clock, in a case of tortoise shell, inlaid with
copper, upon the mantel-shelf. The doctor seldom occupied the salon;
its atmosphere was damp and close, like that of a room that is always
kept shut. Memories of the dead cure still lingered about it; the
peculiar scent of his tobacco seemed to pervade the corner by the
hearth where he had been wont to sit. The two great easy-chairs were
symmetrically arranged on either side of the fire, which had not been
lighted since the time of M. Gravier's visit; the bright flames from
the pine logs lighted the room.
"The evenings are chilly even now," said Benassis; "it is pleasant to
see a fire."
Genestas was meditating. He was beginning to understand the doctor's
indifference to his every-day surroundings.
"It is surprising to me, sir, that you, who possess real public
spirit, should have made no effort to enlighten the Government, after
accomplishing so much."
Benassis began to laugh, but without bitterness; he said, rather
"You mean that I should draw up some sort of memorial on various ways
of civilizing France? You are not the first to suggest it, sir; M.
Gravier has forestalled you. Unluckily, Governments cannot be
enlightened, and a Government which regards itself as a diffuser of
light is the least open to enlightenment. What we have done for our
canton, every mayor ought, of course, to do for his; the magistrate
should work for his town, the sub-prefect for his district, the
prefect for the department, and the minister for France, each acting
in his own sphere of interest. For the few miles of country road that
I persuaded our people to make, another would succeed in constructing
a canal or a highway; and for my encouragement of the peasants' trade
in hats, a minister would emancipate France from the industrial yoke
of the foreigner by encouraging the manufacture of clocks in different
places, by helping to bring to perfection our iron and steel, our
tools and appliances, or by bringing silk or dyer's woad into
"In commerce, 'encouragement,' does not mean protection. A really wise
policy should aim at making a country independent of foreign supply,
but this should be effected without resorting to the pitiful shifts of
customs duties and prohibitions. Industries must work out their own
salvation, competition is the life of trade. A protected industry goes
to sleep, and monopoly, like the protective tariff, kills it outright.
The country upon which all others depend for their supplies will be
the land which will promulgate free trade, for it will be conscious of
its power to produce its manufactures at prices lower than those of
any of its competitors. France is in a better position to attain this
end than England, for France alone possesses an amount of territory
sufficiently extensive to maintain a supply of agricultural produce at
prices that will enable the worker to live on low wages; the
Administration should keep this end in view, for therein lies the
whole modern question. I have not devoted my life to this study, dear
sir; I found my work by accident, and late in the day. Such simple
things as these are too slight, moreover, to build into a system;
there is nothing wonderful about them, they do not lend themselves to
theories; it is their misfortune to be merely practically useful. And
then work cannot be done quickly. The man who means to succeed in
these ways must daily look to find within himself the stock of courage
needed for the day, a courage in reality of the rarest kind, though it
does not seem hard to practise, and meets with little recognition--the
courage of the schoolmaster, who must say the same things over and
over again. We all honor the man who has shed his blood on the
battlefield, as you have done; but we ridicule this other whose
life-fire is slowly consumed in repeating the same words to children
of the same age. There is no attraction for any of us in obscure
well-doing. We know nothing of the civic virtue that led the great
men of ancient times to serve their country in the lowest rank
whenever they did not command. Our age is afflicted with a disease
that makes each of us seek to rise above his fellows, and there are
more saints than shrines among us.
"This is how it has come to pass. The monarchy fell, and we lost
Honor, Christian Virtue faded with the religion of our forefathers,
and our own ineffectual attempts at government have destroyed
Patriotism. Ideas can never utterly perish, so these beliefs linger on
in our midst, but they do not influence the great mass of the people,
and Society has no support but Egoism. Every individual believes in
himself. For us the future means egoism; further than that we cannot
see. The great man who shall save us from the shipwreck which is
imminent will no doubt avail himself of individualism when he makes a
nation of us once more; but until this regeneration comes, we bide our
time in a materialistic and utilitarian age. Utilitarianism--to this
conclusion we have come. We are all rated, not at our just worth, but
according to our social importance. People will scarcely look at an
energetic man if he is in shirt-sleeves. The Government itself is
pervaded by this idea. A minister sends a paltry medal to a sailor who
has saved a dozen lives at the risk of his own, while the deputy who
sells his vote to those in power receives the Cross of the Legion of
"Woe to a people made up of such men as these! For nations, like men,
owe all the strength and vitality that is in them to noble thoughts
and aspirations, and men's feelings shape their faith. But when
self-interest has taken the place of faith and each one of us thinks
only of himself, and believes in himself alone, how can you expect to
find among us much of that civil courage whose very essence consists
in self-renunciation? The same principle underlies both military and
civil courage, although you soldiers are called upon to yield your
lives up once and for all, while ours are given slowly drop by drop,
and the battle is the same for both, although it takes different
"The man who would fain civilize the lowliest spot on earth needs
something besides wealth for the task. Knowledge is still more
necessary; and knowledge, and patriotism, and integrity are worthless
unless they are accompanied by a firm determination on his part to set
his own personal interests completely aside, and to devote himself to
a social idea. France, no doubt, possesses more than one well-educated
man and more than one patriot in every commune; but I am fully
persuaded that not every canton can produce a man who to these
valuable qualifications unites the unflagging will and pertinacity
with which a blacksmith hammers out iron.
"The Destroyer and the Builder are two manifestations of Will; the one
prepares the way, and the other accomplishes the work; the first
appears in the guise of a spirit of evil, and the second seems like
the spirit of good. Glory falls to the Destroyer, while the Builder is
forgotten; for evil makes a noise in the world that rouses little
souls to admiration, while good deeds are slow to make themselves
heard. Self-love leads us to prefer the more conspicuous part. If it
should happen that any public work is undertaken without an interested
motive, it will only be by accident, until the day when education has
changed our ways of regarding things in France.
"Yet suppose that this change had come to pass, and that all of us
were public-spirited citizens; in spite of our comfortable lives among
trivialities, should we not be in a fair way to become the most
wearied, wearisome, and unfortunate race of philistines under the sun?
"I am not at the helm of State, the decision of great questions of
this kind is not within my province; but, setting these considerations
aside, there are other difficulties in the way of laying down hard and
fast rules as to government. In the matter of civilization, everything
is relative. Ideas that suit one country admirably are fatal in
another--men's minds are as various as the soils of the globe. If we
have so often been ill governed, it is because a faculty for
government, like taste, is the outcome of a very rare and lofty
attitude of mind. The qualifications for the work are found in a
natural bent of the soul rather than in the possession of scientific
formulae. No one need fear, however, to call himself a statesman, for
his actions and motives cannot be justly estimated; his real judges
are far away, and the results of his deeds are even more remote. We
have a great respect here in France for men of ideas--a keen intellect
exerts a great attraction for us; but ideas are of little value where
a resolute will is the one thing needful. Administration, as a matter
of fact, does not consist in forcing more or less wise methods and
ideas upon the great mass of the nation, but in giving to the ideas,
good or bad, that they already possess a practical turn which will
make them conduce to the general welfare of the State. If
old-established prejudices and customs bring a country into a bad way,
the people will renounce their errors of their own accord. Are not
losses the result of economical errors of every kind? And is it not,
therefore, to every one's interest to rectify them in the long run?
"Luckily I found a /tabula rasa/ in this district. They have followed
my advice, and the land is well cultivated; but there had been no
previous errors in agriculture, and the soil was good to begin with,
so that it has been easy to introduce the five-ply shift, artificial
grasses, and potatoes. My methods did not clash with people's
prejudices. The faultily constructed plowshares in use in some parts
of France were unknown here, the hoe sufficed for the little field
work that they did. Our wheelwright extolled my wheeled plows because
he wished to increase his own business, so I secured an ally in him;
but in this matter, as in all others, I sought to make the good of one
conduce to the good of all.
"Then I turned my attention to another kind of production, that should
increase the welfare rather than the wealth of these poor folk. I have
brought nothing from without into this district; I have simply
encouraged the people to seek beyond its limits for a market for their
produce, a measure that could not but increase their prosperity in a
way that they felt immediately. They had no idea of the fact, but they
themselves were my apostles, and their works preached my doctrines.
Something else must also be borne in mind. We are barely five leagues
from Grenoble. There is plenty of demand in a large city for produce
of all kinds, but not every commune is situated at the gates of a
city. In every similar undertaking the nature, situation, and
resources of the country must be taken into consideration, and a
careful study must be made of the soil, of the people themselves, and
of many other things; and no one should expect to have vines grow in
Normandy. So no tasks can be more various than those of government,
and its general principles must be few in number. The law is uniform,
but not so the land and the minds and customs of those who dwell in
it; and the administration of the law is the art of carrying it out in
such a manner that no injury is done to people's interests. Every
place must be considered separately.
"On the other side of the mountain at the foot of which our deserted
village lies, they find it impossible to use wheeled plows, because
the soil is not deep enough. Now if the mayor of the commune were to
take it into his head to follow in our footsteps, he would be the ruin
of his neighborhood. I advised him to plant vineyards; they had a
capital vintage last year in the little district, and their wine is
exchanged for our corn.
"Then, lastly, it must be remembered that my words carried a certain
weight with the people to whom I preached, and that we were
continually brought into close contact. I cured my peasants'
complaints; an easy task, for a nourishing diet is, as a rule, all
that is needed to restore them to health and strength. Either through
thrift, or through sheer poverty, the country people starve
themselves; any illness among them is caused in this way, and as a
rule they enjoy very fair health.
"When I first decided to devote myself to this life of obscure
renunciation, I was in doubt for a long while whether to become a
cure, a country doctor, or a justice of the peace. It is not without
reason that people speak collectively of the priest, the lawyer, and
the doctor as 'men of the black robe'--so the saying goes. They
represent the three principal elements necessary to the existence of
society--conscience, property, and health. At one time the first, and
at a later period the second, was all-important in the State. Our
predecessors on this earth thought, perhaps not without reason, that
the priest, who prescribed what men should think, ought to be
paramount; so the priest was king, pontiff, and judge in one, for in
those days belief and faith were everything. All this has been changed
in our day; and we must even take our epoch as we find it. But I, for
one, believe that the progress of civilization and the welfare of the
people depend on these three men. They are the three powers who bring
home to the people's minds the ways in which facts, interests, and
principles affect them. They themselves are three great results
produced in the midst of the nation by the operation of events, by the
ownership of property, and by the growth of ideas. Time goes on and
brings changes to pass, property increases or diminishes in men's
hands, all the various readjustments have to be duly regulated, and in
this way principles of social order are established. If civilization
is to spread itself, and production is to be increased, the people
must be made to understand the way in which the interests of the
individual harmonize with national interests which resolve themselves
into facts, interests, and principles. As these three professions are
bound to deal with these issues of human life, it seemed to me that
they must be the most powerful civilizing agencies of our time. They
alone afford to a man of wealth the opportunity of mitigating the fate
of the poor, with whom they daily bring him in contact.
"The peasant is always more willing to listen to the man who lays down
rules for saving him from bodily ills than to the priest who exhorts
him to save his soul. The first speaker can talk of this earth, the
scene of the peasant's labors, while the priest is bound to talk to
him of heaven, with which, unfortunately, the peasant nowadays
concerns himself very little indeed; I say unfortunately, because the
doctrine of a future life is not only a consolation, but a means by
which men may be governed. Is not religion the one power that
sanctions social laws? We have but lately vindicated the existence of
God. In the absence of a religion, the Government was driven to invent
the Terror, in order to carry its laws into effect; but the terror was
the fear of man, and it has passed away.
"When a peasant is ill, when he is forced to lie on his pallet, and
while he is recovering, he cannot help himself, he is forced to listen
to logical reasoning, which he can understand quite well if it is put
clearly before him. This thought made a doctor of me. My calculations
for the peasants were made along with them. I never gave advice unless
I was quite sure of the results, and in this way compelled them to
admit the wisdom of my views. The people require infallibility.
Infallibility was the making of Napoleon; he would have been a god if
he had not filled the world with the sound of his fall at Waterloo. If
Mahomet founded a permanent religion after conquering the third part
of the globe, it was by dint of concealing his deathbed from the
crowd. The same rules hold good for the great conqueror and for the
provincial mayor, and a nation or a commune is much the same sort of
crowd; indeed, the great multitude of mankind is the same everywhere.
"I have been exceedingly firm with those whom I have helped with
money; if I had not been inflexible on this point, they all would have
laughed at me. Peasants, no less than worldlings, end by despising the
man that they can deceive. He has been cheated? Clearly, then, he must
have been weak; and it is might alone that governs the world. I have
never charged a penny for my professional advice, except to those who
were evidently rich people; but I have not allowed the value of my
services to be overlooked at all, and I always make them pay for
medicine unless the patient is exceedingly poor. If my peasants do not
pay me in money, they are quite aware that they are in my debt;
sometimes they satisfy their consciences by bringing oats for my
horses, or corn, when it is cheap. But if the miller were to send me
some eels as a return for my advice, I should tell him that he is too
generous for such a small matter. My politeness bears fruit. In the
winter I shall have some sacks of flour for the poor. Ah! sir, they
have kind hearts, these people, if one does not slight them, and
to-day I think more good and less evil of them than I did formerly."
"What a deal of trouble you have taken!" said Genestas.
"Not at all," answered Benassis. "It was no more trouble to say
something useful than to chatter about trifles; and whether I chatted
or joked, the talk always turned on them and their concerns wherever I
went. They would not listen to me at first. I had to overcome their
dislikes; I belonged to the middle classes--that is to say, I was a
natural enemy. I found the struggle amusing. An easy or an uneasy
conscience--that is all the difference that lies between doing well or
ill; the trouble is the same in either case. If scoundrels would but
behave themselves properly, they might be millionaires instead of
being hanged. That is all."
"The dinner is growing cold, sir!" cried Jacquotte, in the doorway.
Genestas caught the doctor's arm.
"I have only one comment to offer on what I have just heard," he
remarked. "I am not acquainted with any account of the wars of
Mahomet, so that I can form no opinions as to his military talents;
but if you had only watched the Emperor's tactics during the campaign
in France, you might well have taken him for a god; and if he was
beaten on the field of Waterloo, it was because he was more than
mortal, it was because the earth found his weight too heavy to bear,
and sprang from under his feet! On every other subject I entirely
agree with you, and /tonnerre de Dieu/! whoever hatched you did a good
"Come," exclaimed Benassis with a smile, "let us sit down to dinner."
The walls of the dining-room were paneled from floor to ceiling, and
painted gray. The furniture consisted of a few straw-bottomed chairs,
a sideboard, some cupboards, a stove, and the late owner's celebrated
clock; there were white curtains in the window, and a white cloth on
the table, about which there was no sign of luxury. The dinner service
was of plain white earthenware; the soup, made after the traditions of
the late cure, was the most concentrated kind of broth that was ever
set to simmer by any mortal cook. The doctor and his guest had
scarcely finished it when a man rushed into the kitchen, and in spite
of Jacquotte, suddenly invaded the dining-room.
"Well, what is it?" asked the doctor.
"It is this, sir. The mistress, our Mme. Vigneau, has turned as white
as white can be, so that we are frightened about her."
"Oh, well, then," Benassis said cheerfully, "I must leave the table,"
and he rose to go.
In spite of the doctor's entreaties, Genestas flung down his
table-napkin, and swore in a soldierly fashion that he would not finish
his dinner without his host. He returned indeed to the salon; and as he
warmed himself by the fire, he thought over the troubles that no man
may escape, the troubles that are found in every lot that it falls to
man to endure here upon earth.
Benassis soon came back, and the two future friends sat down again.
"Taboureau has just come up to speak to you," said Jacquotte to her
master, as she brought in the dishes that she had kept hot for them.
"Who can be ill at his place?" asked the doctor.
"No one is ill, sir. I think from what he said that it is some matter
of his own that he wants to ask you about; he is coming back again."
"Very good. This Taboureau," Benassis went on, addressing Genestas,
"is for me a whole philosophical treatise; take a good look at him
when he comes, he is sure to amuse you. He was a laborer, a thrifty,
hard-working man, eating little and getting through a good deal of
work. As soon as the rogue came to have a few crowns of his own, his
intelligence began to develop; he watched the progress which I had
originated in this little district with an eye to his own profit. He
had made quite a fortune in eight year's time, that is to say, a
fortune for our part of the world. Very likely he may have a couple of
score thousand francs by now. But if I were to give you a thousand
guesses, you would never find out how he made the money. He is a
usurer, and his scheme of usury is so profoundly and so cleverly based
upon the requirements of the whole canton, that I should merely waste
my time if I were to take it upon myself to undeceive them as to the
benefits which they reap, in their own opinion, from their dealings
with Taboureau. When this devil of a fellow saw every one cultivating
his own plot of ground, he hurried about buying grain so as to supply
the poor with the requisite seed. Here, as everywhere else, the
peasants and even some of the farmers had no ready money with which to
pay for seed. To some, Master Taboureau would lend a sack of barley,
for which he was to receive a sack of rye at harvest time, and to
others a measure of wheat for a sack of four. At the present day the
man has extended this curious business of his all over the department;
and unless something happens to prevent him, he will go on and very
likely make a million. Well, my dear sir, Taboureau the laborer, an
obliging, hard-working, good-natured fellow, used to lend a helping
hand to any one who asked him; but as his gains have increased
/Monsieur/ Taboureau has become litigious, arrogant, and somewhat given
to sharp practice. The more money he makes, the worse he grows. The
moment that the peasant forsakes his life of toil pure and simple for
the leisured existence of the landowning classes, he becomes
intolerable. There is a certain kind of character, partly virtuous,
partly vicious, half-educated, half-ignorant, which will always be the
despair of governments. You will see an example of it in Taboureau. He
looks simple, and even doltish; but when his interests are in
question, he is certainly profoundly clever."
A heavy footstep announced the approach of the grain lender.
"Come in, Taboureau!" cried Benassis.
Thus forewarned by the doctor, the commandant scrutinized the peasant
in the doorway. Taboureau was decidedly thin, and stooped a little. He
had a bulging forehead, covered with wrinkles, and a cavernous face,
in which two small gray eyes with a dark spot in either of them seemed
to be pierced rather than set. The lines of the miser's mouth were
close and firm, and his narrow chin turned up to meet an exaggeratedly
hooked nose. His hair was turning gray already, and deep furrows which
converged above the prominent cheek-bones spoke of the wily shrewdness
of a horse-dealer and of a life spent in journeying about. He wore a
blue coat in fairly clean condition, the square side-pocket flaps
stuck out above his hips, and the skirts of the coats hung loose in
front, so that a white-flowered waistcoat was visible. There he stood
firmly planted on both feet, leaning upon a thick stick with a knob at
the end of it. A little spaniel had followed the grain-dealer, in
spite of Jacquotte's efforts, and was crouching beside him.
"Well, what is it?" Benassis asked as he turned to this being.
Taboureau gave a suspicious glance at the stranger seated at the
doctor's table, and said:
"It is not a case of illness, /M. le Maire/, but you understand how to
doctor the ailments of the purse just as well as those of the body. We
have had a little difficulty with a man over at Saint-Laurent, and I
have come to ask your advice about it."
"Why not see the justice of the peace or his clerk?"
"Oh, because you are so much cleverer, sir, and I shall feel more sure
about my case if I can have your countenance."
"My good Taboureau, I am willing to give medical advice to the poor
without charging for it; but I cannot look into the lawsuits of a man
who is as wealthy as you are for nothing. It costs a good deal to
acquire that kind of knowledge."
Taboureau began to twist his hat about.
"If you want my advice, in order to save the hard coin you would have
to pay to the lawyer folk over in Grenoble, you must send a bag of rye
to the widow Martin, the woman who is bringing up the charity
"/Dame/! I will do it with all my heart, sir, if you think it necessary.
Can I talk about this business of mine without troubling the gentleman
there?" he added, with a look at Genestas.
The doctor nodded, so Taboureau went on.
"Well, then, sir, two months ago a man from Saint-Laurent came over
here to find me. 'Taboureau,' said he to me, 'could you sell me a
hundred and thirty-seven measures of barley?' 'Why not?' say I, 'that
is my trade. Do you want it immediately?' 'No,' he says, 'I want it
for the beginning of spring, in March.' So far, so good. Well, we
drive our bargain, and we drink a glass, and we agree that he is to
pay me the price that the barley fetched at Grenoble last market day,
and I am to deliver it in March. I am to warehouse it at owner's risk,
and no allowance for shrinkage of course. But barley goes up and up,
my dear sir; the barley rises like boiling milk. Then I am hard up for
money, and I sell my barley. Quite natural, sir, was it not?"
"No," said Benassis, "the barley had passed out of your possession,
you were only warehousing it. And suppose the barley had gone down in
value, would you not have compelled your buyer to take it at the price
you agreed upon?"
"But very likely he would not have paid me, sir. One must look out for
oneself! The seller ought to make a good profit when the chance comes
in his way; and, after, all the goods are not yours until you have
paid for them. That is so, /Monsieur l'Officier/, is it not? For you can
see that the gentleman has been in the army."
"Taboureau," Benassis said sternly, "ill luck will come to you. Sooner
or later God punishes ill deeds. How can you, knowing as much as you
do, a capable man moreover, and a man who conducts his business
honorably, set examples of dishonesty to the canton? If you allow such
proceedings as this to be taken against you, how can you expect that
the poor will remain honest people and will not rob you? Your laborers
will cheat you out of part of their working hours, and every one here
will be demoralized. You are in the wrong. Your barley was as good as
delivered. If the man from Saint-Laurent had fetched it himself, you
would not have gone there to take it away from him; you have sold
something that was no longer yours to sell, for your barley had
already been turned into money which was to be paid down at the
stipulated time. But go on."
Genestas gave the doctor a significant glance, to call his attention
to Taboureau's impassive countenance. Not a muscle had stirred in the
usurer's face during this reprimand; there was no flush on his
forehead, and no sign of emotion in his little eyes.
"Well, sir, I am called upon to supply the barley at last winter's
price. Now /I/ consider that I am not bound to do so."
"Look here, Taboureau, deliver that barley and be very quick about it,
or make up your mind to be respected by nobody in the future. Even if
you gained the day in a case like this, you would be looked upon as an
unscrupulous man who does not keep to his word, and is not bound by
promises, or by honor, or----"
"Go on, there is nothing to be afraid of; tell me that I am a scamp, a
scoundrel, a thief outright. You can say things like that in business
without insulting anybody, M. le Maire. 'Tis each for himself in
business, you know."
"Well, then, why deliberately put yourself in a position in which you
deserve to be called by such names?"
"But if the law is on my side, sir?"
"But the law will certainly /not/ be on your side."
"Are you quite sure about it, sir? Certain sure? For you see it is an
"Certainly I am. Quite sure. If I were not at dinner, I would have
down the code, and you should see for yourself. If the case comes on,
you will lose it, and you will never set foot in my house again, for I
do not wish to receive people whom I do not respect. Do you
understand? You will lose your case."
"Oh! no, not at all, I shall not lose it, sir," said Taboureau. "You
see, sir, it is this way; it is the man from Saint-Laurent who owes
/me/ the barley; I bought it of him, and now he refuses to deliver
it. I just wanted to make quite certain that I should gain my case
before going to any expense at court about it."
Genestas and the doctor exchanged glances; each concealed his
amazement at the ingenious device by which the man had sought to learn
the truth about this point of law.
"Very well, Taboureau, your man is a swindler; you should not make
bargains with such people."
"Ah! sir, they understand business, those people do."
"Your servant, gentlemen."
"Well, now," remarked Benassis, when the usurer had gone, "if that
fellow were in Paris, do you not think that he would be a millionaire
before very long?"
After dinner, the doctor and his visitor went back to the salon, and
all the rest of the evening until bedtime they talked about war and
politics; Genestas evincing a most violent dislike of the English in
the course of conversation.
"May I know whom I have the honor of entertaining as a guest?" asked
"My name is Pierre Bluteau," answered Genestas; "I am a captain
stationed at Grenoble."
"Very well, sir. Do you care to adopt M. Gravier's plan? In the
morning after breakfast he liked to go on my rounds with me. I am not
at all sure that you would find anything to interest you in the things
that occupy me--they are so very commonplace. For, after all, you own
no land about here, nor are you the mayor of the place, and you will
see nothing in the canton that you cannot see elsewhere; one thatched
cottage is just like another. Still you will be in the open air, and
you will have something to take you out of doors."
"No proposal could give me more pleasure. I did not venture to make it
myself, lest I should thrust myself upon you."
Commandant Genestas (who shall keep his own name in spite of the
fictitious appellation which he had thought fit to give himself)
followed his host to a room on the first floor above the salon.
"That is right," said Benassis, "Jacquotte has lighted a fire for you.
If you want anything, there is a bell-pull close to the head of the
"I am not likely to want anything, however small, it seems to me,"
exclaimed Genestas. "There is even a boot-jack. Only an old trooper
knows what a boot-jack is worth! There are times, when one is out on a
campaign, sir, when one is ready to burn down a house to come by a
knave of a boot-jack. After a few marches, one on the top of another,
or above all, after an engagement, there are times when a swollen foot
and the soaked leather will not part company, pull as you will; I have
had to lie down in my boots more than once. One can put up with the
annoyance so long as one is by oneself."
The commandant's wink gave a kind of profound slyness to his last
utterance; then he began to make a survey. Not without surprise, he
saw that the room was neatly kept, comfortable, and almost luxurious.
"What splendor!" was his comment. "Your own room must be something
"Come and see," said the doctor; "I am your neighbor, there is nothing
but the staircase between us."
Genestas was again surprised when he entered the doctor's room, a
bare-looking apartment with no adornment on the walls save an
old-fashioned wall-paper of a yellowish tint with a pattern of brown
roses over it; the color had gone in patches here and there. There was
a roughly painted iron bedstead, two gray cotton curtains were
suspended from a wooden bracket above it, and a threadbare strip of
carpet lay at the foot; it was like a bed in a hospital. By the
bed-head stood a rickety cupboard on four feet with a door that
continually rattled with a sound like castanets. Three chairs and a
couple of straw-bottomed armchairs stood about the room, and on a low
chest of drawers in walnut wood stood a basin, and a ewer of obsolete
pattern with a lid, which was kept in place by a leaden rim round the
top of the vessel. This completed the list of the furniture.
The grate was empty. All the apparatus required for shaving lay about
in front of an old mirror suspended above the painted stone
chimney-piece by a bit of string. The floor was clean and carefully
swept, but it was worn and splintered in various places, and there
were hollows in it here and there. Gray cotton curtains bordered with
a green fringe adorned the two windows. The scrupulous cleanliness
maintained by Jacquotte gave a certain air of distinction to this
picture of simplicity, but everything in it, down to the round table
littered with stray papers, and the very pens on the writing-desk,
gave the idea of an almost monastic life--a life so wholly filled with
thought and feeling of a wider kind that outward surroundings had come
to be matters of no moment. An open door allowed the commandant to see
the smaller room, which doubtless the doctor seldom occupied. It was
scarcely kept in the same condition as the adjoining apartment; a few
dusty books lay strewn about over the no less dusty shelves, and from
the rows of labeled bottles it was easy to guess that the place was
devoted rather to the dispensing of drugs than scientific studies.
"Why this difference between your room and mine, you will ask?" said
Benassis. "Listen a moment. I have always blushed for those who put
their guests in the attics, who furnish them with mirrors that distort
everything to such a degree that any one beholding himself might think
that he was smaller or larger than nature made him, or suffering from
apoplectic stroke or some other bad complaint. Ought we not to do our
utmost to make a room as pleasant as possible during the time that our
friend can be with us? Hospitality, to my thinking, is a virtue, a
pleasure, and a luxury; but in whatever light it is considered, nay,
even if you regard it as a speculation, ought not our guest or our
friend to be made much of? Ought not every refinement of luxury to be
reserved for him?
"So the best furniture is put into your room, where a thick carpet is
laid down; there are hangings on the walls, and a clock and wax
candles; and for you Jacquotte will do her best, she has no doubt
brought a night-light, and a pair of new slippers and some milk, and
her warming-pan too for your benefit. I hope that you will find that
luxurious armchair the most comfortable seat you have ever sat in, it
was a discovery of the late cure's; I do not know where he found it,
but it is a fact that if you wish to meet with the perfection of
comfort, beauty, or convenience, you must ask counsel of the Church.
Well, I hope that you will find everything in your room to your
liking. You will find some good razors and excellent soap, and all the
trifling details that make one's own home so pleasant. And if my views
on the subject of hospitality should not at once explain the
difference between your room and mine, to-morrow, M. Bluteau, you will
arrive at a wonderfully clear comprehension of the bareness of my room
and the untidy condition of my study, when you see all the continual
comings and goings here. Mine is not an indoor life, to begin with. I
am almost always out of the house, and if I stay at home, peasants
come in at every moment to speak to me. My body and soul and house are
all theirs. Why should I worry about social conventions in these
matters, or trouble myself over the damage unintentionally done to
floors and furniture by these worthy folk? Such things cannot be
helped. Luxury properly belongs to the boudoir and the guest-chamber,
to great houses and chateaux. In short, as I scarcely do more than
sleep here, what do I want with superfluities of wealth? You do not
know, moreover, how little I care for anything in this world."
They wished each other a friendly good-night with a warm shake of the
hand, and went to bed. But before the commandant slept, he came to
more than one conclusion as to the man who hour by hour grew greater
in his eyes.
A DOCTOR'S ROUND
The first thing next morning Genestas went to the stable, drawn
thither by the affection that every man feels for the horse that he
rides. Nicolle's method of rubbing down the animal was quite
"Up already, Commandant Bluteau?" cried Benassis, as he came upon his
guest. "You hear the drum beat in the morning wherever you go, even in
the country! You are a regular soldier!"
"Are you all right?" replied Genestas, holding out his hand with a
"I am never really all right," answered Benassis, half merrily, half
"Did you sleep well, sir?" inquired Jacquotte.
"Faith, yes, my beauty; the bed as you made it was fit for a queen."
Jacquotte's face beamed as she followed her master and his guest, and
when she had seen them seat themselves at table, she remarked to
"He is not a bad sort, after all, that officer gentleman."
"I am sure he is not, he has given me two francs already."
"We will begin to-day by calling at two places where there have been
deaths," Benassis said to his visitor as they left the dining-room.
"Although doctors seldom deign to confront their supposed victims, I
will take you round to the two houses, where you will be able to make
some interesting observations of human nature; and the scenes to which
you will be a witness will show you that in the expression of their
feelings our folk among the hills differ greatly from the dwellers in
the lowlands. Up among the mountain peaks in our canton they cling to
customs that bear the impress of an older time, and that vaguely
recall scenes in the Bible. Nature has traced out a line over our
mountain ranges; the whole appearance of the country is different on
either side of it. You will find strength of character up above,
flexibility and quickness below; they have larger ways of regarding
things among the hills, while the bent of the lowlands is always
towards the material interests of existence. I have never seen a
difference so strongly marked, unless it has been in the Val d'Ajou,
where the northern side is peopled by a tribe of idiots, and the
southern by an intelligent race. There is nothing but a stream in the
valley bottom to separate these two populations, which are utterly
dissimilar in every respect, as different in face and stature as in
manners, customs, and occupation. A fact of this kind should compel
those who govern a country to make very extensive studies of local
differences before passing laws that are to affect the great mass of
the people. But the horses are ready, let us start!"
In a short time the two horsemen reached a house in a part of the
township that was overlooked by the mountains of the Grande
Chartreuse. Before the door of the dwelling, which was fairly clean
and tidy, they saw a coffin set upon two chairs, and covered with a
black pall. Four tall candles stood about it, and on a stool near by
there was a shallow brass dish full of holy water, in which a branch
of green box-wood was steeping. Every passer-by went into the yard,
knelt by the side of the dead, said a /Pater noster/, and sprinkled a
few drops of holy water on the bier. Above the black cloth that
covered the coffin rose the green sprays of a jessamine that grew
beside the doorway, and a twisted vine shoot, already in leaf, overran
the lintel. Even the saddest ceremonies demand that things shall
appear to the best advantage, and in obedience to this vaguely-felt
requirement a young girl had been sweeping the front of the house. The
dead man's eldest son, a young peasant about twenty-two years of age,
stood motionless, leaning against the door-post. The tears in his eyes
came and went without falling, or perhaps he furtively brushed them
away. Benassis and Genestas saw all the details of this scene as they
stood beyond the low wall; they fastened their horses to one of the
row of poplar trees that grew along it, and entered the yard just as
the widow came out of the byre. A woman carrying a jug of milk was
with her, and spoke.
"Try to bear up bravely, my poor Pelletier," she said.
"Ah! my dear, after twenty-five years of life together, it is very
hard to lose your man," and her eyes brimmed over with tears. "Will
you pay the two sous?" she added, after a moment, as she held out her
hand to her neighbor.
"There, now! I had forgotten about it," said the other woman, giving
her the coin. "Come, neighbor, don't take on so. Ah! there is M.
"Well, poor mother, how are you going on? A little better?" asked the
"/Dame/!" she said, as the tears fell fast, "we must go on, all the
same, that is certain. I tell myself that my man is out of pain now.
He suffered so terribly! But come inside, sir. Jacques, set some
chairs for these gentlemen. Come, stir yourself a bit. Lord bless you!
if you were to stop there for a century, it would not bring your poor
father back again. And now, you will have to do the work of two."
"No, no good woman, leave your son alone, we will not sit down. You
have a boy there who will take care of you, and who is quite fit to
take his father's place."
"Go and change your clothes, Jacques," cried the widow; "you will be
"Well, good-bye, mother," said Benassis.
"Your servant, gentlemen."
"Here, you see, death is looked upon as an event for which every one
is prepared," said the doctor; "it brings no interruption to the
course of family life, and they will not even wear mourning of any
kind. No one cares to be at the expense of it; they are all either too
poor or too parsimonious in the villages hereabouts, so that mourning
is unknown in country districts. Yet the custom of wearing mourning is
something better than a law or a usage, it is an institution somewhat
akin to all moral obligations. But in spite of our endeavors neither
M. Janvier nor I have succeeded in making our peasants understand the
great importance of public demonstrations of feeling for the
maintenance of social order. These good folk, who have only just begun
to think and act for themselves, are slow as yet to grasp the changed
conditions which should attach them to these theories. They have only
reached those ideas which conduce to economy and to physical welfare;
in the future, if some one else carries on this work of mine, they
will come to understand the principles that serve to uphold and
preserve public order and justice. As a matter of fact, it is not
sufficient to be an honest man, you must appear to be honest in the
eyes of others. Society does not live by moral ideas alone; its
existence depends upon actions in harmony with those ideas.
"In most country communes, out of a hundred families deprived by death
of their head, there are only a few individuals capable of feeling
more keenly than the others, who will remember the deaths for very
long; in a year's time the rest will have forgotten all about it. Is
not this forgetfulness a sore evil? A religion is the very heart of a
nation; it expresses their feelings and their thoughts, and exalts
them by giving them an object; but unless outward and visible honor is
paid to a God, religion cannot exist; and, as a consequence, human
ordinances lose all their force. If the conscience belongs to God and
to Him only, the body is amenable to social law. Is it not therefore,
a first step towards atheism to efface every sign of pious sorrow in
this way, to neglect to impress on children who are not yet old enough
to reflect, and on all other people who stand in need of example, the
necessity of obedience to human law, by openly manifested resignation
to the will of Providence, who chastens and consoles, who bestows and
takes away worldly wealth? I confess that, after passing through a
period of sneering incredulity, I have come during my life here to
recognize the value of the rites of religion and of religious
observances in the family, and to discern the importance of household
customs and domestic festivals. The family will always be the basis of
human society. Law and authority are first felt there; there, at any
rate, the habit of obedience should be learned. Viewed in the light of
all their consequences, the spirit of the family and paternal
authority are two elements but little developed as yet in our new
legislative system. Yet in the family, the commune, the department,
lies the whole of our country. The laws ought therefore to be based on
these three great divisions.
"In my opinion, marriages, the birth of infants, and the deaths of
heads of households cannot be surrounded with too much circumstance.
The secret of the strength of Catholicism, and of the deep root that
it has taken in the ordinary life of man, lies precisely in this--that
it steps in to invest every important event in his existence with a
pomp that is so naively touching, and so grand, whenever the priest
rises to the height of his mission and brings his office into harmony
with the sublimity of Christian doctrine.
"Once I looked upon the Catholic religion as a cleverly exploited mass
of prejudices and superstitions, which an intelligent civilization
ought to deal with according to its desserts. Here I have discovered
its political necessity and its usefulness as a moral agent; here,
moreover, I have come to understand its power, through a knowledge of
the actual thing which the word expresses. Religion means a bond or
tie, and certainly a cult--or, in other words, the outward and visible
form of religion is the only force that can bind the various elements
of society together and mould them into a permanent form. Lastly, it
was also here that I have felt the soothing influence that religion
sheds over the wounds of humanity, and (without going further into the
subject) I have seen how admirably it is suited to the fervid
temperaments of southern races.
"Let us take the road up the hillside," said the doctor, interrupting
himself; "we must reach the plateau up there. Thence we shall look
down upon both valleys, and you will see a magnificent view. The
plateau lies three thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean;
we shall see over Savoy and Dauphine, and the mountain ranges of the
Lyonnais and Rhone. We shall be in another commune, a hill commune,
and on a farm belonging to M. Gravier you will see the kind of scene
of which I have spoken. There the great events of life are invested
with a solemnity which comes up to my ideas. Mourning for the dead is
vigorously prescribed. Poor people will beg in order to purchase black
clothing, and no one refuses to give in such a case. There are few
days in which the widow does not mention her loss; she always speaks
of it with tears, and her grief is as deep after ten days of sorrow as
on the morning after her bereavement. Manners are patriarchal: the
father's authority is unlimited, his word is law. He takes his meals
sitting by himself at the head of the table; his wife and children
wait upon him, and those about him never address him without using
certain respectful forms of speech, while every one remains standing
and uncovered in his presence. Men brought up in this atmosphere are
conscious of their dignity; to my way of thinking, it is a noble
education to be brought up among these customs. And, for the most
part, they are upright, thrifty, and hardworking people in this
commune. The father of every family, when he is old and past work,
divides his property equally among his children, and they support him;
that is the usual way here. An old man of ninety, in the last century,
who had divided everything he had among his four children, went to
live with each in turn for three months in the year. As he left the
oldest to go to the home of a younger brother, one of his friends
asked him, 'Well, are you satisfied with the arrangement?' 'Faith!
yes,' the old man answered; 'they have treated me as if I had been
their own child.' That answer of his seemed so remarkable to an
officer then stationed at Grenoble, that he repeated it in more than
one Parisian salon. That officer was the celebrated moralist
Vauvenargues, and in this way the beautiful saying came to the
knowledge of another writer named Chamfort. Ah! still more forcible
phrases are often struck out among us, but they lack a historian
worthy of them."
"I have come across Moravians and Lollards in Bohemia and Hungary,"
said Genestas. "They are a kind of people something like your
mountaineers, good folk who endure the sufferings of war with angelic
"Men living under simple and natural conditions are bound to be almost
alike in all countries. Sincerity of life takes but one form. It is
true that a country life often extinguishes thought of a wider kind;
but evil propensities are weakened and good qualities are developed by
it. In fact, the fewer the numbers of the human beings collected
together in a place, the less crime, evil thinking, and general bad
behavior will be found in it. A pure atmosphere counts for a good deal
in purity of morals."
The two horsemen, who had been climbing the stony road at a foot pace,
now reached the level space of which Benassis had spoken. It is a
strip of land lying round about the base of a lofty mountain peak, a
bare surface of rock with no growth of any kind upon it; deep clefts
are riven in its sheer inaccessible sides. The gray crest of the
summit towers above the ledge of fertile soil which lies around it, a
domain sometimes narrower, sometimes wider, and altogether about a
hundred acres in extent. Here, through a vast break in the line of the
hills to the south, the eye sees French Maurienne, Dauphine, the crags
of Savoy, and the far-off mountains of the Lyonnais. Genestas was
gazing from this point, over a land that lay far and wide in the
spring sunlight, when there arose the sound of a wailing cry.
"Let us go on," said Benassis; "the wail for the dead has begun, that
is the name they give to this part of the funeral rites."
On the western slope of the mountain peak, the commandant saw the
buildings belonging to a farm of some size. The whole place formed a
perfect square. The gateway consisted of a granite arch, impressive in
its solidity, which added to the old-world appearance of the buildings
with the ancient trees that stood about them, and the growth of plant
life on the roofs. The house itself lay at the farther end of the
yard. Barns, sheepfolds, stables, cowsheds, and other buildings lay on
either side, and in the midst was the great pool where the manure had
been laid to rot. On a thriving farm, such a yard as this is usually
full of life and movement, but to-day it was silent and deserted. The
poultry was shut up, the cattle were all in the byres, there was
scarcely a sound of animal life. Both stables and cowsheds had been
carefully swept across the yard. The perfect neatness which reigned in
a place where everything as a rule was in disorder, the absence of
stirring life, the stillness in so noisy a spot, the calm serenity of
the hills, the deep shadow cast by the towering peak--everything
combined to make a strong impression on the mind.
Genestas was accustomed to painful scenes, yet he could not help
shuddering as he saw a dozen men and women standing weeping outside
the door of the great hall. "/The master is dead!/" they wailed; the
unison of voices gave appalling effect to the words which they
repeated twice during the time required to cross the space between the
gateway and the farmhouse door. To this wailing lament succeeded moans
from within the house; the sound of a woman's voice came through the
"I dare not intrude upon such grief as this," said Genestas to
"I always go to visit a bereaved family," the doctor answered, "either
to certify the death, or to see that no mischance caused by grief has
befallen the living. You need not hesitate to come with me. The scene
is impressive, and there will be such a great many people that no one
will notice your presence."
As Genestas followed the doctor, he found, in fact, that the first
room was full of relations of the dead. They passed through the crowd
and stationed themselves at the door of a bedroom that opened out of
the great hall which served the whole family for a kitchen and a
sitting-room; the whole colony, it should rather be called, for the
great length of the table showed that some forty people lived in the
house. Benassis' arrival interrupted the discourse of a tall,
simply-dressed woman, with thin locks of hair, who held the dead
man's hand in hers in a way that spoke eloquently.
The dead master of the house had been arrayed in his best clothes, and
now lay stretched out cold and stiff upon the bed. They had drawn the
curtains aside; the thought of heaven seemed to brood over the quiet
face and the white hair--it was like the closing scene of a drama. On
either side of the bed stood the children and the nearest relations of
the husband and wife. These last stood in a line on either side; the
wife's kin upon the left, and those of her husband on the right. Both
men and women were kneeling in prayer, and almost all of them were in
tears. Tall candles stood about the bed. The cure of the parish and
his assistants had taken their places in the middle of the room,
beside the bier. There was something tragical about the scene, with
the head of the family lying before the coffin, which was waiting to
be closed down upon him forever.
"Ah!" cried the widow, turning as she saw Benassis, "if the skill of
the best of men could not save you, my dear lord, it was because it
was ordained in heaven that you should precede me to the tomb! Yes,
this hand of yours, that used to press mine so kindly, is cold! I have
lost my dear helpmate for ever, and our household has lost its beloved
head, for truly you were the guide of us all! Alas! there is not one
of those who are weeping with me who has not known all the worth of
your nature, and felt the light of your soul, but I alone knew all the
patience and the kindness of your heart. Oh! my husband, my husband!
must I bid you farewell for ever? Farewell to you, our stay and
support! Farewell to you, my dear master! And we, your children,--for
to each of us you gave the same fatherly love,--all we, your children,
have lost our father!"
The widow flung herself upon the dead body and clasped it in a tight
embrace, as if her kisses and the tears with which she covered it
could give it warmth again; during the pause, came the wail of the
"/The master is dead!/"
"Yes," the widow went on, "he is dead! Our beloved who gave us our
bread, who sowed and reaped for us, who watched over our happiness,
who guided us through life, who ruled so kindly among us. /Now/, I may
speak in his praise, and say that he never caused me the slightest
sorrow; he was good and strong and patient. Even while we were
torturing him for the sake of his health, so precious to us, 'Let it
be, children, it is all no use,' the dear lamb said, just in the same
tone of voice with which he had said, 'Everything is all right,
friends,' only a few days before. Ah! /grand Dieu/! a few days ago! A
few days have been enough to take away the gladness from our house and
to darken our lives, to close the eyes of the best, most upright, most
revered of men. No one could plow as he could. Night or day, he would
go about over the mountains, he feared nothing, and when he came back
he had always a smile for his wife and children. Ah! he was our
beloved! It was dull here by the fireside when /he/ was away, and our
food lost all its relish. Oh! how will it be now, when our guardian
angel will be laid away under the earth, and we shall never see him
any more? Never any more, dear kinsfolk and friends; never any more,
my children! Yes, my children have lost their kind father, our
relations and friends have lost their good kinsman and their trusty
friend, the household has lost its master, and I have lost
She took the hand of the dead again, and knelt, so that she might
press her face close to his as she kissed it. The servants' cry, "/The
master is dead!/" was again repeated three times.
Just then the eldest son came to his mother to say, "The people from
Saint-Laurent have just come, mother; we want some wine for them."
"Take the keys," she said in a low tone, and in a different voice from
that in which she had just expressed her grief; "you are the master of
the house, my son; see that they receive the welcome that your father
would have given them; do not let them find any change.
"Let me have one more long look," she went on. "But alas! my good
husband, you do not feel my presence now, I cannot bring back warmth
to you! I only wish that I could comfort you still, could let you know
that so long as I live you will dwell in the heart that you made glad,
could tell you that I shall be happy in the memory of my happiness
--that the dear thought of you will live on in this room. Yes, as long
as God spares me, this room shall be filled with memories of you. Hear
my vow, dear husband! Your couch shall always remain as it is now. I
will sleep in it no more, since you are dead; henceforward, while I
live, it shall be cold and empty. With you, I have lost all that makes
a woman: her master, husband, father, friend, companion, and helpmate:
I have lost all!"
"/The master is dead!/" the servants wailed. Others raised the cry, and
the lament became general. The widow took a pair of scissors that hung
at her waist, cut off her hair, and laid the locks in her husband's
hand. Deep silence fell on them all.
"That act means that she will not marry again," said Benassis; "this
determination was expected by many of the relatives."
"Take it, dear lord!" she said; her emotion brought a tremor to her
voice that went to the hearts of all who heard her. "I have sworn to
be faithful; I give this pledge to you to keep in the grave. We shall
thus be united for ever, and through love of your children I will live
on among the family in whom you used to feel yourself young again. Oh!
that you could hear me, my husband! the pride and joy of my heart! Oh!
that you could know that all my power to live, now you are dead, will
yet come from you; for I shall live to carry out your sacred wishes
and to honor your memory."
Benassis pressed Genestas' hand as an invitation to follow him, and
they went out. By this time the first room was full of people who had
come from another mountain commune; all of them waited in meditative
silence, as if the sorrow and grief that brooded over the house had
already taken possession of them. As Benassis and the commandant
crossed the threshold, they overheard a few words that passed between
one of the newcomers and the eldest son of the late owner.
"Then when did he die?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the eldest son, a man of five-and-twenty years of age,
"I did not see him die. He asked for me, and I was not there!" His
voice was broken with sobs, but he went on: "He said to me the night
before, 'You must go over to the town, my boy, and pay our taxes; my
funeral will put that out of your minds, and we shall be behindhand, a
thing that has never happened before.' It seemed the best thing to do,
so I went; and while I was gone, he died, and I never received his
last embrace. I have always been at his side, but he did not see me
near him at the last in my place where I had always been."
"/The master is dead!/"
"Alas! he is dead, and I was not there to receive his last words and
his latest sigh. And what did the taxes matter? Would it not have been
better to lose all our money than to leave home just then? Could all
that we have make up to me for the loss of his last farewell. No. /Mon
Dieu!/ If /your/ father falls ill, Jean, do not go away and leave him,
or you will lay up a lifelong regret for yourself."
"My friend," said Genestas, "I have seen thousands of men die on the
battlefield; death did not wait to let their children bid them
farewell; take comfort, you are not the only one."
"But a father who was such a good man!" he replied, bursting into
Benassis took Genestas in the direction of the farm buildings.
"The funeral oration will only cease when the body has been laid in
its coffin," said the doctor, "and the weeping woman's language will
grow more vivid and impassioned all the while. But a woman only
acquires the right to speak in such a strain before so imposing an
audience by a blameless life. If the widow could reproach herself with
the smallest of shortcomings, she would not dare to utter a word; for
if she did, she would pronounce her own condemnation, she would be at
the same time her own accuser and judge. Is there not something
sublime in this custom which thus judges the living and the dead? They
only begin to wear mourning after a week has elapsed, when it is
publicly worn at a meeting of all the family. Their near relations
spend the week with the widow and children, to help them to set their
affairs in order and to console them. A family gathering at such a
time produces a great effect on the minds of the mourners; the
consideration for others which possesses men when they are brought
into close contact acts as a restraint on violent grief. On the last
day, when the mourning garb has been assumed, a solemn banquet is
given, and their relations take leave of them. All this is taken very
seriously. Any one who was slack in fulfilling his duties after the
death of the head of a family would have no one at his own funeral."
The doctor had reached the cowhouse as he spoke; he opened the door
and made the commandant enter, that he might show it to him.
"All our cowhouses have been rebuilt after this pattern, captain.
Look! Is it not magnificent?"
Genestas could not help admiring the huge place. The cows and oxen
stood in two rows, with their tails towards the side walls, and their
heads in the middle of the shed. Access to the stalls was afforded by
a fairly wide space between them and the wall; you could see their
horned heads and shining eyes through the lattice work, so that it was
easy for the master to run his eyes over the cattle. The fodder was
placed on some staging erected above the stalls, so that it fell into
the racks below without waste of labor or material. There was a
wide-paved space down the centre, which was kept clean, and ventilated
by a thorough draught of air.
"In the winter time," Benassis said, as he walked with Genestas down
the middle of the cowhouse, "both men and women do their work here
together in the evenings. The tables are set out here, and in this way
the people keep themselves warm without going to any expense. The
sheep are housed in the same way. You would not believe how quickly
the beasts fall into orderly ways. I have often wondered to see them
come in; each knows her proper place, and allows those who take
precedence to pass in before her. Look! there is just room enough in
each stall to do the milking and to rub the cattle down; and the floor
slopes a little to facilitate drainage."
"One can judge of everything else from the sight of this cowhouse,"
said Genestas; "without flattery, these are great results indeed!"
"We have had some trouble to bring them about," Benassis answered;
"but then, see what fine cattle they are!"
"They are splendid beasts certainly; you had good reason to praise
them to me," answered Genestas.
"Now," said the doctor, when he had mounted his horse and passed under
the gateway, "we are going over some of the newly cleared waste, and
through the corn land. I have christened this little corner of our
Commune, 'La Beauce.'"
For about an hour they rode at a foot pace across fields in a state of
high cultivation, on which the soldier complimented the doctor; then
they came down the mountain side into the township again, talking
whenever the pace of their horses allowed them to do so. At last they
reached a narrow glen, down which they rode into the main valley.
"I promised yesterday," Benassis said to Genestas, "to show you one of
the two soldiers who left the army and came back to us after the fall
of Napoleon. We shall find him somewhere hereabouts, if I am not
mistaken. The mountain streams flow into a sort of natural reservoir
or tarn up here; the earth they bring down has silted it up, and he is
engaged in clearing it out. But if you are to take any interest in the
man, I must tell you his history. His name is Gondrin. He was only
eighteen years old when he was drawn in the great conscription of
1792, and drafted into a corps of gunners. He served as a private
soldier in Napoleon's campaigns in Italy, followed him to Egypt, and
came back from the East after the Peace of Amiens. In the time of the
Empire he was incorporated in the Pontoon Troop of the Guard, and was
constantly on active service in Germany, lastly the poor fellow made
the Russian campaign."
"We are brothers-in-arms then, to some extent," said Genestas; "I have
made the same campaigns. Only an iron frame would stand the tricks
played by so many different climates. My word for it, those who are
still standing on their stumps after marching over Italy, Egypt,
Germany, Portugal, and Russia must have applied to Providence and
taken out a patent for living."
"Just so, you will see a solid fragment of a man," answered Benassis.
"You know all about the Retreat from Moscow; it is useless to tell you
about it. This man I have told you of is one of the pontooners of the
Beresina; he helped to construct the bridge by which the army made the
passage, and stood waist-deep in water to drive in the first piles.
General Eble, who was in command of the pontooners, could only find
forty-two men who were plucky enough, in Gondrin's phrase, to tackle
that business. The general himself came down to the stream to hearten
and cheer the men, promising each of them a pension of a thousand
francs and the Cross of the Legion of Honor. The first who went down
into the Beresina had his leg taken off by a block of ice, and the man
himself was washed away; but you will better understand the difficulty
of the task when you hear the end of the story. Of the forty-two
volunteers, Gondrin is the only one alive to-day. Thirty-nine of them
lost their lives in the Beresina, and the two others died miserably in
a Polish hospital.
"The poor fellow himself only returned from Wilna in 1814, to find the
Bourbons restored to power. General Eble (of whom Gondrin cannot speak
without tears in his eyes) was dead. The pontooner was deaf, and his
health was shattered; and as he could neither read nor write, he found
no one left to help him or to plead his cause. He begged his way to
Paris, and while there made application at the War Office, not for the
thousand francs of extra pension which had been promised to him, nor
yet for the Cross of the Legion of Honor, but only for the bare
pension due to him after twenty-two years of service, and I do not
know how many campaigns. He did not obtain his pension or his
traveling expenses; he did not even receive his arrears of pay. He
spent a year in making fruitless solicitations, holding out his hands
in vain to those whom he had saved; and at the end of it he came back
here, sorely disheartened but resigned to his fate. This hero unknown
to fame does draining work on the land, for which he is paid ten sous
the fathom. He is accustomed to working in a marshy soil, and so, as
he says, he gets jobs which no one else cares to take. He can make
about three francs a day by clearing out ponds, or draining meadows
that lie under water. His deafness makes him seem surly, and he is not
naturally inclined to say very much, but there is a good deal in him.
"We are very good friends. He dines with me on the day of Austerlitz,
on the Emperor's birthday, and on the anniversary of the disaster at
Waterloo, and during the dessert he always receives a napoleon to pay
for his wine very quarter. Every one in the Commune shares in my
feeling of respect for him; if he would allow them to support him,
nothing would please them better. At every house to which he goes the
people follow my example, and show their esteem by asking him to dine
with them. It is a feeling of pride that leads him to work, and it is
only as a portrait of the Emperor that he can be induced to take my
twenty-franc piece. He has been deeply wounded by the injustice that
has been done to him; but I think regret for the Cross is greater than
the desire for his pension.
"He has one great consolation. After the bridges had been constructed
across the Beresina, General Eble presented such of the pontooners as
were not disabled to the Emperor, and Napoleon embraced poor Gondrin
--perhaps but for that accolade he would have died ere now. This
memory and the hope that some day Napoleon will return are all that
Gondrin lives by. Nothing will ever persuade him that Napoleon is dead,
and so convinced is he that the Emperor's captivity is wholly and
solely due to the English, that I believe he would be ready on the
slightest pretext to take the life of the best-natured alderman that
ever traveled for pleasure in foreign parts."
"Let us go on as fast as possible!" cried Genestas. He had listened to
the doctor's story with rapt attention, and now seemed to recover
consciousness of his surroundings. "Let us hurry! I long to see that
Both of them put their horses to a gallop.
"The other soldier that I spoke of," Benassis went on, "is another of
those men of iron who have knocked about everywhere with our armies.
His life, like that of all French soldiers, has been made up of
bullets, sabre strokes, and victories; he has had a very rough time of
it, and has only worn the woolen epaulettes. He has a fanatical
affection for Napoleon, who conferred the Cross upon him on the field
of Valontina. He is of a jovial turn of mind, and like a genuine
Dauphinois, has always looked after his own interests, has his
pension, and the honors of the Legion. Goguelat is his name. He was an
infantry man, who exchanged into the Guard in 1812. He is Gondrin's
better half, so to speak, for the two have taken up house together.
They both lodge with a peddler's widow, and make over their money to
her. She is a kind soul, who boards them and looks after them, and
their clothes as if they were her children.
"In his quality of local postman, Goguelat carries all the news of the
countryside, and a good deal of practice acquired in this way has made
him an orator in great request at up-sittings, and the champion teller
of stories in the district. Gondrin looks upon him as a very knowing
fellow, and something of a wit; and whenever Goguelat talks about
Napoleon, his comrade seems to understand what he is saying from the
movement of his lips. There will be an up-sitting (as they call it) in
one of my barns to-night. If these two come over to it, and we can
manage to see without being seen, I shall treat you to a view of the
spectacle. But here we are, close to the ditch, and I do not see my
friend the pontooner."
The doctor and the commandant looked everywhere about them; Gondrin's
soldier's coat lay there beside a heap of black mud, and his
wheelbarrow, spade, and pickaxe were visible, but there was no sign of
the man himself along the various pebbly watercourses, for the wayward
mountain streams had hollowed out channels that were almost overgrown
with low bushes.
"He cannot be so very far away. Gondrin! Where are you?" shouted
Genestas first saw the curling smoke from a tobacco pipe rise among
the brushwood on a bank of rubbish not far away. He pointed it out to
the doctor, who shouted again. The old pontooner raised his head at
this, recognized the mayor, and came towards them down a little
"Well, old friend," said Benassis, making a sort of speaking-trumpet
with his hand. "Here is a comrade of yours, who was out in Egypt, come
to see you."
Gondrin raised is face at once and gave Genestas a swift, keen, and
searching look, one of those glances by which old soldiers are wont at
once to take the measure of any impending danger. He saw the red
ribbon that the commandant wore, and made a silent and respectful
"If the Little Corporal were alive," the officer cried, "you would
have the Cross of the Legion of Honor and a handsome pension besides,
for every man who wore epaulettes on the other side of the river owed
his life to you on the 1st of October 1812. But I am not the Minister
of War, my friend," the commandant added as he dismounted, and with a
sudden rush of feeling he grasped the laborer's hand.
The old pontooner drew himself up at the words, he knocked the ashes
from his pipe, and put it in his pocket.
"I only did my duty, sir," he said, with his head bent down; "but
others have not done their duty by me. They asked for my papers! Why,
the Twenty-ninth Bulletin, I told them, must do instead of my papers!"
"But you must make another application, comrade. You are bound to have
justice done you in these days, if influence is brought to bear in the
"Justice!" cried the veteran. The doctor and the commandant shuddered
at the tone in which he spoke.
In the brief pause that followed, both the horsemen looked at the man
before them, who seemed like a fragment of the wreck of great armies
which Napoleon had filled with men of bronze sought out from among
three generations. Gondrin was certainly a splendid specimen of that
seemingly indestructible mass of men which might be cut to pieces but
never gave way. The old man was scarcely five feet high, wide across
the shoulders, and broad-chested; his face was sunburned, furrowed
with deep wrinkles, but the outlines were still firm in spite of the
hollows in it, and one could see even now that it was the face of a
soldier. It was a rough-hewn countenance, his forehead seemed like a
block of granite; but there was a weary expression about his face, and
the gray hairs hung scantily about his head, as if life were waning
there already. Everything about him indicated unusual strength; his
arms were covered thickly with hair, and so was the chest, which was
visible through the opening of his coarse shirt. In spite of his
almost crooked legs, he held himself firm and erect, as if nothing
could shake him.
"Justice," he said once more; "there will never be justice for the
like of us. We cannot send bailiffs to the Government to demand our
dues for us; and as the wallet must be filled somehow," he said,
striking his stomach, "we cannot afford to wait. Moreover, these
gentry who lead snug lives in government offices may talk and talk,
but their words are not good to eat, so I have come back here again to
draw my pay out of the commonalty," he said, striking the mud with his
"Things must not be left in that way, old comrade," said Genestas. "I
owe my life to you, and it would be ungrateful of me if I did not lend
you a hand. I have not forgotten the passage over the bridges in the
Beresina, and it is fresh in the memories of some brave fellows of my
acquaintance; they will back me up, and the nation shall give you the
recognition you deserve."
"You will be called a Bonapartist! Please do not meddle in the matter,
sir. I have gone to the rear now, and I have dropped into my hole here
like a spent bullet. But after riding on camels through the desert,
and drinking my glass by the fireside in Moscow, I never thought that
I should come back to die here beneath the trees that my father
planted," and he began to work again.
"Poor old man!" said Genestas, as they turned to go. "I should do the
same if I were in his place; we have lost our father. Everything seems
dark to me now that I have seen that man's hopelessness," he went on,
addressing Benassis; "he does not know how much I am interested in
him, and he will think that I am one of those gilded rascals who
cannot feel for a soldier's sufferings."
He turned quickly and went back, grasped the veteran's hand, and spoke
loudly in his ear:
"I swear by the Cross I wear--the Cross of Honor it used to be--that I
will do all that man can do to obtain your pension for you; even if I
have to swallow a dozen refusals from the minister, and to petition
the king and the dauphin and the whole shop!"
Old Gondrin quivered as he heard the words. He looked hard at Genestas
and said, "Haven't you served in the ranks?" The commandant nodded.
The pontooner wiped his hand and took that of Genestas, which he
grasped warmly and said:
"I made the army a present of my life, general, when I waded out into
the river yonder, and if I am still alive, it is all so much to the
good. One moment! Do you care to see to the bottom of it? Well, then,
ever since /somebody/ was pulled down from his place, I have ceased to
care about anything. And, after all," he went on cheerfully, as he
pointed to the land, "they have made over twenty thousand francs to me
here, and I am taking it out in detail, as /he/ used to say!"
"Well, then, comrade," said Genestas, touched by the grandeur of this
forgiveness, "at least you shall have the only thing that you cannot
prevent me from giving to you, here below." The commandant tapped his
heart, looked once more at the old pontooner, mounted his horse again,
and went his way side by side with Benassis.
"Such cruelty as this on the part of the government foments the strife
between rich and poor," said the doctor. "People who exercise a little
brief authority have never given a serious thought to the consequences
that must follow an act of injustice done to a man of the people. It
is true that a poor man who needs must work for his daily bread cannot
long keep up the struggle; but he can talk, and his words find an echo
in every sufferer's heart, so that one bad case of this kind is
multiplied, for every one who hears of it feels it as a personal
wrong, and the leaven works. Even this is not so serious, but
something far worse comes of it. Among the people, these causes of
injustice bring about a chronic state of smothered hatred for their
social superiors. The middle class becomes the poor man's enemy; they
lie without the bounds of his moral code, he tells lies to them and
robs them without scruple; indeed, theft ceases to be a crime or a
misdemeanor, and is looked upon as an act of vengeance.
"When an official, who ought to see that the poor have justice done
them, uses them ill and cheats them of their due, how can we expect
the poor starving wretches to bear their troubles meekly and to
respect the rights of property? It makes me shudder to think that some
understrapper whose business it is to dust papers in a government
office, has pocketed Gondrin's promised thousand francs of pension.
And yet there are folk who, never having measured the excess of the
people's sufferings, accuse the people of excess in the day of their
vengeance! When a government has done more harm than good to
individuals, its further existence depends on the merest accident, the
masses square the account after their fashion by upsetting it. A
statesman ought always to imagine Justice with the poor at her feet,
for justice was only invented for the poor."
When they had come within the compass of the township, Benassis saw
two people walking along the road in front of them, and turned to his
companion, who had been absorbed for some time in thought.
"You have seen a veteran soldier resigned to his life of wretchedness,
and now you are about to see an old agricultural laborer who is
submitting to the same lot. The man there ahead of us has dug and sown
and toiled for others all his life."
Genestas looked and saw an old laborer making his way along the road,
in company with an aged woman. He seemed to be afflicted with some
form of sciatica, and limped painfully along. His feet were encased in
a wretched pair of sabots, and a sort of wallet hung over his
shoulder. Several tools lay in the bottom of the bag; their handles,
blackened with long use and the sweat of toil, rattled audibly
together; while the other end of the wallet behind his shoulder held
bread, some walnuts, and a few fresh onions. His legs seemed to be
warped, as it were, his back was bent by continual toil; he stooped so
much as he walked that he leaned on a long stick to steady himself.
His snow-white hair escaped from under a battered hat, grown rusty by
exposure to all sorts of weather, and mended here and there with
visible stitches of white thread. His clothes, made of a kind of rough
canvas, were a mass of patches of contrasting colors. This piece of
humanity in ruins lacked none of the characteristics that appeal to
our hearts when we see ruins of other kinds.
His wife held herself somewhat more erect. Her clothing was likewise a
mass of rags, and the cap that she wore was of the coarsest materials.
On her back she carried a rough earthen jar by means of a thong passed
through the handles of the great pitcher, which was round in shape and
flattened at the sides. They both looked up when they heard the horses
approaching, saw that it was Benassis, and stopped.
The man had worked till he was almost past work, and his faithful
helpmate was no less broken with toil. It was painful to see how the
summer sun and the winter's cold had blackened their faces, and
covered them with such deep wrinkles that their features were hardly
discernible. It was not their life history that had been engraven on
their faces; but it might be gathered from their attitude and bearing.
Incessant toil had been the lot of both; they had worked and suffered
together; they had had many troubles and few joys to share; and now,
like captives grown accustomed to their prison, they seemed to be too
familiar with wretchedness to heed it, and to take everything as it
came. Yet a certain frank light-heartedness was not lacking in their
faces; and on a closer view, their monotonous life, the lot of so many
a poor creature, well-nigh seemed an enviable one. Trouble had set its
unmistakable mark on them, but petty cares had left no traces there.
"Well, my good Father Moreau, I suppose there is no help for it, and
you must always be working?"
"Yes, M. Benassis, there are one or two more bits of waste that I mean
to clear for you before I knock off work," the old man answered
cheerfully, and light shone in his little black eyes.
"Is that wine that your wife is carrying? If you will not take a rest
now, you ought at any rate to take wine."
"I take a rest? I should not know what to do with myself. The sun and
the fresh air put life into me when I am out of doors and busy
grubbing up the land. As to the wine, sir, yes, that is wine sure
enough, and it is all through your contriving I know that the Mayor at
Courteil lets us have it for next to nothing. Ah, you managed it very
cleverly, but, all the same, I know you had a hand in it."
"Oh! come, come! Good-day, mother. You are going to work on that bit
of land of Champferlu's to-day of course?"
"Yes, sir; I made a beginning there yesterday evening."
"Capital!" said Benassis. "It must be a satisfaction to you, at times,
to see this hillside. You two have broken up almost the whole of the
land on it yourselves."
"Lord! yes, sir," answered the old woman, "it has been our doing! We
have fairly earned our bread."
"Work, you see, and land to cultivate are the poor man's consols. That
good man would think himself disgraced if he went into the poorhouse
or begged for his bread; he would choose to die pickaxe in hand, out
in the open, in the sunlight. Faith, he bears a proud heart in him. He
has worked until work has become his very life; and yet death has no
terrors for him! He is a profound philosopher, little as he suspects
it. Old Moreau's case suggested the idea to me of founding an
almshouse for the country people of the district; a refuge for those
who, after working hard all their lives, have reached an honorable old
age of poverty.
"I had by no means expected to make the fortune which I have acquired
here; indeed, I myself have no use for it, for a man who has fallen
from the pinnacle of his hopes needs very little. It costs but little
to live, the idler's life alone is a costly one, and I am not sure
that the unproductive consumer is not robbing the community at large.
There was some discussion about Napoleon's pension after his fall; it
came to his ears, and he said that five francs a day and a horse to
ride was all that he needed. I meant to have no more to do with money
when I came here; but after a time I saw that money means power, and
that it is in fact a necessity, if any good is to be done. So I have
made arrangements in my will for turning my house into an almshouse,
in which old people who have not Moreau's fierce independence can end
their days. Part of the income of nine thousand francs brought in by
the mill and the rest of my property will be devoted to giving outdoor
relief in hard winters to those who really stand in need of it.
"This foundation will be under the control of the Municipal Council,
with the addition of the cure, who is to be president; and in this way
the money made in the district will be returned to it. In my will I
have laid down the lines on which this institution is to be conducted;
it would be tedious to go over them, it is enough to say that I have a
fund which will some day enable the Commune to award several
scholarships for children who show signs of promise in art or science.
So, even after I am gone, my work of civilization will continue. When
you have set yourself to do anything, Captain Bluteau, something
within you urges you on, you see, and you cannot bear to leave it
unfinished. This craving within us for order and for perfection is one
of the signs that point most surely to a future existence. Now, let us
quicken our pace, I have my round to finish, and there are five or six
more patients still to be visited."
They cantered on for some time in silence, till Benassis said
laughingly to his companion, "Come now, Captain Bluteau, you have
drawn me out and made me chatter like a magpie, and you have not said
a syllable about your own history, which must be an interesting one.
When a soldier has come to your time of life, he has seen so much that
he must have more than one adventure to tell about."
"Why, my history has been simply the history of the army," answered
Genestas. "Soldiers are all after one pattern. Never in command,
always giving and taking sabre-cuts in my place, I have lived just
like anybody else. I have been wherever Napoleon led us, and have
borne a part in every battle in which the Imperial Guard has struck a
blow; but everybody knows all about these events. A soldier has to
look after his horse, to endure hunger and thirst at times, to fight
whenever there is fighting to be done, and there you have the whole
history of his life. As simple as saying good-day, is it not? Then
there are battles in which your horse casts a shoe at the outset, and
lands you in a quandary; and as far as you are concerned, that is the
whole of it. In short, I have seen so many countries, that seeing them
has come to be a matter of course; and I have seen so many men die,
that I have come to value my own life at nothing."
"But you yourself must have been in danger at times, and it would be
interesting to hear you tell of your personal adventures."
"Perhaps," answered the commandant.
"Well, then, tell me about the adventure that made the deepest
impression upon you. Come! do not hesitate. I shall not think that you
are wanting in modesty even if you should tell me of some piece of
heroism on your part; and when a man is quite sure that he will not be
misunderstood, ought he not to find a kind of pleasure in saying, 'I
"Very well, then, I will tell you about something that gives me a pang
of remorse from time to time. During fifteen years of warfare it never
once happened that I killed a man, save in legitimate defence of self.
We are drawn up in a line, and we charge; and if we do not strike down
those before us, they will begin to draw blood without asking leave,
so you have to kill if you do not mean to be killed, and your
conscience is quite easy. But once I broke a comrade's back; it
happened in a singular way, and it has been a painful thing to me to
think of afterwards--the man's dying grimace haunts me at times. But
you shall judge for yourself.
"It was during the retreat from Moscow," the commandant went on. "The
Grand Army had ceased to be itself; we were more like a herd of
over-driven cattle. Good-bye to discipline! The regiments had lost
sight of their colors, every one was his own master, and the Emperor
(one need not scruple to say it) knew that it was useless to attempt
to exert his authority when things had gone so far. When we reached
Studzianka, a little place on the other side of the Beresina, we came
upon human dwellings for the first time after several days. There were
barns and peasants' cabins to destroy, and pits full of potatoes and
beetroot; the army had been without vitual, and now it fairly ran riot,
the first comers, as you might expect, making a clean sweep of
"I was one of the last to come up. Luckily for me, sleep was the one
thing that I longed for just then. I caught sight of a barn and went
into it. I looked round and saw a score of generals and officers of
high rank, all of them men who, without flattery, might be called
great. Junot was there, and Narbonne, the Emperor's aide-de-camp, and
all the chiefs of the army. There were common soldiers there as well,
not one of whom would have given up his bed of straw to a marshal of
France. Some who were leaning their backs against the wall had dropped
off to sleep where they stood, because there was no room to lie down;
others lay stretched out on the floor--it was a mass of men packed
together so closely for the sake of warmth, that I looked about in
vain for a nook to lie down in. I walked over this flooring of human
bodies; some of the men growled, the others said nothing, but no one
budged. They would not have moved out of the way of a cannon ball just
then; but under the circumstances, one was not obliged to practise the
maxims laid down by the Child's Guide to Manners. Groping about, I saw
at the end of the barn a sort of ledge up above in the roof; no one
had thought of scrambling up to it, possibly no one had felt equal to
the effort. I clambered up and ensconced myself upon it; and as I lay
there at full length, I looked down at the men huddled together like
sheep below. It was a pitiful sight, yet it almost made me laugh. A
man here and there was gnawing a frozen carrot, with a kind of animal
satisfaction expressed in his face; and thunderous snores came from
generals who lay muffled up in ragged cloaks. The whole barn was
lighted by a blazing pine log; it might have set the place on fire,
and no one would have troubled to get up and put it out.
"I lay down on my back, and, naturally, just before I dropped off, my
eyes traveled to the roof above me, and then I saw that the main beam
which bore the weight of the joists was being slightly shaken from
east to west. The blessed thing danced about in fine style.
'Gentlemen,' said I, 'one of our friends outside has a mind to warm
himself at our expense.' A few moments more and the beam was sure to
come down. 'Gentlemen! gentlemen!' I shouted, 'we shall all be killed
in a minute! Look at the beam there!' and I made such a noise that my
bed-fellows awoke at last. Well, sir, they all stared up at the beam,
and then those who had been sleeping turned round and went off to
sleep again, while those who were eating did not even stop to answer
"Seeing how things were, there was nothing for it but to get up and
leave my place, and run the risk of finding it taken by somebody else,
for all the lives of this heap of heroes were at stake. So out I go. I
turn the corner of the barn and come upon a great devil of a
Wurtemberger, who was tugging at the beam with a certain enthusiasm.
'Aho! aho!' I shouted, trying to make him understand that he must
desist from his toil. '/Gehe mir aus dem Gesicht, oder ich schlag dich
todt!/--Get out of my sight, or I will kill you,' he cried. 'Ah! yes,
just so, /Que mire aous dem guesit/,' I answered; 'but that is not the
point.' I picked up his gun that he had left on the ground, and broke
his back with it; then I turned in again, and went off to sleep. Now
you know the whole business."
"But that was a case of self-defence, in which one man suffered for
the good of many, so you have nothing to reproach yourself with," said
"The rest of them thought that it had only been my fancy; but fancy or
no, a good many of them are living comfortably in fine houses to-day,
without feeling their hearts oppressed by gratitude."
"Then would you only do people a good turn in order to receive that
exorbitant interest called gratitude?" said Benassis, laughing. "That
would be asking a great deal for your outlay."
"Oh, I know quite well that all the merit of a good deed evaporates at
once if it benefits the doer in the slightest degree," said Genestas.
"If he tells the story of it, the toll brought in to his vanity is a
sufficient substitute for gratitude. But if every doer of kindly
actions always held his tongue about them, those who reaped the
benefits would hardly say very much either. Now the people, according
to your system, stand in need of examples, and how are they to hear of
them amid this general reticence? Again, there is this poor pontooner
of ours, who saved the whole French army, and who was never able to
tell his tale to any purpose; suppose that he had lost the use of his
limbs, would the consciousness of what he had done have found him in
bread? Answer me that, philosopher!"
"Perhaps the rules of morality cannot be absolute," Benassis answered;
"though this is a dangerous idea, for it leaves the egoist free to
settle cases of conscience in his own favor. Listen, captain; is not
the man who never swerves from the principles of morality greater than
he who transgresses them, even through necessity? Would not our
veteran, dying of hunger, and unable to help himself, be worthy of
rank with Homer? Human life is doubtless a final trial of virtue as of
genius, for both of which a better world is waiting. Virtue and genius
seem to me to be the fairest forms of that complete and constant
surrender of self that Jesus Christ came among men to teach. Genius
sheds its light in the world and lives in poverty all its days, and
virtue sacrifices itself in silence for the general good."
"I quite agree with you, sir," said Genestas; "but those who dwell on
earth are men after all, and not angels; we are not perfect."
"That is quite true," Benassis answered. "And as for errors, I myself
have abused the indulgence. But ought we not to aim, at any rate, at
perfection? Is not virtue a fair ideal which the soul must always keep
before it, a standard set up by Heaven?"
"Amen," said the soldier. "An upright man is a magnificent thing, I
grant you; but, on the other hand, you must admit that virtue is a
divinity who may indulge in a scrap of gossip now and then in the
The doctor smiled, but there was a melancholy bitterness in his tone
as he said, "Ah! sir, you regard things with the lenience natural to
those who live at peace with themselves; and I with all the severity
of one who sees much that he would fain obliterate in the story of his
The two horsemen reached a cottage beside the bed of the torrent, the
doctor dismounted and went into the house. Genestas, on the threshold,
looked over the bright spring landscape that lay without, and then at
the dark interior of the cottage, where a man was lying in bed.
Benassis examined his patient, and suddenly exclaimed, "My good woman,
it is no use my coming here unless you carry out my instructions! You
have been giving him bread; you want to kill your husband, I suppose?
Botheration! If after this you give him anything besides the tisane of
couch-grass, I will never set foot in here again, and you can look
where you like for another doctor."
"But, dear M. Benassis, my old man was starving, and when he had eaten
nothing for a whole fortnight----"
"Oh, yes, yes. Now will you listen to me. If you let your husband eat
a single mouthful of bread before I give him leave to take solid food,
you will kill him, do you hear?"
"He shall not have anything, sir. Is he any better?" she asked,
following the doctor to the door.
"Why, no. You have made him worse by feeding him. Shall I never get it
into your stupid heads that you must not stuff people who are being
"The peasants are incorrigible," Benassis went on, speaking to
Genestas. "If a patient has eaten nothing for two or three days, they
think he is at death's door, and they cram him with soup or wine or
something. Here is a wretched woman for you that has all but killed
"Kill my husband with a little mite of a sop in wine!"
"Certainly, my good woman. It amazes me that he is still alive after
the mess you cooked for him. Mind that you do exactly as I have told
"Yes, dear sir, I would far rather die myself than lose him."
"Oh! as to that I shall soon see. I shall come again to-morrow evening
to bleed him."
"Let us walk along the side of the stream," Benassis said to Genestas;
"there is only a footpath between this cottage and the next house
where I must pay a call. That man's little boy will hold our horses."
"You must admire this lovely valley of ours a little," he went on; "it
is like an English garden, is it not? The laborer who lives in the
cottage which we are going to visit has never got over the death of
one of his children. The eldest boy, he was only a lad, would try to
do a man's work last harvest-tide; it was beyond his strength, and
before the autumn was out he died of a decline. This is the first case
of really strong fatherly love that has come under my notice. As a
rule, when their children die, the peasant's regret is for the loss of
a useful chattel, and a part of their stock-in-trade, and the older
the child, the heavier their sense of loss. A grown-up son or daughter
is so much capital to the parents. But this poor fellow really loved
that boy of his. 'Nothing cam comfort me for my loss,' he said one day
when I came across him out in the fields. He had forgotten all about
his work, and was standing there motionless, leaning on his scythe; he
had picked up his hone, it lay in his hand, and he had forgotten to
use it. He has never spoken since of his grief to me, but he has grown
sad and silent. Just now it is one of his little girls who is ill."
Benassis and his guest reached the little house as they talked. It
stood beside a pathway that led to a bark-mill. They saw a man about
forty years of age, standing under a willow tree, eating bread that
had been rubbed with a clove of garlic.
"Well, Gasnier, is the little one doing better?"
"I do not know, sir," he said dejectedly, "you will see; my wife is
sitting with her. In spite of all your care, I am very much afraid
that death will come to empty my home for me."
"Do not lose heart, Gasnier. Death is too busy to take up his abode in
Benassis went into the house, followed by the father. Half an hour
later he came out again. The mother was with him this time, and he
spoke to her, "You need have no anxiety about her now; follow out my
instructions; she is out of danger."
"If you are growing tired of this sort of thing," the doctor said to
the officer, as he mounted his horse, "I can put you on the way to the
town, and you can return."
"No, I am not tired of it, I give you my word."
"But you will only see cottages everywhere, and they are all alike;
nothing, to outward seeming, is more monotonous than the country."
"Let us go on," said the officer.
They rode on in this way for several hours, and after going from one
side of the canton to the other, they returned towards evening to the
precincts of the town.
"I must just go over there," the doctor said to Genestas, as he
pointed out a place where a cluster of elm-trees grew. "Those trees
may possibly be two hundred years old," he went on, "and that is where
the woman lives, on whose account the lad came to fetch me last night
at dinner, with a message that she had turned quite white."
"Was it anything serious?"
"No," said Benassis, "an effect of pregnancy. It is the last month
with her, a time at which some women suffer from spasms. But by way of
precaution, I must go in any case to make sure that there are no
further alarming symptoms; I shall see her through her confinement
myself. And, moreover, I should like to show you one of our new
industries; there is a brick-field here. It is a good road; shall we
"Will your animal keep up with mine?" asked Genestas. "Heigh!
Neptune!" he called to his horse, and in a moment the officer had been
carried far ahead, and was lost to sight in a cloud of dust, but in
spite of the paces of his horse he still heard the doctor beside him.
At a word from Benassis his own horse left the commandant so far
behind that the latter only came up with him at the gate of the
brick-field, where the doctor was quietly fastening the bridle to the
"The devil take it!" cried Genestas, after a look at the horse, that
was neither sweated nor blown. "What kind of animal have you there?"
"Ah!" said the doctor, "you took him for a screw! The history of this
fine fellow would take up too much time just now; let it suffice to
say that Roustan is a thoroughbred barb from the Atlas mountains, and
a Barbary horse is as good as an Arab. This one of mine will gallop up
the mountain roads without turning a hair, and will never miss his
footing in a canter along the brink of a precipice. He was a present
to me, and I think that I deserved it, for in this way a father sought
to repay me for his daughter's life. She is one of the wealthiest
heiresses in Europe, and she was at the brink of death when I found
her on the road to Savoy. If I were to tell you how I cured that young
lady, you would take me for a quack. Aha! that is the sound of the
bells on the horses and the rumbling of a wagon; it is coming along
this way; let us see, perhaps that is Vigneau himself; and if so, take
a good look at him!"
In another moment the officer saw a team of four huge horses, like
those which are owned by prosperous farmers in Brie. The harness, the
little bells, and the knots of braid in their manes, were clean and
smart. The great wagon itself was painted bright blue, and perched
aloft in it sat a stalwart, sunburned youth, who shouldered his whip
like a gun and whistled a tune.
"No," said Benassis, "that is only the wagoner. But see how the
master's prosperity in business is reflected by all his belongings,
even by the carter's wagon! Is it not a sign of a capacity for
business not very often met with in remote country places?"
"Yes, yes, it all looks very smart indeed," the officer answered.
"Well, Vigneau has two more wagons and teams like that one, and he has
a small pony besides for business purposes, for he does trade over a
wide area. And only four years ago he had nothing in the world! Stay,
that is a mistake--he had some debts. But let us go in."
"Is Mme. Vigneau in the house?" Benassis asked of the young wagoner.
"She is out in the garden, sir; I saw her just now by the hedge down
yonder; I will go and tell her that you are here."
Genestas followed Benassis across a wide open space with a hedge about
it. In one corner various heaps of clay had been piled up, destined
for tiles and pantiles, and a stack of brushwood and logs (fuel for
the kiln no doubt) lay in another part of the enclosure. Farther away
some workmen were pounding chalk stones and tempering the clay in a
space enclosed by hurdles. The tiles, both round and square, were made
under the great elms opposite the gateway, in a vast green arbor
bounded by the roofs of the drying-shed, and near this last the
yawning mouth of the kiln was visible. Some long-handled shovels lay
about the worn cider path. A second row of buildings had been erected
parallel with these. There was a sufficiently wretched dwelling which
housed the family, and some outbuildings--sheds and stables and a
barn. The cleanliness that predominated throughout, and the thorough
repair in which everything was kept, spoke well for the vigilance of
the master's eyes. Some poultry and pigs wandered at large over the
"Vigneau's predecessor," said Benassis, "was a good-for-nothing, a
lazy rascal who cared about nothing by drink. He had been a workman
himself; he could keep a fire in his kiln and could put a price on his
work, and that was about all he knew; he had no energy, and no idea of
business. If no one came to buy his wares of him, they simply stayed
on hand and were spoiled, and so he lost the value of them. So he died
of want at last. He had ill-treated his wife till she was almost
idiotic, and she lived in a state of abject wretchedness. It was so
painful to see this laziness and incurable stupidity, and I so much
disliked the sight of the tile-works, that I never came this way if I
could help it. Luckily, both the man and his wife were old people. One
fine day the tile-maker had a paralytic stroke, and I had him removed
to the hospital at Grenoble at once. The owner of the tile-works
agreed to take it over without disputing about its condition, and I
looked round for new tenants who would take their part in improving
the industries of the canton.
"Mme. Gravier's waiting-maid had married a poor workman, who was
earning so little with the potter who employed him that he could not
support his household. He listened to my advice, and actually had
sufficient courage to take a lease of our tile-works, when he had not
so much as a penny. He came and took up his abode here, taught his
wife, her aged mother, and his own mother how to make tiles, and made
workmen of them. How they managed, I do not know, upon my honor!
Vigneau probably borrowed fuel to heat his kiln, he certainly worked
by day, and fetched in his materials in basket-loads by night; in
short, no one knew what boundless energy he brought to bear upon his
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