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

Part 2 - Chapter 6. The Forest And The Harvest

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The scene at Conches had, apparently, a good effect on the peasantry; on the other hand, the count's faithful keepers were more than ever watchful that only dead wood should be gathered in the forest of Les Aigues. But for the last twenty years the woods had been so thoroughly cleared out that very little else than live wood was now there; and this the peasantry set about killing, in preparation for winter, by a simple process, the results of which could only be discovered in the course of time. Tonsard's mother went daily into the forest; the keepers saw her enter; knew where she would come out; watched for her and made her open her bundle, where, to be sure, were only fallen branches, dried chips, and broken and withered twigs. The old woman would whine and complain at the distance she had to go at her age to gather such a miserable bunch of fagots. But she did not tell that she had been in the thickest part of the wood and had removed the earth at the base of certain young trees, round which she had then cut off a ring of bark, replacing the earth, moss, and dead leaves just as they were before she touched them. It was impossible that any one could discover this annular incision, made, not like a cut, but more like the ripping or gnawing of animals or those destructive insects called in different regions borers, or turks, or white worms, which are the first stage of cockchafers. These destructive pests are fond of the bark of trees; they get between the bark and the sap-wood and eat their way round. If the tree is large enough for the insect to pass into its second state (of larvae, in which it remains dormant until its second metamorphose) before it has gone round the trunk, the tree lives, because so long as even a small bit of the sap-wood remains covered by the bark, the tree will still grow and recover itself. To realize to what a degree entomology affects agriculture, horticulture, and all earth products, we must know that naturalists like Latreille, the Comte Dejean, Klugg of Berlin, Gene of Turin, etc., find that the vast majority of all known insects live at the sacrifice of vegetation; that the coleoptera (a catalogue of which has lately been published by Monsieur Dejean) have twenty-seven thousand species, and that, in spite of the most earnest research on the part of entomologists of all countries, there is an enormous number of species of whom they cannot trace the triple transformations which belong to all insects; that there is, in short, not only a special insect to every plant, but that all terrestrial products, however much they may be manipulated by human industry, have their particular parasite. Thus flax, after covering the human body and hanging the human being, after roaming the world on the back of an army, becomes writing-paper; and those who write or who read are familiar with the habits and morals of an insect called the "paper-louse," an insect of really marvellous celerity and behavior; it undergoes its mysterious transformations in a ream of white paper which you have carefully put away; you see it gliding and frisking along in its shining robe, that looks like isinglass or mica,--truly a little fish of another element.

The borer is the despair of the land-owner; he works underground; no Sicilian vespers for him until he becomes a cockchafer! If the populations only realized with what untold disasters they are threatened in case they let the cockchafers and the caterpillars get the upper hand, they would pay more attention than they do to municipal regulations.

Holland came near perishing; its dikes were undermined by the teredo, and science is unable to discover the insect from which that mollusk derives, just as science still remains ignorant of the metamorphoses of the cochineal. The ergot, or spur, of rye is apparently a population of insects where the genius of science has been able, so far, to discover only one slight movement. Thus, while awaiting the harvest and gleaning, fifty old women imitated the borer at the feet of five or six hundred trees which were fated to become skeletons and to put forth no more leaves in the spring. They were carefully chosen in the least accessible places, so that the surrounding branches concealed them.

Who conveyed the secret information by which this was done? No one. Courtecuisse happened to complain in Tonsard's tavern of having found a tree wilting in his garden; it seemed he said, to have a disease, and he suspected a borer; for he, Courtecuisse, knew what borers were, and if they once circled a tree just below the ground, the tree died. Thereupon he explained the process. The old women at once set to work at the same destruction, with the mystery and cleverness of gnomes; and their efforts were doubled by the rules now enforced by the mayor of Blangy and necessarily followed by the mayors of the adjoining districts.

The great land-owners of the department applauded General de Montcornet's course; and the prefect in his private drawing-room declared that if, instead of living in Paris, other land-owners would come and live on their estates and follow such a course together, a solution of the difficulty could be obtained; for certain measures, added the prefect, ought to be taken, and taken in concert, modified by benefactions and by an enlightened philanthropy, such as every one could see actuated in General Montcornet.

The general and his wife, assisted by the abbe, tried the effects of such benevolence. They studied the subject, and endeavored to show by incontestable results to those who pillaged them that more money could be made by legitimate toil. They supplied flax and paid for the spinning; the countess had the thread woven into linen suitable for towels, aprons, and coarse napkins for kitchen use, and for underclothing for the very poor. The general began improvements which needed many laborers, and he employed none but those in the adjoining districts. Sibilet was in charge of the works and the Abbe Brossette gave the countess lists of the most needy, and often brought them to her himself. Madame de Montcornet attended to these matters personally in the great antechamber which opened upon the portico. It was a beautiful waiting-room, floored with squares of white and red marble, warmed by a porcelain stove, and furnished with benches covered with red plush.

It was there that one morning, just before harvest, old Mother Tonsard brought her granddaughter Catherine, who had to make, she said, a dreadful confession,--dreadful for the honor of a poor but honest family. While the old woman addressed the countess Catherine stood in an attitude of conscious guilt. Then she related on her own account the unfortunate "situation" in which she was placed, which she had confided to none but her grandmother; for her mother, she knew, would turn her out, and her father, an honorable man, might kill her. If she only had a thousand francs she could be married to a poor laborer named Godain, who _knew all_, and who loved her like a brother; he could buy a poor bit of ground and build a cottage if she had that sum. It was very touching. The countess promised the money; resolving to devote the price of some fancy to this marriage. The happy marriages of Michaud and Groison encouraged her. Besides, such a wedding would be a good example to the people of the neighborhood and stimulate to virtuous conduct. The marriage of Catherine Tonsard and Godain was accordingly arranged by means of the countess's thousand francs.

Another time a horrible old woman, Mother Bonnebault, who lived in a hut between the gate of Conches and the village, brought back a great bundle of skeins of linen thread.

"Madame la comtesse has done wonders," said the abbe, full of hope as to the moral progress of his savages. "That old woman did immense damage to your woods, but now she has no time for it; she stays at home and spins from morning till night; her time is all taken up and well paid for."

Peace reigned everywhere. Groison made very satisfactory reports; depredations seemed to have ceased, and it is even possible that the state of the neighborhood and the feeling of the inhabitants might really have changed if it had not been for the revengeful eagerness of Gaubertin, the cabals of the leading society of Soulanges, and the intrigues of Rigou, who one and all, with "the affair" in view, blew the embers of hatred and crime in the hearts of the peasantry of the valley des Aigues.

The keepers still complained of finding a great many branches cut with shears in the deeper parts of the wood and left to dry, evidently as a provision for winter. They watched for the delinquents without ever being able to catch them. The count, assisted by Groison, had given certificates of pauperism to only thirty or forty of the real poor of the district; but the other two mayors had been less strict. The more clement the count showed himself in the affair at Conches the more determined he was to enforce the laws about gleaning, which had now degenerated into theft. He did not interfere with the management of three of his farms which were leased to tenants, nor with those whose tenants worked for his profit, of which he had a number; but he managed six farms himself, each of about two hundred acres, and he now published a notice that it was forbidden, under pain of being arrested and made to pay the fine imposed by the courts, to enter those fields before the crop was carried away. The order concerned only his own immediate property. Rigou, who knew the country well, had let his farm-lands in portions and on short leases to men who knew how to get in their own crops, and who paid him in grain; therefore gleaning did not affect him. The other proprietors were peasants, and no nefarious gleaning was attempted on their land.

When the harvest began the count went himself to Michaud to see how things were going on. Groison, who advised him to do this, was to be present himself at the gleaning of each particular field. The inhabitants of cities can have no idea what gleaning is to the inhabitants of the country; the passion of these sons of the soil for it seems inexplicable; there are women who will give up well-paid employments to glean. The wheat they pick up seems to them sweeter than any other; and the provision they thus make for their chief and most substantial food has to them an extraordinary attraction. Mothers take their babes and their little girls and boys; the feeblest old men drag themselves into the wheat-fields; and even those who own property are paupers for the nonce. All gleaners appear in rags.

The count and Michaud were present on horseback when the first tattered batch entered the first fields from which the wheat had been carried. It was ten o'clock in the morning. August had been a hot month, the sky was cloudless, blue as a periwinkle; the earth was baked, the wheat flamed, the harvestmen worked with their faces scorched by the reflection of the sun-rays on the hard and arid earth. All were silent, their shirts wet with perspiration; while from time to time, they slaked their thirst with water from round, earthenware jugs, furnished with two handles and a mouth-piece stoppered with a willow stick.

At the father end of the stubble-field stood the carts which contained the sheaves, and near them a group of at least a hundred beings who far exceeded the hideous conceptions of Murillo and Teniers, the boldest painters of such scenes, or of Callot, that poet of the fantastic in poverty. The pictured bronze legs, the bare heads, the ragged garments so curiously faded, so damp with grease, so darned and spotted and discolored, in short, the painters' ideal of the material of abject poverty was far surpassed by this scene; while the expression on those faces, greedy, anxious, doltish, idiotic, savage, showed the everlasting advantage which nature possesses over art by its comparison with the immortal compositions of those princes of color. There were old women with necks like turkeys, and hairless, scarlet eyelids, who stretched their heads forward like setters before a partridge; there were children, silent as soldiers under arms, little girls who stamped like animals waiting for their food; the natures of childhood and old age were crushed beneath the fierceness of a savage greed,--greed for the property of others now their own by long abuse. All eyes were savage, all gestures menacing; but every one kept silence in presence of the count, the field-keeper, and the bailiff. At this moment all classes were represented,--the great land-owners, the farmers, the working men, the paupers; the social question was defined to the eye; hunger had convoked the actors in the scene. The sun threw into relief the hard and hollow features of those faces; it burned the bare feet dusty with the soil; children were present with no clothing but a torn blouse, their blond hair tangled with straw and chips; some women brought their babes just able to walk, and left them rolling in the furrows.

The gloomy scene was harrowing to the old soldier, whose heart was kind, and he said to Michaud: "It pains me to see it. One must know the importance of these measures to be able to insist upon them."

"If every land-owner followed your example, lived on his property, and did the good that you and yours are doing, general, there would be, I won't say no poor, for they are always with us, but no poor man who could not live by his labor."

"The mayors of Conches, Cerneux, and Soulanges have sent us all their paupers," said Groison, who had now looked at the certificates; "they had no right to do so."

"No, but our people will go to their districts," said the general. "For the time being we have done enough by preventing the gleaning before the sheaves were taken away; we had better go step by step," he added, turning to leave the field.

"Did you hear him?" said Mother Tonsard to the old Bonnebault woman, for the general's last words were said in a rather louder tone than the rest, and reached the ears of the two old women who were posted in the road which led beside the field.

"Yes, yes! we haven't got to the end yet,--a tooth to-day and to-morrow an ear; if they could find a sauce for our livers they'd eat 'em as they do a calf's!" said old Bonnebault, whose threatening face was turned in profile to the general as he passed her, though in the twinkling of an eye she changed its expression to one of hypocritical softness and submission as she hastened to make him a profound curtsey.

"So you are gleaning, are you, though my wife helps you to earn so much money?"

"Hey! my dear gentleman, may God preserve you in good health! but, don't you see, my grandson squanders all I earn, and I'm forced to scratch up a little wheat to get bread in the winter,--yes, yes, I glean just a bit; it all helps."

The gleaning proved of little profit to the gleaners. The farmers and tenant-farmers, finding themselves backed up, took care that their wheat was well reaped, and superintended the making of the sheaves and their safe removal, so that little or none of the pillage of former years could take place.

Accustomed to get a good proportion of wheat in their gleaning, the false as well as the true poor, forgetting the count's pardon at Conches, now felt a deep but silent anger against him, which was aggravated by the Tonsards, Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Laroche, Vaudoyer, Godain, and their adherents. Matters went worse still after the vintage; for the gathering of the refuse grape was not allowed until Sibilet had examined the vines with extreme care. This last restriction exasperated these sons of the soil to the highest pitch; but when so great a social distance separates the angered class from the threatened class, words and threats are lost; nothing comes to the surface or is perceived but facts; meantime the malcontents work underground like moles.

The fair of Soulanges took place as usual quite peacefully, except for certain jarrings between the leading society and the second-class society of Soulanges, brought about by the despotism of the queen, who could not tolerate the empire founded and established over the heart of the brilliant Lupin by the beautiful Euphemie Plissoud, for she herself laid permanent claim to his fickle fervors.

The count and countess did not appear at the fair nor at the Tivoli fete; and that, again, was counted a wrong by the Soudrys, the Gaubertins, and their adherents; it was pride, it was disdain, said the Soudry salon. During this time the countess was filling the void caused by Emile's return to Paris with the immense interest and pleasure all fine souls take in the good they are doing, or think they do; and the count, for his part, applied himself no less zealously to changes and ameliorations in the management of his estate, which he expected and believed would modify and benefit the condition of the people and hence their characters. Madame de Montcornet, assisted by the advice and experience of the Abbe Brossette, came, little by little, to have a thorough and statistical knowledge of all the poor families of the district, their respective condition, their wants, their means of subsistence, and the sort of help she must give to each to obtain work so as not to make them lazy or idle.

The countess had placed Genevieve Niseron, La Pechina, in a convent at Auxerre, under pretext of having her taught to sew that she might employ her in her own house, but really to save her from the shameful attempts of Nicolas Tonsard, whom Rigou had managed to save from the conscription. The countess also believed that a religious education, the cloister, and monastic supervision, would subdue the ardent passions of the precocious little girl, whose Montenegrin blood seemed to her like a threatening flame which might one day set fire to the domestic happiness of her faithful Olympe.

So all was at peace at the chateau des Aigues. The count, misled by Sibilet, reassured by Michaud, congratulated himself on his firmness, and thanked his wife for having contributed by her benevolence to the immense comfort of their tranquillity. The question of the sale of his timber was laid aside till he should go to Paris and arrange with the dealers. He had not the slightest notion of how to do business, and he was in total ignorance of the power wielded by Gaubertin over the current of the Yonne,--the main line of conveyance which supplied the timber of the Paris market. _

Read next: Part 2: Chapter 7. The Greyhound

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

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