The Country Doctor
Honore de Balzac
Part 3 out of 5
"Ah, sir, I wish for a child of my own."
"There! She is a mother already, you see," said the doctor to the
officer, as he laid his hand on the bridle of his horse.
"Good-bye, M. Benassis; my husband will be sadly disappointed to learn
that you have been here when he was not at home to see you."
"He has not forgotten to send the thousand tiles to the Grange-aux-
Belles for me?"
"You know quite well, sir, that he would keep all the orders in the
canton waiting to serve you. Why, taking your money is the thing that
troubles him most; but I always tell him that your crowns bring luck
with them, and so they do."
"Good-bye," said Benassis.
A little group gathered about the bars across the entrance to the
tile-works. The three women, the young wagoner, and two workmen who
had left off work to greet the doctor, lingered there to have the
pleasure of being with him until the last moment, as we are wont to
linger with those we love. The promptings of men's hearts must
everywhere be the same, and in every land friendship expresses itself
in the same gracious ways.
Benassis looked at the height of the sun and spoke to his companion:
"There are still two hours of daylight left; and if you are not too
hungry, we will go to see some one with whom I nearly always spend the
interval between the last of my visits and the hour for dinner. She is
a charming girl whom every one here calls my 'good friend.' That is
the name that they usually give to an affianced bride; but you must
not imagine that there is the slightest imputation of any kind implied
or intended by the use of the word in this case. Poor child, the care
that I have taken of her has, as may be imagined, made her an object
of jealousy, but the general opinion entertained as to my character
has prevented any spiteful gossip. If no one understands the apparent
caprice that has led me to make an allowance to La Fosseuse, so that
she can live without being compelled to work, nobody has any doubts as
to her character. I have watched over her with friendly care, and
every one knows that I should never hesitate to marry her if my
affection for her exceeded the limits of friendship. But no woman
exists for me here in the canton or anywhere else," said the doctor,
forcing a smile. "Some natures feel a tyrannous need to attach
themselves to some one thing or being which they single out from among
the beings and things around them; this need is felt most keenly by a
man of quick sympathies, and all the more pressingly if his life has
been made desolate. So, trust me, it is a favorable sign if a man is
strongly attached to his dog or his horse! Among the suffering flock
which chance has given into my care, this poor little sufferer has
come to be for me like the pet lamb that the shepherd lasses deck with
ribbons in my own sunny land of Languedoc; they talk to it and allow
it to find pasture by the side of the cornfields, and its leisurely
pace is never hurried by the shepherd's dog."
Benassis stood with his hand on his horse's mane as he spoke, ready to
spring into the saddle, but making no effort to do so, as though the
thoughts that stirred in him were but little in keeping with rapid
"Let us go," he said at last; "come with me and pay her a visit. I am
taking you to see her; does not that tell you that I treat her as a
As they rode on their way again, Genestas said to the doctor, "Will
you regard it as inquisitiveness on my part if I ask to hear more of
La Fosseuse? I have come to know the story of many lives through you,
and hers cannot be less interesting than some of these."
Benassis stopped his horse as he answered. "Perhaps you will not share
in the feelings of interest awakened in me by La Fosseuse. Her fate is
like my own; we have both alike missed our vocation; it is the
similarity of our lots that occasions my sympathy for her and the
feelings that I experience at the sight of her. You either followed
your natural bent when you entered upon a military career, or you took
a liking for your calling after you had adopted it, otherwise you
would not have borne the heavy yoke of military discipline till now;
you, therefore, cannot understand the sorrows of a soul that must
always feel renewed within it the stir of longings that can never be
realized; nor the pining existence of a creature forced to live in an
alien sphere. Such sufferings as these are known only to these natures
and to God who sends their afflictions, for they alone can know how
deeply the events of life affect them. You yourself have seen the
miseries produced by long wars, till they have almost ceased to
impress you, but have you never detected a trace of sadness in your
mind at the sight of a tree bearing sere leaves in the midst of
spring, some tree that is pining and dying because it has been planted
in soil in which it could not find the sustenance required for its
full development? Ever since my twentieth year, there has been
something painful and melancholy for me about the drooping of a
stunted plant, and now I cannot bear the sight and turn my head away.
My youthful sorrow was a vague presentiment of the sorrows of my later
life; it was a kind of sympathy between my present and a future dimly
foreshadowed by the life of the tree that before its time was going
the way of all trees and men."
"I thought that you had suffered when I saw how kind you were."
"You see, sir," the doctor went on without any reply to the remark
made by Genestas, "that to speak of La Fosseuse is to speak of myself.
La Fosseuse is a plant in an alien soil; a human plant moreover,
consumed by sad thoughts that have their source in the depths of her
nature, and that never cease to multiply. The poor girl is never well
and strong. The soul within her kills the body. This fragile creature
was suffering from the sorest of all troubles, a trouble which
receives the least possible sympathy from our selfish world, and how
could I look on with indifferent eyes? for I, a man, strong to wrestle
with pain, was nightly tempted to refuse to bear the burden of a
sorrow like hers. Perhaps I might actually have refused to bear it but
for a thought of religion which soothes my impatience and fills my
heart with sweet illusions. Even if we were not children of the same
Father in heaven, La Fosseuse would still be my sister in suffering!"
Benassis pressed his knees against his horse's sides, and swept ahead
of Commandant Genestas, as if he shrank from continuing this
conversation any further. When their horses were once more cantering
abreast of each other, he spoke again: "Nature has created this poor
girl for sorrow," he said, "as she has created other women for joy. It
is impossible to do otherwise than believe in a future life at the
sight of natures thus predestined to suffer. La Fosseuse is sensitive
and highly strung. If the weather is dark and cloudy, she is
depressed; she 'weeps when the sky is weeping,' a phrase of her own;
she sings with the birds; she grows happy and serene under a cloudless
sky; the loveliness of a bright day passes into her face; a soft sweet
perfume is an inexhaustible pleasure to her; I have seen her take
delight the whole day long in the scent breathed forth by some
mignonette; and, after one of those rainy mornings that bring out all
the soul of the flowers and give indescribable freshness and
brightness to the day, she seems to overflow with gladness like the
green world around her. If it is close and hot, and there is thunder
in the air, La Fosseuse feels a vague trouble that nothing can soothe.
She lies on her bed, complains of numberless different ills, and does
not know what ails her. In answer to my questions, she tells me that
her bones are melting, that she is dissolving into water; her 'heart
has left her,' to quote another of her sayings.
"I have sometimes come upon the poor child suddenly and found her in
tears, as she gazed at the sunset effects we sometimes see here among
our mountains, when bright masses of cloud gather and crowd together
and pile themselves above the golden peaks of the hills. 'Why are you
crying, little one?' I have asked her. 'I do not know, sir,' has been
the answer; 'I have grown so stupid with looking up there; I have
looked and looked, till I hardly know where I am.' 'But what do you
see there?' 'I cannot tell you, sir,' and you might question her in
this way all the evening, yet you would never draw a word from her;
but she would look at you, and every glance would seem full of
thoughts, or she would sit with tears in her eyes, scarcely saying a
word, apparently rapt in musing. Those musings of hers are so profound
that you fall under the spell of them; on me, at least, she has the
effect of a cloud overcharged with electricity. One day I plied her
with questions; I tried with all my might to make her talk; at last I
let fall a few rather hasty words; and, well--she burst into tears.
"At other times La Fosseuse is bright and winning, active, merry, and
sprightly; she enjoys talking, and the ideas which she expresses are
fresh and original. She is however quite unable to apply herself
steadily to any kind of work. When she was out in the fields she used
to spend whole hours in looking at a flower, in watching the water
flow, in gazing at the wonders in the depths of the clear, still river
pools, at the picturesque mosaic made up of pebbles and earth and
sand, of water plants and green moss, and the brown soil washed down
by the stream, a deposit full of soft shades of color, and of hues
that contrast strangely with each other.
"When I first came to the district the poor girl was starving. It hurt
her pride to accept the bread of others; and it was only when driven
to the last extremity of want and suffering that she could bring
herself to ask for charity. The feeling that this was a disgrace would
often give her energy, and for several days she worked in the fields;
but her strength was soon exhausted, and illness obliged her to leave
the work that she had begun. She had scarcely recovered when she went
to a farm on the outskirts of the town and asked to be taken on to
look after the cattle; she did her work well and intelligently, but
after a while she left without giving any reason for so doing. The
constant toil, day after day, was no doubt too heavy a yoke for one
who is all independence and caprice. Then she set herself to look for
mushrooms or for truffles, going over to Grenoble to sell them. But
the gaudy trifles in the town were very tempting, the few small coins
in her hand seemed to be great riches; she would forget her poverty
and buy ribbons and finery, without a thought for tomorrow's bread.
But if some other girl here in the town took a fancy to her brass
crucifix, her agate heart or her velvet ribbon, she would make them
over to her at once, glad to give happiness, for she lives by generous
impulses. So La Fosseuse was loved and pitied and despised by turns.
Everything in her nature was a cause of suffering to her--her
indolence, her kindness of heart, her coquetry; for she is coquettish,
dainty, and inquisitive, in short, she is a woman; she is as simple as
a child, and, like a child, she is carried away by her tastes and her
impressions. If you tell her about some noble deed, she trembles, her
color rises, her heart throbs fast, and she sheds tears of joy; if you
begin a story about robbers, she turns pale with terror. You could not
find a more sincere, open-hearted, and scrupulously loyal nature
anywhere; if you were to give a hundred gold pieces into her keeping,
she would bury them in some out-of-the-way nook and beg her bread as
There was a change in Benassis' tone as he uttered these last words.
"I once determined to put her to the proof," he said, "and I repented
of it. It is like espionage to bring a test to bear upon another, is
it not? It means that we suspect them at any rate."
Here the doctor paused, as though some inward reflection engrossed
him; he was quite unconscious of the embarrassment that his last
remark had caused to his companion, who busied himself with
disentangling the reins in order to hide his confusion. Benassis soon
resumed his talk.
"I should like to find a husband for my Fosseuse. I should be glad to
make over one of my farms to some good fellow who would make her
happy. And she would be happy. The poor girl would love her children
to distraction; for motherhood, which develops the whole of a woman's
nature, would give full scope to her overflowing sentiments. She has
never cared for any one, however. Yet her impressionable nature is a
danger to her. She knows this herself, and when she saw that I
recognized it, she admitted the excitability of her temperament to me.
She belongs to the small minority of women whom the slightest contact
with others causes to vibrate perilously; so that she must be made to
value herself on her discretion and her womanly pride. She is as wild
and shy as a swallow! Ah! what a wealth of kindness there is in her!
Nature meant her to be a rich woman; she would be so beneficent: for a
well-loved woman; she would be so faithful and true. She is only
twenty-two years old, and is sinking already beneath the weight of her
soul; a victim to highly-strung nerves, to an organization either too
delicate or too full of power. A passionate love for a faithless lover
would drive her mad, my poor Fosseuse! I have made a study of her
temperament, recognized the reality of her prolonged nervous attacks,
and of the swift mysterious recurrence of her uplifted moods. I found
that they were immediately dependent on atmospheric changes and on the
variations of the moon, a fact which I have carefully verified; and
since then I have cared for her, as a creature unlike all others, for
she is a being whose ailing existence I alone can understand. As I
have told you, she is the pet lamb. But you shall see her; this is her
They had come about one-third of the way up the mountain side. Low
bushes grew on either hand along the steep paths which they were
ascending at a foot pace. At last, at a turn in one of the paths,
Genestas saw La Fosseuse's dwelling, which stood on one of the largest
knolls on the mountain. Around it was a green sloping space of lawn
about three acres in extent, planted with trees, and surrounded by a
wall high enough to serve as a fence, but not so high as to shut out
the view of the landscape. Several rivulets that had their source in
this garden formed little cascades among the trees. The brick-built
cottage with a low roof that projected several feet was a charming
detail in the landscape. It consisted of a ground floor and a single
story, and stood facing the south. All the windows were in the front
of the house, for its small size and lack of depth from back to front
made other openings unnecessary. The doors and shutters were painted
green, and the underside of the penthouses had been lined with deal
boards in the German fashion, and painted white. The rustic charm of
the whole little dwelling lay in its spotless cleanliness.
Climbing plants and briar roses grew about the house; a great walnut
tree had been allowed to remain among the flowering acacias and trees
that bore sweet-scented blossoms, and a few weeping willows had been
set by the little streams in the garden space. A thick belt of pines
and beeches grew behind the house, so that the picturesque little
dwelling was brought out into strong relief by the sombre width of
background. At that hour of the day, the air was fragrant with the
scents from the hillsides and the perfume from La Fosseuse's garden.
The sky overhead was clear and serene, but low clouds hung on the
horizon, and the far-off peaks had begun to take the deep rose hues
that the sunset often brings. At the height which they had reached the
whole valley lay before their eyes, from distant Grenoble to the
little lake at the foot of the circle of crags by which Genestas had
passed on the previous day. Some little distance above the house a
line of poplars on the hill indicated the highway that led to
Grenoble. Rays of sunlight fell slantwise across the little town which
glittered like a diamond, for the soft red light which poured over it
like a flood was reflected by all its window-panes. Genestas reined in
his horse at the sight, and pointed to the dwellings in the valley, to
the new town, and to La Fosseuse's house.
"Since the victory of Wagram, and Napoleon's return to the Tuileries
in 1815," he said, with a sigh, "nothing has so stirred me as the
sight of all this. I owe this pleasure to you, sir, for you have
taught me to see beauty in a landscape."
"Yes," said the doctor, smiling as he spoke, "It is better to build
towns than to storm them."
"Oh! sir, how about the taking of Moscow and the surrender of Mantua!
Why, you do not really know what that means! Is it not a glory for all
of us? You are a good man, but Napoleon also was a good man. If it had
not been for England, you both would have understood each other, and
our Emperor would never have fallen. There are no spies here," said
the officer, looking around him, "and I can say openly that I love
him, now that he is dead! What a ruler! He knew every man when he saw
him! He would have made you a Councillor of State, for he was a great
administrator himself; even to the point of knowing how many
cartridges were left in the men's boxes after an action. Poor man!
While you were talking about La Fosseuse, I thought of him, and how he
was lying dead in St. Helena! Was that the kind of climate and country
to suit HIM, whose seat had been a throne, and who had lived with his
feet in the stirrups; hein? They say that he used to work in the
garden. The deuce! He was not made to plant cabbages. . . . And now we
must serve the Bourbons, and loyally, sir; for, after all, France is
France, as you were saying yesterday."
Genestas dismounted as he uttered these last words, and mechanically
followed the example set by Benassis, who fastened his horse's bridle
to a tree.
"Can she be away?" said the doctor, when he did not see La Fosseuse on
the threshold. They went into the house, but there was no one in the
sitting room on the ground floor.
"She must have heard the sound of a second horse," said Benassis, with
a smile, "and has gone upstairs to put on her cap, or her sash, or
some piece of finery."
He left Genestas alone, and went upstairs in search of La Fosseuse.
The commandant made a survey of the room. He noticed the pattern of
the paper that covered the walls--roses scattered over a gray
background, and the straw matting that did duty for a carpet on the
floor. The armchair, the table, and the smaller chairs were made of
wood from which the bark had not been removed. The room was not
without ornament; some flower-stands, as they might be called, made of
osiers and wooden hoops, had been filled with moss and flowers, and
the windows were draped by white dimity curtains bordered with a
scarlet fringe. There was a mirror above the chimney-piece, where a
plain china jar stood between two candlesticks. Some calico lay on the
table; shirts, apparently, had been cut out and begun, several pairs
of gussets were finished, and a work-basket, scissors, needles and
thread, and all a needle-woman's requirements lay beside them.
Everything was as fresh and clean as a shell that the sea had tossed
up on the beach. Genestas saw that a kitchen lay on the other side of
the passage, and that the staircase was at the further end of it. The
upper story, like the ground floor, evidently consisted of two rooms
only. "Come, do not be frightened," Benassis was saying to La
Fosseuse; "come down-stairs!"
Genestas promptly retreated into the sitting-room when he heard these
words, and in another moment a slender girl, well and gracefully made,
appeared in the doorway. She wore a gown of cambric, covered with
narrow pink stripes, and cut low at the throat, so as to display a
muslin chemisette. Shyness and timidity had brought the color to a
face which had nothing very remarkable about it save a certain
flatness of feature which called to mind the Cossack and Russian
countenances that since the disasters of 1814 have unfortunately come
to be so widely known in France. La Fosseuse was, in fact, very like
these men of the North. Her nose turned up at the end, and was sunk in
her face, her mouth was wide and her chin small, her hands and arms
were red and, like her feet, were of the peasant type, large and
strong. Although she had been used to an outdoor life, to exposure to
the sun and the scorching summer winds, her complexion had the
bleached look of withered grass; but after the first glance this made
her face more interesting, and there was such a sweet expression in
her blue eyes, so much grace about her movements, and such music in
her voice, that little as her features seemed to harmonize with the
disposition which Benassis had praised to the commandant, the officer
recognized in her the capricious and ailing creature, condemned to
suffering by a nature that had been thwarted in its growth.
La Fosseuse deftly stirred the fire of dry branches and turfs of peat,
then sat down in an armchair and took up one of the shirts that she
had begun. She sat there under the officer's eyes, half bashful,
afraid to look up, and calm to all appearance; but her bodice rose and
fell with the rapid breathing that betrayed her nervousness, and it
struck Genestas that her figure was very graceful.
"Well, my poor child, is your work going on nicely?" said Benassis,
taking up the material intended for the shirts, and passing it through
La Fosseuse gave the doctor a timid and beseeching glance.
"Do not scold me, sir," she entreated; "I have not touched them to-
day, although they were ordered by you, and for people who need them
very badly. But the weather has been so fine! I wandered out and
picked a quantity of mushrooms and white truffles, and took them over
to Jacquotte; she was very pleased, for some people are coming to
dinner. I was so glad that I thought of it; something seemed to tell
me to go to look for them."
She began to ply her needle again.
"You have a very pretty house here, mademoiselle," said Genestas,
"It is not mine at all, sir," she said, looking at the stranger, and
her eyes seemed to grow red and tearful; "it belongs to M. Benassis,"
and she turned towards the doctor with a gentle expression on her
"You know quite well, my child, that you will never have to leave it,"
he said, as he took her hand in his.
La Fosseuse suddenly rose and left the room.
"Well," said the doctor, addressing the officer,"what do you think of
"There is something strangely touching about her," Genestas answered.
"How very nicely you have fitted up this little nest of hers!"
"Bah! a wall-paper at fifteen or twenty sous; it was carefully chosen,
but that was all. The furniture is nothing very much either, my
basket-maker made it for me; he wanted to show his gratitude; and La
Fosseuse made the curtains herself out of a few yards of calico. This
little house of hers, and her simple furniture, seem pretty to you,
because you come upon them up here on a hillside in a forlorn part of
the world where you did not expect to find things clean and tidy. The
reason of the prettiness is a kind of harmony between the little house
and its surroundings. Nature has set picturesque groups of trees and
running streams about it, and has scattered her fairest flowers among
the grass, her sweet-scented wild strawberry blossoms, and her lovely
violets. . . . Well, what is the matter?" asked Benassis, as La
Fosseuse came back to them.
"Oh! nothing, nothing," she answered. "I fancied that one of my
chickens was missing, and had not been shut up."
Her remark was disingenuous, but this was only noticed by the doctor,
who said in her ear, "You have been crying!"
"Why do you say things like that to me before some one else?" she
asked in reply.
"Mademoiselle," said Genestas, "it is a great pity that you live here
all by yourself; you ought to have a mate in such a charming cage as
"That is true," she said, "but what would you have? I am poor, and I
am hard to please. I feel that it would not suit me at all to carry
the soup out into the fields, nor to push a hand-cart; to feel the
misery of those whom I should love, and have no power to put an end to
it; to carry my children in my arms all day, and patch and re-patch a
man's rags. The cure tells me that such thoughts as these are not very
Christian; I know that myself, but how can I help it? There are days
when I would rather eat a morsel of dry bread than cook anything for
my dinner. Why would you have me worry some man's life out with my
failings? He would perhaps work himself to death to satisfy my whims,
and that would not be right. Pshaw! an unlucky lot has fallen to me,
and I ought to bear it by myself."
"And besides, she is a born do-nothing," said Benassis. "We must take
my poor Fosseuse as we find her. But all that she has been saying to
you simply means that she has never loved as yet," he added, smiling.
Then he rose and went out on to the lawn for a moment.
"You must be very fond of M. Benassis?" asked Genestas.
"Oh! yes, sir; and there are plenty of people hereabouts who feel as I
do--that they would be glad to do anything in the world for him. And
yet he who cures other people has some trouble of his own that nothing
can cure. You are his friend, perhaps you know what it is? Who could
have given pain to such a man, who is the very image of God on earth?
I know a great many who think that the corn grows faster if he has
passed by their field in the morning."
"And what do you think yourself?"
"I, sir? When I have seen him," she seemed to hesitate, then she went
on, "I am happy all the rest of the day."
She bent her head over her work, and plied her needle with unwonted
"Well, has the captain been telling you something about Napoleon?"
said the doctor, as he came in again.
"Have you seen the Emperor, sir?" cried La Fosseuse, gazing at the
officer's face with eager curiosity.
"PARBLEU!" said Genestas, "hundreds of times!"
"Oh! how I should like to know something about the army!"
"Perhaps we will come to take a cup of coffee with you to-morrow, and
you shall hear 'something about the army,' dear child," said Benassis,
who laid his hand on her shoulder and kissed her brow. "She is my
daughter, you see!" he added, turning to the commandant; "there is
something wanting in the day, somehow, when I have not kissed her
La Fosseuse held Benassis' hand in a tight clasp as she murmured, "Oh!
you are very kind!"
They left the house; but she came after them to see them mount. She
waited till Genestas was in the saddle, and then whispered in
Benassis' ear, "Tell me who that gentleman is?"
"Aha!" said the doctor, putting a foot in the stirrup, "a husband for
She stood on the spot where they left her, absorbed in watching their
progress down the steep path; and when they came past the end of the
garden, they saw her already perched on a little heap of stones, so
that she might still keep them in view and give them a last nod of
"There is something very unusual about that girl, sir," Genestas said
to the doctor when they had left the house far behind.
"There is, is there not?" he answered. "Many a time I have said to
myself that she will make a charming wife, but I can only love her as
a sister or a daughter, and in no other way; my heart is dead."
"Has she any relations?" asked Genestas. "What did her father and
"Oh, it is quite a long story," answered Benassis. "Neither her father
nor mother nor any of her relations are living. Everything about her
down to her name interested me. La Fosseuse was born here in the town.
Her father, a laborer from Saint Laurent du Pont, was nicknamed Le
Fosseur, which is no doubt a contraction of fossoyeur, for the office
of sexton had been in his family time out of mind. All the sad
associations of the graveyard hang about the name. Here as in some
other parts of France, there is an old custom, dating from the times
of the Latin civilization, in virtue of which a woman takes her
husband's name, with the addition of a feminine termination, and this
girl has been called La Fosseuse, after her father.
"The laborer had married the waiting-woman of some countess or other
who owns an estate at a distance of a few leagues. It was a love-
match. Here, as in all country districts, love is a very small element
in a marriage. The peasant, as a rule, wants a wife who will bear him
children, a housewife who will make good soup and take it out to him
in the fields, who will spin and make his shirts and mend his clothes.
Such a thing had not happened for a long while in a district where a
young man not unfrequently leaves his betrothed for another girl who
is richer by three or four acres of land. The fate of Le Fosseur and
his wife was scarcely happy enough to induce our Dauphinois to forsake
their calculating habits and practical way of regarding things. La
Fosseuse, who was a very pretty woman, died when her daughter was
born, and her husband's grief for his loss was so great that he
followed her within the year, leaving nothing in the world to this
little one except an existence whose continuance was very doubtful--a
mere feeble flicker of a life. A charitable neighbor took the care of
the baby upon herself, and brought her up till she was nine years old.
Then the burden of supporting La Fosseuse became too heavy for the
good woman; so at the time of year when travelers are passing along
the roads, she sent her charge to beg for her living upon the
"One day the little orphan asked for bread at the countess' chateau,
and they kept the child for her mother's sake. She was to be
waiting-maid some day to the daughter of the house, and was brought up
to this end. Her young mistress was married five years later; but
meanwhile the poor little thing was the victim of all the caprices of
wealthy people, whose beneficence for the most part is not to be
depended upon even while it lasts. They are generous by fits and
starts--sometimes patrons, sometimes friends, sometimes masters, in
this way they falsify the already false position of the poor children
in whom they interest themselves, and trifle with the hearts, the
lives, and futures of their protegees, whom they regard very lightly.
From the first La Fosseuse became almost a companion to the young
heiress; she was taught to read and write, and her future mistress
sometimes amused herself by giving her music lessons. She was treated
sometimes as a lady's companion, sometimes as a waiting-maid, and in
this way they made an incomplete being of her. She acquired a taste
for luxury and for dress, together with manners ill-suited to her real
position. She has been roughly schooled by misfortune since then, but
the vague feeling that she is destined for a higher lot has not been
effaced in her.
"A day came at last, however, a fateful day for the poor girl, when
the young countess (who was married by this time) discovered La
Fosseuse arrayed in one of her ball dresses, and dancing before a
mirror. La Fosseuse was no longer anything but a waiting-maid, and the
orphan girl, then sixteen years of age, was dismissed without pity.
Her idle ways plunged her once more into poverty; she wandered about
begging by the roadside, and working at times as I have told you.
Sometimes she thought of drowning herself, sometimes also of giving
herself to the first comer; she spent most of her time thinking dark
thoughts, lying by the side of a wall in the sun, with her face buried
in the grass, and passers-by would sometimes throw a few halfpence to
her, simply because she asked them for nothing. One whole year she
spent in a hospital at Annecy after heavy toil in the harvest field;
she had only undertaken the work in the hope that it would kill her,
and that so she might die. You should hear her herself when she speaks
of her feelings and ideas during this time of her life; her simple
confidences are often very curious.
"She came back to the little town at last, just about the time when I
decided to take up my abode in it. I wanted to understand the minds of
the people beneath my rule; her character struck me, and I made a
study of it; then when I became aware of her physical infirmities, I
determined to watch over her. Perhaps in time she may grow accustomed
to work with her needle, but, whatever happens, I have secured her
"She is quite alone up there!" said Genestas.
"No. One of my herdswomen sleeps in the house," the doctor answered.
"You did not see my farm buildings which lie behind the house. They
are hidden by the pine-trees. Oh! she is quite safe. Moreover, there
are no mauvais sujets here in the valley; if any come among us by any
chance, I send them into the army, where they make excellent solders."
"Poor girl!" said Genestas.
"Oh! the folk round about do not pity her at all," said Benassis; "on
the other hand, they think her very lucky; but there is this
difference between her and the other women: God has given strength to
them and weakness to her, and they do not see that."
The moment that the two horsemen came out upon the road to Grenoble,
Benassis stopped with an air of satisfaction; a different view had
suddenly opened out before them; he foresaw its effect upon Genestas,
and wished to enjoy his surprise. As far as the eye could see, two
green walls sixty feet high rose above a road which was rounded like a
garden path. The trees had not been cut or trimmed, each one preserved
the magnificent palm-branch shape that makes the Lombard poplar one of
the grandest of trees; there they stood, a natural monument which a
man might well be proud of having reared. The shadow had already
reached one side of the road, transforming it into a vast wall of
black leaves, but the setting sun shone full upon the other side,
which stood out in contrast, for the young leaves at the tips of every
branch had been dyed a bright golden hue, and, as the breeze stirred
through the waving curtain, it gleamed in the light.
"You must be very happy here!" cried Genestas. "The sight of this must
be all pleasure to you."
"The love of Nature is the only love that does not deceive human
hopes. There is no disappointment here," said the doctor. "Those
poplars are ten years old; have you ever seen any that are better
grown than these of mine?"
"God is great!" said the soldier, coming to a stand in the middle of
the road, of which he saw neither beginning nor end.
"You do me good," cried Benassis. "It was a pleasure to hear you say
over again what I have so often said in the midst of this avenue.
There is something holy about this place. Here, we are like two mere
specks; and the feeling of our own littleness always brings us into
the presence of God."
They rode on slowly and in silence, listening to their horses' hoof-
beats; the sound echoed along the green corridor as it might have done
beneath the vaulted roof of a cathedral.
"How many things have a power to stir us which town-dwellers do not
suspect," said the doctor. "Do you not notice the sweet scent given
off by the gum of the poplar buds, and the resin of the larches? How
delightful it is!"
"Listen!" exclaimed Genestas. "Let us wait a moment."
A distant sound of singing came to their ears.
"Is it a woman or a man, or is it a bird?" asked the commandant in a
low voice. "Is it the voice of this wonderful landscape?"
"It is something of all these things," the doctor answered, as he
dismounted and fastened his horse to a branch of a poplar tree.
He made a sign to the officer to follow his example and to come with
him. They went slowly along a footpath between two hedges of
blossoming hawthorn which filled the damp evening air with its
delicate fragrance. The sun shone full into the pathway; the light and
warmth were very perceptible after the shade thrown by the long wall
of poplar trees; the still powerful rays poured a flood of red light
over a cottage at the end of the stony track. The ridge of the cottage
roof was usually a bright green with its overgrowth of mosses and
house-leeks, and the thatch was brown as a chestnut shell, but just
now it seemed to be powdered with a golden dust. The cottage itself
was scarcely visible through the haze of light; the ruinous wall, the
doorway and everything about it was radiant with a fleeting glory and
a beauty due to chance, such as is sometimes seen for an instant in a
human face, beneath the influence of a strong emotion that brings
warmth and color into it. In a life under the open sky and among the
fields, the transient and tender grace of such moments as these draws
from us the wish of the apostle who said to Jesus Christ upon the
mountain, "Let us build a tabernacle and dwell here."
The wide landscape seemed at that moment to have found a voice whose
purity, and sweetness equaled its own sweetness and purity, a voice as
mournful as the dying light in the west--for a vague reminder of Death
is divinely set in the heavens, and the sun above gives the same
warning that is given here on earth by the flowers and the bright
insects of the day. There is a tinge of sadness about the radiance of
sunset, and the melody was sad. It was a song widely known in the days
of yore, a ballad of love and sorrow that once had served to stir a
national hatred of France for England. Beaumarchais, in a later day,
had given it back its true poetry by adapting it for the French
theatre and putting it into the mouth of a page, who pours out his
heart to his stepmother. Just now it was simply the air that rose and
fell. There were no words; the plaintive voice of the singer touched
and thrilled the soul.
"It is the swan's song," said Benassis. "That voice does not sound
twice in a century for human ears. Let us hurry; we must put a stop to
the singing! The child is killing himself; it would be cruel to listen
to him any longer. Be quiet, Jacques! Come, come, be quiet!" cried the
The music ceased. Genestas stood motionless and overcome with
astonishment. A cloud had drifted across the sun, the landscape and
the voice were both mute. Shadow, chillness, and silence had taken the
place of the soft glory of the light, the warm breath of the breeze,
and the child's singing.
"What makes you disobey me?" asked Benassis. "I shall not bring you
any more rice pudding nor snail broth! No more fresh dates and white
bread for you! So you want to die and break your poor mother's heart,
Genestas came into a little yard, which was sufficiently clean and
tidily kept, and saw before him a lad of fifteen, who looked as
delicate as a woman. His hair was fair but scanty, and the color in
his face was so bright that it seemed hardly natural. He rose up
slowly from the bench where he was sitting, beneath a thick bush of
jessamine and some blossoming lilacs that were running riot, so that
he was almost hidden among the leaves.
"You know very well," said the doctor, "that I told you not to talk,
not to expose yourself to the chilly evening air, and to go to bed as
soon as the sun was set. What put it into your head to sing?"
"DAME! M. Benassis, it was so very warm out here, and it is so nice to
feel warm! I am always cold. I felt so happy that without thinking I
began to try over Malbrouk s'en va-t-en guerre, just for fun, and then
I began to listen to myself because my voice was something like the
sound of the flute your shepherd plays."
"Well, my poor Jacques, this must not happen again; do you hear? Let
me have your hand," and the doctor felt his pulse.
The boy's eyes had their usual sweet expression, but just now they
shone with a feverish light.
"It is just as I thought, you are covered with perspiration," said
Benassis. "Your mother has not come in yet?"
"Come! go in-doors and get into bed."
The young invalid went back into the cottage, followed by Benassis and
"Just light a candle, Captain Bluteau," said the doctor, who was
helping Jacques to take off his rough, tattered clothing.
When Genestas had struck a light, and the interior of the room was
visible, he was surprised by the extreme thinness of the child, who
seemed to be little more than skin and bone. When the little peasant
had been put to bed, Benassis tapped the lad's chest, and listened to
the ominous sounds made in this way by his fingers; then, after some
deliberation, he drew back the coverlet over Jacques, stepped back a
few paces, folded his arms across his chest, and closely scrutinized
"How do you feel, my little man?"
"Quite comfortable, sir."
A table, with four spindle legs, stood in the room; the doctor drew it
up to the bed, found a tumbler and a phial on the mantel-shelf, and
composed a draught, by carefully measuring a few drops of brown liquid
from the phial into some water, Genestas holding the light the while.
"Your mother is very late."
"She is coming, sir," said the child; "I can hear her footsteps on the
The doctor and the officer looked around them while they waited. At
the foot of the bed there was a sort of mattress made of moss, on
which, doubtless, the mother was wont to sleep in her clothes, for
there were neither sheets nor coverlet. Genestas pointed out this bed
to Benassis, who nodded slightly to show that he likewise had already
admired this motherly devotion. There was a clatter of sabots in the
yard, and the doctor went out.
"You will have to sit up with Jacques to-night, Mother Colas. If he
tells you that his breathing is bad, you must let him drink some of
the draught that I have poured into the tumbler on the table. Take
care not to let him have more than two or three sips at a time; there
ought to be enough in the tumbler to last him all through the night.
Above all things, do not touch the phial, and change the child's
clothing at once. He is perspiring heavily."
"I could not manage to wash his shirts to-day, sir; I had to take the
hemp over to Grenoble, as we wanted the money."
"Very well, then, I will send you some shirts."
"Then is he worse, my poor lad?" asked the woman.
"He has been so imprudent as to sing, Mother Colas; and it is not to
be expected that any good can come of it; but do not be hard upon him,
nor scold him. Do not be down-hearted about it; and if Jacques
complains overmuch, send a neighbor to fetch me. Good-bye."
The doctor called to his friend, and they went back along the foot-
"Is that little peasant consumptive?" asked Genestas.
"Mon Dieu! yes," answered Benassis. "Science cannot save him, unless
Nature works a miracle. Our professors at the Ecole de Medecine in
Paris often used to speak to us of the phenomenon which you have just
witnessed. Some maladies of this kind bring about changes in the
voice-producing organs that give the sufferer a short-lived power of
song that no trained voice can surpass. I have made you spend a
melancholy day, sir," said the doctor when he was once more in the
saddle. "Suffering and death everywhere, but everywhere also
resignation. All these peasant folk take death philosophically; they
fall ill, say nothing about it, and take to their beds like dumb
animals. But let us say no more about death, and let us quicken our
horses' paces a little; we ought to reach the town before nightfall,
so that you may see the new quarter."
"Eh! some place is on fire over there," said Genestas, pointing to a
spot on the mountain, where a sheaf of flames was rising.
"It is not a dangerous fire. Our lime-burner is heating his kiln, no
doubt. It is a newly-started industry, which turns our heather to
There was the sudden report of a gun, followed by an involuntary
exclamation from Benassis, who said, with an impatient gesture, "If
that is Butifer, we shall see which of us two is the stronger."
"The shot came from that quarter," said Genestas, indicating a beech-
wood up above them on the mountain side. "Yes, up there; you may trust
an old soldier's ear."
"Let us go there at once!" cried Benassis, and he made straight for
the little wood, urging his horse at a furious speed across the
ditches and fields, as if he were riding a steeplechase, in his
anxiety to catch the sportsman red-handed.
"The man you are after has made off," shouted Genestas, who could
scarcely keep up with him.
Benassis wheeled his horse round sharply, and came back again. The man
of whom he was in search soon appeared on the top of a perpendicular
crag, a hundred feet above the level of the two horsemen.
"Butifer!" shouted Benassis when he saw that this figure carried a
fowling-piece; "come down!"
Butifer recognized the doctor, and replied by a respectful and
friendly sign which showed that he had every intention of obeying.
"I can imagine that if a man were driven to it by fear or by some
overmastering impulse that he might possibly contrive to scramble up
to that point among the rocks," said Genestas; "but how will he manage
to come down again?"
"I have no anxiety on that score," answered Benassis; "the wild goats
must feel envious of that fellow yonder! You will see."
The emergencies of warfare had accustomed the commandant to gauge the
real worth of men; he admired the wonderful quickness of Butifer's
movements, the sure-footed grace with which the hunter swung himself
down the rugged sides of the crag, to the top of which he had so
boldly climbed. The strong, slender form of the mountaineer was
gracefully poised in every attitude which the precipitous nature of
the path compelled him to assume; and so certain did he seem of his
power to hold on at need, that if the pinnacle of rock on which he
took his stand had been a level floor, he could not have set his foot
down upon it more calmly. He carried his fowling-piece as if it had
been a light walking-cane. Butifer was a young man of middle height,
thin, muscular, and in good training; his beauty was of a masculine
order, which impressed Genestas on a closer view.
Evidently he belonged to the class of smugglers who ply their trade
without resorting to violent courses, and who only exert patience and
craft to defraud the government. His face was manly and sunburned. His
eyes, which were bright as an eagle's, were of a clear yellow color,
and his sharply-cut nose with its slight curve at the tip was very
much like an eagle's beak. His cheeks were covered with down, his red
lips were half open, giving a glimpse of a set of teeth of dazzling
whiteness. His beard, moustache, and the reddish whiskers, which he
allowed to grow, and which curled naturally, still further heightened
the masculine and forbidding expression of his face. Everything about
him spoke of strength. He was broad-chested; constant activity had
made the muscles of his hands curiously firm and prominent. There was
the quick intelligence of a savage about his glances; he looked
resolute, fearless, and imperturbable, like a man accustomed to put
his life in peril, and whose physical and mental strength had been so
often tried by dangers of every kind, that he no longer felt any
doubts about himself. He wore a blouse that had suffered a good deal
from thorns and briars, and he had a pair of leather soles bound to
his feet by eel-skin thongs, and a pair of torn and tattered blue
linen breeches through which his legs were visible, red, wiry, hard,
and muscular as those of a stag.
"There you see the man who once fired a shot at me," Benassis remarked
to the commandant in a low voice. "If at this moment I were to signify
to him my desire to be rid of any one, he would kill them without
scruple.--Butifer!" he went on, addressing the poacher, "I fully
believed you to be a man of your word; I pledged mine for you because
I had your promise. My promise to the procureur du roi at Grenoble was
based upon your vow never to go poaching again, and to turn over a new
leaf and become a steady, industrious worker. You fired that shot just
now, and here you are, on the Comte de Labranchoir's estate! Eh! you
miscreant? Suppose his keeper had happened to hear you? It is a lucky
thing for you that I shall take no formal cognizance of this offence;
if I did, you would come up as an old offender, and of course you have
no gun license! I let you keep that gun of yours out of tenderness for
your attachment to the weapon."
"It is a beauty," said the commandant, who recognized a duck gun from
The smuggler raised his head and looked at Genestas by way of
acknowledging the compliment.
"Butifer," continued Benassis, "if your conscience does not reproach
you, it ought to do so. If you are going to begin your old tricks
again, you will find yourself once more in a park enclosed by four
stone walls, and no power on earth will save you from the hulks; you
will be a marked man, and your character will be ruined. Bring your
gun to me to-night, I will take care of it for you."
Butifer gripped the barrel of his weapon in a convulsive clutch.
"You are right, sir," he said; "I have done wrong, I have broken
bounds, I am a cur. My gun ought to go to you, but when you take it
away from me, you take all that I have in the world. The last shot
which my mother's son will fire shall be through my own head. . . .
What would you have? I did as you wanted me. I kept quiet all winter;
but the spring came, and the sap rose. I am not used to day labor. It
is not in my nature to spend my life in fattening fowls; I cannot
stoop about turning over the soil for vegetables, nor flourish a whip
and drive a cart, nor scrub down a horse in a stable all my life, so I
must die of starvation, I suppose? I am only happy when I am up
there," he went on after a pause, pointing to the mountains. "And I
have been about among the hills for the past week; I got a sight of a
chamois, and I have the chamois there," he said, pointing to the top
of the crag; "it is at your service! Dear M. Benassis, leave me my
gun. Listen! I will leave the Commune, foi de Butifer! I will go to
the Alps; the chamois-hunters will not say a word; on the contrary,
they will receive me with open arms. I shall come to grief at the
bottom of some glacier; but, if I am to speak my mind, I would rather
live for a couple of years among the heights, where there are no
governments, nor excisemen, nor gamekeepers, nor procureurs du roi,
than grovel in a marsh for a century. You are the only one that I
shall be sorry to leave behind; all the rest of them bore me! When you
are in the right, at any rate you don't worry one's life out----"
"And how about Louise?" asked Benassis. Butifer paused and turned
"Eh! learn to read and write, my lad," said Genestas; "come and enlist
in my regiment, have a horse to ride, and turn carabineer. If they
once sound 'to horse' for something like a war, you will find out that
Providence made you to live in the midst of cannon, bullets, and
battalions, and they will make a general of you."
"Ye-es, if Napoleon was back again," answered Butifer.
"You know our agreement," said the doctor. "At the second infraction
of it, you undertook to go for a soldier. I give you six months in
which to learn to read and write, and then I will find some young
gentleman who wants a substitute."
Butifer looked at the mountains.
"Oh! you shall not go to the Alps," cried Benassis. "A man like you, a
man of his word, with plenty of good stuff in him, ought to serve his
country and command a brigade, and not come to his end trailing after
a chamois. The life that you are leading will take you straight to the
convict's prison. After over-fatiguing yourself, you are obliged to
take a long rest; and, in the end, you will fall into idle ways that
will be the ruin of any notions of orderly existence that you have;
you will get into the habit of putting your strength to bad uses, and
you will take the law into your own hands. I want to put you, in spite
of yourself, into the right path."
"So I am to pine and fret myself to death? I feel suffocated whenever
I am in a town. I cannot hold out for more than a day, in Grenoble,
when I take Louise there----"
"We all have our whims, which we must manage to control, or turn them
to account for our neighbor's benefit. But it is late, and I am in a
hurry. Come to see me to-morrow, and bring your gun along with you. We
will talk this over, my boy. Good-bye. Go and sell your chamois in
The two horsemen went on their way.
"That is what I call a man," said Genestas.
"A man in a bad way," answered Benassis. "But what help is there for
it? You heard what he said. Is it not lamentable to see such fine
qualities running to waste? If France were invaded by a foreign foe,
Butifer at the head of a hundred young fellows would keep a whole
division busy in Maurienne for a month; but in a time of peace the
only outlets for his energy are those which set the law at defiance.
He must wrestle with something; whenever he is not risking his neck he
is at odds with society, he lends a helping hand to smugglers. The
rogue will cross the Rhone, all by himself, in a little boat, to take
shoes over into Savoy; he makes good his retreat, heavy laden as he
is, to some inaccessible place high up among the hills, where he stays
for two days at a time, living on dry crusts. In short, danger is as
welcome to him as sleep would be to anybody else, and by dint of
experience he has acquired a relish for extreme sensations that has
totally unfitted him for ordinary life. It vexes me that a man like
that should take a wrong turn and gradually go to the bad, become a
bandit, and die on the gallows. But, see, captain, how our village
looks from here!"
Genestas obtained a distant view of a wide circular space, planted
with trees, a fountain surrounded by poplars stood in the middle of
it. Round the enclosure were high banks on which a triple line of
trees of different kinds were growing; the first row consisted of
acacias, the second of Japanese varnish trees, and some young elms
grew on the highest row of all.
"That is where we hold our fair," said Benassis. "That is the
beginning of the High Street, by those two handsome houses that I told
you about; one belongs to the notary, and the other to the justice of
They came at that moment into a broad road, fairly evenly paved with
large cobble-stones. There were altogether about a hundred new houses
on either side of it, and almost every house stood in a garden.
The view of the church with its doorway made a pretty termination to
this road. Two more roads had been recently planned out half-way down
the course of the first, and many new houses had already been built
along them. The town-hall stood opposite the parsonage, in the square
by the church. As Benassis went down the road, women and children
stood in their doorways to wish him good-evening, the men took off
their caps, and the little children danced and shouted about his
horse, as if the animal's good-nature were as well known as the
kindness of its master. The gladness was undemonstrative; there was
the instinctive delicacy of all deep feeling about it, and it had the
same pervasive power. At the sight of this welcome it seemed to
Genestas that the doctor had been too modest in his description of the
affection with which he was regarded by the people of the district.
His truly was a sovereignty of the sweetest kind; a right royal
sovereignty moreover, for its title was engraven in the hearts of its
subjects. However dazzling the rays of glory that surround a man,
however great the power that he enjoys, in his inmost soul he soon
comes to a just estimate of the sentiments that all external action
causes for him. He very soon sees that no change has been wrought in
him, that there is nothing new and nothing greater in the exercise of
his physical faculties, and discovers his own real nothingness. Kings,
even should they rule over the whole world, are condemned to live in a
narrow circle like other men. They must even submit to the conditions
of their lot, and their happiness depends upon the personal
impressions that they receive. But Benassis met with nothing but
goodwill and loyalty throughout the district.
THE NAPOLEON OF THE PEOPLE
"Pray, come in, sir!" cried Jacquotte. "A pretty time the gentlemen
have been waiting for you! It is always the way! You always manage to
spoil the dinner for me whenever it ought to be particularly good.
Everything is cooked to death by this time----"
"Oh! well, here we are," answered Benassis with a smile.
The two horsemen dismounted, and went off to the salon, where the
guests invited by the doctor were assembled.
"Gentlemen," he said taking Genestas by the hand, "I have the honor of
introducing you to M. Bluteau, captain of a regiment of cavalry
stationed at Grenoble--an old soldier, who has promised me that he
will stay among us for a little while."
Then, turning to Genestas, he presented to him a tall, thin, gray-
haired man, dressed in black.
"This gentleman," said Benassis, "is M. Dufau, the justice of the
peace of whom I have already spoken to you, and who has so largely
contributed to the prosperity of the Commune." Then he led his guest
up to a pale, slight young man of middle height, who wore spectacles,
and was also dressed in black. "And this is M. Tonnelet," he went on,
"M. Gravier's son-in-law, and the first notary who came to the
The doctor next turned to a stout man, who seemed to belong half to
the peasant, half to the middle class, the owner of a rough-pimpled
but good-humored countenance.
"This is my worthy colleague M. Cambon," he went on, the timber-
merchant, to whom I owe the confidence and good-will of the people
here. He was one of the promoters of the road which you have admired.
I have no need to tell you the profession of this gentleman," Benassis
added, turning to the curate. "Here is a man whom no one can help
There was an irresistible attraction in the moral beauty expressed by
the cure's countenance, which engrossed Genestas' attention. Yet a
certain harshness and austerity of outline might make M. Janvier's
face seem unpleasing at a first glance. His attitude, and his slight,
emaciated frame, showed that he was far from strong physically, but
the unchanging serenity of his face bore witness to the profound
inward peace of heart. Heaven seemed to be reflected in his eyes, and
the inextinguishable fervor of charity which glowed in his heart
appeared to shine from them. The gestures that he made but rarely were
simple and natural, his appeared to be a quiet and retiring nature,
and there was a modesty and simplicity like that of a young girl about
his actions. At first sight he inspired respect and a vague desire to
be admitted to his friendship.
"Ah! M. le Maire," he said, bending as though to escape from Benassis'
Something in the cure's tones brought a thrill to Genestas' heart, and
the two insignificant words uttered by this stranger priest plunged
him into musings that were almost devout.
"Gentlemen," said Jacquotte, who came into the middle of the room, and
there took her stand, with her hands on her hips, "the soup is on the
Invited by Benassis, who summoned each in turn so as to avoid
questions of precedence, the doctor's five guests went into the
dining-room; and after the cure, in low and quiet tones, had repeated
a Benedicite, they took their places at table. The cloth that covered
the table was of that peculiar kind of damask linen invented in the
time of Henry IV. by the brothers Graindorge, the skilful weavers, who
gave their name to the heavy fabric so well known to housekeepers. The
linen was of dazzling whiteness, and fragrant with the scent of the
thyme that Jacquotte always put into her wash-tubs. The dinner service
was of white porcelain, edged with blue, and was in perfect order. The
decanters were of the old-fashioned octagonal kind still in use in the
provinces, though they have disappeared elsewhere. Grotesque figures
had been carved on the horn handles of the knives. These relics of
ancient splendor, which, nevertheless, looked almost new, seemed to
those who scrutinized them to be in keeping with the kindly and open-
hearted nature of the master of the house.
The lid of the soup-tureen drew a momentary glance from Genestas; he
noticed that it was surmounted by a group of vegetables in high
relief, skilfully colored after the manner of Bernard Palissy, the
celebrated sixteenth century craftsman.
There was no lack of character about the group of men thus assembled.
The powerful heads of Genestas and Benassis contrasted admirably with
M. Janvier's apostolic countenance; and in the same fashion the
elderly faces of the justice of the peace and the deputy-mayor brought
out the youthfulness of the notary. Society seemed to be represented
by these various types. The expression of each one indicated
contentment with himself and with the present, and a faith in the
future. M. Tonnelet and M. Janvier, who were still young, loved to
make forecasts of coming events, for they felt that the future was
theirs; while the other guests were fain rather to turn their talk
upon the past. All of them faced the things of life seriously, and
their opinions seemed to reflect a double tinge of soberness, on the
one hand, from the twilight hues of well-nigh forgotten joys that
could never more be revived for them; and, on the other, from the gray
dawn which gave promise of a glorious day.
"You must have had a very tiring day, sir?" said M. Cambon, addressing
"Yes, sir," answered M. Janvier, "the poor cretin and Pere Pelletier
were buried at different hours."
"Now we can pull down all the hovels of the old village," Benassis
remarked to his deputy. "When the space on which the houses stand has
been grubbed up, it will mean at least another acre of meadow land for
us; and furthermore, there will be a clear saving to the Commune of
the hundred francs that it used to cost to keep Chautard the cretin."
"For the next three years we ought to lay out the hundred francs in
making a single-span bridge to carry the lower road over the main
stream," said M. Cambon. "The townsfolk and the people down the valley
have fallen into the way of taking a short cut across that patch of
land of Jean Francois Pastoureau's; before they have done they will
cut it up in a way that will do a lot of harm to that poor fellow."
"I am sure that the money could not be put to a better use," said the
justice of peace. "In my opinion the abuse of the right of way is one
of the worst nuisances in a country district. One-tenth of the cases
that come before the court are caused by unfair easement. The rights
of property are infringed in this way almost with impunity in many and
many a commune. A respect for the law and a respect for property are
ideas too often disregarded in France, and it is most important that
they should be inculcated. Many people think that there is something
dishonorable in assisting the law to take its course. 'Go and be
hanged somewhere else,' is a saying which seems to be dictated by an
unpraiseworthy generosity of feeling; but at the bottom it is nothing
but a hypocritical formula--a sort of veil which we throw over our own
selfishness. Let us own to it, we lack patriotism! The true patriot is
the citizen who is so deeply impressed with a sense of the importance
of the laws that he will see them carried out even at his own cost and
inconvenience. If you let the criminal go in peace, are you not making
yourself answerable for the crimes he will commit?"
"It is all of a piece," said Benassis. "If the mayors kept their roads
in better order, there would not be so many footpaths. And if the
members of Municipal Councils knew a little better, they would uphold
the small landowner and the mayor when the two combine to oppose the
establishment of unfair easements. The fact that chateau, cottage,
field, and tree are all equally sacred would then be brought home in
every way to the ignorant; they would be made to understand that Right
is just the same in all cases, whether the value of the property in
question be large or small. But such salutary changes cannot be
brought about all at once. They depend almost entirely on the moral
condition of the population, which we can never completely reform
without the potent aid of the cures. This remark does not apply to you
in any way, M. Janvier."
"Nor do I take it to myself," laughed the cure. "Is not my heart set
on bringing the teaching of the Catholic religion to co-operate with
your plans of administration? For instance, I have often tried, in my
pulpit discourses on theft, to imbue the folk of this parish with the
very ideas of Right to which you have just given utterance. For truly,
God does not estimate theft by the value of the thing stolen, He looks
at the thief. That has been the gist of the parables which I have
tried to adapt to the comprehension of my parishioners."
"You have succeeded, sir," said Cambon. "I know the change you have
brought about in people's ways of looking at things, for I can compare
the Commune as it is now with the Commune as it used to be. There are
certainly very few places where the laborers are as careful as ours
are about keeping the time in their working hours. The cattle are well
looked after; any damage that they do is done by accident. There is no
pilfering in the woods, and finally you have made our peasants clearly
understand that the leisure of the rich is the reward of a thrifty and
"Well, then," said Genestas, "you ought to be pretty well pleased with
your infantry, M. le Cure."
"We cannot expect to find angels anywhere here below, captain,"
answered the priest. "Wherever there is poverty, there is suffering
too; and suffering and poverty are strong compelling forces which have
their abuses, just as power has. When the peasants have a couple of
leagues to walk to their work, and have to tramp back wearily in the
evening, they perhaps see sportsmen taking short cuts over ploughed
land and pasture so as to be back to dinner a little sooner, and is it
to be supposed that they will hesitate to follow the example? And of
those who in this way beat out a footpath such as these gentlemen have
just been complaining about, which are the real offenders, the workers
or the people who are simply amusing themselves? Both the rich and the
poor give us a great deal of trouble these days. Faith, like power,
ought always to descend from the heights above us, in heaven or on
earth; and certainly in our times the upper classes have less faith in
them than the mass of the people, who have God's promise of heaven
hereafter as a reward for evils patiently endured. With due submission
to ecclesiastical discipline, and deference to the views of my
superiors, I think that for some time to come we should be less
exacting as to questions of doctrine, and rather endeavor to revive
the sentiment of religion in the hearts of the intermediary classes,
who debate over the maxims of Christianity instead of putting them in
practice. The philosophism of the rich has set a fatal example to the
poor, and has brought about intervals of too long duration when men
have faltered in their allegiance to God. Such ascendency as we have
over our flocks to-day depends entirely on our personal influence with
them; is it not deplorable that the existence of religious belief in a
commune should be dependent on the esteem in which a single man is
held? When the preservative force of Christianity permeating all
classes of society shall have put life into the new order of things,
there will be an end of sterile disputes about doctrine. The cult of a
religion is its form; societies only exist by forms. You have your
standard, we have the cross----"
"I should very much like to know, sir," said Genestas, breaking in
upon M. Janvier, "why you forbid these poor folk to dance on Sunday?"
"We do not quarrel with dancing in itself, captain; it is forbidden
because it leads to immorality, which troubles the peace of the
countryside and corrupts its manners. Does not the attempt to purify
the spirit of the family and to maintain the sanctity of family ties
strike at the root of the evil?"
"Some irregularities are always to be found in every district, I
know," said M. Tonnelet, "but they very seldom occur among us. Perhaps
there are peasants who remove their neighbor's landmark without much
scruple; or they may cut a few osiers that belong to some one else, if
they happen to want some; but these are mere peccadilloes compared
with the wrongdoing that goes on among a town population. Moreover,
the people in this valley seem to me to be devoutly religious."
"Devout?" queried the cure with a smile; "there is no fear of
"But," objected Cambon, "if the people all went to mass every morning,
sir, and to confession every week, how would the fields be cultivated?
And three priests would hardly be enough."
"Work is prayer," said the cure. "Doing one's duty brings a knowledge
of the religious principles which are a vital necessity to society."
"How about patriotism?" asked Genestas.
"Patriotism can only inspire a short-lived enthusiasm," the curate
answered gravely; "religion gives it permanence. Patriotism consists
in a brief impulse of forgetfulness of self and self-interest, while
Christianity is a complete system of opposition to the depraved
tendencies of mankind."
"And yet, during the wars undertaken by the Revolution,
"Yes, we worked wonders at the time of the Revolution," said Benassis,
interrupting Genestas; "but only twenty years later, in 1814, our
patriotism was extinct; while, in former times, a religious impulse
moved France and Europe to fling themselves upon Asia a dozen times in
the course of a century."
"Maybe it is easier for two nations to come to terms when the strife
has arisen out of some question of material interests," said the
justice of the peace; "while wars undertaken with the idea of
supporting dogmas are bound to be interminable, because the object can
never be clearly defined."
"Well, sir, you are not helping any one to fish!" put in Jacquotte,
who had removed the soup with Nicolle's assistance. Faithful to her
custom, Jacquotte herself always brought in every dish one after
another, a plan which had its drawbacks, for it compelled gluttonous
folk to over-eat themselves, and the more abstemious, having satisfied
their hunger at an early stage, were obliged to leave the best part of
the dinner untouched.
"Gentlemen," said the cure, with a glance at the justice of the peace,
"how can you allege that religious wars have had no definite aim?
Religion in olden times was such a powerful binding force, that
material interests and religious questions were inseparable. Every
soldier, therefore, knew quite well what he was fighting for."
"If there has been so much fighting about religion," said Genestas,
"God must have built up the system very perfunctorily. Should not a
divine institution impress men at once by the truth that is in it?"
All the guests looked at the cure.
"Gentlemen," said M. Janvier, "religion is something that is felt and
that cannot be defined. We cannot know the purpose of the Almighty; we
are no judges of the means He employs."
"Then, according to you, we are to believe in all your rigmaroles,"
said Genestas, with the easy good-humor of a soldier who has never
given a thought to these things.
"The Catholic religion, better than any other, resolves men's doubts
and fears; but even were it otherwise, I might ask you if you run any
risks by believing in its truths."
"None worth speaking of," answered Genestas.
"Good! and what risks do you not run by not believing? But let us talk
of the worldly aspect of the matter, which most appeals to you. The
finger of God is visible in human affairs; see how He directs them by
the hand of His vicar on earth. How much men have lost by leaving the
path traced out for them by Christianity! So few think of reading
Church history, that erroneous notions deliberately sown among the
people lead them to condemn the Church; yet the Church has been a
pattern of perfect government such as men seek to establish to-day.
The principle of election made it for a long while the great political
power. Except the Catholic Church, there was no single religious
institution which was founded upon liberty and equality. Everything
was ordered to this end. The father-superior, the abbot, the bishop,
the general of an order, and the pope were then chosen conscientiously
for their fitness for the requirements of the Church. They were the
expression of its intelligence, of the thinking power of the Church,
and blind obedience was therefore their due. I will say nothing of the
ways in which society has benefited by that power which has created
modern nations and has inspired so many poems, so much music, so many
cathedrals, statues, and pictures. I will simply call your attention
to the fact that your modern systems of popular election, of two
chambers, and of juries all had their origin in provincial and
oecumenical councils, and in the episcopate and college of cardinals;
but there is this difference,--the views of civilization held by our
present-day philosophy seem to me to fade away before the sublime and
divine conception of Catholic communion, the type of a universal
social communion brought about by the word and the fact that are
combined in religious dogma. It would be very difficult for any modern
political system, however perfect people may think it, to work once
more such miracles as were wrought in those ages when the Church as
the stay and support of the human intellect."
"Why?" asked Genestas.
"Because, in the first place, if the principle of election is to be
the basis of a system, absolute equality among the electors is a first
requirement; they ought to be 'equal quantities,' things which modern
politics will never bring about. Then, great social changes can only
be effected by means of some common sentiment so powerful that it
brings men into concerted action, while latter-day philosophism has
discovered that law is based upon personal interest, which keeps men
apart. Men full of the generous spirit that watches with tender care
over the trampled rights of the suffering poor, were more often found
among the nations of past ages than in our generation. The priesthood,
also, which sprang from the middle classes, resisted material forces
and stood between the people and their enemies. But the territorial
possessions of the Church and her temporal power, which seemingly made
her position yet stronger, ended by crippling and weakening her
action. As a matter of fact, if the priest has possessions and
privileges, he at once appears in the light of an oppressor. He is
paid by the State, therefore he is an official: if he gives his time,
his life, his whole heart, this is a matter of course, and nothing
more than he ought to do; the citizens expect and demand his devotion;
and the spontaneous kindliness of his nature is dried up. But, let the
priest be vowed to poverty, let him turn to his calling of his own
free will, let him stay himself on God alone, and have no resource on
earth but the hearts of the faithful, and he becomes once more the
missionary of America, he takes the rank of an apostle, he has all
things under his feet. Indeed, the burden of wealth drags him down,
and it is only by renouncing everything that he gains dominion over
all men's hearts."
M. Janvier had compelled the attention of every one present. No one
spoke; for all the guests were thoughtful. It was something new to
hear such words as these in the mouth of a simple cure.
"There is one serious error, M. Janvier, among the truths to which you
have given expression," said Benassis. "As you know, I do not like to
raise discussions on points of general interest which modern
authorities and modern writers have called in question. In my opinion,
a man who has thought out a political system, and who is conscious
that he has within him the power of applying it in practical politics,
should keep his mind to himself, seize his opportunity and act; but if
he dwells in peaceful obscurity as a simple citizen, is it not sheer
lunacy to think to bring the great mass over to his opinion by means
of individual discussions? For all that, I am about to argue with you,
my dear pastor, for I am speaking before sensible men, each of whom is
accustomed always to bring his individual light to a common search for
the truth. My ideas may seem strange to you, but they are the outcome
of much thought caused by the calamities of the last forty years.
Universal suffrage, which finds such favor in the sight of those
persons who belong to the constitutional opposition, as it is called,
was a capital institution in the Church, because (as you yourself have
just pointed out, dear pastor) the individuals of whom the Church was
composed were all well educated, disciplined by religious feeling,
thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the same system, well aware of
what they wanted and whither they were going. But modern Liberalism
rashly made war upon the prosperous government of the Bourbons, by
means of ideas which, should they triumph, would be the ruin of France
and of the Liberals themselves. This is well known to the leaders of
the Left, who are merely endeavoring to get the power into their own
hands. If (which Heaven forbid) the middle classes ranged under the
banner of the opposition should succeed in overthrowing those social
superiorities which are so repugnant to their vanity, another struggle
would follow hard upon their victory. It would not be very long before
the middle classes in their turn would be looked upon by the people as
a sort of noblesse; they would be a sorry kind of noblesse, it is
true, but their wealth and privileges would seem so much the more
hateful in the eyes of the people because they would have a closer
vision of these things. I do not say that the nation would come to
grief in the struggle, but society would perish anew; for the day of
triumph of a suffering people is always brief, and involves disorders
of the worst kind. There would be no truce in a desperate strife
arising out of an inherent or acquired difference of opinion among the
electors. The less enlightened and more numerous portion would sweep
away social inequalities, thanks to a system in which votes are
reckoned by count and not by weight. Hence it follows that a
government is never more strongly organized, and as a consequence is
never more perfect than when it has been established for the
protection of Privilege of the most restricted kind. By Privilege I do
not at this moment mean the old abuses by which certain rights were
conceded to a few, to the prejudice of the many; no, I am using it to
express the social circle of the governing class. But throughout
creation Nature has confined the vital principle within a narrow
space, in order to concentrate its power; and so it is with the body
politic. I will illustrate this thought of mine by examples. Let us
suppose that there are a hundred peers in France, there are only one
hundred causes of offence. Abolish the peerage, and all the wealthy
people will constitute the privileged class; instead of a hundred, you
will have ten thousand, instead of removing class distinctions, you
have merely widened the mischief. In fact, from the people's point of
view, the right to live without working is in itself a privilege. The
unproductive consumer is a robber in their eyes. The only work that
they understand has palpable results; they set no value on
intellectual labor--the kind of labor which is the principal source of
wealth to them. So by multiplying causes of offence in this way, you
extend the field of battle; the social war would be waged on all
points instead of being confined within a limited circle; and when
attack and resistance become general, the ruin of a country is
imminent. Because the rich will always be fewer in number, the victory
will be to the poor as soon as it comes to actual fighting. I will
throw the burden of proof on history.
"The institution of Senatorial Privilege enabled the Roman Republic to
conquer the world. The Senate preserved the tradition of authority.
But when the equites and the novi homines had extended the governing
classes by adding to the numbers of the Patricians, the State came to
ruin. In spite of Sylla, and after the time of Julius Caesar, Tiberius
raised it into the Roman Empire; the system was embodied in one man,
and all authority was centered in him, a measure which prolonged the
magnificent sway of the Roman for several centuries. The Emperor had
ceased to dwell in Rome when the Eternal City fell into the hands of
barbarians. When the conqueror invaded our country, the Franks who
divided the land among themselves invented feudal privilege as a
safeguard for property. The hundred or the thousand chiefs who owned
the country, established their institutions with a view to defending
the rights gained by conquest. The duration of the feudal system was
co-existent with the restriction of Privilege. But when the leudes (an
exact translation of the word GENTLEMEN) from five hundred became
fifty thousand, there came a revolution. The governing power was too
widely diffused; it lacked force and concentration; and they had not
reckoned with the two powers, Money and Thought, that had set those
free who had been beneath their rule. So the victory over the
monarchical system, obtained by the middle classes with a view to
extending the number of the privileged class, will produce its natural
effect--the people will triumph in turn over the middle classes. If
this trouble comes to pass, the indiscriminate right of suffrage
bestowed upon the masses will be a dangerous weapon in their hands.
The man who votes, criticises. An authority that is called in question
is no longer an authority. Can you imagine a society without a
governing authority? No, you cannot. Therefore, authority means force,
and a basis of just judgement should underlie force. Such are the
reasons which have led me to think that the principle of popular
election is a most fatal one for modern governments. I think that my
attachment to the poor and suffering classes has been sufficiently
proved, and that no one will accuse me of bearing any ill-will towards
them, but though I admire the sublime patience and resignation with
which they tread the path of toil, I must pronounce them to be unfit
to take part in the government. The proletariat seem to me to be the
minors of a nation, and ought to remain in a condition of tutelage.
Therefore, gentlemen, the word ELECTION, to my thinking, is in a fair
way to cause as much mischief as the words CONSCIENCE and LIBERTY,
which ill-defined and ill-understood, were flung broadcast among the
people, to serve as watchwords of revolt and incitements to
destruction. It seems to me to be a right and necessary thing that the
masses should be kept in tutelage for the good of society."
"This system of yours runs so clean contrary to everybody's notions
nowadays, that we have some right to ask your reasons for it," said
Genestas, interrupting the doctor.
"By all means, captain."
"What is this the master is saying?" cried Jacquotte, as she went back
to her kitchen. "There he is, the poor dear man, and what is he doing
but advising them to crush the people! And they are listening to
"I would never have believed it of M. Benassis," answered Nicolle.
"If I require that the ignorant masses should be governed by a strong
hand," the doctor resumed, after a brief pause, "I should desire at
the same time that the framework of the social system should be
sufficiently yielding and elastic to allow those who have the will and
are conscious of their ability to emerge from the crowd, to rise and
take their place among the privileged classes. The aim of power of
every kind is its own preservation. In order to live, a government,
to-day as in the past, must press the strong men of the nation into
its service, taking them from every quarter, so as to make them its
defenders, and to remove from among the people the men of energy who
incite the masses to insurrection. By opening out in this way to the
public ambition paths that are at once difficult and easy, easy for
strong wills, difficult for weak or imperfect ones, a State averts the
perils of the revolutions caused by the struggles of men of superior
powers to rise to their proper level. Our long agony of forty years
should have made it clear to any man who has brains that social
superiorities are a natural outcome of the order of things. They are
of three kinds that cannot be questioned--the superiority of the
thinker, the superiority of the politician, the superiority of wealth.
Is not that as much as to say, genius, power, and money, or, in yet
other words--the cause, the means, and the effect? But suppose a kind
of social tabula rasa, every social unit perfectly equal, an increase
of population everywhere in the same ratio, and give the same amount
of land to each family; it would not be long before you would again
have all the existing inequalities of fortune; it is glaringly
evident, therefore, that there are such things as superiority of
fortune, of thinking capacity, and of power, and we must make up our
minds to this fact; but the masses will always regard rights that have
been most honestly acquired as privileges, and as a wrong done to
"The SOCIAL CONTRACT founded upon this basis will be a perpetual pact
between those who have and those who have not. And acting on these
principles, those who benefit by the laws will be the lawmakers, for
they necessarily have the instinct of self-preservation, and foresee
their dangers. It is even more to their interest than to the interest
of the masses themselves that the latter should be quiet and
contented. The happiness of the people should be ready made for the
people. If you look at society as a whole from this point of view, you
will soon see, as I do, that the privilege of election ought only to
be exercised by men who possess wealth, power, or intelligence, and
you will likewise see that the action of the deputies they may choose
to represent them should be considerably restricted.
"The maker of laws, gentlemen, should be in advance of his age. It is
his business to ascertain the tendency of erroneous notions popularly
held, to see the exact direction in which the ideas of a nation are
tending; he labors for the future rather than for the present, and for
the rising generation rather than for the one that is passing away.
But if you call in the masses to make the laws, can they rise above
their own level? Nay. The more faithfully an assembly represents the
opinions held by the crowd, the less it will know about government,
the less lofty its ideas will be, and the more vague and vacillating
its policy, for the crowd is and always will be simply a crowd, and
this especially with us in France. Law involves submission to
regulations; man is naturally opposed to rules and regulations of all
kinds, especially if they interfere with his interests; so is it
likely that the masses will enact laws that are contrary to their own
"Very often legislation ought to run counter to the prevailing
tendencies of the time. If the law is to be shaped by the prevailing
habits of thought and tendencies of a nation, would not that mean that
in Spain a direct encouragement would be given to idleness and
religious intolerance; in England, to the commercial spirit; in Italy,
to the love of the arts that may be the expression of a society, but
by which no society can entirely exist; in Germany, feudal class
distinctions would be fostered; and here, in France, popular
legislation would promote the spirit of frivolity, the sudden craze
for an idea, and the readiness to split into factions which has always
been our bane.
"What has happened in the forty years since the electors took it upon
themselves to make laws for France? We have something like forty
thousand laws! A people with forty thousand laws might as well have
none at all. Is it likely that five hundred mediocrities (for there
are never more than a hundred great minds to do the work of any one
century), is it likely that five hundred mediocrities will have the
wit to rise to the level of these considerations? Not they! Here is a
constant stream of men poured forth from five hundred different
places; they will interpret the spirit of the law in divers manners,
and there should be a unity of conception in the law.
"But I will go yet further. Sooner or later an assembly of this kind
comes to be swayed by one man, and instead of a dynasty of kings, you
have a constantly changing and costly succession of prime ministers.
There comes a Mirabeau or a Danton, a Robespierre or a Napoleon, or
proconsuls, or an emperor, and there is an end of deliberations and
debates. In fact, it takes a determinate amount of force to raise a
given weight; the force may be distributed, and you may have a less or
greater number of levers, but it comes to the same thing in the end:
the force must be in proportion to the weight. The weight in this case
is the ignorant and suffering mass of people who form the lowest
stratum of society. The attitude of authority is bound to be
repressive, and great concentration of the governing power is needed
to neutralize the force of a popular movement. This is the application
of the principle that I unfolded when I spoke just now of the way in
which the class privileged to govern should be restricted. If this
class is composed of men of ability, they will obey this natural law,
and compel the country to obey. If you collect a crowd of mediocrities
together, sooner or later they will fall under the dominion of a
stronger head. A deputy of talent understands the reasons for which a
government exists; the mediocre deputy simply comes to terms with
force. An assembly either obeys an idea, like the Convention in the
time of the Terror; a powerful personality, like the Corps Legislatif
under the rule of Napoleon; or falls under the domination of a system
or of wealth, as it has done in our own day. The Republican Assembly,
that dream of some innocent souls, is an impossibility. Those who
would fain bring it to pass are either grossly deluded dupes or would-
be tyrants. Do you not think that there is something ludicrous about
an Assembly which gravely sits in debate upon the perils of a nation
which ought to be roused into immediate action? It is only right of
course that the people should elect a body of representatives who will
decide questions of supplies and of taxation; this institution has
always existed, under the sway of the most tyrannous ruler no less
than under the sceptre of the mildest of princes. Money is not to be
taken by force; there are natural limits to taxation, and if they are
overstepped, a nation either rises up in revolt, or lays itself down
to die. Again, if this elective body, changing from time to time
according to the needs and ideas of those whom it represents, should
refuse obedience to a bad law in the name of the people, well and
good. But to imagine that five hundred men, drawn from every corner of
the kingdom, will make a good law! Is it not a dreary joke, for which
the people will sooner or later have to pay? They have a change of
masters, that is all.
"Authority ought to be given to one man, he alone should have the task
of making the laws; and he should be a man who, by force of
circumstances, is continually obliged to submit his actions to general
approbation. But the only restraints that can be brought to bear upon
the exercise of power, be it the power of the one, of the many, or of
the multitude, are to be found in the religious institutions of a
country. Religion forms the only adequate safeguard against the abuse
of supreme power. When a nation ceases to believe in religion, it
becomes ungovernable in consequence, and its prince perforce becomes a
tyrant. The Chambers that occupy an intermediate place between rulers
and their subjects are powerless to prevent these results, and can
only mitigate them to a very slight extent; Assemblies, as I have said
before, are bound to become the accomplices of tyranny on the one
hand, or of insurrection on the other. My own leanings are towards a
government by one man; but though it is good, it cannot be absolutely
good, for the results of every policy will always depend upon the
condition and the belief of the nation. If a nation is in its dotage,
if it has been corrupted to the core by philosophism and the spirit of
discussion, it is on the high-road to despotism, from which no form of
free government will save it. And, at the same time, a righteous
people will nearly always find liberty even under a despotic rule. All
this goes to show the necessity for restricting the right of election
within very narrow limits, the necessity for a strong government, the
necessity for a powerful religion which makes the rich man the friend
of the poor, and enjoins upon the poor an absolute submission to their
lot. It is, in fact, really imperative that the Assemblies should be
deprived of all direct legislative power, and should confine
themselves to the registration of laws and to questions of taxation.
"I know that different ideas from these exist in many minds. To-day,
as in past ages, there ware enthusiasts who seek for perfection, and
who would like to have society better ordered than it is at present.
But innovations which tend to bring about a kind of social topsy-
turvydom, ought only to be undertaken by general consent. Let the
innovators have patience. When I remember how long it has taken
Christianity to establish itself; how many centuries it has taken to
bring about a purely moral revolution which surely ought to have been
accomplished peacefully, the thought of the horrors of a revolution,
in which material interests are concerned, makes me shudder, and I am
for maintaining existing institutions. 'Each shall have his own
thought,' is the dictum of Christianity; 'Each man shall have his own
field,' says modern law; and in this, modern law is in harmony with
Christianity. Each shall have his own thought; that is a consecration
of the rights of intelligence; and each shall have his own field, is a
consecration of the right to property that has been acquired by toil.
Hence our society. Nature has based human life upon the instinct of
self-preservation, and social life is founded upon personal interest.
Such ideas as these are, to my thinking, the very rudiments of
politics. Religion keeps these two selfish sentiments in subordination
by the thought of a future life; and in this way the harshness of the
conflict of interests has been somewhat softened. God has mitigated
the sufferings that arise from social friction by a religious
sentiment which raises self-forgetfulness into a virtue; just as He
has moderated the friction of the mechanism of the universe by laws
which we do not know. Christianity bids the poor bear patiently with
the rich, and commands the rich to lighten the burdens of the poor;
these few words, to my mind, contain the essence of all laws, human
"I am no statesman," said the notary; "I see in a ruler a liquidator
of society which should always remain in liquidation; he should hand
over to his successor the exact value of the assets which he
"I am no statesman either," said Benassis, hastily interrupting the
notary. "It takes nothing but a little common sense to better the lot
of a commune, of a canton, or of an even wider district; a department
calls for some administrative talent, but all these four spheres of
action are comparatively limited, the outlook is not too wide for
ordinary powers of vision, and there is a visible connection between
their interests and the general progress made by the State.
"But in yet higher regions, everything is on a larger scale, the
horizon widens, and from the standpoint where he is placed, the
statesman ought to grasp the whole situation. It is only necessary to
consider liabilities due ten years hence, in order to bring about a
great deal of good in the case of the department, the district, the
canton, or the commune; but when it is a question of the destinies of
a nation, a statesman must foresee a more distant future and the
course that events are likely to take for the next hundred years. The
genius of a Colbert or of a Sully avails nothing, unless it is
supported by the energetic will that makes a Napoleon or a Cromwell. A
great minister, gentlemen, is a great thought written at large over
all the years of a century of prosperity and splendor for which he has
prepared the way. Steadfast perseverance is the virtue of which he
stands most in need; and in all human affairs does not steadfast
perseverance indicate a power of the very highest order? We have had
for some time past too many men who think only of the ministry instead
of the nation, so that we cannot but admire the real statesman as the
vastest human Poetry. Ever to look beyond the present moment, to
foresee the ways of Destiny, to care so little for power that he only
retains it because he is conscious of his usefulness, while he does
not overestimate his strength; ever to lay aside all personal feeling
and low ambitions, so that he may always be master of his faculties,
and foresee, will, and act without ceasing; to compel himself to be
just and impartial, to keep order on a large scale, to silence his
heart that he may be guided by his intellect alone, to be neither
apprehensive nor sanguine, neither suspicious nor confiding, neither
grateful nor ungrateful, never to be unprepared for an event, nor
taken unawares by an idea; to live, in fact, with the requirements of
the masses ever in his mind, to spread the protecting wings of his
thought above them, to sway them by the thunder of his voice and the
keenness of his glance; seeing all the while not the details of
affairs, but the great issues at stake--is not that to be something
more than a mere man? Therefore the names of the great and noble
fathers of nations cannot but be household words for ever."
There was silence for a moment, during which the guests looked at one
"Gentlemen, you have not said a word about the army!" cried Genestas.
"A military organization seems to me to be the real type on which all
good civil society should be modeled; the Sword is the guardian of a
The justice of the peace laughed softly.
"Captain," he said, "an old lawyer once said that empires began with
the sword and ended with the desk; we have reached the desk stage by
"And now that we have settled the fate of the world, gentlemen, let us
change the subject. Come, captain, a glass of Hermitage," cried the
"Two, rather than one," said Genestas, holding out his glass. "I mean
to drink them both to your health--to a man who does honor to the
"And who is dear to all of us," said the cure in gentle tones.
"Do you mean to force me into the sin of pride, M. Janvier?"
"M. le Cure has only said in a low voice what all the canton says
aloud," said Cambon.
"Gentlemen, I propose that we take a walk to the parsonage by
moonlight, and see M. Janvier home."
"Let us start," said the guests, and they prepared to accompany the
"Shall we go to the barn?" said the doctor, laying a hand on Genestas'
arm. They had taken leave of the cure and the other guests. "You will
hear them talking about Napoleon, Captain Bluteau. Goguelat, the
postman, is there, and there are several of his cronies who are sure
to draw him out on the subject of the idol of the people. Nicolle, my
stableman, has set a ladder so that we can climb up on to the hay;
there is a place from which we can look down on the whole scene. Come
along, an up-sitting is something worth seeing, believe me. It will
not be the first time that I have hidden in the hay to overhear a
soldier's tales or the stories that peasants tell among themselves. We
must be careful to keep out of sight though, as these folk turn shy
and put on company manners as soon as they see a stranger."
"Eh! my dear sir," said Genestas, "have I not often pretended to be
asleep so as to hear my troopers talking out on bivouac? My word, I
once heard a droll yarn reeled off by an old quartermaster for some
conscripts who were afraid of war; I never laughed so heartily in any
theatre in Paris. He was telling them about the Retreat from Moscow.
He told them that the army had nothing but the clothes they stood up
in; that their wine was iced; that the dead stood stock-still in the
road just where they were; that they had seen White Russia, and that
they currycombed the horses there with their teeth; that those who
were fond of skating had fine times of it, and people who had a fancy
for savory ices had as much as they could put away; that the women
were generally poor company; but that the only thing they could really
complain of was the want of hot water for shaving. In fact, he told
them such a pack of absurdities, that even an old quartermaster who
had lost his nose with a frost-bite, so that they had dubbed him
Nezrestant, was fain to laugh."
"Hush!" said Benassis, "here we are. I will go first; follow after
Both of them scaled the ladder and hid themselves in the hay, in a
place from whence they could have a good view of the party below, who
had not heard a sound overhead. Little groups of women were clustered
about three or four candles. Some of them sewed, others were spinning,
a good few of them were doing nothing, and sat with their heads
strained forward, and their eyes fixed on an old peasant who was
telling a story. The men were standing about for the most part, or
lying at full length on the trusses of hay. Every group was absolutely
silent. Their faces were barely visible by the flickering gleams of
the candles by which the women were working, although each candle was
surrounded by a glass globe filled with water, in order to concentrate
the light. The thick darkness and shadow that filled the roof and all
the upper part of the barn seemed still further to diminish the light
that fell here and there upon the workers' heads with such picturesque
effects of light and shade. Here, it shone full upon the bright
wondering eyes and brown forehead of a little peasant maiden; and
there the straggling beams brought out the outlines of the rugged
brows of some of the older men, throwing up their figures in sharp
relief against the dark background, and giving a fantastic appearance
to their worn and weather-stained garb. The attentive attitude of all
these people and the expression on all their faces showed that they
had given themselves up entirely to the pleasure of listening, and
that the narrator's sway was absolute. It was a curious scene. The
immense influence that poetry exerts over every mind was plainly to be
seen. For is not the peasant who demands that the tale of wonder
should be simple, and that the impossible should be well-nigh
credible, a lover of poetry of the purest kind?
"She did not like the look of the house at all," the peasant was
saying as the two newcomers took their places where they could
overhear him; "but the poor little hunchback was so tired out with
carrying her bundle of hemp to market, that she went in; besides, the
night had come, and she could go no further. She only asked to be
allowed to sleep there, and ate nothing but a crust of bread that she
took from her wallet. And inasmuch as the woman who kept house for the
brigands knew nothing about what they had planned to do that night,
she let the old woman into the house, and sent her upstairs without a
light. Our hunchback throws herself down on a rickety truckle bed,
says her prayers, thinks about her hemp, and is dropping off to sleep.
But before she is fairly asleep, she hears a noise, and in walk two
men carrying a lantern, and each man had a knife in his hand. Then
fear came upon her; for in those times, look you, they used to make
pates of human flesh for the seigneurs, who were very fond of them.
But the old woman plucked up heart again, for she was so thoroughly
shriveled and wrinkled that she thought they would think her a poorish
sort of diet. The two men went past the hunchback and walked up to a
bed that there was in the great room, and in which they had put the
gentleman with the big portmanteau, the one that passed for a
negromancer. The taller man holds up the lantern and takes the
gentleman by the feet, and the short one, that had pretended to be
drunk, clutches hold of his head and cuts his throat, clean, with one
stroke, swish! Then they leave the head and body lying in its own
blood up there, steal the portmanteau, and go downstairs with it. Here
is our woman in a nice fix! First of all she thinks of slipping out,
before any one can suspect it, not knowing that Providence had brought
her there to glorify God and to bring down punishment on the
murderers. She was in a great fright, and when one is frightened one
thinks of nothing else. But the woman of the house had asked the two
brigands about the hunchback, and that had alarmed them. So back they
came, creeping softly up the wooden staircase. The poor hunchback
curls up in a ball with fright, and she hears them talking about her
" 'Kill her, I tell you.'
" 'No need to kill her.'
" 'Kill her!'
"Then they came in. The woman, who was no fool, shuts her eyes and
pretends to be asleep. She sets to work to sleep like a child, with
her hand on her heart, and takes to breathing like a cherub. The man
opens the lantern and shines the light straight into the eyes of the
sleeping old woman--she does not move an eyelash, she is in such
terror for her neck.
" 'She is sleeping like a log; you can see that quite well,' so says
the tall one.
" 'Old women are so cunning!' answers the short man. 'I will kill her.
We shall feel easier in our minds. Besides, we will salt her down to
feed the pigs.'
"The old woman hears all this talk, but she does not stir.
" 'Oh! it is all right, she is asleep,' says the short ruffian, when
he saw that the hunchback had not stirred.
"That is how the old woman saved her life. And she may be fairly
called courageous; for it is a fact that there are not many girls here
who could have breathed like cherubs while they heard that talk going
on about the pigs. Well, the two brigands set to work to lift up the
dead man; they wrap him round in the sheets and chuck him out into the
little yard; and the old woman hears the pigs scampering up to eat
him, and grunting, HON! hon!
"So when morning comes," the narrator resumed after a pause, "the
woman gets up and goes down, paying a couple of sous for her bed. She
takes up her wallet, goes on just as if nothing had happened, asks for
the news of the countryside, and gets away in peace. She wants to run.
Running is quite out of the question, her legs fail her for fright;
and lucky it was for her that she could not run, for this reason. She
had barely gone half a quarter of a league before she sees one of the
brigands coming after her, just out of craftiness to make quite sure
that she had seen nothing. She guesses this, and sits herself down on
" 'What is the matter, good woman?' asks the short one, for it was the
shorter one and the wickeder of the two who was dogging her.
" 'Oh! master,' says she, 'my wallet is so heavy, and I am so tired,
that I badly want some good man to give me his arm' (sly thing, only
listen to her!) 'if I am to get back to my poor home.'
"Thereupon the brigand offers to go along with her, and she accepts
his offer. The fellow takes hold of her arm to see if she is afraid.
Not she! She does not tremble a bit, and walks quietly along. So there
they are, chatting away as nicely as possible, all about farming, and
the way to grow hemp, till they come to the outskirts of the town,
where the hunchback lived, and the brigand made off for fear of
meeting some of the sheriff's people. The woman reached her house at
mid-day, and waited there till her husband came home; she thought and
thought over all that had happened on her journey and during the
night. The hemp-grower came home in the evening. He was hungry;
something must be got ready for him to eat. So while she greases her
frying-pan, and gets ready to fry something for him, she tells him how
she sold her hemp, and gabbles away as females do, but not a word does
she say about the pigs, nor about the gentleman who was murdered and
robbed and eaten. She holds her frying-pan in the flames so as to
clean it, draws it out again to give it a wipe, and finds it full of
" 'What have you been putting into it?' says she to her man.
" 'Nothing,' says he.
"She thinks it must have been a nonsensical piece of woman's fancy,
and puts her frying-pan into the fire again. . . . Pouf! A head comes
tumbling down the chimney!
" 'Oh! look! It is nothing more nor less than the dead man's head,'
says the old woman. 'How he stares at me! What does he want!'
" 'YOU MUST AVENGE ME!' says a voice.
" 'What an idiot you are!' said the hemp-grower. 'Always seeing
something or other that has no sort of sense about it! Just you all
"He takes up the head, which snaps at his finger, and pitches it out
into the yard.
" 'Get on with my omelette,' he says, 'and do not bother yourself
about that. 'Tis a cat.'
" 'A cat! says she; 'it was as round as a ball.'
"She puts back her frying-pan on the fire. . . . Pouf! Down comes a
leg this time, and they go through the whole story again. The man was
no more astonished at the foot than he had been at the head; he
snatched up the leg and threw it out at the door. Before they had
finished, the other leg, both arms, the body, the whole murdered
traveler, in fact, came down piecemeal. No omelette all this time! The
old hemp-seller grew very hungry indeed.
" 'By my salvation!' said he, 'when once my omelette is made we will
see about satisfying that man yonder.'
Back to Full Books