Honoré de Balzac
Sons of the Soil
To Monsieur P. S. B. Gavault
Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote these words at the beginning of his Nouvelle Heloise: “I have seen the morals of my time and I publish these letters.” May I not say to you, in imitation of that great writer, “I have studied the march of my epoch and I publish this work”?
The object of this particular study – startling in its truth so long as society makes philanthropy a principle instead of regarding it as an accident – is to bring to sight the leading characters of a class too long unheeded by the pens of writers who seek novelty as their chief object. Perhaps this forgetfulness is only prudence in these days when the people are heirs of all the sycophants of royalty. We make criminals poetic, we commiserate the hangman, we have all but deified the proletary. Sects have risen, and cried by every pen, “Arise, working-men!” just as formerly they cried, “Arise!” to the “tiers etat.” None of these Erostrates, however, have dared to face the country solitudes and study the unceasing conspiracy of those whom we term weak against those others who fancy themselves strong, – that of the peasant against the proprietor. It is necessary to enlighten not only the legislator of to-day but him of to-morrow. In the midst of the present democratic ferment, into which so many of our writers blindly rush, it becomes an urgent duty to exhibit the peasant who renders Law inapplicable, and who has made the ownership of land to be a thing that is, and that is not.
You are now to behold that indefatigable mole, that rodent which undermines and disintegrates the soil, parcels it out and divides an acre into a hundred fragments, – ever spurred on to his banquet by the lower middle classes who make him at once their auxiliary and their prey. This essentially unsocial element, created by the Revolution, will some day absorb the middle classes, just as the middle classes have destroyed the nobility. Lifted above the law by its own insignificance, this Robespierre, with one head and twenty million arms, is at work perpetually; crouching in country districts, intrenched in municipal councils, under arms in the national guard of every canton in France, – one result of the year 1830, which failed to remember that Napoleon preferred the chances of defeat to the danger of arming the masses.
If during the last eight years I have again and again given up the writing of this book (the most important of those I have undertaken to write), and as often returned to it, it was, as you and other friends can well imagine, because my courage shrank from the many difficulties, the many essential details of a drama so doubly dreadful and so cruelly bloody. Among the reasons which render me now almost, it may be thought, foolhardy, I count the desire to finish a work long designed to be to you a proof of my deep and lasting gratitude for a friendship that has ever been among my greatest consolations in misfortune.
Whoso land hath, contention hath.
CHAPTER I. THE CHATEAU
Les Aigues, August 6, 1823.
To Monsieur Nathan,
My dear Nathan, – You, who provide the public with such delightful dreams through the magic of your imagination, are now to follow me while I make you dream a dream of truth. You shall then tell me whether the present century is likely to bequeath such dreams to the Nathans and the Blondets of the year 1923; you shall estimate the distance at which we now are from the days when the Florines of the eighteenth century found, on awaking, a chateau like Les Aigues in the terms of their bargain.
My dear fellow, if you receive this letter in the morning, let your mind travel, as you lie in bed, fifty leagues or thereabouts from Paris, along the great mail road which leads to the confines of Burgundy, and behold two small lodges built of red brick, joined, or separated, by a rail painted green. It was there that the diligence deposited your friend and correspondent.
On either side of this double pavilion grows a quick-set hedge, from which the brambles straggle like stray locks of hair. Here and there a tree shoots boldly up; flowers bloom on the slopes of the wayside ditch, bathing their feet in its green and sluggish water. The hedge at both ends meets and joins two strips of woodland, and the double meadow thus inclosed is doubtless the result of a clearing.
These dusty and deserted lodges give entrance to a magnificent avenue of centennial elms, whose umbrageous heads lean toward each other and form a long and most majestic arbor. The grass grows in this avenue, and only a few wheel-tracks can be seen along its double width of way. The great age of the trees, the breadth of the avenue, the venerable construction of the lodges, the brown tints of their stone courses, all bespeak an approach to some half-regal residence.
Before reaching this enclosure from the height of an eminence such as we Frenchmen rather conceitedly call a mountain, at the foot of which lies the village of Conches (the last post-house), I had seen the long valley of Aigues, at the farther end of which the mail road turns to follow a straight line into the little sub-prefecture of La Ville-aux-Fayes, over which, as you know, the nephew of our friend des Lupeaulx lords it. Tall forests lying on the horizon, along vast slopes which skirt a river, command this rich valley, which is framed in the far distance by the mountains of a lesser Switzerland, called the Morvan. These forests belong to Les Aigues, and to the Marquis de Ronquerolles and the Comte de Soulanges, whose castles and parks and villages, seen in the distance from these heights, give the scene a strong resemblance to the imaginary landscapes of Velvet Breughel.
If these details do not remind you of all the castles in the air you have desired to possess in France you are not worthy to receive the present narrative of an astounded Parisian. At last I have seen a landscape where art is blended with nature in such a way that neither of them spoils the other; the art is natural, and the nature artistic. I have found the oasis that you and I have dreamed of when reading novels, – nature luxuriant and adorned, rolling lines that are not confused, something wild withal, unkempt, mysterious, not common. Jump that green railing and come on!
When I tried to look up the avenue, which the sun never penetrates except when it rises or when it sets, striping the road like a zebra with its oblique rays, my view was obstructed by an outline of rising ground; after that is passed, the long avenue is obstructed by a copse, within which the roads meet at a cross-ways, in the centre of which stands a stone obelisk, for all the world like an eternal exclamation mark. From the crevices between the foundation stones of this erection, which is topped by a spiked ball (what an idea!), hang flowering plants, blue or yellow according to the season. Les Aigues must certainly have been built by a woman, or for a woman; no man would have had such dainty ideas; the architect no doubt had his cue.
Passing through the little wood placed there as sentinel, I came upon a charming declivity, at the foot of which foamed and gurgled a little brook, which I crossed on a culvert of mossy stones, superb in color, the prettiest of all the mosaics which time manufactures. The avenue continues by the brookside up a gentle rise. In the distance, the first tableau is now seen, – a mill and its dam, a causeway and trees, linen laid out to dry, the thatched cottage of the miller, his fishing-nets, and the tank where the fish are kept, – not to speak of the miller’s boy, who was already watching me. No matter where you are in the country, however solitary you may think yourself, you are certain to be the focus of the two eyes of a country bumpkin; a laborer rests on his hoe, a vine-dresser straightens his bent back, a little goat-girl, or shepherdess, or milkmaid climbs a willow to stare at you.
Presently the avenue merges into an alley of acacias, which leads to an iron railing made in the days when iron-workers fashioned those slender filagrees which are not unlike the copies set us by a writing-master. On either side of the railing is a ha-ha, the edges of which bristle with angry spikes, – regular porcupines in metal. The railing is closed at both ends by two porter’s-lodges, like those of the palace at Versailles, and the gateway is surmounted by colossal vases. The gold of the arabesques is ruddy, for rust has added its tints, but this entrance, called “the gate of the Avenue,” which plainly shows the hand of the Great Dauphin (to whom, indeed, Les Aigues owes it), seems to me none the less beautiful for that. At the end of each ha-ha the walls of the park, built of rough-hewn stone, begin. These stones, set in a mortar made of reddish earth, display their variegated colors, the warm yellows of the silex, the white of the lime carbonates, the russet browns of the sandstone, in many a fantastic shape. As you first enter it, the park is gloomy, the walls are hidden by creeping plants and by trees that for fifty years have heard no sound of axe. One might think it a virgin forest, made primeval again through some phenomenon granted exclusively to forests. The trunks of the trees are swathed with lichen which hangs from one to another. Mistletoe, with its viscid leaves, droops from every fork of the branches where moisture settles. I have found gigantic ivies, wild arabesques which flourish only at fifty leagues from Paris, here where land does not cost enough to make one sparing of it. The landscape on such free lines covers a great deal of ground. Nothing is smoothed off; rakes are unknown, ruts and ditches are full of water, frogs are tranquilly delivered of their tadpoles, the woodland flowers bloom, and the heather is as beautiful as that I have seen on your mantle-shelf in January in the elegant beau-pot sent by Florine. This mystery is intoxicating, it inspires vague desires. The forest odors, beloved of souls that are epicures of poesy, who delight in the tiny mosses, the noxious fungi, the moist mould, the willows, the balsams, the wild thyme, the green waters of a pond, the golden star of the yellow water-lily, – the breath of all such vigorous propagations came to my nostrils and filled me with a single thought; was it their soul? I seemed to see a rose-tinted gown floating along the winding alley.
The path ended abruptly in another copse, where birches and poplars and all the quivering trees palpitated, – an intelligent family with graceful branches and elegant bearing, the trees of a love as free! It was from this point, my dear fellow, that I saw a pond covered with the white water-lily and other plants with broad flat leaves and narrow slender ones, on which lay a boat painted white and black, as light as a nut-shell and dainty as the wherry of a Seine boatman. Beyond rose the chateau, built in 1560, of fine red brick, with stone courses and copings, and window-frames in which the sashes were of small leaded panes (O Versailles!). The stone is hewn in diamond points, but hollowed, as in the Ducal Palace at Venice on the facade toward the Bridge of Sighs. There are no regular lines about the castle except in the centre building, from which projects a stately portico with double flights of curving steps, and round balusters slender at their base and broadening at the middle. The main building is surrounded by clock-towers and sundry modern turrets, with galleries and vases more or less Greek. No harmony there, my dear Nathan! These heterogeneous erections are wrapped, so to speak, by various evergreen trees whose branches shed their brown needles upon the roofs, nourishing the lichen and giving tone to the cracks and crevices where the eye delights to wander. Here you see the Italian pine, the stone pine, with its red bark and its majestic parasol; here a cedar two hundred years old, weeping willows, a Norway spruce, and a beech which overtops them all; and there, in front of the main tower, some very singular shrubs, – a yew trimmed in a way that recalls some long-decayed garden of old France, and magnolias with hortensias at their feet. In short, the place is the Invalides of the heroes of horticulture, once the fashion and now forgotten, like all other heroes.
A chimney, with curious copings, which was sending forth great volumes of smoke, assured me that this delightful scene was not an opera setting. A kitchen reveals human beings. Now imagine me, Blondet, who shiver as if in the polar regions at Saint-Cloud, in the midst of this glowing Burgundian climate. The sun sends down its warmest rays, the king-fisher watches on the shores of the pond, the cricket chirps, the grain-pods burst, the poppy drops its morphia in glutinous tears, and all are clearly defined on the dark-blue ether. Above the ruddy soil of the terraces flames that joyous natural punch which intoxicates the insects and the flowers and dazzles our eyes and browns our faces. The grape is beading, its tendrils fall in a veil of threads whose delicacy puts to shame the lace-makers. Beside the house blue larkspur, nasturtium, and sweet-peas are blooming. From a distance orange-trees and tuberoses scent the air. After the poetic exhalations of the woods (a gradual preparation) came the delectable pastilles of this botanic seraglio.
Standing on the portico, like the queen of flowers, behold a woman robed in white, with hair unpowdered, holding a parasol lined with white silk, but herself whiter than the silk, whiter than the lilies at her feet, whiter than the starry jasmine that climbed the balustrade, – a woman, a Frenchwoman born in Russia, who said as I approached her, “I had almost given you up.” She had seen me as I left the copse. With what perfection do all women, even the most guileless, understand the arrangement of a scenic effect? The movements of the servants, who were preparing to serve breakfast, showed me that the meal had been delayed until after the arrival of the diligence. She had not ventured to come to meet me.
Is this not our dream, – the dream of all lovers of the beautiful, under whatsoever form it comes; the seraphic beauty that Luini put into his Marriage of the Virgin, that noble fresco at Sarono; the beauty that Rubens grasped in the tumult of his “Battle of the Thermodon”; the beauty that five centuries have elaborated in the cathedrals of Seville and Milan; the beauty of the Saracens at Granada, the beauty of Louis XIV. at Versailles, the beauty of the Alps, and that of this Limagne in which I stand?
Belonging to the estate, about which there is nothing too princely, nor yet too financial, where prince and farmer-general have both lived (which fact serves to explain it), are four thousand acres of woodland, a park of some nine hundred acres, the mill, three leased farms, another immense farm at Conches, and vineyards, – the whole producing a revenue of about seventy thousand francs a year. Now you know Les Aigues, my dear fellow; where I have been expected for the last two weeks, and where I am at this moment, in the chintz-lined chamber assigned to dearest friends.
Above the park, towards Conches, a dozen little brooks, clear, limpid streams coming from the Morvan, fall into the pond, after adorning with their silvery ribbons the valleys of the park and the magnificent gardens around the chateau. The name of the place, Les Aigues, comes from these charming streams of water; the estate was originally called in the old title-deeds “Les Aigues-Vives” to distinguish it from “Aigues-Mortes”; but the word “Vives” has now been dropped. The pond empties into the stream, which follows the course of the avenue, through a wide and straight canal bordered on both sides and along its whole length by weeping willows. This canal, thus arched, produces a delightful effect. Gliding through it, seated on a thwart of the little boat, one could fancy one’s self in the nave of some great cathedral, the choir being formed of the main building of the house seen at the end of it. When the setting sun casts its orange tones mingled with amber upon the casements of the chateau, the effect is that of painted windows. At the other end of the canal we see Blangy, the county-town, containing about sixty houses, and the village church, which is nothing more than a tumble-down building with a wooden clock-tower which appears to hold up a roof of broken tiles. One comfortable house and the parsonage are distinguishable; but the township is a large one, – about two hundred scattered houses in all, those of the village forming as it were the capital. The roads are lined with fruit-trees, and numerous little gardens are strewn here and there, – true country gardens with everything in them; flowers, onions, cabbages and grapevines, currants, and a great deal of manure. The village has a primitive air; it is rustic, and has that decorative simplicity which we artists are forever seeking. In the far distance is the little town of Soulanges overhanging a vast sheet of water, like the buildings on the lake of Thune.
When you stroll in the park, which has four gates, each superb in style, you feel that our mythological Arcadias are flat and stale. Arcadia is in Burgundy, not in Greece; Arcadia is at Les Aigues and nowhere else. A river, made by scores of brooklets, crosses the park at its lower level with a serpentine movement; giving a dewy freshness and tranquillity to the scene, – an air of solitude, which reminds one of a convent of Carthusians, and all the more because, on an artificial island in the river, is a hermitage in ruins, the interior elegance of which is worthy of the luxurious financier who constructed it. Les Aigues, my dear Nathan, once belonged to that Bouret who spent two millions to receive Louis XV. on a single occasion under his roof. How many ardent passions, how many distinguished minds, how many fortunate circumstances have contributed to make this beautiful place what it is! A mistress of Henri IV. rebuilt the chateau where it now stands. The favorite of the Great Dauphin, Mademoiselle Choin (to whom Les Aigues was given), added a number of farms to it. Bouret furnished the house with all the elegancies of Parisian homes for an Opera celebrity; and to him Les Aigues owes the restoration of its ground floor in the style Louis XV.
I have often stood rapt in admiration at the beauty of the dining-room. The eye is first attracted to the ceiling, painted in fresco in the Italian manner, where lightsome arabesques are frolicking. Female forms, in stucco ending in foliage, support at regular distances corbeils of fruit, from which spring the garlands of the ceiling. Charming paintings, the work of unknown artists, fill the panels between the female figures, representing the luxuries of the table, – boar’s-heads, salmon, rare shell-fish, and all edible things, – which fantastically suggest men and women and children, and rival the whimsical imagination of the Chinese, – the people who best understand, to my thinking at least, the art of decoration. The mistress of the house finds a bell-wire beneath her feet to summon servants, who enter only when required, disturbing no interviews and overhearing no secrets. The panels above the doorways represent gay scenes; all the embrasures, both of doors and windows, are in marble mosaics. The room is heated from below. Every window looks forth on some delightful view.
This room communicates with a bath-room on one side and on the other with a boudoir which opens into the salon. The bath-room is lined with Sevres tiles, painted in monochrome, the floor is mosaic, and the bath marble. An alcove, hidden by a picture painted on copper, which turns on a pivot, contains a couch in gilt wood of the truest Pompadour. The ceiling is lapis-lazuli starred with gold. The tiles are painted from designs by Boucher. Bath, table and love are therefore closely united.
After the salon, which, I should tell you, my dear fellow, exhibits the magnificence of the Louis XIV. manner, you enter a fine billiard-room unrivalled so far as I know in Paris itself. The entrance to this suite of ground-floor apartments is through a semi-circular antechamber, at the lower end of which is a fairy-like staircase, lighted from above, which leads to other parts of the house, all built at various epochs – and to think that they chopped off the heads of the wealthy in 1793! Good heavens! why can’t people understand that the marvels of art are impossible in a land where there are no great fortunes, no secure, luxurious lives? If the Left insists on killing kings why not leave us a few little princelings with money in their pockets?
At the present moment these accumulated treasures belong to a charming woman with an artistic soul, who is not content with merely restoring them magnificently, but who keeps the place up with loving care. Sham philosophers, studying themselves while they profess to be studying humanity, call these glorious things extravagance. They grovel before cotton prints and the tasteless designs of modern industry, as if we were greater and happier in these days than in those of Henri IV., Louis XIV., and Louis XVI., monarchs who have all left the stamp of their reigns upon Les Aigues. What palace, what royal castle, what mansions, what noble works of art, what gold brocaded stuffs are sacred now? The petticoats of our grandmothers go to cover the chairs in these degenerate days. Selfish and thieving interlopers that we are, we pull down everything and plant cabbages where marvels once were rife. Only yesterday the plough levelled Persan, that magnificent domain which gave a title to one of the most opulent families of the old parliament; hammers have demolished Montmorency, which cost an Italian follower of Napoleon untold sums; Val, the creation of Regnault de Saint-Jean d’Angely, Cassan, built by a mistress of the Prince de Conti; in all, four royal houses have disappeared in the valley of the Oise alone. We are getting a Roman campagna around Paris in advance of the days when a tempest shall blow from the north and overturn our plaster palaces and our pasteboard decorations.
Now see, my dear fellow, to what the habit of bombasticising in newspapers brings you to. Here am I writing a downright article. Does the mind have its ruts, like a road? I stop; for I rob the mail, and I rob myself, and you may be yawning – to be continued in our next; I hear the second bell, which summons me to one of those abundant breakfasts the fashion of which has long passed away, in the dining-rooms of Paris, be it understood.
Here’s the history of my Arcadia. In 1815, there died at Les Aigues one of the famous wantons of the last century, – a singer, forgotten of the guillotine and the nobility, after preying upon exchequers, upon literature, upon aristocracy, and all but reaching the scaffold; forgotten, like so many fascinating old women who expiate their golden youth in country solitudes, and replace their lost loves by another, – man by Nature. Such women live with the flowers, with the woodland scents, with the sky, with the sunshine, with all that sings and skips and shines and sprouts, – the birds, the squirrels, the flowers, the grass; they know nothing about these things, they cannot explain them, but they love them; they love them so well that they forget dukes, marshals, rivalries, financiers, follies, luxuries, their paste jewels and their real diamonds, their heeled slippers and their rouge, – all, for the sweetness of country life.
I have gathered, my dear fellow, much precious information about the old age of Mademoiselle Laguerre; for, to tell you the truth, the after life of such women as Florine, Mariette, Suzanne de Val Noble, and Tullia has made me, every now and then, extremely inquisitive, as though I were a child inquiring what had become of the old moons.
In 1790 Mademoiselle Laguerre, alarmed at the turn of public affairs, came to settle at Les Aigues, bought and given to her by Bouret, who passed several summers with her at the chateau. Terrified at the fate of Madame du Barry, she buried her diamonds. At that time she was only fifty-three years of age, and according to her lady’s-maid, afterwards married to a gendarme named Soudry, “Madame was more beautiful than ever.” My dear Nathan, Nature has no doubt her private reasons for treating women of this sort like spoiled children; excesses, instead of killing them, fatten them, preserve them, renew their youth. Under a lymphatic appearance they have nerves which maintain their marvellous physique; they actually preserve their beauty for reasons which would make a virtuous woman haggard. No, upon my word, Nature is not moral!
Mademoiselle Laguerre lived an irreproachable life at Les Aigues, one might even call it a saintly one, after her famous adventure, – you remember it? One evening in a paroxysm of despairing love, she fled from the opera-house in her stage dress, rushed into the country, and passed the night weeping by the wayside. (Ah! how they have calumniated the love of Louis XV.‘s time!) She was so unused to see the sunrise, that she hailed it with one of her finest songs. Her attitude, quite as much as her tinsel, drew the peasants about her; amazed at her gestures, her voice, her beauty, they took her for an angel, and dropped on their knees around her. If Voltaire had not existed we might have thought it a new miracle. I don’t know if God gave her much credit for her tardy virtue, for love after all must be a sickening thing to a woman as weary of it as a wanton of the old Opera. Mademoiselle Laguerre was born in 1740, and her hey-day was in 1760, when Monsieur (I forget his name) was called the “ministre de la guerre,” on account of his liaison with her. She abandoned that name, which was quite unknown down here, and called herself Madame des Aigues, as if to merge her identity in the estate, which she delighted to improve with a taste that was profoundly artistic. When Bonaparte became First Consul, she increased her property by the purchase of church lands, for which she used the proceeds of her diamonds. As an Opera divinity never knows how to take care of her money, she intrusted the management of the estate to a steward, occupying herself with her flowers and fruits and with the beautifying of the park.
After Mademoiselle was dead and buried at Blangy, the notary of Soulanges – that little town which lies between Ville-aux-Fayes and Blangy, the capital of the township – made an elaborate inventory, and sought out the heirs of the singer, who never knew she had any. Eleven families of poor laborers living near Amiens, and sleeping in cotton sheets, awoke one fine morning in golden ones. The property was sold at auction. Les Aigues was bought by Montcornet, who had laid by enough during his campaigns in Spain and Pomerania to make the purchase, which cost about eleven hundred thousand francs, including the furniture. The general, no doubt, felt the influence of these luxurious apartments; and I was arguing with the countess only yesterday that her marriage was a direct result of the purchase of Les Aigues.
To rightly understand the countess, my dear Nathan, you must know that the general is a violent man, red as fire, five feet nine inches tall, round as a tower, with a thick neck and the shoulders of a blacksmith, which must have amply filled his cuirass. Montcornet commanded the cuirassiers at the battle of Essling (called by the Austrians Gross-Aspern), and came near perishing when that noble corps was driven back on the Danube. He managed to cross the river astride a log of wood. The cuirassiers, finding the bridge down, took the glorious resolution, at Montcornet’s command, to turn and resist the entire Austrian army, which carried off on the morrow over thirty wagon-loads of cuirasses. The Germans invented a name for their enemies on this occasion which means “men of iron.”[1 - I do not, on principle, like foot-notes, and this is the first I have ever allowed myself. Its historical interest must be my excuse; it will prove, moreover, that descriptions of battles should be something more than the dry particulars of technical writers, who for the last three thousand years have told us about left and right wings and centres being broken or driven in, but never a word about the soldier himself, his sufferings, and his heroism. The conscientious care with which I prepared myself to write the “Scenes from Military Life,” led me to many a battle-field once wet with the blood of France and her enemies. Among them I went to Wagram. When I reached the shores of the Danube, opposite Lobau, I noticed on the bank, which is covered with turf, certain undulations that reminded me of the furrows in a field of lucern. I asked the reason of it, thinking I should hear of some new method of agriculture: “There sleep the cavalry of the imperial guard,” said the peasant who served us as a guide; “those are their graves you see there.” The words made me shudder. Prince Frederic Schwartzenburg, who translated them, added that the man had himself driven one of the wagons laden with cuirasses. By one of the strange chances of war our guide had served a breakfast to Napoleon on the morning of the battle of Wagram. Though poor, he had kept the double napoleon which the Emperor gave him for his milk and his eggs. The curate of Gross-Aspern took us to the famous cemetery where French and Austrians struggled together knee-deep in blood, with a courage and obstinacy glorious to each. There, while explaining that a marble tablet (to which our attention had been attracted, and on which were inscribed the names of the owner of Gross-Aspern, who had been killed on the third day) was the sole compensation ever given to the family, he said, in a tone of deep sadness: “It was a time of great misery, and of great hopes; but now are the days of forgetfulness.” The saying seemed to me sublime in its simplicity; but when I came to reflect upon the matter, I felt there was some justification for the apparent ingratitude of the House of Austria. Neither nations nor kings are wealthy enough to reward all the devotions to which these tragic struggles give rise. Let those who serve a cause with a secret expectation of recompense, set a price upon their blood and become mercenaries. Those who wield either sword or pen for their country’s good ought to think of nothing but of doing their best, as our fathers used to say, and expect nothing, not even glory, except as a happy accident.It was in rushing to retake this famous cemetery for the third time that Massena, wounded and carried in the box of a cabriolet, made this splendid harangue to his soldiers: “What! you rascally curs, who have only five sous a day while I have forty thousand, do you let me go ahead of you?” All the world knows the order which the Emperor sent to his lieutenant by M. de Sainte-Croix, who swam the Danube three times: “Die or retake the village; it is a question of saving the army; the bridges are destroyed.”The Author.] Montcornet has the outer man of a hero of antiquity. His arms are stout and vigorous, his chest deep and broad; his head has a leonine aspect, his voice is of those that can order a charge in the thick of battle; but he has nothing more than the courage of a daring man; he lacks mind and breadth of view. Like other generals to whom military common-sense, the natural boldness of those who spend their lives in danger, and the habit of command gives an appearance of superiority, Montcornet has an imposing effect when you first meet him; he seems a Titan, but he contains a dwarf, like the pasteboard giant who saluted Queen Elizabeth at the gates of Kenilworth. Choleric though kind, and full of imperial hauteur, he has the caustic tongue of a soldier, and is quick at repartee, but quicker still with a blow. He may have been superb on a battle-field; in a household he is simply intolerable. He knows no love but barrack love, – the love which those clever myth-makers, the ancients, placed under the patronage of Eros, son of Mars and Venus. Those delightful chroniclers of the old religions provided themselves with a dozen different Loves. Study the fathers and the attributes of these Loves, and you will discover a complete social nomenclature, – and yet we fancy that we originate things! When the world turns upside down like an hour-glass, when the seas become continents, Frenchmen will find canons, steamboats, newspapers, and maps wrapped up in seaweed at the bottom of what is now our ocean.
Now, I must tell you that the Comtesse de Montcornet is a fragile, timid, delicate little woman. What do you think of such a marriage as that? To those who know society such things are common enough; a well-assorted marriage is the exception. Nevertheless, I have come to see how it is that this slender little creature handles her bobbins in a way to lead this heavy, solid, stolid general precisely as he himself used to lead his cuirassiers.
If Montcornet begins to bluster before his Virginie, Madame lays a finger on her lips and he is silent. He smokes his pipes and his cigars in a kiosk fifty feet from the chateau, and airs himself before he returns to the house. Proud of his subjection, he turns to her, like a bear drunk on grapes, and says, when anything is proposed, “If Madame approves.” When he comes to his wife’s room, with that heavy step which makes the tiles creak as though they were boards, and she, not wanting him, calls out: “Don’t come in!” he performs a military volte-face and says humbly: “You will let me know when I can see you?” – in the very tones with which he shouted to his cuirassiers on the banks of the Danube: “Men, we must die, and die well, since there’s nothing else we can do!” I have heard him say, speaking of his wife, “Not only do I love her, but I venerate her.” When he flies into a passion which defies all restraint and bursts all bonds, the little woman retires into her own room and leaves him to shout. But four or five hours later she will say: “Don’t get into a passion, my dear, you might break a blood-vessel; and besides, you hurt me.” Then the lion of Essling retreats out of sight to wipe his eyes. Sometimes he comes into the salon when she and I are talking, and if she says: “Don’t disturb us, he is reading to me,” he leaves us without a word.
It is only strong men, choleric and powerful, thunder-bolts of war, diplomats with olympian heads, or men of genius, who can show this utter confidence, this generous devotion to weakness, this constant protection, this love without jealousy, this easy good humor with a woman. Good heavens! I place the science of the countess’s management of her husband as far above the peevish, arid virtues as the satin of a causeuse is superior to the Utrecht velvet of a dirty bourgeois sofa.
My dear fellow, I have spent six days in this delightful country-house, and I never tire of admiring the beauties of the park, surrounded by forests where pretty wood-paths lead beside the brooks. Nature and its silence, these tranquil pleasures, this placid life to which she woos me, – all attract. Ah! here is true literature; no fault of style among the meadows. Happiness forgets all things here, – even the Debats! It has rained all the morning; while the countess slept and Montcornet tramped over his domain, I have compelled myself to keep my rash, imprudent promise to write to you.
Until now, though I was born at Alencon, of an old judge and a prefect, so they say, and though I know something of agriculture, I supposed the tale of estates bringing in four or five thousand francs a month to be a fable. Money, to me, meant a couple of dreadful things, – work and a publisher, journalism and politics. When shall we poor fellows come upon a land where gold springs up with the grass? That is what I desire for you and for me and the rest of us in the name of the theatre, and of the press, and of book-making! Amen!
Will Florine be jealous of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre? Our modern Bourets have no French nobles now to show them how to live; they hire one opera-box among three of them; they subscribe for their pleasures; they no longer cut down magnificently bound quartos to match the octavos in their library; in fact, they scarcely buy even stitched paper books. What is to become of us?
Adieu; continue to care for