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Sons of the Soil (The Peasantry), a novel by Honore de Balzac

Part 1 - Chapter 6. A Tale Of Thieves

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When Mademoiselle Laguerre first visited her estate, in 1791, she took as steward the son of the ex-bailiff of Soulanges, named Gaubertin. The little town of Soulanges, at present nothing more than the chief town of a canton, was once the capital of a considerable county, in the days when the House of Burgundy made war upon France. Ville-aux-Fayes, now the seat of the sub-prefecture, then a mere fief, was a dependency of Soulanges, like Les Aigues, Ronquerolles, Cerneux, Conches, and a score of other parishes. The Soulanges have remained counts, whereas the Ronquerolles are now marquises by the will of that power, called the Court, which made the son of Captain du Plessis duke over the heads of the first families of the Conquest. All of which serves to prove that towns, like families, are variable in their destiny.

Gaubertin, a young man without property of any kind, succeeded a steward enriched by a management of thirty years, who preferred to become a partner in the famous firm of Minoret rather than continue to administer Les Aigues. In his own interests he introduced into his place as land-steward Francois Gaubertin, his accountant for five years, whom he now relied on to cover his retreat, and who, out of gratitude for his instructions, promised to obtain for him a release in full of all claims from Madame Laguerre, who by this time was terrified at the Revolution. Gaubertin's father, the attorney-general of the department, henceforth protected the timid woman. This provincial Fouquier-Tinville raised a false alarm of danger in the mind of the opera-divinity on the ground of her former relations to the aristocracy, so as to give his son the equally false credit of saving her life; on the strength of which Gaubertin the younger obtained very easily the release of his predecessor. Mademoiselle Laguerre then made Francois Gaubertin her prime minister, as much through policy as from gratitude. The late steward had not spoiled her. He sent her, every year, about thirty thousand francs, though Les Aigues brought in at that time at least forty thousand. The unsuspecting opera-singer was therefore much delighted when the new steward Gaubertin promised her thirty-six thousand.

To explain the present fortune of the land-steward of Les Aigues before the judgment-seat of probability, it is necessary to state its beginnings. Pushed by his father's influence, he became mayor of Blangy. Thus he was able, contrary to law, to make the debtors pay in coin, by "terrorizing" (a phrase of the day) such of them as might, in his opinion, be subjected to the crushing demands of the Republic. He himself paid the citizens in assignats as long as the system of paper money lasted,--a system which, if it did not make the nation prosperous, at least made the fortunes of private individuals. From 1793 to 1795, that is, for three years, Francois Gaubertin wrung one hundred and fifty thousand francs out of Les Aigues, with which he speculated on the stock-market in Paris. With her purse full of assignats Mademoiselle was actually obliged to obtain ready money from her diamonds, now useless to her. She gave them to Gaubertin, who sold them, and faithfully returned to her their full price. This proof of honesty touched her heart; henceforth she believed in Gaubertin as she did in Piccini.

In 1796, at the time of his marriage with the citoyenne Isaure Mouchon, daughter of an old "conventional," a friend of his father, Gaubertin possessed about three hundred and fifty thousand francs in money. As the Directory seemed to him likely to last, he determined, before marrying, to have the accounts of his five years' stewardship ratified by Mademoiselle, under pretext of a new departure.

"I am to be the head of a family," he said to her; "you know the reputation of land-stewards; my father-in-law is a republican of Roman austerity, and a man of influence as well; I want to prove to him that I am as upright as he."

Mademoiselle Laguerre accepted his accounts at once in very flattering terms.

In those earlier days the steward had endeavored, in order to win the confidence of Madame des Aigues (as Mademoiselle was then called) to repress the depredations of the peasantry; fearing, and not without reason, that the revenues would suffer too severely, and that his private bonus from the buyers of the timber would sensibly diminish. But in those days the sovereign people felt the soil was their own everywhere; Madame was afraid of the surrounding kings and told her Richelieu that the first desire of her soul was to die in peace. The revenues of the late singer were so far in excess of her expenses that she allowed all the worst, and, as it proved, fatal precedents to be established. To avoid a lawsuit, she allowed the neighbors to encroach upon her land. Knowing that the park walls were sufficient protection, she did not fear any interruption of her personal comfort, and cared for nothing but her peaceful existence, true philosopher that she was! A few thousand a year more or less, the indemnities exacted by the wood-merchants for the damages committed by the peasants,--what were they to a careless and extravagant Opera-girl, who had gained her hundred thousand francs a year at the cost of pleasure only, and who had just submitted, without a word of remonstrance, to a reduction of two thirds of an income of sixty thousand francs?

"Dear me!" she said, in the easy tone of the wantons of the old time, "people must live, even if they are republicans."

The terrible Mademoiselle Cochet, her maid and female vizier, had tried to enlighten her mistress when she saw the ascendency Gaubertin was obtaining over one whom he began by calling "Madame" in defiance of the revolutionary laws about equality; but Gaubertin, in his turn, enlightened Mademoiselle Cochet by showing her a so-called denunciation sent to his father, the prosecuting attorney, in which she was vehemently accused of corresponding with Pitt and Coburg. From that time forward the two powers went on shares--shares a la Montgomery. Cochet praised Gaubertin to Madame, and Gaubertin praised Cochet. The waiting-maid had already made her own bed, and knew she was down for sixty thousand francs in the will. Madame could not do without Cochet, to whom she was accustomed. The woman knew the secrets of dear mistress's toilet; she alone could put dear mistress to sleep at night with her gossip, and get her up in the morning with her flattery; to the day of dear mistress's death the maid never could see the slightest change in her, and when dear mistress lay in her coffin, she doubtless thought she had never seen her looking so well.

The annual pickings of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet, their wages and perquisites, became so large that the most affectionate relative could not possibly have been more devoted than they to their kindly mistress. There is really no describing how a swindler cossets his dupe. A mother is not so tender nor so solicitous for a beloved daughter as the practitioner of tartuferie for his milch cow. What brilliant success attends the performance of Tartufe behind the closed doors of a home! It is worth more than friendship. Moliere died too soon; he would otherwise have shown us the misery of Orgon, wearied by his family, harassed by his children, regretting the blandishments of Tartufe, and thinking to himself, "Ah, those were the good times!"

During the last eight years of her life the mistress of Les Aigues received only thirty thousand francs of the fifty thousand really yielded by the estate. Gaubertin had reached the same administrative results as his predecessor, though farm rents and territorial products were notably increased between 1791 and 1815,--not to speak of Madame's continual purchases. But Gaubertin's fixed idea of acquiring Les Aigues at the old lady's death led him to depreciate the value of the magnificent estate in the matter of its ostensible revenues. Mademoiselle Cochet, a sharer in the scheme, was also to share the profits. As the ex-divinity in her declining years received an income of twenty thousand francs from the Funds called consolidated (how readily the tongue of politics can jest!), and with difficulty spent the said sum yearly, she was much surprised at the annual purchases made by her steward to use up the accumulating revenues, remembering how in former times she had always drawn them in advance. The result of having few wants in her old age seemed, to her mind, a proof of the honesty and uprightness of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet.

"Two pearls!" she said to the persons who came to see her.

Gaubertin kept his accounts with apparent honesty. He entered all rentals duly. Everything that could strike the feeble mind of the late singer, so far as arithmetic went, was clear and precise. The steward took his commission on all disbursements,--on the costs of working the estate, on rentals made, on suits brought, on work done, on repairs of every kind,--details which Madame never dreamed of verifying, and for which he sometimes charged twice over by collusion with the contractors, whose silence was bought by permission to charge the highest prices. These methods of dealing conciliated public opinion in favor of Gaubertin, while Madame's praise was on every lip; for besides the payments she disbursed for work, she gave away large sums of money in alms.

"May God preserve her, the dear lady!" was heard on all sides.

The truth was, everybody got something out of her, either indirectly or as a downright gift. In reprisals, as it were, of her youth the old actress was pillaged; so discreetly pillaged, however, that those who throve upon her kept their depredations within certain limits lest even her eyes might be opened and she should sell Les Aigues and return to Paris.

This system of "pickings" was, alas! the cause of Paul-Louis Carter's assassination; he committed the mistake of advertising the sale of his estate and allowing it to be known that he should take away his wife, on whom a number of the Tonsards of Lorraine were battening. Fearing to lose Madame des Aigues, the marauders on the estate forbore to cut the young trees, unless pushed to extremities by finding no branches within reach of shears fastened to long poles. In the interests of robbery, they did as little harm as they could; although, during the last years of Madame's life, the habit of cutting wood became more and more barefaced. On certain clear nights not less than two hundred bundles were taken. As to the gleaning of fields and vineyards, Les Aigues lost, as Sibilet had pointed out, not less than one quarter of its products.

Madame des Aigues had forbidden Cochet to marry during her lifetime, with the selfishness often shown in all countries by a mistress to a maid; which is not more irrational than the mania for keeping possession, until our last gasp, of property that is utterly useless to our material comfort, at the risk of being poisoned by impatient heirs. Twenty days after the old lady's burial Mademoiselle Cochet married the brigadier of the gendarmerie of Soulanges, named Soudry, a handsome man, forty-two years of age, who, ever since 1800 (in which year the gendarmerie was formed) had come every day to Les Aigues to see the waiting-maid, and dined with her at least three times a week at the Gaubertins'.

During Madame's lifetime dinner was served to her and to her company by themselves. Neither Cochet nor Gaubertin, in spite of their great familiarity with the mistress, was ever admitted to her table; the leading lady of the Academie Royale retained, to her last hour, her sense of etiquette, her style of dress, her rouge and her heeled slippers, her carriage, her servants, and the majesty of her deportment. A divinity at the Opera, a divinity within her range of Parisian social life, she continued a divinity in the country solitudes, where her memory is still worshipped, and still holds its own against that of the old monarchy in the minds of the "best society" of Soulanges.

Soudry, who had paid his addresses to Mademoiselle Cochet from the time he first came into the neighborhood, owned the finest house in Soulanges, an income of six thousand francs, and the prospect of a retiring pension whenever he should quit the service. As soon as Cochet became Madame Soudry she was treated with great consideration in the town. Though she kept the strictest secrecy as to the amount of her savings,--which were intrusted, like those of Gaubertin, to the commissary of wine-merchants of the department in Paris, a certain Leclercq, a native of Soulanges, to whom Gaubertin supplied funds as sleeping partner in his business,--public opinion credited the former waiting-maid with one of the largest fortunes in the little town of twelve hundred inhabitants.

To the great astonishment of every one, Monsieur and Madame Soudry acknowledged as legitimate, in their marriage contract, a natural son of the gendarme, to whom, in future, Madame Soudry's fortune was to descend. At the time when this son was legally supplied with a mother, he had just ended his law studies in Paris and was about to enter into practice, with the intention of fitting himself for the magistracy.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a mutual understanding of twenty years had produced the closest intimacy between the families of Gaubertin and Soudry. Both reciprocally declared themselves, to the end of their days, "urbi et orbi," to be the most upright and honorable persons in all France. Such community of interests, based on the mutual knowledge of the secret spots on the white garment of conscience, is one of the ties least recognized and hardest to untie in this low world. You who read this social drama, have you never felt a conviction as to two persons which has led you to say to yourself, in order to explain the continuance of a faithful devotion which made your own egotism blush, "They must surely have committed some crime together"?

After an administration of twenty-five years, Gaubertin, the land-steward, found himself in possession of six hundred thousand francs in money, and Cochet had accumulated nearly two hundred and fifty thousand. The rapid and constant turning over and over of their funds in the hands of Leclercq and Company (on the quai Bethume, Ile Saint Louis, rivals of the famous house of Grandet) was a great assistance to the fortunes of all parties. On the death of Mademoiselle Laguerre, Jenny, the steward's eldest daughter was asked in marriage by Leclercq. Gaubertin expected at that time to become owner of Les Aigues by means of a plot laid in the private office of Lupin, the notary, whom the steward had set up and maintained in business within the last twelve years.

Lupin, a son of the former steward of the estate of Soulanges, had lent himself to various slight peculations,--investments at fifty per cent below par, notices published surreptitiously, and all the other manoeuvres, unhappily common in the provinces, to wrap a mantle, as the saying is, over the clandestine manipulations of property. Lately a company has been formed in Paris, so they say, to levy contributions upon such plotters under a threat of outbidding them. But in 1816 France was not, as it is now, lighted by a flaming publicity; the accomplices might safely count on dividing Les Aigues among them, that is, between Cochet, the notary, and Gaubertin, the latter of whom reserved to himself, "in petto," the intention of buying the others out for a sum down, as soon as the property fairly stood in his own name. The lawyer employed by the notary to manage the sale of the estate was under personal obligations to Gaubertin, so that he favored the spoliation of the heirs, unless any of the eleven farmers of Picardy should take it into their heads to think they were cheated, and inquire into the real value of the property.

Just as those interested expected to find their fortunes made, a lawyer came from Paris on the evening before the final settlement, and employed a notary at Ville-aux-Fayes, who happened to be one of his former clerks, to buy the estate of Les Aigues, which he did for eleven hundred thousand francs. None of the conspirators dared outbid an offer of eleven hundred thousand francs. Gaubertin suspected some treachery on Soudry's part, and Soudry and Lupin thought they were tricked by Gaubertin. But a statement on the part of the purchasing agent, the notary of Ville-aux-Fayes, disabused them of these suspicions. The latter, though suspecting the plan formed by Gaubertin, Lupin, and Soudry, refrained from informing the lawyer in Paris, for the reason that if the new owners indiscreetly repeated his words, he would have too many enemies at his heels to be able to stay where he was. This reticence, peculiar to provincials, was in this particular case amply justified by succeeding events. If the dwellers in the provinces are dissemblers, they are forced to be so; their excuse lies in the danger expressed in the old proverb, "We must howl with the wolves," a meaning which underlies the character of Phillinte.

When General Montcornet took possession of Les Aigues, Gaubertin was no longer rich enough to give up his place. In order to marry his daughter to a rich banker he was obliged to give her a dowry of two hundred thousand francs; he had to pay thirty thousand for his son's practice; and all that remained of his accumulations was three hundred and seventy thousand, out of which he would be forced, sooner or later, to pay the dowry of his remaining daughter, Elise, for whom he hoped to arrange a marriage at least as good as that of her sister. The steward determined to study the general, in order to find out if he could disgust him with the place,--hoping still to be able to carry out his defeated plan in his own interests.

With the peculiar instinct which characterizes those who make their fortunes by craft, Gaubertin believed in a resemblance of nature (which was not improbable) between an old soldier and an Opera-singer. An actress, and a general of the Empire,--surely they would have the same extravagant habits, the same careless prodigality? To the one as to the other, riches came capriciously and by lucky chances. If some soldiers are wily and astute and clever politicians, they are exceptions; a soldier is, usually, especially an accomplished cavalry officer like Montcornet, guileless, confident, a novice in business, and little fitted to understand details in the management of an estate. Gaubertin flattered himself that he could catch and hold the general with the same net in which Mademoiselle Laguerre had finished her days. But it so happened that the Emperor had once, intentionally, allowed Montcornet to play the same game in Pomerania that Gaubertin was playing at Les Aigues; consequently, the general fully understood a system of plundering.

In planting cabbages, to use the expression of the first Duc de Biron, the old cuirassier sought to divert his mind, by occupation, from dwelling on his fall. Though he had yielded his "corps d'armee" to the Bourbons, that duty (performed by other generals and termed the disbanding of the army of the Loire) could not atone for the crime of having followed the man of the Hundred-Days to his last battle-field. In presence of the allied army it was impossible for the peer of 1815 to remain in the service, still less at the Luxembourg. Accordingly, Montcornet betook himself to the country by advice of a dismissed marshal, to plunder Nature herself. The general was not deficient in the special cunning of an old military fox; and after he had spent a few days in examining his new property, he saw that Gaubertin was a steward of the old system,--a swindler, such as the dukes and marshals of the Empire, those mushrooms bred from the common earth, were well acquainted with.

The wily general, soon aware of Gaubertin's great experience in rural administration, felt it was politic to keep well with him until he had himself learned the secrets of it; accordingly, he passed himself off as another Mademoiselle Laguerre, a course which lulled the steward into false security. This apparent simple-mindedness lasted all the time it took the general to learn the strength and weakness of Les Aigues, to master the details of its revenues and the manner of collecting them, and to ascertain how and where the robberies occurred, together with the betterments and economies which ought to be undertaken. Then, one fine morning, having caught Gaubertin with his hand in the bag, as the saying is, the general flew into one of those rages peculiar to the imperial conquerors of many lands. In doing so he committed a capital blunder,--one that would have ruined the whole life of a man of less wealth and less consistency than himself, and from which came the evils, both small and great, with which the present history teems. Brought up in the imperial school, accustomed to deal with men as a dictator, and full of contempt for "civilians," Montcornet did not trouble himself to wear gloves when it came to putting a rascal of a land-steward out of doors. Civil life and its precautions were things unknown to the soldier already embittered by his loss of rank. He humiliated Gaubertin ruthlessly, though the latter drew the harsh treatment upon himself by a cynical reply which roused Montcornet's anger.

"You are living off my land," said the general, with jesting severity.

"Do you think I can live off the sky?" returned Gaubertin, with a sneer.

"Out of my sight, blackguard! I dismiss you!" cried the general, striking him with his whip,--blows which the steward always denied having received, for they were given behind closed doors.

"I shall not go without my release in full," said Gaubertin, coldly, keeping at a distance from the enraged soldier.

"We will see what is thought of you in a police court," replied Montcornet, shrugging his shoulders.

Hearing the threat, Gaubertin looked at the general and smiled. The smile had the effect of relaxing Montcornet's arms as though the sinews had been cut. We must explain that smile.

For the last two years, Gaubertin's brother-in-law, a man named Gendrin, long a justice of the municipal court of Ville-aux-Fayes, had become the president of that court through the influence of the Comte de Soulanges. The latter was made peer of France in 1814, and remained faithful to the Bourbons during the Hundred-Days, therefore the Keeper of the Seals readily granted an appointment at his request. This relationship gave Gaubertin a certain importance in the country. The president of the court of a little town is, relatively, a greater personage than the president of one of the royal courts of a great city, who has various equals, such as generals, bishops, and prefects; whereas the judge of the court of a small town has none,--the attorney-general and the sub-prefect being removable at will. Young Soudry, a companion of Gaubertin's son in Paris as well as at Les Aigues, had just been appointed assistant attorney in the capital of the department. Before the elder Soudry, a quartermaster in the artillery, became a brigadier of gendarmes, he had been wounded in a skirmish while defending Monsieur de Soulanges, then adjutant-general. At the time of the creation of the gendarmerie, the Comte de Soulanges, who by that time had become a colonel, asked for a brigade for his former protector, and later still he solicited the post we have named for the younger Soudry. Besides all these influences, the marriage of Mademoiselle Gaubertin with a wealthy banker of the quai Bethume made the unjust steward feel that he was far stronger in the community than a lieutenant-general driven into retirement.

If this history provided no other instruction that that offered by the quarrel between the general and his steward, it would still be useful to many persons as a lesson for their conduct in life. He who reads Machiavelli profitably, knows that human prudence consists in never threatening; in doing but not saying; in promoting the retreat of an enemy and never stepping, as the saying is, on the tail of the serpent; and in avoiding, as one would murder, the infliction of a blow to the self-love of any one lower than one's self. An injury done to a person's interest, no matter how great it may be at the time, is forgiven or explained in the long run; but self-love, vanity, never ceases to bleed from a wound given, and never forgives it. The moral being is actually more sensitive, more living as it were, than the physical being. The heart and the blood are less impressible than the nerves. In short, our inward being rules us, no matter what we do. You may reconcile two families who have half-killed each other, as in Brittany and in La Vendee during the civil wars, but you can no more reconcile the calumniators and the calumniated than you can the spoilers and the despoiled. It is only in epic poems that men curse each other before they kill. The savage, and the peasant who is much like a savage, seldom speak unless to deceive an enemy. Ever since 1789 France has been trying to make man believe, against all evidence, that they are equal. To say to a man, "You are a swindler," may be taken as a joke; but to catch him in the act and prove it to him with a cane on his back, to threaten him with a police-court and not follow up the threat, is to remind him of the inequality of conditions. If the masses will not brook any species of superiority, is it likely that a swindler will forgive that of an honest man?

Montcornet might have dismissed his steward under pretext of paying off a military obligation by putting some old soldier in his place; Gaubertin and the general would have understood the matter, and the latter, by sparing the steward's self-love would have given him a chance to withdraw quietly. Gaubertin, in that case, would have left his late employer in peace, and possibly he might have taken himself and his savings to Paris for investment. But being, as he was, ignominiously dismissed, the man conceived against his late master one of those bitter hatreds which are literally a part of existence in provincial life, the persistency, duration, and plots of which would astonish diplomatists who are trained to let nothing astonish them. A burning desire for vengeance led him to settle at Ville-aux-Fayes, and to take a position where he could injure Montcornet and stir up sufficient enmity against to force him to sell Les Aigues.

The general was deceived by appearances; for Gaubertin's external behavior was not of a nature to warn or to alarm him. The late steward followed his old custom of pretending, not exactly poverty, but limited means. For years he had talked of his wife and three children, and the heavy expenses of a large family. Mademoiselle Laguerre, to whom he had declared himself too poor to educate his son in Paris, paid the costs herself, and allowed her dear godson (for she was Claude Gaubertin's sponsor) two thousand francs a year.

The day after the quarrel, Gaubertin came, with a keeper named Courtecuisse, and demanded with much insolence his release in full of all claims, showing the general the one he had obtained from his late mistress in such flattering terms, and asking, ironically, that a search should be made for the property, real and otherwise, which he was supposed to have stolen. If he had received fees from the wood-merchants on their purchases and from the farmers on their leases, Mademoiselle Laguerre, he said, had always allowed it; not only did she gain by the bargains he made, but everything went on smoothly without troubling her. The country-people would have died, he remarked, for Mademoiselle, whereas the general was laying up for himself a store of difficulties.

Gaubertin--and this trait is frequently to be seen in the majority of those professions in which the property of others can be taken by means not foreseen by the Code--considered himself a perfectly honest man. In the first place, he had so long had possession of the money extorted from Mademoiselle Laguerre's farmers through fear, and paid in assignats, that he regarded it as legitimately acquired. It was a mere matter of exchange. He thought that in the end he should have quite as much risk with coin as with paper. Besides, legally, Mademoiselle had no right to receive any payment except in assignats. "Legally" is a fine, robust adverb, which bolsters up many a fortune! Moreover, he reflected that ever since great estates and land-agents had existed, that is, ever since the origin of society, the said agents had set up, for their own use, an argument such as we find our cooks using in this present day. Here it is, in its simplicity:--

"If my mistress," says the cook, "went to market herself, she would have to pay more for her provisions than I charge her; she is the gainer, and the profits I make do more good in my hands than in those of the dealers."

"If Mademoiselle," thought Gaubertin, "were to manage Les Aigues herself, she would never get thirty thousand francs a year out of it; the peasants, the dealers, the workmen would rob her of the rest. It is much better that I should have it, and so enable her to live in peace."

The Catholic religion, and it alone, is able to prevent these capitulations of conscience. But, ever since 1789 religion has no influence on two thirds of the French people. The peasants, whose minds are keen and whose poverty drives them to imitation, had reached, specially in the valley of Les Aigues, a frightful state of demoralization. They went to mass on Sundays, but only at the outside of the church, where it was their custom to meet and transact business and make their weekly bargains.

We can now estimate the extent of the evil done by the careless indifference of the great singer to the management of her property. Mademoiselle Laguerre betrayed, through mere selfishness, the interests of those who owned property, who are held in perpetual hatred by those who own none. Since 1792 the land-owners of Paris have become of necessity a combined body. If, alas, the feudal families, less numerous than the middle-class families, did not perceive the necessity of combining in 1400 under Louis XI., nor in 1600 under Richelieu, can we expect that in this nineteenth century of progress the middle classes will prove to be more permanently and solidly combined that the old nobility? An oligarchy of a hundred thousand rich men presents all the dangers of a democracy with none of its advantages. The principle of "every man for himself and for his own," the selfishness of individual interests, will kill the oligarchical selfishness so necessary to the existence of modern society, and which England has practised with such success for the last three centuries. Whatever may be said or done, land-owners will never understand the necessity of the sort of internal discipline which made the Church such an admirable model of government, until, too late, they find themselves in danger from one another. The audacity with which communism, that living and acting logic of democracy, attacks society from the moral side, shows plainly that the Samson of to-day, grown prudent, is undermining the foundations of the cellar, instead of shaking the pillars of the hall. _

Read next: Part 1: Chapter 7. Certain Lost Social Species

Read previous: Part 1: Chapter 5. Enemies Face To Face

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