Chapter 2 - A Doctor'S Round
The first thing next morning Genestas went to the stable, drawn thither by the affection that every man feels for the horse that he rides. Nicolle's method of rubbing down the animal was quite satisfactory.
"Up already, Commandant Bluteau?" cried Benassis, as he came upon his guest. "You hear the drum beat in the morning wherever you go, even in the country! You are a regular soldier!"
"Are you all right?" replied Genestas, holding out his hand with a friendly gesture.
"I am never really all right," answered Benassis, half merrily, half sadly.
"Did you sleep well, sir?" inquired Jacquotte.
"Faith, yes, my beauty; the bed as you made it was fit for a queen."
Jacquotte's face beamed as she followed her master and his guest, and when she had seen them seat themselves at table, she remarked to Nicolle:
"He is not a bad sort, after all, that officer gentleman."
"I am sure he is not, he has given me two francs already."
"We will begin to-day by calling at two places where there have been deaths," Benassis said to his visitor as they left the dining-room. "Although doctors seldom deign to confront their supposed victims, I will take you round to the two houses, where you will be able to make some interesting observations of human nature; and the scenes to which you will be a witness will show you that in the expression of their feelings our folk among the hills differ greatly from the dwellers in the lowlands. Up among the mountain peaks in our canton they cling to customs that bear the impress of an older time, and that vaguely recall scenes in the Bible. Nature has traced out a line over our mountain ranges; the whole appearance of the country is different on either side of it. You will find strength of character up above, flexibility and quickness below; they have larger ways of regarding things among the hills, while the bent of the lowlands is always towards the material interests of existence. I have never seen a difference so strongly marked, unless it has been in the Val d'Ajou, where the northern side is peopled by a tribe of idiots, and the southern by an intelligent race. There is nothing but a stream in the valley bottom to separate these two populations, which are utterly dissimilar in every respect, as different in face and stature as in manners, customs, and occupation. A fact of this kind should compel those who govern a country to make very extensive studies of local differences before passing laws that are to affect the great mass of the people. But the horses are ready, let us start!"
In a short time the two horsemen reached a house in a part of the township that was overlooked by the mountains of the Grande Chartreuse. Before the door of the dwelling, which was fairly clean and tidy, they saw a coffin set upon two chairs, and covered with a black pall. Four tall candles stood about it, and on a stool near by there was a shallow brass dish full of holy water, in which a branch of green box-wood was steeping. Every passer-by went into the yard, knelt by the side of the dead, said a Pater noster, and sprinkled a few drops of holy water on the bier. Above the black cloth that covered the coffin rose the green sprays of a jessamine that grew beside the doorway, and a twisted vine shoot, already in leaf, overran the lintel. Even the saddest ceremonies demand that things shall appear to the best advantage, and in obedience to this vaguely-felt requirement a young girl had been sweeping the front of the house. The dead man's eldest son, a young peasant about twenty-two years of age, stood motionless, leaning against the door-post. The tears in his eyes came and went without falling, or perhaps he furtively brushed them away. Benassis and Genestas saw all the details of this scene as they stood beyond the low wall; they fastened their horses to one of the row of poplar trees that grew along it, and entered the yard just as the widow came out of the byre. A woman carrying a jug of milk was with her, and spoke.
"Try to bear up bravely, my poor Pelletier," she said.
"Ah! my dear, after twenty-five years of life together, it is very hard to lose your man," and her eyes brimmed over with tears. "Will you pay the two sous?" she added, after a moment, as she held out her hand to her neighbor.
"There, now! I had forgotten about it," said the other woman, giving her the coin. "Come, neighbor, don't take on so. Ah! there is M. Benassis!"
"Well, poor mother, how are you going on? A little better?" asked the doctor.
"DAME!" she said, as the tears fell fast, "we must go on, all the same, that is certain. I tell myself that my man is out of pain now. He suffered so terribly! But come inside, sir. Jacques, set some chairs for these gentlemen. Come, stir yourself a bit. Lord bless you! if you were to stop there for a century, it would not bring your poor father back again. And now, you will have to do the work of two."
"No, no good woman, leave your son alone, we will not sit down. You have a boy there who will take care of you, and who is quite fit to take his father's place."
"Go and change your clothes, Jacques," cried the widow; "you will be wanted directly."
"Well, good-bye, mother," said Benassis.
"Your servant, gentlemen."
"Here, you see, death is looked upon as an event for which every one is prepared," said the doctor; "it brings no interruption to the course of family life, and they will not even wear mourning of any kind. No one cares to be at the expense of it; they are all either too poor or too parsimonious in the villages hereabouts, so that mourning is unknown in country districts. Yet the custom of wearing mourning is something better than a law or a usage, it is an institution somewhat akin to all moral obligations. But in spite of our endeavors neither M. Janvier nor I have succeeded in making our peasants understand the great importance of public demonstrations of feeling for the maintenance of social order. These good folk, who have only just begun to think and act for themselves, are slow as yet to grasp the changed conditions which should attach them to these theories. They have only reached those ideas which conduce to economy and to physical welfare; in the future, if some one else carries on this work of mine, they will come to understand the principles that serve to uphold and preserve public order and justice. As a matter of fact, it is not sufficient to be an honest man, you must appear to be honest in the eyes of others. Society does not live by moral ideas alone; its existence depends upon actions in harmony with those ideas.
"In most country communes, out of a hundred families deprived by death of their head, there are only a few individuals capable of feeling more keenly than the others, who will remember the deaths for very long; in a year's time the rest will have forgotten all about it. Is not this forgetfulness a sore evil? A religion is the very heart of a nation; it expresses their feelings and their thoughts, and exalts them by giving them an object; but unless outward and visible honor is paid to a God, religion cannot exist; and, as a consequence, human ordinances lose all their force. If the conscience belongs to God and to Him only, the body is amenable to social law. Is it not therefore, a first step towards atheism to efface every sign of pious sorrow in this way, to neglect to impress on children who are not yet old enough to reflect, and on all other people who stand in need of example, the necessity of obedience to human law, by openly manifested resignation to the will of Providence, who chastens and consoles, who bestows and takes away worldly wealth? I confess that, after passing through a period of sneering incredulity, I have come during my life here to recognize the value of the rites of religion and of religious observances in the family, and to discern the importance of household customs and domestic festivals. The family will always be the basis of human society. Law and authority are first felt there; there, at any rate, the habit of obedience should be learned. Viewed in the light of all their consequences, the spirit of the family and paternal authority are two elements but little developed as yet in our new legislative system. Yet in the family, the commune, the department, lies the whole of our country. The laws ought therefore to be based on these three great divisions.
"In my opinion, marriages, the birth of infants, and the deaths of heads of households cannot be surrounded with too much circumstance. The secret of the strength of Catholicism, and of the deep root that it has taken in the ordinary life of man, lies precisely in this--that it steps in to invest every important event in his existence with a pomp that is so naively touching, and so grand, whenever the priest rises to the height of his mission and brings his office into harmony with the sublimity of Christian doctrine.
"Once I looked upon the Catholic religion as a cleverly exploited mass of prejudices and superstitions, which an intelligent civilization ought to deal with according to its desserts. Here I have discovered its political necessity and its usefulness as a moral agent; here, moreover, I have come to understand its power, through a knowledge of the actual thing which the word expresses. Religion means a bond or tie, and certainly a cult--or, in other words, the outward and visible form of religion is the only force that can bind the various elements of society together and mould them into a permanent form. Lastly, it was also here that I have felt the soothing influence that religion sheds over the wounds of humanity, and (without going further into the subject) I have seen how admirably it is suited to the fervid temperaments of southern races.
"Let us take the road up the hillside," said the doctor, interrupting himself; "we must reach the plateau up there. Thence we shall look down upon both valleys, and you will see a magnificent view. The plateau lies three thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean; we shall see over Savoy and Dauphine, and the mountain ranges of the Lyonnais and Rhone. We shall be in another commune, a hill commune, and on a farm belonging to M. Gravier you will see the kind of scene of which I have spoken. There the great events of life are invested with a solemnity which comes up to my ideas. Mourning for the dead is vigorously prescribed. Poor people will beg in order to purchase black clothing, and no one refuses to give in such a case. There are few days in which the widow does not mention her loss; she always speaks of it with tears, and her grief is as deep after ten days of sorrow as on the morning after her bereavement. Manners are patriarchal: the father's authority is unlimited, his word is law. He takes his meals sitting by himself at the head of the table; his wife and children wait upon him, and those about him never address him without using certain respectful forms of speech, while every one remains standing and uncovered in his presence. Men brought up in this atmosphere are conscious of their dignity; to my way of thinking, it is a noble education to be brought up among these customs. And, for the most part, they are upright, thrifty, and hardworking people in this commune. The father of every family, when he is old and past work, divides his property equally among his children, and they support him; that is the usual way here. An old man of ninety, in the last century, who had divided everything he had among his four children, went to live with each in turn for three months in the year. As he left the oldest to go to the home of a younger brother, one of his friends asked him, 'Well, are you satisfied with the arrangement?' 'Faith! yes,' the old man answered; 'they have treated me as if I had been their own child.' That answer of his seemed so remarkable to an officer then stationed at Grenoble, that he repeated it in more than one Parisian salon. That officer was the celebrated moralist Vauvenargues, and in this way the beautiful saying came to the knowledge of another writer named Chamfort. Ah! still more forcible phrases are often struck out among us, but they lack a historian worthy of them."
"I have come across Moravians and Lollards in Bohemia and Hungary," said Genestas. "They are a kind of people something like your mountaineers, good folk who endure the sufferings of war with angelic patience."
"Men living under simple and natural conditions are bound to be almost alike in all countries. Sincerity of life takes but one form. It is true that a country life often extinguishes thought of a wider kind; but evil propensities are weakened and good qualities are developed by it. In fact, the fewer the numbers of the human beings collected together in a place, the less crime, evil thinking, and general bad behavior will be found in it. A pure atmosphere counts for a good deal in purity of morals."
The two horsemen, who had been climbing the stony road at a foot pace, now reached the level space of which Benassis had spoken. It is a strip of land lying round about the base of a lofty mountain peak, a bare surface of rock with no growth of any kind upon it; deep clefts are riven in its sheer inaccessible sides. The gray crest of the summit towers above the ledge of fertile soil which lies around it, a domain sometimes narrower, sometimes wider, and altogether about a hundred acres in extent. Here, through a vast break in the line of the hills to the south, the eye sees French Maurienne, Dauphine, the crags of Savoy, and the far-off mountains of the Lyonnais. Genestas was gazing from this point, over a land that lay far and wide in the spring sunlight, when there arose the sound of a wailing cry.
"Let us go on," said Benassis; "the wail for the dead has begun, that is the name they give to this part of the funeral rites."
On the western slope of the mountain peak, the commandant saw the buildings belonging to a farm of some size. The whole place formed a perfect square. The gateway consisted of a granite arch, impressive in its solidity, which added to the old-world appearance of the buildings with the ancient trees that stood about them, and the growth of plant life on the roofs. The house itself lay at the farther end of the yard. Barns, sheepfolds, stables, cowsheds, and other buildings lay on either side, and in the midst was the great pool where the manure had been laid to rot. On a thriving farm, such a yard as this is usually full of life and movement, but to-day it was silent and deserted. The poultry was shut up, the cattle were all in the byres, there was scarcely a sound of animal life. Both stables and cowsheds had been carefully swept across the yard. The perfect neatness which reigned in a place where everything as a rule was in disorder, the absence of stirring life, the stillness in so noisy a spot, the calm serenity of the hills, the deep shadow cast by the towering peak--everything combined to make a strong impression on the mind.
Genestas was accustomed to painful scenes, yet he could not help shuddering as he saw a dozen men and women standing weeping outside the door of the great hall. "THE MASTER IS DEAD!" they wailed; the unison of voices gave appalling effect to the words which they repeated twice during the time required to cross the space between the gateway and the farmhouse door. To this wailing lament succeeded moans from within the house; the sound of a woman's voice came through the casements.
"I dare not intrude upon such grief as this," said Genestas to Benassis.
"I always go to visit a bereaved family," the doctor answered, "either to certify the death, or to see that no mischance caused by grief has befallen the living. You need not hesitate to come with me. The scene is impressive, and there will be such a great many people that no one will notice your presence."
As Genestas followed the doctor, he found, in fact, that the first room was full of relations of the dead. They passed through the crowd and stationed themselves at the door of a bedroom that opened out of the great hall which served the whole family for a kitchen and a sitting-room; the whole colony, it should rather be called, for the great length of the table showed that some forty people lived in the house. Benassis' arrival interrupted the discourse of a tall, simply- dressed woman, with thin locks of hair, who held the dead man's hand in hers in a way that spoke eloquently.
The dead master of the house had been arrayed in his best clothes, and now lay stretched out cold and stiff upon the bed. They had drawn the curtains aside; the thought of heaven seemed to brood over the quiet face and the white hair--it was like the closing scene of a drama. On either side of the bed stood the children and the nearest relations of the husband and wife. These last stood in a line on either side; the wife's kin upon the left, and those of her husband on the right. Both men and women were kneeling in prayer, and almost all of them were in tears. Tall candles stood about the bed. The cure of the parish and his assistants had taken their places in the middle of the room, beside the bier. There was something tragical about the scene, with the head of the family lying before the coffin, which was waiting to be closed down upon him forever.
"Ah!" cried the widow, turning as she saw Benassis, "if the skill of the best of men could not save you, my dear lord, it was because it was ordained in heaven that you should precede me to the tomb! Yes, this hand of yours, that used to press mine so kindly, is cold! I have lost my dear helpmate for ever, and our household has lost its beloved head, for truly you were the guide of us all! Alas! there is not one of those who are weeping with me who has not known all the worth of your nature, and felt the light of your soul, but I alone knew all the patience and the kindness of your heart. Oh! my husband, my husband! must I bid you farewell for ever? Farewell to you, our stay and support! Farewell to you, my dear master! And we, your children,--for to each of us you gave the same fatherly love,--all we, your children, have lost our father!"
The widow flung herself upon the dead body and clasped it in a tight embrace, as if her kisses and the tears with which she covered it could give it warmth again; during the pause, came the wail of the servants:
"THE MASTER IS DEAD!"
"Yes," the widow went on, "he is dead! Our beloved who gave us our bread, who sowed and reaped for us, who watched over our happiness, who guided us through life, who ruled so kindly among us. NOW, I may speak in his praise, and say that he never caused me the slightest sorrow; he was good and strong and patient. Even while we were torturing him for the sake of his health, so precious to us, 'Let it be, children, it is all no use,' the dear lamb said, just in the same tone of voice with which he had said, 'Everything is all right, friends,' only a few days before. Ah! grand Dieu! a few days ago! A few days have been enough to take away the gladness from our house and to darken our lives, to close the eyes of the best, most upright, most revered of men. No one could plow as he could. Night or day, he would go about over the mountains, he feared nothing, and when he came back he had always a smile for his wife and children. Ah! he was our beloved! It was dull here by the fireside when HE was away, and our food lost all its relish. Oh! how will it be now, when our guardian angel will be laid away under the earth, and we shall never see him any more? Never any more, dear kinsfolk and friends; never any more, my children! Yes, my children have lost their kind father, our relations and friends have lost their good kinsman and their trusty friend, the household has lost its master, and I have lost everything!"
She took the hand of the dead again, and knelt, so that she might press her face close to his as she kissed it. The servants' cry, "THE MASTER IS DEAD!" was again repeated three times.
Just then the eldest son came to his mother to say, "The people from Saint-Laurent have just come, mother; we want some wine for them."
"Take the keys," she said in a low tone, and in a different voice from that in which she had just expressed her grief; "you are the master of the house, my son; see that they receive the welcome that your father would have given them; do not let them find any change.
"Let me have one more long look," she went on. "But alas! my good husband, you do not feel my presence now, I cannot bring back warmth to you! I only wish that I could comfort you still, could let you know that so long as I live you will dwell in the heart that you made glad, could tell you that I shall be happy in the memory of my happiness-- that the dear thought of you will live on in this room. Yes, as long as God spares me, this room shall be filled with memories of you. Hear my vow, dear husband! Your couch shall always remain as it is now. I will sleep in it no more, since you are dead; henceforward, while I live, it shall be cold and empty. With you, I have lost all that makes a woman: her master, husband, father, friend, companion, and helpmate: I have lost all!"
"THE MASTER IS DEAD!" the servants wailed. Others raised the cry, and the lament became general. The widow took a pair of scissors that hung at her waist, cut off her hair, and laid the locks in her husband's hand. Deep silence fell on them all.
"That act means that she will not marry again," said Benassis; "this determination was expected by many of the relatives."
"Take it, dear lord!" she said; her emotion brought a tremor to her voice that went to the hearts of all who heard her. "I have sworn to be faithful; I give this pledge to you to keep in the grave. We shall thus be united for ever, and through love of your children I will live on among the family in whom you used to feel yourself young again. Oh! that you could hear me, my husband! the pride and joy of my heart! Oh! that you could know that all my power to live, now you are dead, will yet come from you; for I shall live to carry out your sacred wishes and to honor your memory."
Benassis pressed Genestas' hand as an invitation to follow him, and they went out. By this time the first room was full of people who had come from another mountain commune; all of them waited in meditative silence, as if the sorrow and grief that brooded over the house had already taken possession of them. As Benassis and the commandant crossed the threshold, they overheard a few words that passed between one of the newcomers and the eldest son of the late owner.
"Then when did he die?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the eldest son, a man of five-and-twenty years of age, "I did not see him die. He asked for me, and I was not there!" His voice was broken with sobs, but he went on: "He said to me the night before, 'You must go over to the town, my boy, and pay our taxes; my funeral will put that out of your minds, and we shall be behindhand, a thing that has never happened before.' It seemed the best thing to do, so I went; and while I was gone, he died, and I never received his last embrace. I have always been at his side, but he did not see me near him at the last in my place where I had always been."
"THE MASTER IS DEAD!"
"Alas! he is dead, and I was not there to receive his last words and his latest sigh. And what did the taxes matter? Would it not have been better to lose all our money than to leave home just then? Could all that we have make up to me for the loss of his last farewell. No. MON DIEU! If YOUR father falls ill, Jean, do not go away and leave him, or you will lay up a lifelong regret for yourself."
"My friend," said Genestas, "I have seen thousands of men die on the battlefield; death did not wait to let their children bid them farewell; take comfort, you are not the only one."
"But a father who was such a good man!" he replied, bursting into fresh tears.
Benassis took Genestas in the direction of the farm buildings.
"The funeral oration will only cease when the body has been laid in its coffin," said the doctor, "and the weeping woman's language will grow more vivid and impassioned all the while. But a woman only acquires the right to speak in such a strain before so imposing an audience by a blameless life. If the widow could reproach herself with the smallest of shortcomings, she would not dare to utter a word; for if she did, she would pronounce her own condemnation, she would be at the same time her own accuser and judge. Is there not something sublime in this custom which thus judges the living and the dead? They only begin to wear mourning after a week has elapsed, when it is publicly worn at a meeting of all the family. Their near relations spend the week with the widow and children, to help them to set their affairs in order and to console them. A family gathering at such a time produces a great effect on the minds of the mourners; the consideration for others which possesses men when they are brought into close contact acts as a restraint on violent grief. On the last day, when the mourning garb has been assumed, a solemn banquet is given, and their relations take leave of them. All this is taken very seriously. Any one who was slack in fulfilling his duties after the death of the head of a family would have no one at his own funeral."
The doctor had reached the cowhouse as he spoke; he opened the door and made the commandant enter, that he might show it to him.
"All our cowhouses have been rebuilt after this pattern, captain. Look! Is it not magnificent?"
Genestas could not help admiring the huge place. The cows and oxen stood in two rows, with their tails towards the side walls, and their heads in the middle of the shed. Access to the stalls was afforded by a fairly wide space between them and the wall; you could see their horned heads and shining eyes through the lattice work, so that it was easy for the master to run his eyes over the cattle. The fodder was placed on some staging erected above the stalls, so that it fell into the racks below without waste of labor or material. There was a wide- paved space down the centre, which was kept clean, and ventilated by a thorough draught of air.
"In the winter time," Benassis said, as he walked with Genestas down the middle of the cowhouse, "both men and women do their work here together in the evenings. The tables are set out here, and in this way the people keep themselves warm without going to any expense. The sheep are housed in the same way. You would not believe how quickly the beasts fall into orderly ways. I have often wondered to see them come in; each knows her proper place, and allows those who take precedence to pass in before her. Look! there is just room enough in each stall to do the milking and to rub the cattle down; and the floor slopes a little to facilitate drainage."
"One can judge of everything else from the sight of this cowhouse," said Genestas; "without flattery, these are great results indeed!"
"We have had some trouble to bring them about," Benassis answered; "but then, see what fine cattle they are!"
"They are splendid beasts certainly; you had good reason to praise them to me," answered Genestas.
"Now," said the doctor, when he had mounted his horse and passed under the gateway, we are going over some of the newly cleared waste, and through the corn land. I have christened this little corner of our Commune, 'La Beauce.' "
For about an hour they rode at a foot pace across fields in a state of high cultivation, on which the soldier complimented the doctor; then they came down the mountain side into the township again, talking whenever the pace of their horses allowed them to do so. At last they reached a narrow glen, down which they rode into the main valley.
"I promised yesterday," Benassis said to Genestas, "to show you one of the two soldiers who left the army and came back to us after the fall of Napoleon. We shall find him somewhere hereabouts, if I am not mistaken. The mountain streams flow into a sort of natural reservoir or tarn up here; the earth they bring down has silted it up, and he is engaged in clearing it out. But if you are to take any interest in the man, I must tell you his history. His name is Gondrin. He was only eighteen years old when he was drawn in the great conscription of 1792, and drafted into a corps of gunners. He served as a private soldier in Napoleon's campaigns in Italy, followed him to Egypt, and came back from the East after the Peace of Amiens. In the time of the Empire he was incorporated in the Pontoon Troop of the Guard, and was constantly on active service in Germany, lastly the poor fellow made the Russian campaign."
"We are brothers-in-arms then, to some extent," said Genestas; "I have made the same campaigns. Only an iron frame would stand the tricks played by so many different climates. My word for it, those who are still standing on their stumps after marching over Italy, Egypt, Germany, Portugal, and Russia must have applied to Providence and taken out a patent for living."
"Just so, you will see a solid fragment of a man," answered Benassis. "You know all about the Retreat from Moscow; it is useless to tell you about it. This man I have told you of is one of the pontooners of the Beresina; he helped to construct the bridge by which the army made the passage, and stood waist-deep in water to drive in the first piles. General Eble, who was in command of the pontooners, could only find forty-two men who were plucky enough, in Gondrin's phrase, to tackle that business. The general himself came down to the stream to hearten and cheer the men, promising each of them a pension of a thousand francs and the Cross of the Legion of Honor. The first who went down into the Beresina had his leg taken off by a block of ice, and the man himself was washed away; but you will better understand the difficulty of the task when you hear the end of the story. Of the forty-two volunteers, Gondrin is the only one alive to-day. Thirty-nine of them lost their lives in the Beresina, and the two others died miserably in a Polish hospital.
"The poor fellow himself only returned from Wilna in 1814, to find the Bourbons restored to power. General Eble (of whom Gondrin cannot speak without tears in his eyes) was dead. The pontooner was deaf, and his health was shattered; and as he could neither read nor write, he found no one left to help him or to plead his cause. He begged his way to Paris, and while there made application at the War Office, not for the thousand francs of extra pension which had been promised to him, nor yet for the Cross of the Legion of Honor, but only for the bare pension due to him after twenty-two years of service, and I do not know how many campaigns. He did not obtain his pension or his traveling expenses; he did not even receive his arrears of pay. He spent a year in making fruitless solicitations, holding out his hands in vain to those whom he had saved; and at the end of it he came back here, sorely disheartened but resigned to his fate. This hero unknown to fame does draining work on the land, for which he is paid ten sous the fathom. He is accustomed to working in a marshy soil, and so, as he says, he gets jobs which no one else cares to take. He can make about three francs a day by clearing out ponds, or draining meadows that lie under water. His deafness makes him seem surly, and he is not naturally inclined to say very much, but there is a good deal in him.
"We are very good friends. He dines with me on the day of Austerlitz, on the Emperor's birthday, and on the anniversary of the disaster at Waterloo, and during the dessert he always receives a napoleon to pay for his wine very quarter. Every one in the Commune shares in my feeling of respect for him; if he would allow them to support him, nothing would please them better. At every house to which he goes the people follow my example, and show their esteem by asking him to dine with them. It is a feeling of pride that leads him to work, and it is only as a portrait of the Emperor that he can be induced to take my twenty-franc piece. He has been deeply wounded by the injustice that has been done to him; but I think regret for the Cross is greater than the desire for his pension.
"He has one great consolation. After the bridges had been constructed across the Beresina, General Eble presented such of the pontooners as were not disabled to the Emperor, and Napoleon embraced poor Gondrin-- perhaps but for that accolade he would have died ere now. This memory and the hope that some day Napoleon will return are all that Gondrin lives by. Nothing will ever persuade him that Napoleon is dead, and so convinced is he that the Emperor's captivity is wholly and solely due to the English, that I believe he would be ready on the slightest pretext to take the life of the best-natured alderman that ever traveled for pleasure in foreign parts."
"Let us go on as fast as possible!" cried Genestas. He had listened to the doctor's story with rapt attention, and now seemed to recover consciousness of his surroundings. "Let us hurry! I long to see that man!"
Both of them put their horses to a gallop.
"The other soldier that I spoke of," Benassis went on, "is another of those men of iron who have knocked about everywhere with our armies. His life, like that of all French soldiers, has been made up of bullets, sabre strokes, and victories; he has had a very rough time of it, and has only worn the woolen epaulettes. He has a fanatical affection for Napoleon, who conferred the Cross upon him on the field of Valontina. He is of a jovial turn of mind, and like a genuine Dauphinois, has always looked after his own interests, has his pension, and the honors of the Legion. Goguelat is his name. He was an infantry man, who exchanged into the Guard in 1812. He is Gondrin's better half, so to speak, for the two have taken up house together. They both lodge with a peddler's widow, and make over their money to her. She is a kind soul, who boards them and looks after them, and their clothes as if they were her children.
"In his quality of local postman, Goguelat carries all the news of the countryside, and a good deal of practice acquired in this way has made him an orator in great request at up-sittings, and the champion teller of stories in the district. Gondrin looks upon him as a very knowing fellow, and something of a wit; and whenever Goguelat talks about Napoleon, his comrade seems to understand what he is saying from the movement of his lips. There will be an up-sitting (as they call it) in one of my barns to-night. If these two come over to it, and we can manage to see without being seen, I shall treat you to a view of the spectacle. But here we are, close to the ditch, and I do not see my friend the pontooner."
The doctor and the commandant looked everywhere about them; Gondrin's soldier's coat lay there beside a heap of black mud, and his wheelbarrow, spade, and pickaxe were visible, but there was no sign of the man himself along the various pebbly watercourses, for the wayward mountain streams had hollowed out channels that were almost overgrown with low bushes.
"He cannot be so very far away. Gondrin! Where are you?" shouted Benassis.
Genestas first saw the curling smoke from a tobacco pipe rise among the brushwood on a bank of rubbish not far away. He pointed it out to the doctor, who shouted again. The old pontooner raised his head at this, recognized the mayor, and came towards them down a little pathway.
"Well, old friend," said Benassis, making a sort of speaking-trumpet with his hand. "Here is a comrade of yours, who was out in Egypt, come to see you."
Gondrin raised is face at once and gave Genestas a swift, keen, and searching look, one of those glances by which old soldiers are wont at once to take the measure of any impending danger. He saw the red ribbon that the commandant wore, and made a silent and respectful military salute.
"If the Little Corporal were alive," the officer cried, "you would have the Cross of the Legion of Honor and a handsome pension besides, for every man who wore epaulettes on the other side of the river owed his life to you on the 1st of October 1812. But I am not the Minister of War, my friend," the commandant added as he dismounted, and with a sudden rush of feeling he grasped the laborer's hand.
The old pontooner drew himself up at the words, he knocked the ashes from his pipe, and put it in his pocket.
"I only did my duty, sir," he said, with his head bent down; "but others have not done their duty by me. They asked for my papers! Why, the Twenty-ninth Bulletin, I told them, must do instead of my papers!"
"But you must make another application, comrade. You are bound to have justice done you in these days, if influence is brought to bear in the right quarter."
"Justice!" cried the veteran. The doctor and the commandant shuddered at the tone in which he spoke.
In the brief pause that followed, both the horsemen looked at the man before them, who seemed like a fragment of the wreck of great armies which Napoleon had filled with men of bronze sought out from among three generations. Gondrin was certainly a splendid specimen of that seemingly indestructible mass of men which might be cut to pieces but never gave way. The old man was scarcely five feet high, wide across the shoulders, and broad-chested; his face was sunburned, furrowed with deep wrinkles, but the outlines were still firm in spite of the hollows in it, and one could see even now that it was the face of a soldier. It was a rough-hewn countenance, his forehead seemed like a block of granite; but there was a weary expression about his face, and the gray hairs hung scantily about his head, as if life were waning there already. Everything about him indicated unusual strength; his arms were covered thickly with hair, and so was the chest, which was visible through the opening of his coarse shirt. In spite of his almost crooked legs, he held himself firm and erect, as if nothing could shake him.
"Justice," he said once more; "there will never be justice for the like of us. We cannot send bailiffs to the Government to demand our dues for us; and as the wallet must be filled somehow," he said, striking his stomach, "we cannot afford to wait. Moreover, these gentry who lead snug lives in government offices may talk and talk, but their words are not good to eat, so I have come back here again to draw my pay out of the commonalty," he said, striking the mud with his spade.
"Things must not be left in that way, old comrade," said Genestas. "I owe my life to you, and it would be ungrateful of me if I did not lend you a hand. I have not forgotten the passage over the bridges in the Beresina, and it is fresh in the memories of some brave fellows of my acquaintance; they will back me up, and the nation shall give you the recognition you deserve."
"You will be called a Bonapartist! Please do not meddle in the matter, sir. I have gone to the rear now, and I have dropped into my hole here like a spent bullet. But after riding on camels through the desert, and drinking my glass by the fireside in Moscow, I never thought that I should come back to die here beneath the trees that my father planted," and he began to work again.
"Poor old man!" said Genestas, as they turned to go. "I should do the same if I were in his place; we have lost our father. Everything seems dark to me now that I have seen that man's hopelessness," he went on, addressing Benassis; "he does not know how much I am interested in him, and he will think that I am one of those gilded rascals who cannot feel for a soldier's sufferings."
He turned quickly and went back, grasped the veteran's hand, and spoke loudly in his ear:
"I swear by the Cross I wear--the Cross of Honor it used to be--that I will do all that man can do to obtain your pension for you; even if I have to swallow a dozen refusals from the minister, and to petition the king and the dauphin and the whole shop!"
Old Gondrin quivered as he heard the words. He looked hard at Genestas and said, "Haven't you served in the ranks?" The commandant nodded. The pontooner wiped his hand and took that of Genestas, which he grasped warmly and said:
"I made the army a present of my life, general, when I waded out into the river yonder, and if I am still alive, it is all so much to the good. One moment! Do you care to see to the bottom of it? Well, then, ever since SOMEBODY was pulled down from his place, I have ceased to care about anything. And, after all," he went on cheerfully, as he pointed to the land, "they have made over twenty thousand francs to me here, and I am taking it out in detail, as HE used to say!"
"Well, then, comrade," said Genestas, touched by the grandeur of this forgiveness, "at least you shall have the only thing that you cannot prevent me from giving to you, here below." The commandant tapped his heart, looked once more at the old pontooner, mounted his horse again, and went his way side by side with Benassis.
"Such cruelty as this on the part of the government foments the strife between rich and poor," said the doctor. "People who exercise a little brief authority have never given a serious thought to the consequences that must follow an act of injustice done to a man of the people. It is true that a poor man who needs must work for his daily bread cannot long keep up the struggle; but he can talk, and his words find an echo in every sufferer's heart, so that one bad case of this kind is multiplied, for every one who hears of it feels it as a personal wrong, and the leaven works. Even this is not so serious, but something far worse comes of it. Among the people, these causes of injustice bring about a chronic state of smothered hatred for their social superiors. The middle class becomes the poor man's enemy; they lie without the bounds of his moral code, he tells lies to them and robs them without scruple; indeed, theft ceases to be a crime or a misdemeanor, and is looked upon as an act of vengeance.
"When an official, who ought to see that the poor have justice done them, uses them ill and cheats them of their due, how can we expect the poor starving wretches to bear their troubles meekly and to respect the rights of property? It makes me shudder to think that some understrapper whose business it is to dust papers in a government office, has pocketed Gondrin's promised thousand francs of pension. And yet there are folk who, never having measured the excess of the people's sufferings, accuse the people of excess in the day of their vengeance! When a government has done more harm than good to individuals, its further existence depends on the merest accident, the masses square the account after their fashion by upsetting it. A statesman ought always to imagine Justice with the poor at her feet, for justice was only invented for the poor."
When they had come within the compass of the township, Benassis saw two people walking along the road in front of them, and turned to his companion, who had been absorbed for some time in thought.
"You have seen a veteran soldier resigned to his life of wretchedness, and now you are about to see an old agricultural laborer who is submitting to the same lot. The man there ahead of us has dug and sown and toiled for others all his life."
Genestas looked and saw an old laborer making his way along the road, in company with an aged woman. He seemed to be afflicted with some form of sciatica, and limped painfully along. His feet were encased in a wretched pair of sabots, and a sort of wallet hung over his shoulder. Several tools lay in the bottom of the bag; their handles, blackened with long use and the sweat of toil, rattled audibly together; while the other end of the wallet behind his shoulder held bread, some walnuts, and a few fresh onions. His legs seemed to be warped, as it were, his back was bent by continual toil; he stooped so much as he walked that he leaned on a long stick to steady himself. His snow-white hair escaped from under a battered hat, grown rusty by exposure to all sorts of weather, and mended here and there with visible stitches of white thread. His clothes, made of a kind of rough canvas, were a mass of patches of contrasting colors. This piece of humanity in ruins lacked none of the characteristics that appeal to our hearts when we see ruins of other kinds.
His wife held herself somewhat more erect. Her clothing was likewise a mass of rags, and the cap that she wore was of the coarsest materials. On her back she carried a rough earthen jar by means of a thong passed through the handles of the great pitcher, which was round in shape and flattened at the sides. They both looked up when they heard the horses approaching, saw that it was Benassis, and stopped.
The man had worked till he was almost past work, and his faithful helpmate was no less broken with toil. It was painful to see how the summer sun and the winter's cold had blackened their faces, and covered them with such deep wrinkles that their features were hardly discernible. It was not their life history that had been engraven on their faces; but it might be gathered from their attitude and bearing. Incessant toil had been the lot of both; they had worked and suffered together; they had had many troubles and few joys to share; and now, like captives grown accustomed to their prison, they seemed to be too familiar with wretchedness to heed it, and to take everything as it came. Yet a certain frank light-heartedness was not lacking in their faces; and on a closer view, their monotonous life, the lot of so many a poor creature, well-nigh seemed an enviable one. Trouble had set its unmistakable mark on them, but petty cares had left no traces there.
"Well, my good Father Moreau, I suppose there is no help for it, and you must always be working?"
"Yes, M. Benassis, there are one or two more bits of waste that I mean to clear for you before I knock off work," the old man answered cheerfully, and light shone in his little black eyes.
"Is that wine that your wife is carrying? If you will not take a rest now, you ought at any rate to take wine."
"I take a rest? I should not know what to do with myself. The sun and the fresh air put life into me when I am out of doors and busy grubbing up the land. As to the wine, sir, yes, that is wine sure enough, and it is all through your contriving I know that the Mayor at Courteil lets us have it for next to nothing. Ah, you managed it very cleverly, but, all the same, I know you had a hand in it."
"Oh! come, come! Good-day, mother. You are going to work on that bit of land of Champferlu's to-day of course?"
"Yes, sir; I made a beginning there yesterday evening."
"Capital!" said Benassis. "It must be a satisfaction to you, at times, to see this hillside. You two have broken up almost the whole of the land on it yourselves."
"Lord! yes, sir," answered the old woman, "it has been our doing! We have fairly earned our bread."
"Work, you see, and land to cultivate are the poor man's consols. That good man would think himself disgraced if he went into the poorhouse or begged for his bread; he would choose to die pickaxe in hand, out in the open, in the sunlight. Faith, he bears a proud heart in him. He has worked until work has become his very life; and yet death has no terrors for him! He is a profound philosopher, little as he suspects it. Old Moreau's case suggested the idea to me of founding an almshouse for the country people of the district; a refuge for those who, after working hard all their lives, have reached an honorable old age of poverty.
"I had by no means expected to make the fortune which I have acquired here; indeed, I myself have no use for it, for a man who has fallen from the pinnacle of his hopes needs very little. It costs but little to live, the idler's life alone is a costly one, and I am not sure that the unproductive consumer is not robbing the community at large. There was some discussion about Napoleon's pension after his fall; it came to his ears, and he said that five francs a day and a horse to ride was all that he needed. I meant to have no more to do with money when I came here; but after a time I saw that money means power, and that it is in fact a necessity, if any good is to be done. So I have made arrangements in my will for turning my house into an almshouse, in which old people who have not Moreau's fierce independence can end their days. Part of the income of nine thousand francs brought in by the mill and the rest of my property will be devoted to giving outdoor relief in hard winters to those who really stand in need of it.
"This foundation will be under the control of the Municipal Council, with the addition of the cure, who is to be president; and in this way the money made in the district will be returned to it. In my will I have laid down the lines on which this institution is to be conducted; it would be tedious to go over them, it is enough to say that I have a fund which will some day enable the Commune to award several scholarships for children who show signs of promise in art or science. So, even after I am gone, my work of civilization will continue. When you have set yourself to do anything, Captain Bluteau, something within you urges you on, you see, and you cannot bear to leave it unfinished. This craving within us for order and for perfection is one of the signs that point most surely to a future existence. Now, let us quicken our pace, I have my round to finish, and there are five or six more patients still to be visited."
They cantered on for some time in silence, till Benassis said laughingly to his companion, "Come now, Captain Bluteau, you have drawn me out and made me chatter like a magpie, and you have not said a syllable about your own history, which must be an interesting one. When a soldier has come to your time of life, he has seen so much that he must have more than one adventure to tell about."
"Why, my history has been simply the history of the army," answered Genestas. "Soldiers are all after one pattern. Never in command, always giving and taking sabre-cuts in my place, I have lived just like anybody else. I have been wherever Napoleon led us, and have borne a part in every battle in which the Imperial Guard has struck a blow; but everybody knows all about these events. A soldier has to look after his horse, to endure hunger and thirst at times, to fight whenever there is fighting to be done, and there you have the whole history of his life. As simple as saying good-day, is it not? Then there are battles in which your horse casts a shoe at the outset, and lands you in a quandary; and as far as you are concerned, that is the whole of it. In short, I have seen so many countries, that seeing them has come to be a matter of course; and I have seen so many men die, that I have come to value my own life at nothing."
"But you yourself must have been in danger at times, and it would be interesting to hear you tell of your personal adventures."
"Perhaps," answered the commandant.
"Well, then, tell me about the adventure that made the deepest impression upon you. Come! do not hesitate. I shall not think that you are wanting in modesty even if you should tell me of some piece of heroism on your part; and when a man is quite sure that he will not be misunderstood, ought he not to find a kind of pleasure in saying, 'I did thus'?"
"Very well, then, I will tell you about something that gives me a pang of remorse from time to time. During fifteen years of warfare it never once happened that I killed a man, save in legitimate defence of self. We are drawn up in a line, and we charge; and if we do not strike down those before us, they will begin to draw blood without asking leave, so you have to kill if you do not mean to be killed, and your conscience is quite easy. But once I broke a comrade's back; it happened in a singular way, and it has been a painful thing to me to think of afterwards--the man's dying grimace haunts me at times. But you shall judge for yourself.
"It was during the retreat from Moscow," the commandant went on. "The Grand Army had ceased to be itself; we were more like a herd of over- driven cattle. Good-bye to discipline! The regiments had lost sight of their colors, every one was his own master, and the Emperor (one need not scruple to say it) knew that it was useless to attempt to exert his authority when things had gone so far. When we reached Studzianka, a little place on the other side of the Beresina, we came upon human dwellings for the first time after several days. There were barns and peasants' cabins to destroy, and pits full of potatoes and beetroot; the army had been without vitual, and now it fairly ran riot, the first comers, as you might expect, making a clean sweep of everything.
"I was one of the last to come up. Luckily for me, sleep was the one thing that I longed for just then. I caught sight of a barn and went into it. I looked round and saw a score of generals and officers of high rank, all of them men who, without flattery, might be called great. Junot was there, and Narbonne, the Emperor's aide-de-camp, and all the chiefs of the army. There were common soldiers there as well, not one of whom would have given up his bed of straw to a marshal of France. Some who were leaning their backs against the wall had dropped off to sleep where they stood, because there was no room to lie down; others lay stretched out on the floor--it was a mass of men packed together so closely for the sake of warmth, that I looked about in vain for a nook to lie down in. I walked over this flooring of human bodies; some of the men growled, the others said nothing, but no one budged. They would not have moved out of the way of a cannon ball just then; but under the circumstances, one was not obliged to practise the maxims laid down by the Child's Guide to Manners. Groping about, I saw at the end of the barn a sort of ledge up above in the roof; no one had thought of scrambling up to it, possibly no one had felt equal to the effort. I clambered up and ensconced myself upon it; and as I lay there at full length, I looked down at the men huddled together like sheep below. It was a pitiful sight, yet it almost made me laugh. A man here and there was gnawing a frozen carrot, with a kind of animal satisfaction expressed in his face; and thunderous snores came from generals who lay muffled up in ragged cloaks. The whole barn was lighted by a blazing pine log; it might have set the place on fire, and no one would have troubled to get up and put it out.
"I lay down on my back, and, naturally, just before I dropped off, my eyes traveled to the roof above me, and then I saw that the main beam which bore the weight of the joists was being slightly shaken from east to west. The blessed thing danced about in fine style. 'Gentlemen,' said I, 'one of our friends outside has a mind to warm himself at our expense.' A few moments more and the beam was sure to come down. 'Gentlemen! gentlemen!' I shouted, 'we shall all be killed in a minute! Look at the beam there!' and I made such a noise that my bed-fellows awoke at last. Well, sir, they all stared up at the beam, and then those who had been sleeping turned round and went off to sleep again, while those who were eating did not even stop to answer me.
"Seeing how things were, there was nothing for it but to get up and leave my place, and run the risk of finding it taken by somebody else, for all the lives of this heap of heroes were at stake. So out I go. I turn the corner of the barn and come upon a great devil of a Wurtemberger, who was tugging at the beam with a certain enthusiasm. 'Aho! aho!' I shouted, trying to make him understand that he must desist from his toil. 'Gehe mir aus dem Gesicht, oder ich schlag dich todt!--Get out of my sight, or I will kill you,' he cried. 'Ah! yes, just so, Que mire aous dem guesit,' I answered; 'but that is not the point.' I picked up his gun that he had left on the ground, and broke his back with it; then I turned in again, and went off to sleep. Now you know the whole business."
"But that was a case of self-defence, in which one man suffered for the good of many, so you have nothing to reproach yourself with," said Benassis.
"The rest of them thought that it had only been my fancy; but fancy or no, a good many of them are living comfortably in fine houses to-day, without feeling their hearts oppressed by gratitude."
"Then would you only do people a good turn in order to receive that exorbitant interest called gratitude?" said Benassis, laughing. "That would be asking a great deal for your outlay."
"Oh, I know quite well that all the merit of a good deed evaporates at once if it benefits the doer in the slightest degree," said Genestas. "If he tells the story of it, the toll brought in to his vanity is a sufficient substitute for gratitude. But if every doer of kindly actions always held his tongue about them, those who reaped the benefits would hardly say very much either. Now the people, according to your system, stand in need of examples, and how are they to hear of them amid this general reticence? Again, there is this poor pontooner of ours, who saved the whole French army, and who was never able to tell his tale to any purpose; suppose that he had lost the use of his limbs, would the consciousness of what he had done have found him in bread? Answer me that, philosopher!"
"Perhaps the rules of morality cannot be absolute," Benassis answered; "though this is a dangerous idea, for it leaves the egoist free to settle cases of conscience in his own favor. Listen, captain; is not the man who never swerves from the principles of morality greater than he who transgresses them, even through necessity? Would not our veteran, dying of hunger, and unable to help himself, be worthy of rank with Homer? Human life is doubtless a final trial of virtue as of genius, for both of which a better world is waiting. Virtue and genius seem to me to be the fairest forms of that complete and constant surrender of self that Jesus Christ came among men to teach. Genius sheds its light in the world and lives in poverty all its days, and virtue sacrifices itself in silence for the general good."
"I quite agree with you, sir," said Genestas; "but those who dwell on earth are men after all, and not angels; we are not perfect."
"That is quite true," Benassis answered. "And as for errors, I myself have abused the indulgence. But ought we not to aim, at any rate, at perfection? Is not virtue a fair ideal which the soul must always keep before it, a standard set up by Heaven?"
"Amen," said the soldier. "An upright man is a magnificent thing, I grant you; but, on the other hand, you must admit that virtue is a divinity who may indulge in a scrap of gossip now and then in the strictest propriety."
The doctor smiled, but there was a melancholy bitterness in his tone as he said, "Ah! sir, you regard things with the lenience natural to those who live at peace with themselves; and I with all the severity of one who sees much that he would fain obliterate in the story of his life."
The two horsemen reached a cottage beside the bed of the torrent, the doctor dismounted and went into the house. Genestas, on the threshold, looked over the bright spring landscape that lay without, and then at the dark interior of the cottage, where a man was lying in bed. Benassis examined his patient, and suddenly exclaimed, "My good woman, it is no use my coming here unless you carry out my instructions! You have been giving him bread; you want to kill your husband, I suppose? Botheration! If after this you give him anything besides the tisane of couch-grass, I will never set foot in here again, and you can look where you like for another doctor."
"But, dear M. Benassis, my old man was starving, and when he had eaten nothing for a whole fortnight----"
"Oh, yes, yes. Now will you listen to me. If you let your husband eat a single mouthful of bread before I give him leave to take solid food, you will kill him, do you hear?"
"He shall not have anything, sir. Is he any better?" she asked, following the doctor to the door.
"Why, no. You have made him worse by feeding him. Shall I never get it into your stupid heads that you must not stuff people who are being dieted?"
"The peasants are incorrigible," Benassis went on, speaking to Genestas. "If a patient has eaten nothing for two or three days, they think he is at death's door, and they cram him with soup or wine or something. Here is a wretched woman for you that has all but killed her husband."
"Kill my husband with a little mite of a sop in wine!"
"Certainly, my good woman. It amazes me that he is still alive after the mess you cooked for him. Mind that you do exactly as I have told you."
"Yes, dear sir, I would far rather die myself than lose him."
"Oh! as to that I shall soon see. I shall come again to-morrow evening to bleed him."
"Let us walk along the side of the stream," Benassis said to Genestas; "there is only a footpath between this cottage and the next house where I must pay a call. That man's little boy will hold our horses."
"You must admire this lovely valley of ours a little," he went on; "it is like an English garden, is it not? The laborer who lives in the cottage which we are going to visit has never got over the death of one of his children. The eldest boy, he was only a lad, would try to do a man's work last harvest-tide; it was beyond his strength, and before the autumn was out he died of a decline. This is the first case of really strong fatherly love that has come under my notice. As a rule, when their children die, the peasant's regret is for the loss of a useful chattel, and a part of their stock-in-trade, and the older the child, the heavier their sense of loss. A grown-up son or daughter is so much capital to the parents. But this poor fellow really loved that boy of his. 'Nothing cam comfort me for my loss,' he said one day when I came across him out in the fields. He had forgotten all about his work, and was standing there motionless, leaning on his scythe; he had picked up his hone, it lay in his hand, and he had forgotten to use it. He has never spoken since of his grief to me, but he has grown sad and silent. Just now it is one of his little girls who is ill."
Benassis and his guest reached the little house as they talked. It stood beside a pathway that led to a bark-mill. They saw a man about forty years of age, standing under a willow tree, eating bread that had been rubbed with a clove of garlic.
"Well, Gasnier, is the little one doing better?"
"I do not know, sir," he said dejectedly, "you will see; my wife is sitting with her. In spite of all your care, I am very much afraid that death will come to empty my home for me."
"Do not lose heart, Gasnier. Death is too busy to take up his abode in any dwelling."
Benassis went into the house, followed by the father. Half an hour later he came out again. The mother was with him this time, and he spoke to her, "You need have no anxiety about her now; follow out my instructions; she is out of danger."
"If you are growing tired of this sort of thing," the doctor said to the officer, as he mounted his horse, "I can put you on the way to the town, and you can return."
"No, I am not tired of it, I give you my word."
"But you will only see cottages everywhere, and they are all alike; nothing, to outward seeming, is more monotonous than the country."
"Let us go on," said the officer.
They rode on in this way for several hours, and after going from one side of the canton to the other, they returned towards evening to the precincts of the town.
"I must just go over there," the doctor said to Genestas, as he pointed out a place where a cluster of elm-trees grew. "Those trees may possibly be two hundred years old," he went on, "and that is where the woman lives, on whose account the lad came to fetch me last night at dinner, with a message that she had turned quite white."
"Was it anything serious?"
"No," said Benassis, "an effect of pregnancy. It is the last month with her, a time at which some women suffer from spasms. But by way of precaution, I must go in any case to make sure that there are no further alarming symptoms; I shall see her through her confinement myself. And, moreover, I should like to show you one of our new industries; there is a brick-field here. It is a good road; shall we gallop?"
"Will your animal keep up with mine?" asked Genestas. "Heigh! Neptune!" he called to his horse, and in a moment the officer had been carried far ahead, and was lost to sight in a cloud of dust, but in spite of the paces of his horse he still heard the doctor beside him. At a word from Benassis his own horse left the commandant so far behind that the latter only came up with him at the gate of the brick- field, where the doctor was quietly fastening the bridle to the gate- post.
"The devil take it!" cried Genestas, after a look at the horse, that was neither sweated nor blown. "What kind of animal have you there?"
"Ah!" said the doctor, "you took him for a screw! The history of this fine fellow would take up too much time just now; let it suffice to say that Roustan is a thoroughbred barb from the Atlas mountains, and a Barbary horse is as good as an Arab. This one of mine will gallop up the mountain roads without turning a hair, and will never miss his footing in a canter along the brink of a precipice. He was a present to me, and I think that I deserved it, for in this way a father sought to repay me for his daughter's life. She is one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe, and she was at the brink of death when I found her on the road to Savoy. If I were to tell you how I cured that young lady, you would take me for a quack. Aha! that is the sound of the bells on the horses and the rumbling of a wagon; it is coming along this way; let us see, perhaps that is Vigneau himself; and if so, take a good look at him!"
In another moment the officer saw a team of four huge horses, like those which are owned by prosperous farmers in Brie. The harness, the little bells, and the knots of braid in their manes, were clean and smart. The great wagon itself was painted bright blue, and perched aloft in it sat a stalwart, sunburned youth, who shouldered his whip like a gun and whistled a tune.
"No," said Benassis, "that is only the wagoner. But see how the master's prosperity in business is reflected by all his belongings, even by the carter's wagon! Is it not a sign of a capacity for business not very often met with in remote country places?"
"Yes, yes, it all looks very smart indeed," the officer answered.
"Well, Vigneau has two more wagons and teams like that one, and he has a small pony besides for business purposes, for he does trade over a wide area. And only four years ago he had nothing in the world! Stay, that is a mistake--he had some debts. But let us go in."
"Is Mme. Vigneau in the house?" Benassis asked of the young wagoner.
"She is out in the garden, sir; I saw her just now by the hedge down yonder; I will go and tell her that you are here."
Genestas followed Benassis across a wide open space with a hedge about it. In one corner various heaps of clay had been piled up, destined for tiles and pantiles, and a stack of brushwood and logs (fuel for the kiln no doubt) lay in another part of the enclosure. Farther away some workmen were pounding chalk stones and tempering the clay in a space enclosed by hurdles. The tiles, both round and square, were made under the great elms opposite the gateway, in a vast green arbor bounded by the roofs of the drying-shed, and near this last the yawning mouth of the kiln was visible. Some long-handled shovels lay about the worn cider path. A second row of buildings had been erected parallel with these. There was a sufficiently wretched dwelling which housed the family, and some outbuildings--sheds and stables and a barn. The cleanliness that predominated throughout, and the thorough repair in which everything was kept, spoke well for the vigilance of the master's eyes. Some poultry and pigs wandered at large over the field.
"Vigneau's predecessor," said Benassis, "was a good-for-nothing, a lazy rascal who cared about nothing by drink. He had been a workman himself; he could keep a fire in his kiln and could put a price on his work, and that was about all he knew; he had no energy, and no idea of business. If no one came to buy his wares of him, they simply stayed on hand and were spoiled, and so he lost the value of them. So he died of want at last. He had ill-treated his wife till she was almost idiotic, and she lived in a state of abject wretchedness. It was so painful to see this laziness and incurable stupidity, and I so much disliked the sight of the tile-works, that I never came this way if I could help it. Luckily, both the man and his wife were old people. One fine day the tile-maker had a paralytic stroke, and I had him removed to the hospital at Grenoble at once. The owner of the tile-works agreed to take it over without disputing about its condition, and I looked round for new tenants who would take their part in improving the industries of the canton.
"Mme. Gravier's waiting-maid had married a poor workman, who was earning so little with the potter who employed him that he could not support his household. He listened to my advice, and actually had sufficient courage to take a lease of our tile-works, when he had not so much as a penny. He came and took up his abode here, taught his wife, her aged mother, and his own mother how to make tiles, and made workmen of them. How they managed, I do not know, upon my honor! Vigneau probably borrowed fuel to heat his kiln, he certainly worked by day, and fetched in his materials in basket-loads by night; in short, no one knew what boundless energy he brought to bear upon his enterprise; and the two old mothers, clad in rags, worked like negroes. In this way Vigneau contrived to fire several batches, and lived for the first year on bread that was hardly won by the toil of his household.
"Still, he made a living. His courage, patience, and sterling worth interested many people in him, and he began to be known. He was indefatigable. He would hurry over to Grenoble in the morning, and sell his bricks and tiles there; then he would return home about the middle of the day, and go back again to the town at night. He seemed to be in several places at once. Towards the end of the first year he took two little lads to help him. Seeing how things were, I lent him some money, and since then from year to year the fortunes of the family have steadily improved. After the second year was over the two old mothers no longer moulded bricks nor pounded stones; they looked after the little gardens, made the soup, mended the clothes, they did spinning in the evenings, and gathered firewood in the daytime; while the young wife, who can read and write, kept the accounts. Vigneau had a small horse, and rode on his business errands about the neighborhood; next he thoroughly studied the art of brick and tile making, discovering how to make excellent square white paving-tiles, and sold them for less than the usual prices. In the third year he had a cart and a pair of horses, and at the same time his wife's appearance became almost elegant. Everything about his household improved with the improvement in his business, and everywhere there was the same neatness, method, and thrift that had been the making of his little fortune.
"At last he had work enough for six men, to whom he pays good wages; he employs a wagoner, and everything about him wears an air of prosperity. Little by little, in short, by dint of taking pains and extending his business, his income has increased. He bought the tile- works last year, and next year he will rebuild his house. To-day all the worthy folk there are well clothed and in good health. His wife, who used to be so thin and pale when the burden of her husband's cares and anxieties used to press so hardly upon her, has recovered her good looks, and has grown quite young and pretty again. The two old mothers are thoroughly happy, and take the deepest interest in every detail of the housekeeping or of the business. Work has brought money, and the money that brought freedom from care brought health and plenty and happiness. The story of this household is a living history in miniature of the Commune since I have known it, and of all young industrial states. The tile factory that used to look so empty, melancholy, ill-kept, and useless, is now in full work, astir with life, and well stocked with everything required. There is a good stock of wood here, and all the raw material for the season's work: for, as you know, tiles can only be made during a few months in the year, between June and September. Is it not a pleasure to see all this activity? My tile-maker has done his share of the work in every building going, always busy--'the devourer,' they call him in these parts."
Benassis had scarcely finished speaking when the wicket gate which gave entrance to the garden opened, and a nicely-dressed young woman appeared. She came forward as quickly as her condition allowed, though the two horsemen hastened towards her. Her attire somewhat recalled her former quality of ladies' maid, for she wore a pretty cap, a pink dress, a silk apron, and white stockings. Mme. Vigneau in short, was a nice-looking woman, sufficiently plump, and if she was somewhat sunburned, her natural complexion must have been very fair. There were a few lines still left on her forehead, traced there by the troubles of past days, but she had a bright and winsome face. She spoke in a persuasive voice, as she saw that the doctor came no further, "Will you not do me the honor of coming inside and resting for a moment, M. Benassis?"
"Certainly we will. Come this way, captain."
"The gentleman must be very hot! Will you take a little milk or some wine? M. Benassis, please try a little of the wine that my husband has been so kind as to buy for my confinement. You will tell me if it is good."
"You have a good man for your husband."
"Yes, sir," she turned and spoke in quiet tones, "I am very well off."
"We will not take anything, Mme. Vigneau; I only came round this way to see that nothing troublesome had happened."
"Nothing," she said. "I was busy out in the garden, as you saw, turning the soil over for the sake of something to do."
Then the two old mothers came out to speak to Benassis, and the young wagoner planted himself in the middle of the yard, in a spot from whence he could have a good view of the doctor.
"Let us see, let me have your hand," said Benassis, addressing Mme. Vigneau; and as he carefully felt her pulse, he stood in silence, absorbed in thought. The three women, meanwhile, scrutinized the commandant with the undisguised curiosity that country people do not scruple to express.
"Nothing could be better!" cried the doctor cheerily.
"Will she be confined soon?" both the mothers asked together.
"This week beyond a doubt. Is Vigneau away from home?" he asked, after a pause.
"Yes, sir," the young wife answered; "he is hurrying about settling his business affairs, so as to be able to stay at home during my confinement, the dear man!"
"Well, my children, go on and prosper; continue to increase your wealth and to add to your family."
The cleanliness of the almost ruinous dwelling filled Genestas with admiration.
Benassis saw the officer's astonishment, and said, "There is no one like Mme. Vigneau for keeping a house clean and tidy like this. I wish that several people in the town would come here to take a lesson."
The tile-maker's wife blushed and turned her head away; but the faces of the two old mothers beamed with pleasure at the doctor's words, and the three women walked with them to the spot where the horses were waiting.
"Well, now," the doctor said to the two old women, "here is happiness for you both! Were you not longing to be grandmothers?"
"Oh, do not talk about it," said the young wife; "they will drive me crazy among them. My two mothers wish for a boy, and my husband would like to have a little girl. It will be very difficult to please them all, I think."
"But you yourself," asked Benassis; "what is your wish?"
"Ah, sir, I wish for a child of my own."
"There! She is a mother already, you see," said the doctor to the officer, as he laid his hand on the bridle of his horse.
"Good-bye, M. Benassis; my husband will be sadly disappointed to learn that you have been here when he was not at home to see you."
"He has not forgotten to send the thousand tiles to the Grange-aux- Belles for me?"
"You know quite well, sir, that he would keep all the orders in the canton waiting to serve you. Why, taking your money is the thing that troubles him most; but I always tell him that your crowns bring luck with them, and so they do."
"Good-bye," said Benassis.
A little group gathered about the bars across the entrance to the tile-works. The three women, the young wagoner, and two workmen who had left off work to greet the doctor, lingered there to have the pleasure of being with him until the last moment, as we are wont to linger with those we love. The promptings of men's hearts must everywhere be the same, and in every land friendship expresses itself in the same gracious ways.
Benassis looked at the height of the sun and spoke to his companion:
"There are still two hours of daylight left; and if you are not too hungry, we will go to see some one with whom I nearly always spend the interval between the last of my visits and the hour for dinner. She is a charming girl whom every one here calls my 'good friend.' That is the name that they usually give to an affianced bride; but you must not imagine that there is the slightest imputation of any kind implied or intended by the use of the word in this case. Poor child, the care that I have taken of her has, as may be imagined, made her an object of jealousy, but the general opinion entertained as to my character has prevented any spiteful gossip. If no one understands the apparent caprice that has led me to make an allowance to La Fosseuse, so that she can live without being compelled to work, nobody has any doubts as to her character. I have watched over her with friendly care, and every one knows that I should never hesitate to marry her if my affection for her exceeded the limits of friendship. But no woman exists for me here in the canton or anywhere else," said the doctor, forcing a smile. "Some natures feel a tyrannous need to attach themselves to some one thing or being which they single out from among the beings and things around them; this need is felt most keenly by a man of quick sympathies, and all the more pressingly if his life has been made desolate. So, trust me, it is a favorable sign if a man is strongly attached to his dog or his horse! Among the suffering flock which chance has given into my care, this poor little sufferer has come to be for me like the pet lamb that the shepherd lasses deck with ribbons in my own sunny land of Languedoc; they talk to it and allow it to find pasture by the side of the cornfields, and its leisurely pace is never hurried by the shepherd's dog."
Benassis stood with his hand on his horse's mane as he spoke, ready to spring into the saddle, but making no effort to do so, as though the thoughts that stirred in him were but little in keeping with rapid movements.
"Let us go," he said at last; "come with me and pay her a visit. I am taking you to see her; does not that tell you that I treat her as a sister?"
As they rode on their way again, Genestas said to the doctor, "Will you regard it as inquisitiveness on my part if I ask to hear more of La Fosseuse? I have come to know the story of many lives through you, and hers cannot be less interesting than some of these."
Benassis stopped his horse as he answered. "Perhaps you will not share in the feelings of interest awakened in me by La Fosseuse. Her fate is like my own; we have both alike missed our vocation; it is the similarity of our lots that occasions my sympathy for her and the feelings that I experience at the sight of her. You either followed your natural bent when you entered upon a military career, or you took a liking for your calling after you had adopted it, otherwise you would not have borne the heavy yoke of military discipline till now; you, therefore, cannot understand the sorrows of a soul that must always feel renewed within it the stir of longings that can never be realized; nor the pining existence of a creature forced to live in an alien sphere. Such sufferings as these are known only to these natures and to God who sends their afflictions, for they alone can know how deeply the events of life affect them. You yourself have seen the miseries produced by long wars, till they have almost ceased to impress you, but have you never detected a trace of sadness in your mind at the sight of a tree bearing sere leaves in the midst of spring, some tree that is pining and dying because it has been planted in soil in which it could not find the sustenance required for its full development? Ever since my twentieth year, there has been something painful and melancholy for me about the drooping of a stunted plant, and now I cannot bear the sight and turn my head away. My youthful sorrow was a vague presentiment of the sorrows of my later life; it was a kind of sympathy between my present and a future dimly foreshadowed by the life of the tree that before its time was going the way of all trees and men."
"I thought that you had suffered when I saw how kind you were."
"You see, sir," the doctor went on without any reply to the remark made by Genestas, "that to speak of La Fosseuse is to speak of myself. La Fosseuse is a plant in an alien soil; a human plant moreover, consumed by sad thoughts that have their source in the depths of her nature, and that never cease to multiply. The poor girl is never well and strong. The soul within her kills the body. This fragile creature was suffering from the sorest of all troubles, a trouble which receives the least possible sympathy from our selfish world, and how could I look on with indifferent eyes? for I, a man, strong to wrestle with pain, was nightly tempted to refuse to bear the burden of a sorrow like hers. Perhaps I might actually have refused to bear it but for a thought of religion which soothes my impatience and fills my heart with sweet illusions. Even if we were not children of the same Father in heaven, La Fosseuse would still be my sister in suffering!"
Benassis pressed his knees against his horse's sides, and swept ahead of Commandant Genestas, as if he shrank from continuing this conversation any further. When their horses were once more cantering abreast of each other, he spoke again: "Nature has created this poor girl for sorrow," he said, "as she has created other women for joy. It is impossible to do otherwise than believe in a future life at the sight of natures thus predestined to suffer. La Fosseuse is sensitive and highly strung. If the weather is dark and cloudy, she is depressed; she 'weeps when the sky is weeping,' a phrase of her own; she sings with the birds; she grows happy and serene under a cloudless sky; the loveliness of a bright day passes into her face; a soft sweet perfume is an inexhaustible pleasure to her; I have seen her take delight the whole day long in the scent breathed forth by some mignonette; and, after one of those rainy mornings that bring out all the soul of the flowers and give indescribable freshness and brightness to the day, she seems to overflow with gladness like the green world around her. If it is close and hot, and there is thunder in the air, La Fosseuse feels a vague trouble that nothing can soothe. She lies on her bed, complains of numberless different ills, and does not know what ails her. In answer to my questions, she tells me that her bones are melting, that she is dissolving into water; her 'heart has left her,' to quote another of her sayings.
"I have sometimes come upon the poor child suddenly and found her in tears, as she gazed at the sunset effects we sometimes see here among our mountains, when bright masses of cloud gather and crowd together and pile themselves above the golden peaks of the hills. 'Why are you crying, little one?' I have asked her. 'I do not know, sir,' has been the answer; 'I have grown so stupid with looking up there; I have looked and looked, till I hardly know where I am.' 'But what do you see there?' 'I cannot tell you, sir,' and you might question her in this way all the evening, yet you would never draw a word from her; but she would look at you, and every glance would seem full of thoughts, or she would sit with tears in her eyes, scarcely saying a word, apparently rapt in musing. Those musings of hers are so profound that you fall under the spell of them; on me, at least, she has the effect of a cloud overcharged with electricity. One day I plied her with questions; I tried with all my might to make her talk; at last I let fall a few rather hasty words; and, well--she burst into tears.
"At other times La Fosseuse is bright and winning, active, merry, and sprightly; she enjoys talking, and the ideas which she expresses are fresh and original. She is however quite unable to apply herself steadily to any kind of work. When she was out in the fields she used to spend whole hours in looking at a flower, in watching the water flow, in gazing at the wonders in the depths of the clear, still river pools, at the picturesque mosaic made up of pebbles and earth and sand, of water plants and green moss, and the brown soil washed down by the stream, a deposit full of soft shades of color, and of hues that contrast strangely with each other.
"When I first came to the district the poor girl was starving. It hurt her pride to accept the bread of others; and it was only when driven to the last extremity of want and suffering that she could bring herself to ask for charity. The feeling that this was a disgrace would often give her energy, and for several days she worked in the fields; but her strength was soon exhausted, and illness obliged her to leave the work that she had begun. She had scarcely recovered when she went to a farm on the outskirts of the town and asked to be taken on to look after the cattle; she did her work well and intelligently, but after a while she left without giving any reason for so doing. The constant toil, day after day, was no doubt too heavy a yoke for one who is all independence and caprice. Then she set herself to look for mushrooms or for truffles, going over to Grenoble to sell them. But the gaudy trifles in the town were very tempting, the few small coins in her hand seemed to be great riches; she would forget her poverty and buy ribbons and finery, without a thought for tomorrow's bread. But if some other girl here in the town took a fancy to her brass crucifix, her agate heart or her velvet ribbon, she would make them over to her at once, glad to give happiness, for she lives by generous impulses. So La Fosseuse was loved and pitied and despised by turns. Everything in her nature was a cause of suffering to her--her indolence, her kindness of heart, her coquetry; for she is coquettish, dainty, and inquisitive, in short, she is a woman; she is as simple as a child, and, like a child, she is carried away by her tastes and her impressions. If you tell her about some noble deed, she trembles, her color rises, her heart throbs fast, and she sheds tears of joy; if you begin a story about robbers, she turns pale with terror. You could not find a more sincere, open-hearted, and scrupulously loyal nature anywhere; if you were to give a hundred gold pieces into her keeping, she would bury them in some out-of-the-way nook and beg her bread as before."
There was a change in Benassis' tone as he uttered these last words.
"I once determined to put her to the proof," he said, "and I repented of it. It is like espionage to bring a test to bear upon another, is it not? It means that we suspect them at any rate."
Here the doctor paused, as though some inward reflection engrossed him; he was quite unconscious of the embarrassment that his last remark had caused to his companion, who busied himself with disentangling the reins in order to hide his confusion. Benassis soon resumed his talk.
"I should like to find a husband for my Fosseuse. I should be glad to make over one of my farms to some good fellow who would make her happy. And she would be happy. The poor girl would love her children to distraction; for motherhood, which develops the whole of a woman's nature, would give full scope to her overflowing sentiments. She has never cared for any one, however. Yet her impressionable nature is a danger to her. She knows this herself, and when she saw that I recognized it, she admitted the excitability of her temperament to me. She belongs to the small minority of women whom the slightest contact with others causes to vibrate perilously; so that she must be made to value herself on her discretion and her womanly pride. She is as wild and shy as a swallow! Ah! what a wealth of kindness there is in her! Nature meant her to be a rich woman; she would be so beneficent: for a well-loved woman; she would be so faithful and true. She is only twenty-two years old, and is sinking already beneath the weight of her soul; a victim to highly-strung nerves, to an organization either too delicate or too full of power. A passionate love for a faithless lover would drive her mad, my poor Fosseuse! I have made a study of her temperament, recognized the reality of her prolonged nervous attacks, and of the swift mysterious recurrence of her uplifted moods. I found that they were immediately dependent on atmospheric changes and on the variations of the moon, a fact which I have carefully verified; and since then I have cared for her, as a creature unlike all others, for she is a being whose ailing existence I alone can understand. As I have told you, she is the pet lamb. But you shall see her; this is her cottage."
They had come about one-third of the way up the mountain side. Low bushes grew on either hand along the steep paths which they were ascending at a foot pace. At last, at a turn in one of the paths, Genestas saw La Fosseuse's dwelling, which stood on one of the largest knolls on the mountain. Around it was a green sloping space of lawn about three acres in extent, planted with trees, and surrounded by a wall high enough to serve as a fence, but not so high as to shut out the view of the landscape. Several rivulets that had their source in this garden formed little cascades among the trees. The brick-built cottage with a low roof that projected several feet was a charming detail in the landscape. It consisted of a ground floor and a single story, and stood facing the south. All the windows were in the front of the house, for its small size and lack of depth from back to front made other openings unnecessary. The doors and shutters were painted green, and the underside of the penthouses had been lined with deal boards in the German fashion, and painted white. The rustic charm of the whole little dwelling lay in its spotless cleanliness.
Climbing plants and briar roses grew about the house; a great walnut tree had been allowed to remain among the flowering acacias and trees that bore sweet-scented blossoms, and a few weeping willows had been set by the little streams in the garden space. A thick belt of pines and beeches grew behind the house, so that the picturesque little dwelling was brought out into strong relief by the sombre width of background. At that hour of the day, the air was fragrant with the scents from the hillsides and the perfume from La Fosseuse's garden. The sky overhead was clear and serene, but low clouds hung on the horizon, and the far-off peaks had begun to take the deep rose hues that the sunset often brings. At the height which they had reached the whole valley lay before their eyes, from distant Grenoble to the little lake at the foot of the circle of crags by which Genestas had passed on the previous day. Some little distance above the house a line of poplars on the hill indicated the highway that led to Grenoble. Rays of sunlight fell slantwise across the little town which glittered like a diamond, for the soft red light which poured over it like a flood was reflected by all its window-panes. Genestas reined in his horse at the sight, and pointed to the dwellings in the valley, to the new town, and to La Fosseuse's house.
"Since the victory of Wagram, and Napoleon's return to the Tuileries in 1815," he said, with a sigh, "nothing has so stirred me as the sight of all this. I owe this pleasure to you, sir, for you have taught me to see beauty in a landscape."
"Yes," said the doctor, smiling as he spoke, "It is better to build towns than to storm them."
"Oh! sir, how about the taking of Moscow and the surrender of Mantua! Why, you do not really know what that means! Is it not a glory for all of us? You are a good man, but Napoleon also was a good man. If it had not been for England, you both would have understood each other, and our Emperor would never have fallen. There are no spies here," said the officer, looking around him, "and I can say openly that I love him, now that he is dead! What a ruler! He knew every man when he saw him! He would have made you a Councillor of State, for he was a great administrator himself; even to the point of knowing how many cartridges were left in the men's boxes after an action. Poor man! While you were talking about La Fosseuse, I thought of him, and how he was lying dead in St. Helena! Was that the kind of climate and country to suit HIM, whose seat had been a throne, and who had lived with his feet in the stirrups; hein? They say that he used to work in the garden. The deuce! He was not made to plant cabbages. . . . And now we must serve the Bourbons, and loyally, sir; for, after all, France is France, as you were saying yesterday."
Genestas dismounted as he uttered these last words, and mechanically followed the example set by Benassis, who fastened his horse's bridle to a tree.
"Can she be away?" said the doctor, when he did not see La Fosseuse on the threshold. They went into the house, but there was no one in the sitting room on the ground floor.
"She must have heard the sound of a second horse," said Benassis, with a smile, "and has gone upstairs to put on her cap, or her sash, or some piece of finery."
He left Genestas alone, and went upstairs in search of La Fosseuse. The commandant made a survey of the room. He noticed the pattern of the paper that covered the walls--roses scattered over a gray background, and the straw matting that did duty for a carpet on the floor. The armchair, the table, and the smaller chairs were made of wood from which the bark had not been removed. The room was not without ornament; some flower-stands, as they might be called, made of osiers and wooden hoops, had been filled with moss and flowers, and the windows were draped by white dimity curtains bordered with a scarlet fringe. There was a mirror above the chimney-piece, where a plain china jar stood between two candlesticks. Some calico lay on the table; shirts, apparently, had been cut out and begun, several pairs of gussets were finished, and a work-basket, scissors, needles and thread, and all a needle-woman's requirements lay beside them. Everything was as fresh and clean as a shell that the sea had tossed up on the beach. Genestas saw that a kitchen lay on the other side of the passage, and that the staircase was at the further end of it. The upper story, like the ground floor, evidently consisted of two rooms only. "Come, do not be frightened," Benassis was saying to La Fosseuse; "come down-stairs!"
Genestas promptly retreated into the sitting-room when he heard these words, and in another moment a slender girl, well and gracefully made, appeared in the doorway. She wore a gown of cambric, covered with narrow pink stripes, and cut low at the throat, so as to display a muslin chemisette. Shyness and timidity had brought the color to a face which had nothing very remarkable about it save a certain flatness of feature which called to mind the Cossack and Russian countenances that since the disasters of 1814 have unfortunately come to be so widely known in France. La Fosseuse was, in fact, very like these men of the North. Her nose turned up at the end, and was sunk in her face, her mouth was wide and her chin small, her hands and arms were red and, like her feet, were of the peasant type, large and strong. Although she had been used to an outdoor life, to exposure to the sun and the scorching summer winds, her complexion had the bleached look of withered grass; but after the first glance this made her face more interesting, and there was such a sweet expression in her blue eyes, so much grace about her movements, and such music in her voice, that little as her features seemed to harmonize with the disposition which Benassis had praised to the commandant, the officer recognized in her the capricious and ailing creature, condemned to suffering by a nature that had been thwarted in its growth.
La Fosseuse deftly stirred the fire of dry branches and turfs of peat, then sat down in an armchair and took up one of the shirts that she had begun. She sat there under the officer's eyes, half bashful, afraid to look up, and calm to all appearance; but her bodice rose and fell with the rapid breathing that betrayed her nervousness, and it struck Genestas that her figure was very graceful.
"Well, my poor child, is your work going on nicely?" said Benassis, taking up the material intended for the shirts, and passing it through his fingers.
La Fosseuse gave the doctor a timid and beseeching glance.
"Do not scold me, sir," she entreated; "I have not touched them to- day, although they were ordered by you, and for people who need them very badly. But the weather has been so fine! I wandered out and picked a quantity of mushrooms and white truffles, and took them over to Jacquotte; she was very pleased, for some people are coming to dinner. I was so glad that I thought of it; something seemed to tell me to go to look for them."
She began to ply her needle again.
"You have a very pretty house here, mademoiselle," said Genestas, addressing her.
"It is not mine at all, sir," she said, looking at the stranger, and her eyes seemed to grow red and tearful; "it belongs to M. Benassis," and she turned towards the doctor with a gentle expression on her face.
"You know quite well, my child, that you will never have to leave it," he said, as he took her hand in his.
La Fosseuse suddenly rose and left the room.
"Well," said the doctor, addressing the officer,"what do you think of her?"
"There is something strangely touching about her," Genestas answered. "How very nicely you have fitted up this little nest of hers!"
"Bah! a wall-paper at fifteen or twenty sous; it was carefully chosen, but that was all. The furniture is nothing very much either, my basket-maker made it for me; he wanted to show his gratitude; and La Fosseuse made the curtains herself out of a few yards of calico. This little house of hers, and her simple furniture, seem pretty to you, because you come upon them up here on a hillside in a forlorn part of the world where you did not expect to find things clean and tidy. The reason of the prettiness is a kind of harmony between the little house and its surroundings. Nature has set picturesque groups of trees and running streams about it, and has scattered her fairest flowers among the grass, her sweet-scented wild strawberry blossoms, and her lovely violets. . . . Well, what is the matter?" asked Benassis, as La Fosseuse came back to them.
"Oh! nothing, nothing," she answered. "I fancied that one of my chickens was missing, and had not been shut up."
Her remark was disingenuous, but this was only noticed by the doctor, who said in her ear, "You have been crying!"
"Why do you say things like that to me before some one else?" she asked in reply.
"Mademoiselle," said Genestas, "it is a great pity that you live here all by yourself; you ought to have a mate in such a charming cage as this."
"That is true," she said, "but what would you have? I am poor, and I am hard to please. I feel that it would not suit me at all to carry the soup out into the fields, nor to push a hand-cart; to feel the misery of those whom I should love, and have no power to put an end to it; to carry my children in my arms all day, and patch and re-patch a man's rags. The cure tells me that such thoughts as these are not very Christian; I know that myself, but how can I help it? There are days when I would rather eat a morsel of dry bread than cook anything for my dinner. Why would you have me worry some man's life out with my failings? He would perhaps work himself to death to satisfy my whims, and that would not be right. Pshaw! an unlucky lot has fallen to me, and I ought to bear it by myself."
"And besides, she is a born do-nothing," said Benassis. "We must take my poor Fosseuse as we find her. But all that she has been saying to you simply means that she has never loved as yet," he added, smiling. Then he rose and went out on to the lawn for a moment.
"You must be very fond of M. Benassis?" asked Genestas.
"Oh! yes, sir; and there are plenty of people hereabouts who feel as I do--that they would be glad to do anything in the world for him. And yet he who cures other people has some trouble of his own that nothing can cure. You are his friend, perhaps you know what it is? Who could have given pain to such a man, who is the very image of God on earth? I know a great many who think that the corn grows faster if he has passed by their field in the morning."
"And what do you think yourself?"
"I, sir? When I have seen him," she seemed to hesitate, then she went on, "I am happy all the rest of the day."
She bent her head over her work, and plied her needle with unwonted swiftness.
"Well, has the captain been telling you something about Napoleon?" said the doctor, as he came in again.
"Have you seen the Emperor, sir?" cried La Fosseuse, gazing at the officer's face with eager curiosity.
"PARBLEU!" said Genestas, "hundreds of times!"
"Oh! how I should like to know something about the army!"
"Perhaps we will come to take a cup of coffee with you to-morrow, and you shall hear 'something about the army,' dear child," said Benassis, who laid his hand on her shoulder and kissed her brow. "She is my daughter, you see!" he added, turning to the commandant; "there is something wanting in the day, somehow, when I have not kissed her forehead."
La Fosseuse held Benassis' hand in a tight clasp as she murmured, "Oh! you are very kind!"
They left the house; but she came after them to see them mount. She waited till Genestas was in the saddle, and then whispered in Benassis' ear, "Tell me who that gentleman is?"
"Aha!" said the doctor, putting a foot in the stirrup, "a husband for you, perhaps."
She stood on the spot where they left her, absorbed in watching their progress down the steep path; and when they came past the end of the garden, they saw her already perched on a little heap of stones, so that she might still keep them in view and give them a last nod of farewell.
"There is something very unusual about that girl, sir," Genestas said to the doctor when they had left the house far behind.
"There is, is there not?" he answered. "Many a time I have said to myself that she will make a charming wife, but I can only love her as a sister or a daughter, and in no other way; my heart is dead."
"Has she any relations?" asked Genestas. "What did her father and mother do?"
"Oh, it is quite a long story," answered Benassis. "Neither her father nor mother nor any of her relations are living. Everything about her down to her name interested me. La Fosseuse was born here in the town. Her father, a laborer from Saint Laurent du Pont, was nicknamed Le Fosseur, which is no doubt a contraction of fossoyeur, for the office of sexton had been in his family time out of mind. All the sad associations of the graveyard hang about the name. Here as in some other parts of France, there is an old custom, dating from the times of the Latin civilization, in virtue of which a woman takes her husband's name, with the addition of a feminine termination, and this girl has been called La Fosseuse, after her father.
"The laborer had married the waiting-woman of some countess or other who owns an estate at a distance of a few leagues. It was a love- match. Here, as in all country districts, love is a very small element in a marriage. The peasant, as a rule, wants a wife who will bear him children, a housewife who will make good soup and take it out to him in the fields, who will spin and make his shirts and mend his clothes. Such a thing had not happened for a long while in a district where a young man not unfrequently leaves his betrothed for another girl who is richer by three or four acres of land. The fate of Le Fosseur and his wife was scarcely happy enough to induce our Dauphinois to forsake their calculating habits and practical way of regarding things. La Fosseuse, who was a very pretty woman, died when her daughter was born, and her husband's grief for his loss was so great that he followed her within the year, leaving nothing in the world to this little one except an existence whose continuance was very doubtful--a mere feeble flicker of a life. A charitable neighbor took the care of the baby upon herself, and brought her up till she was nine years old. Then the burden of supporting La Fosseuse became too heavy for the good woman; so at the time of year when travelers are passing along the roads, she sent her charge to beg for her living upon the highways.
"One day the little orphan asked for bread at the countess' chateau, and they kept the child for her mother's sake. She was to be waiting-maid some day to the daughter of the house, and was brought up to this end. Her young mistress was married five years later; but meanwhile the poor little thing was the victim of all the caprices of wealthy people, whose beneficence for the most part is not to be depended upon even while it lasts. They are generous by fits and starts--sometimes patrons, sometimes friends, sometimes masters, in this way they falsify the already false position of the poor children in whom they interest themselves, and trifle with the hearts, the lives, and futures of their protegees, whom they regard very lightly. From the first La Fosseuse became almost a companion to the young heiress; she was taught to read and write, and her future mistress sometimes amused herself by giving her music lessons. She was treated sometimes as a lady's companion, sometimes as a waiting-maid, and in this way they made an incomplete being of her. She acquired a taste for luxury and for dress, together with manners ill-suited to her real position. She has been roughly schooled by misfortune since then, but the vague feeling that she is destined for a higher lot has not been effaced in her.
"A day came at last, however, a fateful day for the poor girl, when the young countess (who was married by this time) discovered La Fosseuse arrayed in one of her ball dresses, and dancing before a mirror. La Fosseuse was no longer anything but a waiting-maid, and the orphan girl, then sixteen years of age, was dismissed without pity. Her idle ways plunged her once more into poverty; she wandered about begging by the roadside, and working at times as I have told you. Sometimes she thought of drowning herself, sometimes also of giving herself to the first comer; she spent most of her time thinking dark thoughts, lying by the side of a wall in the sun, with her face buried in the grass, and passers-by would sometimes throw a few halfpence to her, simply because she asked them for nothing. One whole year she spent in a hospital at Annecy after heavy toil in the harvest field; she had only undertaken the work in the hope that it would kill her, and that so she might die. You should hear her herself when she speaks of her feelings and ideas during this time of her life; her simple confidences are often very curious.
"She came back to the little town at last, just about the time when I decided to take up my abode in it. I wanted to understand the minds of the people beneath my rule; her character struck me, and I made a study of it; then when I became aware of her physical infirmities, I determined to watch over her. Perhaps in time she may grow accustomed to work with her needle, but, whatever happens, I have secured her future."
"She is quite alone up there!" said Genestas.
"No. One of my herdswomen sleeps in the house," the doctor answered. "You did not see my farm buildings which lie behind the house. They are hidden by the pine-trees. Oh! she is quite safe. Moreover, there are no mauvais sujets here in the valley; if any come among us by any chance, I send them into the army, where they make excellent solders."
"Poor girl!" said Genestas.
"Oh! the folk round about do not pity her at all," said Benassis; "on the other hand, they think her very lucky; but there is this difference between her and the other women: God has given strength to them and weakness to her, and they do not see that."
The moment that the two horsemen came out upon the road to Grenoble, Benassis stopped with an air of satisfaction; a different view had suddenly opened out before them; he foresaw its effect upon Genestas, and wished to enjoy his surprise. As far as the eye could see, two green walls sixty feet high rose above a road which was rounded like a garden path. The trees had not been cut or trimmed, each one preserved the magnificent palm-branch shape that makes the Lombard poplar one of the grandest of trees; there they stood, a natural monument which a man might well be proud of having reared. The shadow had already reached one side of the road, transforming it into a vast wall of black leaves, but the setting sun shone full upon the other side, which stood out in contrast, for the young leaves at the tips of every branch had been dyed a bright golden hue, and, as the breeze stirred through the waving curtain, it gleamed in the light.
"You must be very happy here!" cried Genestas. "The sight of this must be all pleasure to you."
"The love of Nature is the only love that does not deceive human hopes. There is no disappointment here," said the doctor. "Those poplars are ten years old; have you ever seen any that are better grown than these of mine?"
"God is great!" said the soldier, coming to a stand in the middle of the road, of which he saw neither beginning nor end.
"You do me good," cried Benassis. "It was a pleasure to hear you say over again what I have so often said in the midst of this avenue. There is something holy about this place. Here, we are like two mere specks; and the feeling of our own littleness always brings us into the presence of God."
They rode on slowly and in silence, listening to their horses' hoof- beats; the sound echoed along the green corridor as it might have done beneath the vaulted roof of a cathedral.
"How many things have a power to stir us which town-dwellers do not suspect," said the doctor. "Do you not notice the sweet scent given off by the gum of the poplar buds, and the resin of the larches? How delightful it is!"
"Listen!" exclaimed Genestas. "Let us wait a moment."
A distant sound of singing came to their ears.
"Is it a woman or a man, or is it a bird?" asked the commandant in a low voice. "Is it the voice of this wonderful landscape?"
"It is something of all these things," the doctor answered, as he dismounted and fastened his horse to a branch of a poplar tree.
He made a sign to the officer to follow his example and to come with him. They went slowly along a footpath between two hedges of blossoming hawthorn which filled the damp evening air with its delicate fragrance. The sun shone full into the pathway; the light and warmth were very perceptible after the shade thrown by the long wall of poplar trees; the still powerful rays poured a flood of red light over a cottage at the end of the stony track. The ridge of the cottage roof was usually a bright green with its overgrowth of mosses and house-leeks, and the thatch was brown as a chestnut shell, but just now it seemed to be powdered with a golden dust. The cottage itself was scarcely visible through the haze of light; the ruinous wall, the doorway and everything about it was radiant with a fleeting glory and a beauty due to chance, such as is sometimes seen for an instant in a human face, beneath the influence of a strong emotion that brings warmth and color into it. In a life under the open sky and among the fields, the transient and tender grace of such moments as these draws from us the wish of the apostle who said to Jesus Christ upon the mountain, "Let us build a tabernacle and dwell here."
The wide landscape seemed at that moment to have found a voice whose purity, and sweetness equaled its own sweetness and purity, a voice as mournful as the dying light in the west--for a vague reminder of Death is divinely set in the heavens, and the sun above gives the same warning that is given here on earth by the flowers and the bright insects of the day. There is a tinge of sadness about the radiance of sunset, and the melody was sad. It was a song widely known in the days of yore, a ballad of love and sorrow that once had served to stir a national hatred of France for England. Beaumarchais, in a later day, had given it back its true poetry by adapting it for the French theatre and putting it into the mouth of a page, who pours out his heart to his stepmother. Just now it was simply the air that rose and fell. There were no words; the plaintive voice of the singer touched and thrilled the soul.
"It is the swan's song," said Benassis. "That voice does not sound twice in a century for human ears. Let us hurry; we must put a stop to the singing! The child is killing himself; it would be cruel to listen to him any longer. Be quiet, Jacques! Come, come, be quiet!" cried the doctor.
The music ceased. Genestas stood motionless and overcome with astonishment. A cloud had drifted across the sun, the landscape and the voice were both mute. Shadow, chillness, and silence had taken the place of the soft glory of the light, the warm breath of the breeze, and the child's singing.
"What makes you disobey me?" asked Benassis. "I shall not bring you any more rice pudding nor snail broth! No more fresh dates and white bread for you! So you want to die and break your poor mother's heart, do you?"
Genestas came into a little yard, which was sufficiently clean and tidily kept, and saw before him a lad of fifteen, who looked as delicate as a woman. His hair was fair but scanty, and the color in his face was so bright that it seemed hardly natural. He rose up slowly from the bench where he was sitting, beneath a thick bush of jessamine and some blossoming lilacs that were running riot, so that he was almost hidden among the leaves.
"You know very well," said the doctor, "that I told you not to talk, not to expose yourself to the chilly evening air, and to go to bed as soon as the sun was set. What put it into your head to sing?"
"DAME! M. Benassis, it was so very warm out here, and it is so nice to feel warm! I am always cold. I felt so happy that without thinking I began to try over Malbrouk s'en va-t-en guerre, just for fun, and then I began to listen to myself because my voice was something like the sound of the flute your shepherd plays."
"Well, my poor Jacques, this must not happen again; do you hear? Let me have your hand," and the doctor felt his pulse.
The boy's eyes had their usual sweet expression, but just now they shone with a feverish light.
"It is just as I thought, you are covered with perspiration," said Benassis. "Your mother has not come in yet?"
"Come! go in-doors and get into bed."
The young invalid went back into the cottage, followed by Benassis and the officer.
"Just light a candle, Captain Bluteau," said the doctor, who was helping Jacques to take off his rough, tattered clothing.
When Genestas had struck a light, and the interior of the room was visible, he was surprised by the extreme thinness of the child, who seemed to be little more than skin and bone. When the little peasant had been put to bed, Benassis tapped the lad's chest, and listened to the ominous sounds made in this way by his fingers; then, after some deliberation, he drew back the coverlet over Jacques, stepped back a few paces, folded his arms across his chest, and closely scrutinized his patient.
"How do you feel, my little man?"
"Quite comfortable, sir."
A table, with four spindle legs, stood in the room; the doctor drew it up to the bed, found a tumbler and a phial on the mantel-shelf, and composed a draught, by carefully measuring a few drops of brown liquid from the phial into some water, Genestas holding the light the while.
"Your mother is very late."
"She is coming, sir," said the child; "I can hear her footsteps on the path."
The doctor and the officer looked around them while they waited. At the foot of the bed there was a sort of mattress made of moss, on which, doubtless, the mother was wont to sleep in her clothes, for there were neither sheets nor coverlet. Genestas pointed out this bed to Benassis, who nodded slightly to show that he likewise had already admired this motherly devotion. There was a clatter of sabots in the yard, and the doctor went out.
"You will have to sit up with Jacques to-night, Mother Colas. If he tells you that his breathing is bad, you must let him drink some of the draught that I have poured into the tumbler on the table. Take care not to let him have more than two or three sips at a time; there ought to be enough in the tumbler to last him all through the night. Above all things, do not touch the phial, and change the child's clothing at once. He is perspiring heavily."
"I could not manage to wash his shirts to-day, sir; I had to take the hemp over to Grenoble, as we wanted the money."
"Very well, then, I will send you some shirts."
"Then is he worse, my poor lad?" asked the woman.
"He has been so imprudent as to sing, Mother Colas; and it is not to be expected that any good can come of it; but do not be hard upon him, nor scold him. Do not be down-hearted about it; and if Jacques complains overmuch, send a neighbor to fetch me. Good-bye."
The doctor called to his friend, and they went back along the foot- path.
"Is that little peasant consumptive?" asked Genestas.
"Mon Dieu! yes," answered Benassis. "Science cannot save him, unless Nature works a miracle. Our professors at the Ecole de Medecine in Paris often used to speak to us of the phenomenon which you have just witnessed. Some maladies of this kind bring about changes in the voice-producing organs that give the sufferer a short-lived power of song that no trained voice can surpass. I have made you spend a melancholy day, sir," said the doctor when he was once more in the saddle. "Suffering and death everywhere, but everywhere also resignation. All these peasant folk take death philosophically; they fall ill, say nothing about it, and take to their beds like dumb animals. But let us say no more about death, and let us quicken our horses' paces a little; we ought to reach the town before nightfall, so that you may see the new quarter."
"Eh! some place is on fire over there," said Genestas, pointing to a spot on the mountain, where a sheaf of flames was rising.
"It is not a dangerous fire. Our lime-burner is heating his kiln, no doubt. It is a newly-started industry, which turns our heather to account."
There was the sudden report of a gun, followed by an involuntary exclamation from Benassis, who said, with an impatient gesture, "If that is Butifer, we shall see which of us two is the stronger."
"The shot came from that quarter," said Genestas, indicating a beech- wood up above them on the mountain side. "Yes, up there; you may trust an old soldier's ear."
"Let us go there at once!" cried Benassis, and he made straight for the little wood, urging his horse at a furious speed across the ditches and fields, as if he were riding a steeplechase, in his anxiety to catch the sportsman red-handed.
"The man you are after has made off," shouted Genestas, who could scarcely keep up with him.
Benassis wheeled his horse round sharply, and came back again. The man of whom he was in search soon appeared on the top of a perpendicular crag, a hundred feet above the level of the two horsemen.
"Butifer!" shouted Benassis when he saw that this figure carried a fowling-piece; "come down!"
Butifer recognized the doctor, and replied by a respectful and friendly sign which showed that he had every intention of obeying.
"I can imagine that if a man were driven to it by fear or by some overmastering impulse that he might possibly contrive to scramble up to that point among the rocks," said Genestas; "but how will he manage to come down again?"
"I have no anxiety on that score," answered Benassis; "the wild goats must feel envious of that fellow yonder! You will see."
The emergencies of warfare had accustomed the commandant to gauge the real worth of men; he admired the wonderful quickness of Butifer's movements, the sure-footed grace with which the hunter swung himself down the rugged sides of the crag, to the top of which he had so boldly climbed. The strong, slender form of the mountaineer was gracefully poised in every attitude which the precipitous nature of the path compelled him to assume; and so certain did he seem of his power to hold on at need, that if the pinnacle of rock on which he took his stand had been a level floor, he could not have set his foot down upon it more calmly. He carried his fowling-piece as if it had been a light walking-cane. Butifer was a young man of middle height, thin, muscular, and in good training; his beauty was of a masculine order, which impressed Genestas on a closer view.
Evidently he belonged to the class of smugglers who ply their trade without resorting to violent courses, and who only exert patience and craft to defraud the government. His face was manly and sunburned. His eyes, which were bright as an eagle's, were of a clear yellow color, and his sharply-cut nose with its slight curve at the tip was very much like an eagle's beak. His cheeks were covered with down, his red lips were half open, giving a glimpse of a set of teeth of dazzling whiteness. His beard, moustache, and the reddish whiskers, which he allowed to grow, and which curled naturally, still further heightened the masculine and forbidding expression of his face. Everything about him spoke of strength. He was broad-chested; constant activity had made the muscles of his hands curiously firm and prominent. There was the quick intelligence of a savage about his glances; he looked resolute, fearless, and imperturbable, like a man accustomed to put his life in peril, and whose physical and mental strength had been so often tried by dangers of every kind, that he no longer felt any doubts about himself. He wore a blouse that had suffered a good deal from thorns and briars, and he had a pair of leather soles bound to his feet by eel-skin thongs, and a pair of torn and tattered blue linen breeches through which his legs were visible, red, wiry, hard, and muscular as those of a stag.
"There you see the man who once fired a shot at me," Benassis remarked to the commandant in a low voice. "If at this moment I were to signify to him my desire to be rid of any one, he would kill them without scruple.--Butifer!" he went on, addressing the poacher, "I fully believed you to be a man of your word; I pledged mine for you because I had your promise. My promise to the procureur du roi at Grenoble was based upon your vow never to go poaching again, and to turn over a new leaf and become a steady, industrious worker. You fired that shot just now, and here you are, on the Comte de Labranchoir's estate! Eh! you miscreant? Suppose his keeper had happened to hear you? It is a lucky thing for you that I shall take no formal cognizance of this offence; if I did, you would come up as an old offender, and of course you have no gun license! I let you keep that gun of yours out of tenderness for your attachment to the weapon."
"It is a beauty," said the commandant, who recognized a duck gun from Sainte Etienne.
The smuggler raised his head and looked at Genestas by way of acknowledging the compliment.
"Butifer," continued Benassis, "if your conscience does not reproach you, it ought to do so. If you are going to begin your old tricks again, you will find yourself once more in a park enclosed by four stone walls, and no power on earth will save you from the hulks; you will be a marked man, and your character will be ruined. Bring your gun to me to-night, I will take care of it for you."
Butifer gripped the barrel of his weapon in a convulsive clutch.
"You are right, sir," he said; "I have done wrong, I have broken bounds, I am a cur. My gun ought to go to you, but when you take it away from me, you take all that I have in the world. The last shot which my mother's son will fire shall be through my own head. . . . What would you have? I did as you wanted me. I kept quiet all winter; but the spring came, and the sap rose. I am not used to day labor. It is not in my nature to spend my life in fattening fowls; I cannot stoop about turning over the soil for vegetables, nor flourish a whip and drive a cart, nor scrub down a horse in a stable all my life, so I must die of starvation, I suppose? I am only happy when I am up there," he went on after a pause, pointing to the mountains. "And I have been about among the hills for the past week; I got a sight of a chamois, and I have the chamois there," he said, pointing to the top of the crag; "it is at your service! Dear M. Benassis, leave me my gun. Listen! I will leave the Commune, foi de Butifer! I will go to the Alps; the chamois-hunters will not say a word; on the contrary, they will receive me with open arms. I shall come to grief at the bottom of some glacier; but, if I am to speak my mind, I would rather live for a couple of years among the heights, where there are no governments, nor excisemen, nor gamekeepers, nor procureurs du roi, than grovel in a marsh for a century. You are the only one that I shall be sorry to leave behind; all the rest of them bore me! When you are in the right, at any rate you don't worry one's life out----"
"And how about Louise?" asked Benassis. Butifer paused and turned thoughtful.
"Eh! learn to read and write, my lad," said Genestas; "come and enlist in my regiment, have a horse to ride, and turn carabineer. If they once sound 'to horse' for something like a war, you will find out that Providence made you to live in the midst of cannon, bullets, and battalions, and they will make a general of you."
"Ye-es, if Napoleon was back again," answered Butifer.
"You know our agreement," said the doctor. "At the second infraction of it, you undertook to go for a soldier. I give you six months in which to learn to read and write, and then I will find some young gentleman who wants a substitute."
Butifer looked at the mountains.
"Oh! you shall not go to the Alps," cried Benassis. "A man like you, a man of his word, with plenty of good stuff in him, ought to serve his country and command a brigade, and not come to his end trailing after a chamois. The life that you are leading will take you straight to the convict's prison. After over-fatiguing yourself, you are obliged to take a long rest; and, in the end, you will fall into idle ways that will be the ruin of any notions of orderly existence that you have; you will get into the habit of putting your strength to bad uses, and you will take the law into your own hands. I want to put you, in spite of yourself, into the right path."
"So I am to pine and fret myself to death? I feel suffocated whenever I am in a town. I cannot hold out for more than a day, in Grenoble, when I take Louise there----"
"We all have our whims, which we must manage to control, or turn them to account for our neighbor's benefit. But it is late, and I am in a hurry. Come to see me to-morrow, and bring your gun along with you. We will talk this over, my boy. Good-bye. Go and sell your chamois in Grenoble."
The two horsemen went on their way.
"That is what I call a man," said Genestas.
"A man in a bad way," answered Benassis. "But what help is there for it? You heard what he said. Is it not lamentable to see such fine qualities running to waste? If France were invaded by a foreign foe, Butifer at the head of a hundred young fellows would keep a whole division busy in Maurienne for a month; but in a time of peace the only outlets for his energy are those which set the law at defiance. He must wrestle with something; whenever he is not risking his neck he is at odds with society, he lends a helping hand to smugglers. The rogue will cross the Rhone, all by himself, in a little boat, to take shoes over into Savoy; he makes good his retreat, heavy laden as he is, to some inaccessible place high up among the hills, where he stays for two days at a time, living on dry crusts. In short, danger is as welcome to him as sleep would be to anybody else, and by dint of experience he has acquired a relish for extreme sensations that has totally unfitted him for ordinary life. It vexes me that a man like that should take a wrong turn and gradually go to the bad, become a bandit, and die on the gallows. But, see, captain, how our village looks from here!"
Genestas obtained a distant view of a wide circular space, planted with trees, a fountain surrounded by poplars stood in the middle of it. Round the enclosure were high banks on which a triple line of trees of different kinds were growing; the first row consisted of acacias, the second of Japanese varnish trees, and some young elms grew on the highest row of all.
"That is where we hold our fair," said Benassis. "That is the beginning of the High Street, by those two handsome houses that I told you about; one belongs to the notary, and the other to the justice of the peace."
They came at that moment into a broad road, fairly evenly paved with large cobble-stones. There were altogether about a hundred new houses on either side of it, and almost every house stood in a garden.
The view of the church with its doorway made a pretty termination to this road. Two more roads had been recently planned out half-way down the course of the first, and many new houses had already been built along them. The town-hall stood opposite the parsonage, in the square by the church. As Benassis went down the road, women and children stood in their doorways to wish him good-evening, the men took off their caps, and the little children danced and shouted about his horse, as if the animal's good-nature were as well known as the kindness of its master. The gladness was undemonstrative; there was the instinctive delicacy of all deep feeling about it, and it had the same pervasive power. At the sight of this welcome it seemed to Genestas that the doctor had been too modest in his description of the affection with which he was regarded by the people of the district. His truly was a sovereignty of the sweetest kind; a right royal sovereignty moreover, for its title was engraven in the hearts of its subjects. However dazzling the rays of glory that surround a man, however great the power that he enjoys, in his inmost soul he soon comes to a just estimate of the sentiments that all external action causes for him. He very soon sees that no change has been wrought in him, that there is nothing new and nothing greater in the exercise of his physical faculties, and discovers his own real nothingness. Kings, even should they rule over the whole world, are condemned to live in a narrow circle like other men. They must even submit to the conditions of their lot, and their happiness depends upon the personal impressions that they receive. But Benassis met with nothing but goodwill and loyalty throughout the district.