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

Part 1 - Chapter 7. Certain Lost Social Species

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The estate of Les Aigues could not do without a steward; for the general had no intention of renouncing his winter pleasures in Paris, where he owned a fine house in the rue Neuve-des-Mathurines. He therefore looked about for a successor to Gaubertin; but it is very certain that his search was not as eager as that of Gaubertin himself, who was seeking for the right person to put in his way.

Of all confidential positions there is none that requires more trained knowledge of its kind, or more activity, than that of land-steward to a great estate. The difficulty of finding the right man is only fully known to those wealthy landlords whose property lies beyond a certain circle around Paris, beginning at a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles. At that point agricultural productions for the markets of Paris, which warrant rentals on long leases (collected often by other tenants who are rich themselves), cease to be cultivated. The farmers who raise them drive to the city in their own cabriolets to pay their rents in good bank-bills, unless they send the money through their agents in the markets. For this reason, the farms of the Seine-et-Oise, Seine-et-Marne, the Oise, the Eure-et-Loir, the Lower Seine, and the Loiret are so desirable that capital cannot always be invested there at one and a half per cent. Compared to the returns on estates in Holland, England, and Belgium, this result is enormous. But at one hundred miles from Paris an estate requires such variety of working, its products are so different in kind, that it becomes a business, with all the risks attendant on manufacturing. The wealthy owner is really a merchant, forced to look for a market for his products, like the owner of ironworks or cotton factories. He does not even escape competition; the peasant, the small proprietor, is at his heels with an avidity which leads to transactions to which well-bred persons cannot condescend.

A land-steward must understand surveying, the customs of the locality, the methods of sale and of labor, together with a little quibbling in the interests of those he serves; he must also understand book-keeping and commercial matters, and be in perfect health, with a liking for active life and horse exercise. His duty being to represent his master and to be always in communication with him, the steward ought not to be a man of the people. As the salary of his office seldom exceeds three thousand francs, the problem seems insoluble. How is it possible to obtain so many qualifications for such a very moderate price,--in a region, moreover, where the men who are provided with them are admissible to all other employments? Bring down a stranger to fill the place, and you will pay dear for the experience he must acquire. Train a young man on the spot, and you are more than likely to get a thorn of ingratitude in your side. It therefore becomes necessary to choose between incompetent honesty, which injures your property through its blindness and inertia, and the cleverness which looks out for itself. Hence the social nomenclature and natural history of land-stewards as defined by a great Polish noble.

"There are," he said, "two kinds of stewards: he who thinks only of himself, and he who thinks of himself and of us; happy the land-owner who lays his hands on the latter! As for the steward who would think only of us, he is not to be met with."

Elsewhere can be found a steward who thought of this master's interests as well as of his own. ("Un Debut dans la vie," "Scenes de la vie privee.") Gaubertin is the steward who thinks of himself only. To represent the third figure of the problem would be to hold up to public admiration a very unlikely personage, yet one that was not unknown to the old nobility, though he has, alas! disappeared with them. (See "Le Cabinet des Antiques," "Scenes de la vie de province.") Through the endless subdivision of fortunes aristocratic habits and customs are inevitably changed. If there be not now in France twenty great fortunes managed by intendants, in fifty years from now there will not be a hundred estates in the hands of stewards, unless a great change is made in the law. Every land-owner will be brought by that time to look after his own interests.

This transformation, already begun, suggested the following answer of a clever woman when asked why, since 1830, she stayed in Paris during the summer. "Because," she said, "I do not care to visit chateaux which are now turned into farms." What is to be the future of this question, getting daily more and more imperative,--that of man to man, the poor man and the rich man? This book is written to throw some light upon that terrible social question.

It is easy to understand the perplexities which assailed the general after he had dismissed Gaubertin. While saying to himself, vaguely, like other persons free to do or not to do a thing, "I'll dismiss that scamp"; he had overlooked the risk and forgotten the explosion of his boiling anger,--the anger of a choleric fire-eater at the moment when a flagrant imposition forced him to raise the lids of his wilfully blind eyes.

Montcornet, a land-owner for the first time and a denizen of Paris, had not provided himself with a steward before coming to Les Aigues; but after studying the neighborhood carefully he saw it was indispensable to a man like himself to have an intermediary to manage so many persons of low degree.

Gaubertin, who discovered during the excitement of the scene (which lasted more than two hours) the difficulties in which the general would soon be involved, jumped on his pony after leaving the room where the quarrel took place, and galloped to Soulanges to consult the Soudrys. At his first words, "The general and I have parted; whom can we put in my place without his suspecting it?" the Soudrys understood their friend's wishes. Do not forget that Soudry, for the last seventeen years chief of police of the canton, was doubly shrewd through his wife, an adept in the particular wiliness of a waiting-maid of an Opera divinity.

"We may go far," said Madame Soudry, "before we find any one to suit the place as well as our poor Sibilet."

"Made to order!" exclaimed Gaubertin, still scarlet with mortification. "Lupin," he added, turning to the notary, who was present, "go to Ville-aux-Fayes and whisper it to Marechal, in case that big fire-eater asks his advice."

Marechal was the lawyer whom his former patron, when buying Les Aigues for the general, had recommended to Monsieur de Montcornet as legal adviser.

Sibilet, eldest son of the clerk of the court at Ville-aux-Fayes, a notary's clerk, without a penny of his own, and twenty-five years old, had fallen in love with the daughter of the chief-magistrate of Soulanges. The latter, named Sarcus, had a salary of fifteen hundred francs, and was married to a woman without fortune, the eldest sister of Monsieur Vermut, the apothecary of Soulanges. Though an only daughter, Mademoiselle Sarcus, whose beauty was her only dowry, could scarcely have lived on the salary paid to a notary's clerk in the provinces. Young Sibilet, a relative of Gaubertin, by a connection rather difficult to trace through family ramifications which make members of the middle classes in all the smaller towns cousins to each other, owed a modest position in a government office to the assistance of his father and Gaubertin. The unlucky fellow had the terrible happiness of being the father of two children in three years. His own father, blessed with five, was unable to assist him. His wife's father owned nothing beside his house at Soulanges and an income of two thousand francs. Madame Sibilet the younger spent most of her time at her father's home with her two children, where Adolphe Sibilet, whose official duty obliged him to travel through the department, came to see her from time to time.

Gaubertin's exclamation, though easy to understand from this summary of young Sibilet's life, needs a few more explanatory details.

Adolphe Sibilet, supremely unlucky, as we have shown by the foregoing sketch of him, was one of those men who cannot reach the heart of a woman except by way of the altar and the mayor's office. Endowed with the suppleness of a steel-spring, he yielded to pressure, certain to revert to his first thought. This treacherous habit is prompted by cowardice; but the business training which Sibilet underwent in the office of a provincial notary had taught him the art of concealing this defect under a gruff manner which simulated a strength he did not possess. Many false natures mask their hollowness in this way; be rough with them in return and the effect produced is that of a balloon collapsed by a prick. Such was Sibilet. But as most men are not observers, and as among observers three fourths observe only after a thing has taken place, Adolphe Sibilet's grumbling manner was considered the result of an honest frankness, of a capacity much praised by his master, and of a stubborn uprightness which no temptation could shake. Some men are as much benefited by their defects as others by their good qualities.

Adeline Sarcus, a pretty young woman, brought up by a mother (who died three years before her marriage) as well as a mother can educate an only daughter in a remote country town, was in love with the handsome son of Lupin, the Soulanges notary. At the first signs of this romance, old Lupin, who intended to marry his son to Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin, lost no time in sending young Amaury Lupin to Paris, to the care of his friend and correspondent Crottat, the notary, where, under pretext of drawing deeds and contracts, Amaury committed a variety of foolish acts, and made debts, being led thereto by a certain Georges Marest, a clerk in the same office, but a rich young man, who revealed to him the mysteries of Parisian life. By the time Lupin the elder went to Paris to bring back his son, Adeline Sarcus had become Madame Sibilet. In fact, when the adoring Adolphe offered himself, her father, the old magistrate, prompted by young Lupin's father, hastened the marriage, to which Adeline yielded in sheer despair.

The situation of clerk in a government registration office is not a career. It is, like other such places which admit of no rise, one of the many holes of the government sieve. Those who start in life in these holes (the topographical, the professorial, the highway-and-canal departments) are apt to discover, invariably too late, that cleverer men then they, seated beside them, are fed, as the Opposition writers say, on the sweat of the people, every time the sieve dips down into the taxation-pot by means of a machine called the budget. Adolphe, working early and late and earning little, soon found out the barren depths of his hole; and his thoughts busied themselves, as he trotted from township to township, spending his salary in shoe-leather and costs of travelling, with how to find a permanent and more profitable place.

No one can imagine, unless he happens to squint and to have two legitimate children, what ambitions three years of misery and love had developed in this young man, who squinted both in mind and vision, and whose happiness halted, as it were, on one leg. The chief cause of secret evil deeds and hidden meanness is, perhaps, an incompleted happiness. Man can better bear a state of hopeless misery than those terrible alternations of love and sunshine with continual rain. If the body contracts disease, the mind contracts the leprosy of envy. In petty minds that leprosy becomes a base and brutal cupidity, both insolent and shrinking; in cultivated minds it fosters anti-social doctrines, which serve a man as footholds by which to rise above his superiors. May we not dignify with the title of proverb the pregnant saying, "Tell me what thou hast, and I will tell thee of what thou art thinking"?

Though Adolphe loved his wife, his hourly thought was: "I have made a mistake; I have three balls and chains, but I have only two legs. I ought to have made my fortune before I married. I could have found an Adeline any day; but Adeline stands in the way of my getting a fortune now."

Adolphe had been to see his relation Gaubertin three times in three years. A few words exchanged between them let Gaubertin see the muck of a soul ready to ferment under the hot temptations of legal robbery. He warily sounded a nature that could be warped to the exigencies of any plan, provided it was profitable. At each of the three visits Sibilet grumbled at his fate.

"Employ me, cousin," he said; "take me as a clerk and make me your successor. You shall see how I work. I am capable of overthrowing mountains to give my Adeline, I won't say luxury, but a modest competence. You made Monsieur Leclercq's fortune; why won't you put me in a bank in Paris?"

"Some day, later on, I'll find you a place," Gaubertin would say; "meantime make friends and acquaintance; such things help."

Under these circumstances the letter which Madame Soudry hastily dispatched brought Sibilet to Soulanges through a region of castles in the air. His father-in-law, Sarcus, whom the Soudrys advised to take steps in the interest of his daughter, had gone in the morning to see the general and to propose Adolphe for the vacant post. By advice of Madame Soudry, who was the oracle of the little town, the worthy man had taken his daughter with him; and the sight of her had had a favorable effect upon the Comte de Montcornet.

"I shall not decide," he answered, "without thoroughly informing myself about all applicants; but I will not look elsewhere until I have examined whether or not your son-in-law possesses the requirements for the place." Then, turning to Madame Sibilet he added, "The satisfaction of settling so charming a person at Les Aigues--"

"The mother of two children, general," said Adeline, adroitly, to evade the gallantry of the old cuirassier.

All the general's inquiries were cleverly anticipated by the Soudrys, Gaubertin, and Lupin, who quietly obtained for their candidate the influence of the leading lawyers in the capital of the department, where a royal court held sessions,--such as Counsellor Gendrin, a distant relative of the judge at Ville-aux-Fayes; Baron Bourlac, attorney-general; and another counsellor named Sarcus, a cousin thrice removed of the candidate. The verdict of every one to whom the general applies was favorable to the poor clerk,--"so interesting," as they called him. His marriage had made Sibilet as irreproachable as a novel of Miss Edgeworth's, and presented him, moreover, in the light of a disinterested man.

The time which the dismissed steward remained at Les Aigues until his successor could be appointed was employed in creating troubles and annoyances for his late master; one of the little scenes which he thus played off will give an idea of several others.

The morning of his final departure he contrived to meet, as it were accidentally, Courtecuisse, the only keeper then employed at Les Aigues, the great extent of which really needed at least three.

"Well, Monsieur Gaubertin," said Courtecuisse, "so you have had trouble with the count?"

"Who told you that?" answered Gaubertin. "Well, yes; the general expected to order us about as he did his cavalry; he didn't know Burgundians. The count is not satisfied with my services, and as I am not satisfied with his ways, we have dismissed each other, almost with fisticuffs, for he raged like a whirlwind. Take care of yourself, Courtecuisse! Ah! my dear fellow, I expected to give you a better master."

"I know that," said the keeper, "and I'd have served you well. Hang it, when friends have known each other for twenty years, you know! You put me here in the days of the poor dear sainted Madame. Ah, what a good woman she was! none like her now! The place has lost a mother."

"Look here, Courtecuisse, if you are willing, you might help us to a fine stroke."

"Then you are going to stay here? I heard you were off to Paris."

"No; I shall wait to see how things turn out; meantime I shall do business at Ville-aux-Fayes. The general doesn't know what he is dealing with in these parts; he'll make himself hated, don't you see? I shall wait for what turns up. Do your work here gently; he'll tell you to manage the people with a high hand, for he begins to see where his crops and his woods are running to; but you'll not be such a fool as to let the country-folk maul you, and perhaps worse, for the sake of his timber."

"But he would send me away, dear Monsieur Gaubertin, he would get rid of me! and you know how happy I am living there at the gate of the Avonne."

"The general will soon get sick of the whole place," replied Gaubertin; "you wouldn't be long out even if he did happen to send you away. Besides, you know those woods," he added, waving his hand at the landscape; "I am stronger there than the masters."

This conversation took place in an open field.

"Those 'Arminac' Parisian fellows ought to stay in their own mud," said the keeper.

Ever since the quarrels of the fifteenth century the word 'Arminac' (Armagnacs, Parisians, enemies of the Dukes of Burgundy) has continued to be an insulting term along the borders of Upper Burgundy, where it is differently corrupted according to locality.

"He'll go back to it when beaten," said Gaubertin, "and we'll plough up the park; for it is robbing the people to allow a man to keep nine hundred acres of the best land in the valley for his own pleasure."

"Four hundred families could get their living from it," said Courtecuisse.

"If you want two acres for yourself you must help us to drive that cur out," remarked Gaubertin.

At the very moment that Gaubertin was fulminating this sentence of excommunication, the worthy Sarcus was presenting his son-in-law Sibilet to the Comte de Montcornet. They had come with Adeline and the children in a wicker carryall, lent by Sarcus's clerk, a Monsieur Gourdon, brother of the Soulanges doctor, who was richer than the magistrate himself. The general, pleased with the candor and dignity of the justice of the peace, and with the graceful bearing of Adeline (both giving pledges in good faith, for they were totally ignorant of the plans of Gaubertin), at once granted all requests and gave such advantages to the family of the new land-steward as to make the position equal to that of a sub-prefect of the first class.

A lodge, built by Bouret as an object in the landscape and also as a home for the steward, an elegant little building, the architecture of which was sufficiently shown in the description of the gate of Blangy, was promised to the Sibilets for their residence. The general also conceded the horse which Mademoiselle Laguerre had provided for Gaubertin, in consideration of the size of the estate and the distance he had to go to the markets where the business of the property was transacted. He allowed two hundred bushels of wheat, three hogsheads of wine, wood in sufficient quantity, oats and barley in abundance, and three per cent on all receipts of income. Where the latter in Mademoiselle Laguerre's time had amounted to forty thousand francs, the general now, in 1818, in view of the purchases of land which Gaubertin had made for her, expected to receive at least sixty thousand. The new land-steward might therefore receive before long some two thousand francs in money. Lodged, fed, warmed, relieved of taxes, the costs of a horse and a poultry-yard defrayed for him, and allowed to plant a kitchen-garden, with no questions asked as to the day's work of the gardener, certainly such advantages represented much more than another two thousand francs; for a man who was earning a miserable salary of twelve hundred francs in a government office to step into the stewardship of Les Aigues was a change from poverty to opulence.

"Be faithful to my interests," said the general, "and I shall have more to say to you. Doubtless I could get the collection of the rents of Conches, Blangy, and Cerneux taken away from the collection of those of Soulanges and given to you. In short, when you bring me in a clear sixty thousand a year from Les Aigues you shall be still further rewarded."

Unfortunately, the worthy justice and his daughter, in the flush of their joy, told Madame Soudry the promise the general had made about these collections, without reflecting that the present collector of Soulanges, a man named Guerbet, brother of the postmaster of Conches, was closely allied, as we shall see later, with Gaubertin and the Gendrins.

"It won't be so easy to do it, my dear," said Madame Soudry; "but don't prevent the general from making the attempt; it is wonderful how easily difficult things are done in Paris. I have seen the Chevalier Gluck at dear Madame's feet to get her to sing his music, and she did, --she who so adored Piccini, one of the finest men of his day; never did _he_ come into Madame's room without catching me round the waist and calling me a dear rogue."

"Ha!" cried Soudry, when his wife reported this news, "does he think he is going to lead the notary by the nose, and upset everything to please himself and make the whole valley march in line, as he did his cuirassiers? These military fellows have a habit of command!--but let's have patience; Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de Ronquerolles will be on our side. Poor Guerbet! he little suspects who is trying to pluck the best roses out of his garland!"

Pere Guerbet, the collector of Soulanges, was the wit, that is to say, the jovial companion of the little town, and a hero in Madame Soudry's salon. Soudry's speech gives a fair idea of the opinion which now grew up against the master of Les Aigues from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes, and wherever else the public mind could be reached and poisoned by Gaubertin.

The installation of Sibilet took place in the autumn of 1817. The year 1818 went by without the general being able to set foot at Les Aigues, for his approaching marriage with Mademoiselle de Troisville, which was celebrated in January, 1819, kept him the greater part of the summer near Alencon, in the country-house of his prospective father-in-law. General Montcornet possessed, besides Les Aigues and a magnificent house in Paris, some sixty thousand francs a year in the Funds and the salary of a retired lieutenant-general. Though Napoleon had made him a count of the Empire and given him the following arms, a field quarterly, the first, azure, bordure or, three pyramids argent; the second, vert, three hunting horns argent; the third, gules, a cannon or on a gun-carriage sable, and, in chief, a crescent or; the fourth, or, a crown vert, with the motto (eminently of the middle ages!), "Sound the charge,"--Montcornet knew very well that he was the son of a cabinet-maker in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, though he was quite ready to forget it. He was eaten up with the desire to be a peer of France, and dreamed of his grand cordon of the Legion of honor, his Saint-Louis cross, and his income of one hundred and forty thousand francs. Bitten by the demon of aristocracy, the sight of the blue ribbon put him beside himself. The gallant cuirassier of Essling would have licked up the mud on the Pont-Royal to be invited to the house of a Navarreins, a Lenoncourt, a Grandlieu, a Maufrigneuse, a d'Espard, a Vandenesse, a Verneuil, a Herouville, or a Chaulieu.

From 1818, when the impossibility of a change in favor of the Bonaparte family was made clear to him, Montcornet had himself trumpeted in the faubourg Saint-Germain by the wives of some of his friends, who offered his hand and heart, his mansion and his fortune in return for an alliance with some great family.

After several attempts, the Duchesse de Carigliano found a match for the general in one of the three branches of the Troisville family, --that of the viscount in the service of Russia ever since 1789, who had returned to France in 1815. The viscount, poor as a younger son, had married a Princess Scherbellof, worth about a million, but the arrival of two sons and three daughters kept him poor. His family, ancient and formerly powerful, now consisted of the Marquis de Troisville, peer of France, head of the house and scutcheon, and two deputies, with numerous offspring, who were busy, for their part, with the budget and the ministries and the court, like fishes round bits of bread. Therefore, when Montcornet was presented by Madame de Carigliano,--the Napoleonic duchess, who was now a most devoted adherent of the Bourbons, he was favorably received. The general asked, in return for his fortune and tender indulgence to his wife, to be appointed to the Royal Guard, with the rank of marquis and peer of France; but the branches of the Troisville family would do no more than promise him their support.

"You know what that means," said the duchess to her old friend, who complained of the vagueness of the promise. "They cannot oblige the king to do as they wish; they can only influence him."

Montcornet made Virginie de Troisville his heir in the marriage settlements. Completely under the control of his wife, as Blondet's letter has already shown, he was still without children, but Louis XVIII. had received him, and given him the cordon of Saint-Louis, allowing him to quarter his ridiculous arms with those of the Troisvilles, and promising him the title of marquis as soon as he had deserved the peerage by his services.

A few days after the audience at which this promise had been given, the Duc de Barry was assassinated; the Marsan clique carried the day; the Villele ministry came into power, and all the wires laid by the Troisvilles were snapped; it became necessary to find new ways of fastening them upon the ministry.

"We must bide our time," said the Troisvilles to Montcornet, who was always overwhelmed with politeness in the faubourg Saint-Germain.

This will explain how it was that the general did not return to Les Aigues until May, 1820.

The ineffable happiness of the son of a shop-keeper of the faubourg Saint-Antoine in possessing a young, elegant, intelligent, and gentle wife, a Troisville, who had given him an entrance into all the salons of the faubourg Saint-Germain, and the delight of making her enjoy the pleasures of Paris, had kept him from Les Aigues and made him forget about Gaubertin, even to his very name. In 1820 he took the countess to Burgundy to show her the estate, and he accepted Sibilet's accounts and leases without looking closely into them; happiness never cavils. The countess, well pleased to find the steward's wife a charming young woman, made presents to her and to the children, with whom she occasionally amused herself. She ordered a few changes at Les Aigues, having sent to Paris for an architect; proposing, to the general's great delight, to spend six months of every year on this magnificent estate. Montcornet's savings were soon spent on the architectural work and the exquisite new furniture sent from Paris. Les Aigues thus received the last touch which made it a choice example of all the diverse elegancies of four centuries.

In 1821 the general was almost peremptorily urged by Sibilet to be at Les Aigues before the month of May. Important matters had to be decided. A lease of nine years, to the amount of thirty thousand francs, granted by Gaubertin in 1812 to a wood-merchant, fell in on the 15th of May of the current year. Sibilet, anxious to prove his rectitude, was unwilling to be responsible for the renewal of the lease. "You know, Monsieur le comte," he wrote, "that I do not choose to profit by such matters." The wood-merchant claimed an indemnity, extorted from Madame Laguerre, through her hatred of litigation, and shared by him with Gaubertin. This indemnity was based on the injury done to the woods by the peasants, who treated the forest of Les Aigues as if they had a right to cut the timber. Messrs. Gravelot Brothers, wood-merchants in Paris, refused to pay their last quarter dues, offering to prove by an expert that the woods were reduced one-fifth in value, through, they said, the injurious precedent established by Madame Laguerre.

"I have already," wrote Sibilet, "sued these men in the courts at Ville-aux-Fayes, for they have taken legal residence there, on account of this lease, with my old employer, Maitre Corbinet. I fear we shall lose the suit."

"It is a question of income, my dear," said the general, showing the letter to his wife. "Will you go down to Les Aigues a little earlier this year than last?"

"Go yourself, and I will follow you when the weather is warmer," said the countess, not sorry to remain in Paris alone.

The general, who knew very well the canker that was eating into his revenues, departed without his wife, resolved to take vigorous measures. In so doing he reckoned, as we shall see, without his Gaubertin. _

Read next: Part 1: Chapter 8. The Great Revolutions Of A Little Valley

Read previous: Part 1: Chapter 6. A Tale Of Thieves

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