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

Part 2 - Chapter 5. Victory Without A Fight

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Madame Michaud's fears were the effect of that second sight which comes of true passion. Exclusively absorbed by one only being, the soul finally grasps the whole moral world which surrounds that being; it sees clearly. A woman when she loves feels the same presentiments which disquiet her later when a mother.

While the poor young woman listened to the confused voices coming from afar across an unknown space, a scene was really happening in the tavern of the Grand-I-Vert which threatened her husband's life.

About five o'clock that morning early risers had seen the gendarmerie of Soulanges on its way to Conches. The news circulated rapidly; and those whom it chiefly interested were much surprised to learn from others, who lived on high ground, that a detachment commanded by the lieutenant of Ville-aux-Fayes had marched through the forest of Les Aigues. As it was a Monday, there were already good reasons why the peasants should be at the tavern; but it was also the eve of the anniversary of the restoration of the Bourbons, and though the frequenters of Tonsard's den had no need of that "august cause" (as they said in those days) to explain their presence at the Grand-I-Vert, they did not fail to make the most of it if the mere shadow of an official functionary appeared.

Vaudoyer, Courtecuisse, Tonsard and his family, Godain, and an old vine-dresser named Laroche, were there early in the morning. The latter was a man who scratched a living from day to day; he was one of the delinquents collected in Blangy under the sort of subscription invented by Sibilet and Courtecuisse to disgust the general by the results of his indictments. Blangy had supplied three men, twelve women, also eight girls and five boys for whom parent were answerable, all of whom were in a condition of pauperism; but they were the only ones who could be found that were so. The year 1823 had been a very profitable one to the peasantry, and 1826 as likely, through the enormous quantity of wine yielded, to bring them in a good deal of money; add to this the works at Les Aigues, undertaken by the general, which had put a great deal more in circulation throughout the three districts which bordered on the estate. It had therefore been quite difficult to find in Blangy, Conches, and Cerneux, one hundred and twenty indigent persons against whom to bring the suits; and in order to do so, they had taken old women, mothers, and grandmothers of those who owned property but who possessed nothing of their own, like Tonsard's mother. Laroche, an old laborer, possessed absolutely nothing; he was not, like Tonsard, hot-blooded and vicious,--his motive power was a cold, dull hatred; he toiled in silence with a sullen face; work was intolerable to him, but he had to work to live; his features were hard and their expression repulsive. Though sixty years old, he was still strong, except that his back was bent; he saw no future before him, no spot that he could call his own, and he envied those who possessed the land; for this reason he had no pity on the forests of Les Aigues, and took pleasure in despoiling them uselessly.

"Will they be allowed to put us in prison?" he was saying. "After Conches they'll come to Blangy. I'm an old offender, and I shall get three months."

"What can we do against the gendarmerie, old drunkard?" said Vaudoyer.

"Why! cut the legs of their horses with our scythes. That'll bring them down; their muskets are not loaded, and when they find us ten to one against them they'll decamp. If the three villages all rose and killed two or three gendarmes, they couldn't guillotine the whole of us. They'd have to give way, as they did on the other side of Burgundy, where they sent a regiment. Bah! that regiment came back again, and the peasants cut the woods just as much as they ever did."

"If we kill," said Vaudoyer; "it is better to kill one man; the question is, how to do it without danger and frighten those Arminacs so that they'll be driven out of the place."

"Which one shall we kill?" asked Laroche.

"Michaud," said Courtecuisse. "Vaudoyer is right, he's perfectly right. You'll see that when a keeper is sent to the shades there won't be one of them willing to stay even in broad daylight to watch us. Now they're there night and day,--demons!"

"Wherever one goes," said old Mother Tonsard,--who was seventy-eight years old, and presented a parchment face honey-combed with the small-pox, lighted by a pair of green eyes, and framed with dirty-white hair, which escaped in strands from a red handkerchief,--"wherever one goes, there they are! they stop us, they open our bundles, and if there's a single branch, a single twig of a miserable hazel, they seize the whole bundle, and they say they'll arrest us. Ha, the villains! there's no deceiving them; if they suspect you, you've got to undo the bundle. Dogs! all three are not worth a farthing! Yes, kill 'em, and it won't ruin France, I tell you."

"Little Vatel is not so bad," said Madame Tonsard.

"He!" said Laroche, "he does his business, like the others; when there's a joke going he'll joke with you, but you are none the better with him for that. He's worse than the rest,--heartless to poor folks, like Michaud himself."

"Michaud has got a pretty wife, though," said Nicolas Tonsard.

"She's with young," said the old woman; "and if this thing goes on there'll be a queer kind of baptism for the little one when she calves."

"Oh! those Arminacs!" cried Marie Tonsard; "there's no laughing with them; and if you did, they'd threaten to arrest you."

"You've tried your hand at cajoling them, have you?" said Courtecuisse.

"You may bet on that."

"Well," said Tonsard with a determined air, "they are men like other men, and they can be got rid of."

"But I tell you," said Marie, continuing her topic, "they won't be cajoled; I don't know what's the matter with them; that bully at the pavilion, he's married, but Vatel, Gaillard, and Steingel are not; they've not a woman belonging to them; indeed, there's not a woman in the place who would marry them."

"Well, we shall see how things go at the harvest and the vintage," said Tonsard.

"They can't stop the gleaning," said the old woman.

"I don't know that," remarked Madame Tonsard. "Groison said that the mayor was going to publish a notice that no one should glean without a certificate of pauperism; and who's to give that certificate? Himself, of course. He won't give many, I tell you! And they say he is going to issue an order that no one shall enter the fields till the carts are all loaded."

"Why, the fellow's a pestilence!" cried Tonsard, beside himself with rage.

"I heard that only yesterday," said Madame Tonsard. "I offered Groison a glass of brandy to get something out of him."

"Groison! there's another lucky fellow!" said Vaudoyer, "they've built him a house and given him a good wife, and he's got an income and clothes fit for a king. There was I, field-keeper for twenty years, and all I got was the rheumatism."

"Yes, he's very lucky," said Godain, "he owns property--"

"And we go without, like the fools that we are," said Vaudoyer. "Come, let's be off and find out what's going on at Conches; they are not so patient over there as we are."

"Come on," said Laroche, who was none too steady on his legs. "If I don't exterminate one of two of those fellows may I lose my name."

"You!" said Tonsard, "you'd let them put the whole district in prison; but I--if they dare to touch my old mother, there's my gun and it never misses."

"Well," said Laroche to Vaudoyer, "I tell you that if they make a single prisoner at Conches one gendarme shall fall."

"He has said it, old Laroche!" cried Courtecuisse.

"He has said it," remarked Vaudoyer, "but he hasn't done it, and he won't do it. What good would it do to get yourself guillotined for some gendarme or other? No, if you kill, I say, kill Michaud."

During this scene Catherine Tonsard stood sentinel at the door to warn the drinkers to keep silent if any one passed. In spite of their half-drunken legs they sprang rather than walked out of the tavern, and their bellicose temper started them at a good pace on the road to Conches, which led for over a mile along the park wall of Les Aigues.

Conches was a true Burgundian village, with one street, which was crossed by the main road. The houses were built either of brick or of cobblestones, and were squalid in aspect. Following the mail-road from Ville-aux-Fayes, the village was seen from the rear and there it presented rather a picturesque effect. Between the road and the Ronquerolles woods, which continued those of Les Aigues and crowned the heights, flowed a little river, and several houses, rather prettily grouped, enlivened the scene. The church and the parsonage stood alone and were seen from the park of Les Aigues, which came nearly up to them. In front of the church was a square bordered by trees, where the conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert saw the gendarmerie and hastened their already hasty steps. Just then three men on horseback rode rapidly out of the park of Les Aigues and the peasants at once recognized the general, his groom, and Michaud the bailiff, who came at a gallop into the square. Tonsard and his party arrived a minute or two after them. The delinquents, men and women, had made no resistance, and were standing between five of the Soulanges gendarmes and fifteen of those from Ville-aux-Fayes. The whole village had assembled. The fathers, mothers, and children of the prisoners were going and coming and bringing them what they might want in prison. It was a curious scene, that of a population one and all exasperated, but nearly all silent, as though they had made up their minds to a course of action. The old women and the young ones alone spoke. The children, boys and girls, were perched on piles of wood and heaps of stones to get a better sight of what was happening.

"They have chosen their time, those hussars of the guillotine," said one old woman; "they are making a fete of it."

"Are you going to let 'em carry of your man like that? How shall you manage to live for three months?--the best of the year, too, when he could earn so much."

"It's they who rob us," replied the woman, looking at the gendarmes with a threatening air.

"What do you mean by that, old woman?" said the sergeant. "If you insult us it won't take long to settle you."

"I meant nothing," said the old woman, in a humble and piteous tone.

"I heard you say something just now you may have cause to repent of."

"Come, come, be calm, all of you," said the mayor of Conches, who was also the postmaster. "What the devil is the use of talking? These men, as you know very well, are under orders and must obey."

"That's true; it's the owner of Les Aigues who persecutes us-- But patience!"

Just then the general rode into the square and his arrival caused a few groans which did not trouble him in the least. He rode straight up to the lieutenant in command, and after saying a few words gave him a paper; the officer then turned to his men and said: "Release your prisoners; the general has obtained their pardon."

General Montcornet was then speaking to the mayor; after a few moments' conversation in a low tone, the latter, addressing the delinquents, who expected to sleep in prison and were a good deal surprised to find themselves free, said to them:--

"My friends, thank Monsieur le comte. You owe your release to him. He went to Paris and obtained your pardon in honor of the anniversary of the king's restoration. I hope that in future you will conduct yourself properly to a man who has behaved so well to you, and that you will in future respect his property. Long live the King!"

The peasants shouted "Long live the King!" with enthusiasm, to avoid shouting, "Hurrah for the Comte de Montcornet!"

The scene was a bit of policy arranged between the general, the prefect, and the attorney-general; for they were all anxious, while showing enough firmness to keep the local authorities up to their duty and awe the country-people, to be as gentle as possible, fully realizing as they did the difficulties of the question. In fact, if resistance had occurred, the government would have been in a tight place. As Laroche truly said, they could not guillotine or even convict a whole community.

The general invited the mayor of Conches, the lieutenant, and the sergeant to breakfast. The conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert adjourned to the tavern of Conches, where the delinquents spent in drink the money their relations had given them to take to prison, sharing it with the Blangy people, who were naturally part of the wedding,--the word "wedding" being applied indiscriminately in Burgundy to all such rejoicings. To drink, quarrel, fight, eat and go home drunk and sick, --that is a wedding to these peasants.

The general, who had come by the park, took his guests back through the forest that they might see for themselves the injury done to the timber, and so judge of the importance of the question.

Just as Rigou and Soudry were on their way back to Blangy, the count and countess, Emile Blondet, the lieutenant of gendarmerie, the sergeant, and the mayor of Conches were finishing their breakfast in the splendid dining-room where Bouret's luxury had left the delightful traces already described by Blondet in his letter to Nathan.

"It would be a terrible pity to abandon this beautiful home," said the lieutenant, who had never before been at Les Aigues, and who was glancing over a glass of champagne at the circling nymphs that supported the ceiling.

"We intend to defend it to the death," said Blondet.

"If I say that," continued the lieutenant, looking at his sergeant as if to enjoin silence, "it is because the general's enemies are not only among the peasantry--"

The worthy man was quite moved by the excellence of the breakfast, the magnificence of the silver service, the imperial luxury that surrounded him, and Blondet's clever talk excited him as much as the champagne he had imbibed.

"Enemies! have I enemies?" said the general, surprised.

"He, so kind!" added the countess.

"But you are on bad terms with our mayor, Monsieur Gaubertin," said the lieutenant. "It would be wise, for the sake of the future, to be reconciled with him."

"With him!" cried the count. "Then you don't know that he was my former steward, and a swindler!"

"A swindler no longer," said the lieutenant, "for he is mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes."

"Ha, ha!" laughed Blondet, "the lieutenant's wit is keen; evidently a mayor is essentially an honest man."

The lieutenant, convinced by the count's words that it was useless to attempt to enlighten him, said no more on that subject, and the conversation changed. _

Read next: Part 2: Chapter 6. The Forest And The Harvest

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

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