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

Part 2 - Chapter 4. The Triumvirate Of Ville-Aux-Fayes

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The cautious usurer compelled his wife and Jean to go to bed and to rise by daylight; assuring them that the house would never be attacked if he sat up till midnight, and he never himself rose till late. Not only had he thus secured himself from interruption between seven at night and five the next morning but he had accustomed his wife and Jean to respect his morning sleep and that of Hagar, whose room was directly behind his.

So, on the following morning, about half past six, Madame Rigou, who herself took care of the poultry-yard with some assistance from Jean, knocked timidly at her husband's door.

"Monsieur Rigou," she said, "you told me to wake you."

The tones of that voice, the attitude of the woman, her frightened air as she obeyed an order the execution of which might be ill-received, showed the utter self-abnegation in which the poor creature lived, and the affection she still bore to her petty tyrant.

"Very good," replied Rigou.

"Shall I wake Annette?" she asked.

"No, let her sleep; she has been up half the night," he replied, gravely.

The man was always grave, even when he allowed himself to jest. Annette had in fact opened the door secretly to Sibilet, Fourchon, and Catherine Tonsard, who all came at different hours between eleven and two o'clock.

Ten minutes later Rigou, dressed with more care than usual, came downstairs and greeted his wife with a "Good-morning, my old woman," which made her happier than if counts had knelt at her feet.

"Jean," he said to the ex-lay-brother, "don't leave the house; if any one robs me it will be worse for you than for me."

By thus mingling mildness and severity, hopes and rebuffs, the clever egoist kept his three slaves faithful and close at his heels, like dogs.

Taking the upper-road, so-called, to avoid the Close of the Cross, Rigou reached the square of Soulanges about eight o'clock.

Just as he was fastening his rein to the post nearest the little door with three steps, a blind opened and Soudry showed his face, pitted with the small-pox, which the expression of his small black eyes rendered crafty.

"Let's begin by taking a crust here before we start," he said; "we sha'n't get breakfast at Ville-aux-Fayes before one o'clock."

Then he softly called a servant-girl, as young and pretty as Annette, who came down noiselessly, and received his order for ham and bread; after which he went himself to the cellar and fetched some wine.

Rigou contemplated for the hundredth time the well-known dining-room, floored in oak, with stuccoed ceiling and cornice, its high wainscot and handsome cupboards finely painted, its porcelain stone and magnificent tall clock,--all the property of Mademoiselle Laguerre. The chair-backs were in the form of lyres, painted white and highly varnished; the seats were of green morocco with gilt nails. A massive mahogany table was covered with green oilcloth, with large squares of a deeper shade of green, and a plain border of the lighter. The floor, laid in Hungarian point, was carefully waxed by Urbain and showed the care which ex-waiting-women know how to exact out of their servants.

"Bah! it cost too much," thought Rigou for the hundredth time. "I can eat as good a dinner in my room as here, and I have the income of the money this useless splendor would have wasted. Where is Madame Soudry?" he asked, as the mayor returned armed with a venerable bottle.


"And you no longer disturb her slumbers?" said Rigou.

The ex-gendarme winked with a knowing air, and pointed to the ham which Jeannette, the pretty maid, was just bringing in.

"That will pick you up, a pretty bit like that," he said. "It was cured in the house; we cut into it only yesterday."

"Where did you find her?" said the ex-Benedictine in Soudry's ear.

"She is like the ham," replied the ex-gendarme, winking again; "I have had her only a week."

Jeannette, still in her night-cap, with a short petticoat and her bare feet in slippers, had slipped on a bodice made with straps over the arms in true peasant fashion, over which she had crossed a neckerchief which did not entirely hide her fresh and youthful attractions, which were at least as appetizing as the ham she carried. Short and plump, with bare arms mottled red, ending in large, dimpled hands with short but well-made fingers, she was a picture of health. The face was that of a true Burgundian,--ruddy, but white about the temples, throat, and ears; the hair was chestnut; the corners of the eyes turned up towards the top of the ears; the nostrils were wide, the mouth sensual, and a little down lay along the cheeks; all this, together with a jaunty expression, tempered however by a deceitfully modest attitude, made her the model of a roguish servant-girl.

"On my honor, Jeannette is as good as the ham," said Rigou. "If I hadn't an Annette I should want a Jeannette."

"One is as good as the other," said the ex-gendarme, "for your Annette is fair and delicate. How is Madame Rigou,--is she asleep?" added Soudry, roughly, to let Rigou see he understood his joke.

"She wakes with the cock, but she goes to roost with the hens," replied Rigou. "As for me, I sit up and read the 'Constitutionnel.' My wife lets me sleep at night and in the morning too; she wouldn't come into my room for all the world."

"It's just the other way here," replied Jeanette. "Madame sits up with the company playing cards; sometimes there are sixteen of them in the salon; Monsieur goes to bed at eight o'clock, and we get up at daylight--"

"You think that's different," said Rigou, "but it comes to the same thing in the end. Well, my dear, you come to me and I'll send Annette here, and that will be the same thing and different too."

"Old scamp, you'll make her ashamed," said Soudry.

"Ha! gendarme; you want your field to yourself! Well, we all get our happiness where we can find it."

Jeanette, by her master's order, disappeared to lay out his clothes.

"You must have promised to marry her when your wife dies," said Rigou.

"At your age and mine," replied Soudry, "there's no other way."

"With girls of any ambition it would be one way to become a widower," added Rigou; "especially if Madame Soudry found fault with Jeannette for her way of scrubbing the staircase."

The remark made the two husbands pensive. When Jeannette returned and announced that all was ready, Soudry said to her, "Come and help me!" --a precaution which made the ex-monk smile.

"There's a difference, indeed!" said he. "As for me, I'd leave you alone with Annette, my good friend."

A quarter of an hour later Soudry, in his best clothes, got into the wicker carriage, and the two friends drove round the lake of Soulanges to Ville-aux-Fayes.

"Look at it!" said Rigou, as they reached an eminence from which the chateau of Soulanges could be seen in profile.

The old revolutionary put into the tone of his words all the hatred which the rural middle classes feel to the great chateaux and the great estates.

"Yes, but I hope it will never be destroyed as long as I live," said Soudry. "The Comte de Soulanges was my general; he did me kindness; he got my pension, and he allows Lupin to manage the estate. After Lupin some of us will have it, and as long as the Soulanges family exists they and their property will be respected. Such folks are large-minded; they let every one make his profit, and they find it pays."

"Yes, but the Comte de Soulanges has three children, who, at his death, may not agree," replied Rigou. "The husband of his daughter and his sons may go to law, and end by selling the lead and iron mines to manufacturers, from whom we shall manage to get them back."

The chateau just then showed up in profile, as if to defy the ex-monk.

"Ah! look at it; in those days they built well," cried Soudry. "But just now Monsieur le Comte is economizing, so as to make Soulanges the entailed estate of his peerage."

"My dear friend," said Rigou, "entailed estates won't exist much longer."

When the topic of public matters was exhausted, the worthy pair began to discuss the merits of their pretty maids in terms too Burgundian to be printed here. That inexhaustible subject carried them so far that before they knew it they saw the capital of the arrondissement over which Gaubertin reigned, and which we hope excites enough curiosity in the reader's mind to justify a short digression.

The name of Ville-aux-Fayes, singular as it is, is explained as the corruption of the words (in low Latin) "Villa in Fago,"--the manor of the woods. This name indicates that a forest once covered the delta formed by the Avonne before it joins its confluent the Yonne. Some Frank doubtless built a fortress on the hill which slopes gently to the long plain. The savage conqueror separated his vantage-ground from the delta by a wide and deep moat and made the position a formidable one, essentially seignorial, convenient for enforcing tolls across the bridges and for protecting his rights of profit on all grains ground in the mills.

That is the history of the beginning of Ville-aux-Fayes. Wherever feudal or ecclesiastical dominion established there we find gathered together interests, inhabitants, and, later, towns when the localities were in a position to maintain them and to found and develop great industries. The method of floating timber discovered by Jean Rouvet in 1549, which required certain convenient stations to intercept it, was the making of Ville-aux-Fayes, which, up to that time, had been, compared to Soulanges, a mere village. Ville-aux-Fayes became a storage place for timber, which covered the shores of the two rivers for a distance of over thirty miles. The work of taking out of the water, computing the lost logs, and making the rafts which the Yonne carried down to the Seine, brought together a large concourse of workmen. Such a population increased consumption and encouraged trade. Thus Ville-aux-Fayes, which had but six hundred inhabitants at the end of the seventeenth century, had two thousand in 1790, and Gaubertin had now raised the number to four thousand, by the following means.

When the legislative assembly decreed the new laying out of territory, Ville-aux-Fayes, which was situated where, geographically, a sub-prefecture was needed, was chosen instead of Soulanges as chief town or capital of the arrondissement. The increased population of Paris, by increasing the demand for and the value of wood as fuel, necessarily increased the commerce of Ville-aux-Fayes. Gaubertin had founded his fortune, after losing his stewardship, on this growing business, estimating the effect of peace on the population of Paris, which did actually increase by over one-third between 1815 and 1825.

The shape of Ville-aux-Fayes followed the conformation of the ground. Each side of the promontory was lined with wharves. The dam to stop the timber from floating further down was just below a hill covered by the forest of Soulanges. Between the dam and the town lay a suburb. The lower town, covering the greater part of the delta, came down to the shores of the lake of the Avonne.

Above the lower town some five hundred houses with gardens, standing on the heights, were grouped round three sides of the promontory, and enjoyed the varied scene of the diamond waters of the lake, the rafts in construction along its edge, and the piles of wood upon the shores. The waters, laden with timber from the river and the rapids which fed the mill-races and the sluices of a few manufactories, presented an animated scene, all the more charming because inclosed in the greenery of forests, while the long valley of Les Aigues offered a glorious contrast to the dark foil of the heights above the town itself.

Gaubertin had built himself a house on the level of the delta, intending to make a place which should improve the locality and render the lower town as desirable as the upper. It was a modern house built of stone, with a balcony of iron railings, outside blinds, painted windows, and no ornament but a line of fret-work under the eaves, a slate roof, one story in height with a garret, a fine courtyard, and behind it an English garden bathed by the waters of the Avonne. The elegance of the place compelled the department to build a fine edifice nearly opposite to it for the sub-prefecture, provisionally lodged in a mere kennel. The town itself also built a town-hall. The law-courts had lately been installed in a new edifice; so that Ville-aux-Fayes owed to the active influence of its present mayor a number of really imposing public buildings. The gendarmerie had also built barracks which completed the square formed by the marketplace.

These changes, on which the inhabitants prided themselves, were due to the impetus given by Gaubertin, who within a day or two had received the cross of the Legion of honor, in anticipation of the coming birthday of the king. In a town so situated and so modern there was of course, neither aristocracy nor nobility. Consequently, the rich merchants of Ville-aux-Fayes, proud of their own independence, willingly espoused the cause of the peasantry against a count of the Empire who had taken sides with the Restoration. To them the oppressors were the oppressed. The spirit of this commercial town was so well known to the government that they send there as sub-prefect a man with a conciliatory temper, a pupil of his uncle, the well-known des Lupeaulx, one of those men, accustomed to compromise, who are familiar with the difficulties and necessities of administration, but whom puritan politicians, doing infinitely worse things, call corrupt.

The interior of Gaubertin's house was decorated with the unmeaning commonplaces of modern luxury. Rich papers with gold borders, bronze chandeliers, mahogany furniture of a new pattern, astral lamps, round tables with marble tops, white china with gilt lines for dessert, red morocco chairs and mezzo-tint engravings in the dining-room, and blue cashmere furniture in the salon,--all details of a chilling and perfectly unmeaning character, but which to the eyes of Ville-aux-Fayes seemed the last efforts of Sardanapalian luxury. Madame Gaubertin played the role of elegance with great effect; she assumed little airs and was lackadaisical at forty-five years of age, as though certain of the homage of her court.

We ask those who really know France, if these houses--those of Rigou, Soudry, and Gaubertin--are not a perfect presentation of the village, the little town, and the seat of a sub-prefecture?

Without being a man of mind, or a man of talent, Gaubertin had the appearance of being both. He owed the accuracy of his perception and his consummate art to an extreme keenness after gain. He desired wealth, not for his wife, not for his children, not for himself, not for his family, not for the reputation that money gives; after the gratification of his revenge (the hope of which kept him alive) he loved the touch of money, like Nucingen, who, it was said, kept fingering the gold in his pockets. The rush of business was Gaubertin's wine; and though he had his belly full of it, he had all the eagerness of one who was empty. As with valets of the drama, intrigues, tricks to play, mischief to organize, deceptions, commercial over-reachings, accounts to render and receive, disputes, and quarrels of self-interest, exhilarated him, kept his blood in circulation, and his bile flowing. He went and came on foot, on horseback, in a carriage, by water; he was at all auctions and timber sales in Paris, thinking of everything, keeping hundreds of wires in his hands and never getting them tangled.

Quick, decided in his movements as in his ideas, short and squat in figure, with a thin nose, a fiery eye, an ear on the "qui vive," there was something of the hunting-dog about him. His brown face, very round and sunburned, from which the tanned ears stood out predominantly, --for he always wore a cap,--was in keeping with that character. His nose turned up; his tightly-closed lips could never have opened to say a kindly thing. His bushy whiskers formed a pair of black and shiny tufts beneath the highly-colored cheek-bones, and were lost in his cravat. Hair that was pepper-and-salt in color and frizzled naturally in stages like those of a judge's wig, seeming scorched by the fury of the fire which heated his brown skull and gleamed in his gray eyes surrounded by circular wrinkles (no doubt from a habit of always blinking when he looked across the country in full sunlight), completed the characteristics of his physiognomy. His lean and vigorous hands were hairy, knobbed, and claw-like, like those of men who do their share of labor. His personality was agreeable to those with whom he had to do, for he wrapped it in a misleading gayety; he knew how to talk a great deal without saying a word of what he meant to keep unsaid. He wrote little, so as to deny anything that escaped him which might prove unfavorable in its after effects upon his interests. His books and papers were kept by a cashier,--an honest man, whom men of Gaubertin's stamp always seek to get hold of, and whom they make, in their own selfish interests, their first dupe.

When Rigou's little green chaise appeared, towards twelve o'clock, in the broad avenue which skirts the river, Gaubertin, in cap, boots, and jacket, was returning from the wharves. He hastened his steps, --feeling very sure that Rigou's object in coming over could only be "the great affair."

"Good morning, gendarme; good morning, paunch of gall and wisdom," he said, giving a little slap to the stomachs of his two visitors. "We have business to talk over, and, faith! we'll do it glass in hand; that's the true way to take things."

"If you do your business that way, you ought to be fatter than you are," said Rigou.

"I work too hard; I'm not like you two, confined to the house and bewitched there, like old dotards. Well, well, after all that's the best way; you can do your business comfortably in an arm-chair, with your back to the fire and your belly at table; custom goes to you, I have to go after it. But now, come in, come in! the house is yours for the time you stay."

A servant, in blue livery edged with scarlet, took the horse by the bridle and led him into the courtyard, where were the offices and the stable.

Gaubertin left his guests to walk about the garden for a moment, while he went to give his orders and arrange about the breakfast.

"Well, my wolves," he said, as he returned, rubbing his hands, "the gendarmerie of Soulanges were seen this morning at daybreak, marching towards Conches; no doubt they mean to arrest the peasants for depredations; ha, ha! things are getting warm, warm! By this time," he added, looking at his watch, "those fellows may have been arrested."

"Probably," said Rigou.

"Well, what do you all say over there? Has anything been decided?"

"What is there to decide?" asked Rigou. "We have no part in it," he added, looking at Soudry.

"How do you mean nothing to decide? If Les Aigues is sold as the result of our coalition, who is to gain five or six hundred thousand francs out of it? Do you expect me to, all alone? No, my inside is not strong enough to split up two millions, with three children to establish, and a wife who hasn't the first idea about the value of money; no, I must have associates. Here's the gendarme, he has plenty of funds all ready. I know he doesn't hold a single mortgage that isn't ready to mature; he only lends now on notes at sight of which I endorse. I'll go into this thing by the amount of eight hundred thousand francs; my son, the judge, two hundred thousand; and I count on the gendarme for two hundred thousand more; now, how much will you put in, skull-cap?"

"All the rest," replied Rigou, stiffly.

"The devil! well, I wish I had my hand where your heart is!" exclaimed Gaubertin. "Now what are you going to do?"

"Whatever you do; tell your plan."

"My plan," said Gaubertin, "is to take double, and sell half to the Conches, and Cerneux, and Blangy folks who want to buy. Soudry has his clients, and you yours, and I, mine. That's not the difficulty. The thing is, how are we going to arrange among ourselves? How shall we divide up the great lots?"

"Nothing easier," said Rigou. "We'll each take what we like best. I, for one, shall stand in nobody's way; I'll take the woods in common with Soudry and my son-in-law; the timber has been so injured that you won't care for it now, and you may have all the rest. Faith, it is worth the money you'll put into it!"

"Will you sign that agreement?" said Soudry.

"A written agreement is worth nothing," replied Gaubertin. "Besides, you know I am playing above board; I have perfect confidence in Rigou, and he shall be the purchaser."

"That will satisfy me," said Rigou.

"I will make only one condition," added Gaubertin. "I must have the pavilion of the Rendezvous, with all its appurtenances, and fifty acres of the surrounding land. I shall make it my country-house, and it shall be near my woods. Madame Gaubertin--Madame Isaure, for that's what she wants people to call her--says she shall make it her villa."

"I'm willing," said Rigou.

"Well, now, between ourselves," continued Gaubertin, after looking about him on all sides and making sure that no one could overhear him, "do you think they are capable of striking a blow?"

"Such as?" asked Rigou, who never allowed himself to understand a hint.

"Well, if the worst of the band, the best shot, sent a ball whistling round the ears of the count--just to frighten him?"

"He's a man to rush at an assailant and collar him."

"Michaud, then."

"Michaud would do nothing at the moment, but he'd watch and spy till he found out the man and those who instigated him."

"You are right," said Gaubertin; "those peasants must make a riot and a few must be sent to the galleys. Well, so much the better for us; the authorities will catch the worst, whom we shall want to get rid of after they've done the work. There are those blackguards, the Tonsards and Bonnebault--"

"Tonsard is ready for mischief," said Soudry, "I know that; and we'll work him up by Vaudoyer and Courtecuisse."

"I'll answer for Courtecuisse," said Rigou.

"And I hold Vaudoyer in the hollow of my hand."

"Be cautious!" said Rigou; "before everything else be cautious."

"Now, papa skull-cap, do you mean to tell me that there's any harm in speaking of things as they are? Is it we who are indicting and arresting, or gleaning or depredating? If Monsieur le comte knows what he's about and leases the woods to the receiver-general it is all up with our schemes,--'Farewell baskets, the vintage is o'er'; in that case you will lose more than I. What we say here is between ourselves and for ourselves; for I certainly wouldn't say a word to Vaudoyer that I couldn't repeat to God and man. But it is not forbidden, I suppose, to profit by any events that may take place. The peasantry of this canton are hot-headed; the general's exactions, his severity, Michaud's persecutions, and those of his keepers have exasperated them; to-day things have come to a crisis and I'll bet there's a rumpus going on now with the gendarmerie. And so, let's go and breakfast."

Madame Gaubertin came into the garden just then. She was a rather fair woman with long curls, called English, hanging down her cheeks, who played the style of sentimental virtue, pretended never to have known love, talked platonics to all the men about her, and kept the prosecuting-attorney at her beck and call. She was given to caps with large bows, but preferred to wear only her hair. She danced, and at forty-five years of age had the mincing manner of a girl; her feet, however, were large and her hands frightful. She wished to be called Isaure, because among her other oddities and absurdities she had the taste to repudiate the name of Gaubertin as vulgar. Her eyes were light and her hair of an undecided color, something like dirty nankeen. Such as she was, she was taken as a model by a number of young ladies, who stabbed the skies with their glances, and posed as angels.

"Well, gentlemen," she said, bowing, "I have some strange news for you. The gendarmerie have returned."

"Did they make any prisoners?"

"None; the general, it seems, had previously obtained the pardon of the depredators. It was given in honor of this happy anniversary of the king's restoration to France."

The three associates looked at each other.

"He is cleverer than I thought for, that big cuirassier!" said Gaubertin. "Well, come to breakfast. After all, the game is not lost, only postponed; it is your affair now, Rigou."

Soudry and Rigou drove back disappointed, not being able as yet to plan any other catastrophe to serve their ends and relying, as Gaubertin advised, on what might turn up. Like certain Jacobins at the outset of the Revolution who were furious with Louis XVI.'s conciliations, and who provoked severe measures at court in the hope of producing anarchy, which to them meant fortune and power, the formidable enemies of General Montcornet staked their present hopes on the severity which Michaud and his keepers were likely to employ against future depredators. Gaubertin promised them his assistance, without explaining who were his co-operators, for he did not wish them to know about his relations with Sibilet. Nothing can equal the prudence of a man of Gaubertin's stamp, unless it be that of an ex-gendarme or an unfrocked priest. This plot could not have been brought to a successful issue,--a successfully evil issue,--unless by three such men as these, steeped in hatred and self-interest. _

Read next: Part 2: Chapter 5. Victory Without A Fight

Read previous: Part 2: Chapter 3. The Cafe De La Paix

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