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

Part 2 - Chapter 9. The Catastrophe

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One Saturday evening, Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Godain, Tonsard, his daughters, wife, and Pere Fourchon, also Vaudoyer and several mechanics were supping at the tavern. The moon was at half-full, the first snow had melted, and frost had just stiffened the ground so that a man's step left no traces. They were eating a stew of hare caught in a trap; all were drinking and laughing. It was the day after the wedding of Catherine and Godain, and the wedded pair were to be conducted to their new home, which was not far from that of Courtecuisse; for when Rigou sold an acre of land it was sure to be isolated and close to the woods. Courtecuisse and Vaudoyer had brought their guns to accompany the bride. The neighborhood was otherwise fast asleep; not a light was to be seen; none but the wedding party were awake, but they made noise enough. In the midst of it the old Bonnebault woman entered, and every one looked at her.

"I think she is going to lie-in," she whispered in Tonsard's ear. "_He_ has saddled his horse and is going for the doctor at Soulanges."

"Sit down," said Tonsard, giving her his place at the table, and going himself to lie on a bench.

Just then the gallop of a horse passing rapidly along the road was heard. Tonsard, Courtecuisse, and Vaudoyer went out hurriedly, and saw Michaud on his way to the village.

"He knows what he's about," said Courtecuisse; "he came down by the terrace and he means to go by Blangy and the road,--it's the safest way."

"Yes," said Tonsard, "but he will bring the doctor back with him."

"He won't find him," said Courtecuisse, "the doctor has been sent for to Conches for the postmistress."

"Then he'll go from Soulanges to Conches by the mail-road; that's shortest."

"And safest too, for us," said Courtecuisse, "there's a fine moon, and there are no keepers on the roads as there are in the woods; one can hear much farther; and down there, by the pavilions, behind the hedges, just where they join the little wood, one can aim at a man from behind, like a rabbit, at five hundred feet."

"It will be half-past eleven before he comes past there," said Tonsard, "it will take him half an hour to go to Soulanges and as much more to get back,--but look here! suppose Monsieur Gourdon were on the road?"

"Don't trouble about that," said Courtecuisse, "I'll stand ten minutes away from you to the right on the road towards Blangy, and Vaudoyer will be ten minutes away on your left towards Conches; if anything comes along, the mail, or the gendarmes, or whatever it is, we'll fire a shot into the ground,--a muffled sound, you'll know it."

"But suppose I miss him?" said Tonsard.

"He's right," said Courtecuisse, "I'm the best shot; Vaudoyer, I'll go with you; Bonnebault may watch in my place; he can give a cry; that's easier heard and less suspicious."

All three returned to the tavern and the wedding festivities went on; but about eleven o'clock Vaudoyer, Courtecuisse, Tonsard, and Bonnebault went out, carrying their guns, though none of the women took any notice of them. They came back in about three-quarters of an hour, and sat drinking till past one o'clock. Tonsard's girls and their mother and the old Bonnebault woman had plied the miller, the mechanics, and the two peasants, as well as Fourchon, with so much drink that they were all on the ground and snoring when the four men left the tavern; on their return, the sleepers were shaken and roused, and every one seemed to them, as before, in his place.

While this orgy was going on Michaud's household was in a scene of mortal anxiety. Olympe had felt false pains, and her husband, thinking she was about to be delivered, rode off instantly in haste for the doctor. But the poor woman's pains ceased as soon as she realized that Michaud was gone; for her mind was so preoccupied by the danger her husband ran at that hour of the night, in a lawless region filled with determined foes, that the anguish of her soul was powerful enough to deaden and momentarily subdue those of the body. In vain her servant-woman declared her fears were imaginary; she seemed not to comprehend a word that was said to her, and sat by the fire in her bed-chamber listening to every sound. In her terror, which increased every moment, she had the man wakened, meaning to give him some order which still she did not give. At last, the poor woman wandered up and down, coming and going in feverish agitation; she looked out of all the windows and opened them in spite of the cold; then she went downstairs and opened the door into the courtyard, looking out and listening. "Nothing! nothing!" she said. Then she went up again in despair. About a quarter past twelve, she cried out: "Here he is! I hear the horse!" Again she went down, followed by the man who went to open the iron gate of the courtyard. "It is strange," she said, "that he should return by the Conches woods!"

As she spoke she stood still, horrorstruck, motionless, voiceless. The man shared her terror, for, in the furious gallop of the horse, the clang of the empty stirrups, the neigh of the frightened animal, there was something, they scarcely knew what, of unspeakable warning. Soon, too soon for the unhappy wife, the horse reached the gate, panting and sweating, but alone; he had broken the bridle, no doubt by entangling it. Olympe gazed with haggard eyes at the servant as he opened the gate; she saw the horse, and then, without a word, she ran to the chateau like a madwoman; when she reached it she fell to the ground beneath the general's windows crying out: "Monsieur, they have murdered him!"

The cry was so terrible it awoke the count; he rang violently, bringing the whole household to their feet; and the groans of Madame Michaud, who as she lay on the ground, gave birth to a child that died in being born, brought the general and all the servants about her. They raised the poor dying woman, who expired, saying to the general: "They have murdered him!"

"Joseph!" cried the count to his valet, "go for the doctor; there may yet be time to save her. No, better bring the curate; the poor woman is dead, and her child too. My God! my God! how thankful I am that my wife is not here. And you," he said to the gardener, "go and find out what has happened."

"I can tell you," said the pavilion servant, coming up, "Monsieur Michaud's horse has come back alone, the reins broke, his legs bloody; and there's a spot of blood on the saddle."

"What can be done at this time of night?" cried the count. "Call up Groison, send for the keepers, saddle the horses; we'll beat the country."

By daybreak, eight persons--the count, Groison, the three keepers, and two gendarmes sent from Soulanges with their sergeant--searched the country. It was not till the middle of the morning that they found the body of the bailiff in a copse between the mail-road and the smaller road leading to Ville-aux-Fayes, at the end of the park of Les Aigues, not far from Conches. Two gendarmes started, one to Ville-aux-Fayes for the prosecuting attorney, the other to Soulanges for the justice of the peace. Meantime the general, assisted by the sergeant, noted down the facts. They found on the road, just above the two pavilions, the print of the stamping of the horse's feet as he roared, and the traces of his frightened gallop from there to the first opening in the woods above the hedge. The horse, no longer guided, turned into the wood-path. Michaud's hat was found there. The animal evidently took the nearest way to reach his stable. The bailiff had a ball though his back which broke the spine.

Groison and the sergeant studied the ground around the spot where the horse reared (which might be called, in judicial language, the theatre of the crime) with remarkable sagacity, but without obtaining any clue. The earth was too frozen to show the footprints of the murderer, and all they found was the paper of a cartridge. When the attorney and the judge and Monsieur Gourdon, the doctor, arrived and raised the body to make the autopsy, it was found that the ball, which corresponded with the fragments of the wad, was an ammunition ball, evidently from a military musket; and no such musket existed in the district of Blangy. The judge and Monsieur Soudry the attorney, who came that evening to the chateau, thought it best to collect all the facts and await events. The same opinion was expressed by the sergeant and the lieutenant of the gendarmerie.

"It is impossible that it can be anything but a planned attack on the part of the peasants," said the sergeant; "but there are two districts, Conches and Blangy, in each of which there are five or six persons capable of being concerned in the murder. The one that I suspect most, Tonsard, passed the night carousing in the Grand-I-Vert; but your assistant, general, the miller Langlume, was there, and he says that Tonsard did not leave the tavern. They were all so drunk they could not stand; they took the bride home at half-past one; and the return of the horse proves that Michaud was murdered between eleven o'clock and midnight. At a quarter past ten Groison saw the whole company assembled at table, and Monsieur Michaud passed there on his way to Soulanges, which he reached at eleven. His horse reared between the two pavilions on the mail-road; but he may have been shot before reaching Blangy and yet have stayed in the saddle for some little time. We should have to issue warrants for at least twenty persons and arrest them; but I know these peasants, and so do these gentlemen; you might keep them a year in prison and you would get nothing out of them but denials. What could you do with all those who were at Tonsard's?"

They sent for Langlume, the miller, and the assistant of General Montcornet as mayor; he related what had taken place in the tavern, and gave the names of all present; none had gone out except for a minute or two into the courtyard. He had left the room for a moment with Tonsard about eleven o'clock; they had spoken of the moon and the weather, and heard nothing. At two o'clock the whole party had taken the bride and bridegroom to their own house.

The general arranged with the sergeant, the lieutenant, and the civil authorities to send to Paris for the cleverest detective in the service of the police, who should come to the chateau as a workman, and behave so ill as to be dismissed; he should then take to drinking and frequent the Grand-I-Vert and remain in the neighborhood in the character of an ill-wisher to the general. The best plan they could follow was to watch and wait for a momentary revelation, and then make the most of it.

"If I have to spend twenty thousand francs I'll discover the murderer of my poor Michaud," the general was never weary of saying.

He went off with that idea in his head, and returned from Paris in the month of January with one of the shrewdest satellites of the chief of the detective police, who was brought down ostensibly to do some work to the interior of the chateau. The man was discovered poaching. He was arrested, and turned off, and soon after--early in February--the general rejoined his wife in Paris. _

Read next: Part 2: Chapter 10. The Triumph Of The Vanquished

Read previous: Part 2: Chapter 8. Rural Virtue

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