The months glided along; winter passed away, and then the spring. At Rognes matters went on in the same old way; whole years were necessary for the accomplishment of any really perceptible change in that weary, dull life of work and toil, which began afresh with every returning day. In July, amid the burning heat of the blazing sun, the approaching elections threw the village into a state of excitement. This time they were invested with a peculiar interest, and the canvassing visits of the candidates were eagerly discussed and anxiously awaited.
On the morning of the Sunday for which the arrival of Monsieur Rochefontaine, the contractor of Châteaudun, had been promised, there was a terrible scene at the Buteaus' between Lise and Françoise, showing that hostility can go on smouldering invisibly beneath an outward appearance of calmness till it breaks out with unquenchable violence. The last slender bond of union between the sisters, which had always been strained almost to breaking, though constantly knotted again, had at last become so slight, worn away by perpetual quarrelling, that this time it snapped atwain, beyond all hope of repair. And the immediate cause of this final rupture was the merest trifle in the world.
As Françoise was bringing her cows home that morning she stopped to have a moment's chat with Jean, whom she met in front of the church. It must be confessed that she did so purposely, stopping just in front of the Buteaus' house, with the express intention of irritating them.
"When you want to see your men," Lise cried angrily to her as she returned into the house, "be good enough to choose some other place than just under our windows!"
Buteau was standing by mending a bill-hook and listening.
"My men!" retorted Françoise. "I see too many men here. And there's one fellow, let me tell you, whom I could see if I wanted, not under the window, but in this very house, the swine that he is!"
This allusion to Buteau made Lise wild with anger. For a long time past she had been consumed with an absorbing desire to turn her sister out of doors, so that the house might become peaceful; and this even at the risk of a law-suit, and having to surrender half the land. It was her persistence in this respect that led her husband to beat her, for he was quite opposed to her scheme, hoping to trick the girl out of her land somehow, and also to succeed in getting possession of her person. The wife was exasperated at no longer being mistress in her own house, and showed a peculiar kind of jealousy. While she was quite ready to let her husband forcibly possess himself of the girl for the sake of making an end of the matter, yet, at the same time, it enraged her to see him lusting so hotly after this chit, whom she hated for her youth, her firm-fleshed bosom, and the roundness of her arms, that showed so plumply whenever her sleeves were rolled up. She would have liked to stand by and see her husband foul and wreck all these alluring charms, and she would gladly have helped him. Indeed, the mere fact of sharing her husband with her sister would not have caused her any trouble. Her anguish of mind arose from their rivalry, which was growing even more bitter and rancorous, and the consciousness that her sister was prettier than herself, and thus capable of stimulating her husband's hot desires.
"You drab!" she screamed, "it is you who lead him on! If you weren't always leering at him he wouldn't be for ever running after you. You nasty slut!"
Françoise turned quite pale. This slander was more than she could bear. And quietly, but with deliberate animosity, she replied:
"We've had quite enough of this. It is time there was an end of it. Wait another fortnight, and I'll no longer annoy you with my presence. Yes, in another fortnight I shall be twenty-one, and then I'll take myself off."
"Ah, you're longing to be of age, are you, so that you can worry us, eh? Well, you hussy, there's no fortnight about the matter; off you go this very moment."
"Very well, I'm quite agreeable. Macqueron wants a girl, and I'm sure he'll take me. Good day."
Thereupon Françoise went off without another word. Buteau then threw down the bill-hook which he had been sharpening, and rushed forward in the hope of restoring peace between the two women by the administration of a couple of whacking cuffs. But he was too late, and he could only vent his angry exasperation by dealing a blow at his wife, from whose nose the blood began to stream. The devil take all the women! What he had feared and struggled against so long had come to pass. The girl had taken flight, and now there was a heap of dirty troubles in store for him. He saw in his mind's eye both the girl and the land scampering away from him.
"I'll go to Macqueron's this afternoon," he roared. "She'll have to come back, even if I have to kick her here all the way."
Macqueron's house was in a state of great excitement that Sunday, for one of the candidates, Monsieur Rochefontaine, the proprietor of the building works at Châteaudun, was expected there. Since the last election Monsieur de Chédeville had fallen into disfavour on account, some people said, of his ostentatious friendship with certain members of the Orleanist party; while others asserted that it was owing to his having offended the Tuileries by a scandalous intrigue with the wife of one of the ushers of the Chamber of Deputies, who was quite infatuated about him, despite his age. However this might be, the patronage of the prefect had certainly been withdrawn from the retiring deputy and conferred upon Monsieur Rochefontaine, the former candidate of the Opposition, whose establishment had just been visited by one of the ministers. Monsieur Rochefontaine had also written a pamphlet on Free Trade, which had been very favourably noticed by the Emperor. As for Monsieur de Chédeville, annoyed at being discarded in this way, he persisted in his candidature, being particularly desirous of retaining his position as deputy, since it enabled him to dabble in financial jobbery. The rental of La Chamade was no longer sufficient for his needs, the place being mortgaged, and in a half-ruined condition. Thus, by a singular chance, the situation of affairs had been reversed—the landowner had become the independent candidate, while the contractor enjoyed the patronage of the Government.
Although Hourdequin was mayor of Rognes he still remained faithful to Monsieur de Chédeville, and had made up his mind not only to ignore any instructions he might receive from official sources, but even to work openly for his candidate's cause, should that be necessary. At first he felt that it was not a manly or honourable thing to veer round like a weather-cock at the slightest breath from the prefect's lips; and then, as this was a struggle between a Protectionist and a Free-trader, he became convinced that, in the present crisis of agricultural affairs, his interests would be better forwarded by the former. The annoyance which Jacqueline caused him, added to the cares and anxieties of his farm, had prevented him for some time past from devoting himself to the duties of his mayoralty. Being always engaged in watching the lascivious wench who, with the luck that so often attaches to wrongdoing, managed to satisfy with impunity her lustful hankering after Tron's brawny manhood, the mayor left his assessor, Macqueron, to attend to current affairs. Consequently, when he again returned to preside over the council, instigated thereto by the personal interest he took in the election, he was astonished to find it rebellious, in fact stiffly hostile.
This was the outcome of Macqueron's underhand intriguing, which, prosecuted with all a copper-skin's craft and wiliness, was at last approaching an issue. Ambition had come to this enriched peasant, who had relapsed into a state of complete idleness, and who dragged himself about dirty and slovenly amid all his gentlemanly leisure, which really bored him to death. And this ambition now formed the one pleasure of his existence. Why should not he himself be mayor? Since that idea had first dawned upon his mind, he had striven to undermine Hourdequin's position, working upon the ingrained, deep-rooted, though perhaps unconscious hatred that all the natives of Rognes in former times had entertained for their lords, and that they now felt for the son of the townsman who to-day possessed the land. Of course he had got it for nothing! It had been nothing more nor less than a robbery at the time of the Revolution. Poor peasants never had such luck. It was only your scamps and scoundrels who managed to fill their pockets in this way. And there were pretty goings-on, too, at La Borderie with the master's infatuation for that hussy La Cognette, in spite of her amours with all the farm-hands.
Talk of this kind was now freely indulged in in the neighbourhood, arousing indignation even among those who would not have hesitated to sell their own daughters to prostitution, or even to commit incest with them themselves, if they had seen their way to profit by so doing. The members of the municipal council said at last that a townsman ought to exercise his thievish and wanton propensities amongst his fellows, and that a peasant-community ought to have a peasant-mayor.
It was in a matter concerning the election that Hourdequin, to his great surprise, first became aware of the council's hostility towards himself. When he began to speak of Monsieur de Chédeville, all the councillors sat as expressionless as so many wooden images. Macqueron, seeing that the mayor meant to keep faithful to the old deputy, had realised that this would be the best question on which he could fight the battle, and it seemed to him to afford an excellent chance of overthrowing his opponent. Overflowing with zeal, he had set himself on the prefect's side in favour of Monsieur Rochefontaine; loudly asserting that he was doing his duty as became a loyal assessor, and that all honest folks were bound to support the Government. This profession of faith was quite sufficient, and he was under no necessity of indoctrinating the members of the council, for in their fear of the broom they were always on the side of the broom-stick, resolved upon supporting the established powers, so that things might remain unaltered and the price of corn be kept high. These were the views of Delhomme, who had such a reputation for justice and integrity, and he won Clou and others over to his side. It was their duty, he said, to support the Emperor's nominee, for the Emperor knew what he was about and studied the country's interests. The fact that Lengaigne, exasperated to find Macqueron invested with such importance, was Hourdequin's only supporter, ended by fully compromising the mayor. Calumnies soon began to be bandied about, and the farmer was accused of being a "Red," and of holding the same views as the blackguards who wanted a republic, in the hope of exterminating the peasantry. So persistently, indeed, were these reports circulated, that the Abbé Madeline took alarm, and, believing that he owed his cure to the assessor, listened to his talk and worked for Monsieur Rochefontaine, although the bishop himself still supported Monsieur de Chédeville.
A final blow now destroyed every remaining vestige of the mayor's influence. It was reported that, when the famous direct road between Rognes and Châteaudun was opened, Hourdequin had put half of the subvention voted for the highway into his own pocket. How he had been able to do such a thing no one could explain; but this only made the matter more mysterious and abominable. When Macqueron was questioned on the subject, he assumed an air of confusion and reserve, like a man who is compelled to keep silent out of a regard for certain proprieties. The truth was that he himself had set the story afloat, in the hope of making his own action in the matter—the gratuitous offer of his land, followed by its sale for three times its value—appear in a more favourable light. The whole village was upset, and the municipal council became divided into two parties, one comprising the assessor and all the councillors excepting Lengaigne, while the other was composed of Lengaigne with the mayor, who at this juncture grasped the gravity of the situation for the first time.
A fortnight previously Macqueron had expressly journeyed to Châteaudun for the purpose of prostrating himself before Monsieur Rochefontaine. He had besought him to stay at no other house but his own, if he should condescend to visit Rognes. And this was the reason why the innkeeper, that particular Sunday morning, incessantly went out on to the road on the look-out for the arrival of the candidate. He had forewarned Delhomme, and Clou, and a few other members of the municipal council, and they were emptying a bottle of wine to get the time over. Old Fouan and Bécu were also of the party, playing cards, as well as the schoolmaster, Lequeu, who pretended that he never took anything to drink, and who was deep in the perusal of a newspaper he had brought with him. The assessor was annoyed, however, by the presence of a couple of other customers, Hyacinthe and his friend Canon, the vagabond working-man, who were sitting there opposite to each other gossipping over a bottle of brandy. Macqueron kept casting furtive glances at them, seeking for some excuse to turn them out, but in vain, for the scamps, contrary to their usual wont, were not shouting. They simply seemed to be deriding every one else. Three o'clock struck, and Monsieur Rochefontaine, who had promised to come at about two, had not yet arrived.
"Cœlina!" suddenly cried Macqueron to his wife, "did you bring up the Bordeaux, as I told you just now?"
Cœlina, who was looking after the customers, expressed by a gesture her sorrow for her forgetfulness, whereupon her husband himself rushed off to the cellar. In the next room, where the haberdashery business was carried on, and the door of which was always kept open, Berthe was playing the fine lady, and showing some pink ribbons to three peasant girls; while Françoise, who had already settled down to her new duties, was dusting the drawers with a feather broom, despite the fact that it was Sunday. The assessor, glad of any opportunity that ministered to his craving for authority, had at once taken the girl into his house, flattered by the fact of her seeking his protection. His wife happened to be in want of an assistant, and he undertook to board and lodge Françoise until he could bring about a reconciliation between her and the Buteaus. The girl swore that she would kill herself if she were taken back to their house by force.
A landau, drawn by two superb Percheron horses, now suddenly halted before the door, and Monsieur Rochefontaine, who was its only occupant, alighted, surprised and hurt that there was no one to receive him. He was hesitating about entering the tavern when Macqueron came up from the cellar, holding a bottle in each hand. The sight of the candidate overwhelmed him with confusion and despair. He was at a loss how to get rid of his bottles, and he stammered out:
"Oh, sir, how very unfortunate! I have been waiting for you for two hours without stirring, and then directly I go down into the cellar for a moment you arrive! And it was altogether on your account that I went, too! Will you have a glass of wine, Mr. Deputy?"
Monsieur Rochefontaine, who was as yet only a candidate, and who ought to have been touched by the poor devil's evident trouble, now seemed only the more put out. He was a tall fellow, barely twenty-eight years of age, with closely-cropped hair and squarely-cut beard, and carefully, though not elegantly dressed. His manner was cold and abrupt; he spoke in a curt, imperious style, and everything about him told of one who was accustomed to command, and of the state of obedience in which he kept the twelve hundred workmen employed in his works. He seemed determined to drive these peasants along as with a whip.
Cœlina and Berthe had darted forward, the latter's bright eyes glistening boldly beneath their reddened lids.
"Please do us the honour of coming in, sir," she said.
The candidate, however, surveying her with a quick glance, had at once estimated her at her worth. Still he entered the house, but refused to sit down, remaining standing.
"Here are some of our friends of the council," said Macqueron, who was beginning to recover his equanimity. "They are delighted to make your acquaintance, I'm sure. Are you not, gentlemen?"
Delhomme, Clou, and the others had risen from their seats, thunderstruck by Monsieur Rochefontaine's stiff demeanour. Their feeling of deference became one of the deepest respect, that awe and cringing humility which every manifestation of superior power and authority awoke in them. In the profoundest silence they listened to what the deputy had decided to tell them; the theories which he held in common with the Emperor, and more especially his ideas about national progress, to which he owed the Government's favour, in preference to the former deputy, whose opinions were condemned. Then he began to promise them new roads, railways, and canals; yes, a canal which would traverse La Beauce, and at last slake the thirst which had been parching it up for centuries. The peasants listened to him in stupefaction. What was he talking about? Water through their fields! He went on for some time longer, and then concluded by threatening those who voted wrongly with the severity of the Government and bad seasons. His listeners looked at one another. Here, indeed, was a man who could make them tremble, and whom it would be well to have for a friend.
"Of course, of course!" Macqueron kept repeating after each of the candidate's sentences, though, at the same time, he felt a little uneasy at his stern manner.
Bécu, however, wagged his chin energetically in approval of this military kind of speech; and old Fouan, with his eyes wide open, seemed to be declaring that here, indeed, was a man! Lequeu, who usually preserved such an impassible demeanour, had grown very red, though it was impossible to guess whether he felt pleased or angered. It was only different with those two scamps, Hyacinthe and his friend Canon, whose faces plainly expressed contempt, and who felt so vastly superior to their neighbours that they sniggered and shrugged their shoulders.
As soon as Monsieur Rochefontaine had finished speaking, he turned towards the door. The assessor was overwhelmed with despair.
"What, sir, won't you do us the honour of taking a glass of wine?" he cried.
"No, thank you; I am already very late. They are expecting me at Magnolles, at Bazoches, and at a score of other places. Good day!"
Then he was gone. Berthe made no attempt to accompany him to the door. In fact, on returning into the haberdashery shop, she exclaimed to Françoise:
"What an impolite fellow. If I were a man I'd vote for the other one!"
Monsieur Rochefontaine had just got into his landau again, when the cracking of a whip caused him to look round. It was Hourdequin coming up in his modest gig, driven by Jean. The farmer had only heard by chance of the candidate's visit to Rognes, one of his waggoners having met the landau on the road; and he had immediately hastened off to meet the foe face to face, feeling all the more uneasy as for the last week he had been vainly trying to persuade Monsieur de Chédeville to put in an appearance. The old beau was doubtless tied-fast to some woman's apron-strings, probably those of the pretty wife of the usher of the Chamber.
"Ah, so it's you?" the farmer cried cheerily to Monsieur Rochefontaine. "I didn't know that you had already commenced your campaign."
The two vehicles were drawn up alongside of each other. Neither of the two men got down, but, after bending forward and shaking hands, they settled themselves in their seats, and in this position conversed together for a few minutes. They were acquainted with each other, having occasionally met at breakfast at the house of the mayor of Châteaudun.
"You are opposing me, then?" suddenly asked Monsieur Rochefontaine, in his curt way.
Hourdequin, who, from his position as mayor, did not care to display his opposition to the Government candidate too openly, lost countenance for a moment, seeing that Monsieur Rochefontaine was so well informed.
However, he was by no means deficient in sturdy courage, and he replied in a light and pleasant tone, so as to give a friendly appearance to his explanation:
"Oh, I don't oppose any one. I look after myself; and the man who will protect me is the man for me. Here's corn fallen to forty-six francs the quarter, just what it costs me to produce it. One may just as well starve without giving one's-self the trouble to work!"
The other at once burst out excitedly:
"Oh, I understand; it's Protection you want, isn't it? A tax, a prohibitive duty on foreign wheat, so that French corn may go up to double its present price. Then you'd have France in a state of starvation, the four pound loaf at a franc, and all the poor folks dying from hunger! How dare you, a man of progress, advocate such a monstrous state of affairs?"
"A man of progress, a man of progress," repeated Hourdequin in his cheery, pleasant fashion. "Yes, certainly, I'm a man of progress, but I have to pay so dearly for progress that I soon sha'n't be able to afford myself the luxury any longer. Machinery, chemical manures, and all the other new contrivances are all very fine things in their way, I've no doubt, and it's very easy to argue in their favour, but there's just this fault about them, that, in spite of all the logic in the world, they are bringing us to ruin."
"Because you are too impatient, and because you expect science to give you immediate and complete results, and because you grow so discouraged by the necessary preliminary experiments that you even doubt what has been formally proved, and finally fall back into a condition of denying everything."
"Possibly that may be so. I may have only been making experiments. Well, suppose the Government decorates me for what I have already done, and lets some other folks continue the course!"
Hourdequin burst out into a hearty laugh at his own jocoseness, which he seemed to think quite conclusive.
"You wish the working-man to die of hunger, then?" Monsieur Rochefontaine sharply continued.
"Excuse me, I wish the peasant to be able to live."
"But I, who employ twelve hundred hands, can't raise their wages without becoming bankrupt. If corn rose to ninety francs, my workmen would die off like so many flies."
"Well, do you suppose that I don't employ men? With corn at forty-six francs we have to go with empty stomachs, and poor fellows are lying starving at the bottom of every ditch all over the country-side." Then he added, laughingly:
"Well, every one argues from his own point of view. If I sell you bread at a low price, it is the soil of France that goes into bankruptcy; and if I sell you it at a high price, I can understand very well that the cost of workmanship will go up, and the price of manufactured goods increase, such as my clothes, tools, and the hundred other things that I require. Ah, it's a pretty mess, and we shall end some day by ruining each other all round!"
The two men, the farmer and the manufacturer, the Protectionist and the Free-trader, looked in each other's faces, the one with a sly good-humoured smile, the other with an unflinchingly hostile expression. They furnished a complete example of the modern war of economics, each taking his stand on the struggle for existence.
"The peasant will certainly be compelled to supply the workman with food," said Monsieur Rochefontaine at last.
"To be able to do that," retorted Hourdequin, "he himself must first have something to eat."
Then he sprang down from his gig, and Monsieur Rochefontaine flung the name of some village to his coachman. Macqueron, annoyed that his friends of the council, standing at the door, had heard this conversation, now again proposed that they should all have a glass together, but the candidate once more refused, and without shaking hands with any one, threw himself back in his landau, while the two tall Percheron horses started off at a rattling trot.
Lengaigne, standing at his door on the other side of the road, where he had been setting a razor, had witnessed the whole scene. He now broke into a peal of jeering laughter, and, after a filthy expression, cried out to his neighbour:
"So you had all your trouble for nothing?"
Hourdequin, however, had gone into the tavern, and had accepted a glass of wine; and as soon as Jean had secured the horse to one of the shutters, he followed his master. Françoise quietly beckoned to him to come into the haberdashery shop, and then told him of her departure, and of all that had led to it. The young man was so affected by the girl's story, and so afraid of doing something before the company that might compromise her, that he at once returned into the tavern and sat down on a form, after simply saying that they must see each other again to come to some understanding.
"Well, confound it all," cried Hourdequin, putting down his glass, "you must have pretty stiff digestions if you vote for that youngster!"
His conversation with Monsieur Rochefontaine had decided him to oppose him openly at all risks. He spared him no longer, but compared him with Monsieur de Chédeville, that worthy gentleman who showed no fine airs amongst the peasantry, but was glad to be able to render them any service he could. He was a genuine and true-hearted old-fashioned French nobleman, indeed; while that tall piece of stand-offishness, that mushroom millionaire, looked down at them contemptuously from the height of his grandeur, and even refused to drink a glass of the wine of the district, fearing, no doubt, that it might poison him. It surely wasn't possible that they meant to support him; nobody changed a good sound horse for a blind one.
"What fault have you got to find with Monsieur de Chédeville?" he continued. "For years past he has been your deputy, and has always looked after your interests. And now you desert him for a man whom you looked upon as a scoundrel at the last elections, when the Government opposed him. Confound it all, what are you thinking about?"
Macqueron, who did not want to engage in a direct contest with the mayor, pretended to be busy helping his wife. All the peasants had listened to Hourdequin in stolid silence, without their faces giving the slightest clue as to their secret thoughts. It was Delhomme who answered at last:
"We didn't know him then."
"Ah, but you know him now, this fine fellow! You heard him say that he wanted to see corn cheap, and that he would vote for the importation of foreign corn to bring down the price of our own. I have already explained to you that that means complete ruin for us. After that, you surely can't be such fools as to believe in the fine promises he makes you. When he has once got your votes, you'll soon find him turning round and laughing at you."
A vague smile played over Delhomme's tanned face, and all the latent cunning of his narrow intelligence showed itself in the few sentences which he now slowly spoke.
"He said what he said, and we believe what we believe. He or another—does it much matter? We've only one wish, and that is that the Government should be strong enough so that people may do their business quietly; and the best way of ensuring that is surely to send the Government the deputy it asks for, isn't it? It's enough for us that this gentleman from Châteaudun is the Emperor's friend."
On hearing this last remark Hourdequin felt bewildered. Why, Monsieur de Chédeville himself had been the Emperor's friend at the last election! Oh! the miserable race of serfs that ever belonged to the master who chastised and fed it! To-day, as ever, these fellows were still full of the hereditary humility and egotism, seeing nothing and caring for nothing beyond their meal that day.
"Well," he shouted, "I swear to you by all that's sacred that on the day this Rochefontaine is elected I will send in my resignation. Do they take me for a mere puppet, to say black to-day and white to-morrow? Why, if those blackguards of republicans were at the Tuileries, you'd be on their side, you would indeed!"
Macqueron's eyes glistened brightly. The mayor had just decreed his own fall, for the undertaking which he had given would, in his present state of unpopularity, suffice to make all the country-side vote against Monsieur de Chédeville.
Just at that moment Hyacinthe, who was sitting unnoticed in his corner with his friend Canon, burst into such a loud titter that all eyes were turned upon him. Leaning his elbows on the table, resting his chin in his hands, and grinning contemptuously as he gazed round at the assembled peasants, he cried out:
"A pack of poltroons! a pack of poltroons!"
Just at that moment Buteau came in. In crossing the threshold, his quick eye caught sight of Françoise in the haberdashery shop, and of Jean, sitting against the wall, listening and waiting for his master. Good! the girl and her lover were there, and now they'd see something!
"Ah, here comes my brother, the greatest poltroon of the lot!" exclaimed Hyacinthe.
Threatening expressions were now heard, and the peasants were about to turn their slanderer out of the tavern, when Leroi, otherwise Canon, raised his hoarse voice, which had ranted at all the Socialistic meetings in Paris.
"Hold your jaw, my fine fellow, they're not such fools as they look. Listen to me, now, you other chaps, you peasants. What would you say if a notice should be stuck up on the door of the municipal office, printed in big letters, and containing this announcement: 'Revolutionary Commune of Paris. First: All taxes are abolished. Second: Military service is abolished.' Well, what would you say to that, you earth-grubbers?"
Canon's words produced such an extraordinary effect that Delhomme, Fouan, Clou, and even Bécu himself sat gaping blankly, with widely staring eyes. Lequeu let his paper fall; Hourdequin, who was leaving the room, came back again; and Buteau, forgetting all about Françoise, sat down on a corner of the table. They all gazed at the ragged fellow, the vagabond tramp who was the terror of the districts he passed through, and who lived upon extorted alms and what he could steal. Only the previous week he had been expelled from La Borderie, where he had appeared in the gloaming like a spectre. It was owing to this that he was now staying with Hyacinthe, pending a fresh disappearance.
"Ah, I see that such an announcement would be welcome," Canon continued gaily.
"Indeed it would!" confessed Buteau. "It was only yesterday that I took a lot of money to the collector again. There's no end to those taxes! The authorities seem to want the very skin off one's body!"
"And what a blessing it would be," exclaimed Delhomme, "if one were not forced to see one's sons marched off! It's costing me a pretty penny, I can tell you, to get my Nénesse exempted."
"And then, if you don't pay," added Fouan, "they take your lads from you and have them shot!"
Canon nodded his head, and grinned in triumph.
"Well, you see that after all those earth-grubbers are not quite such fools as you thought!" he said to Hyacinthe.
Then, turning to the others, he continued:
"They are always telling us that you are Conservatives, and that you wouldn't allow any change. But it's conservative of your own interests that you are, isn't it? You'll let us work, and you'll help in anything to your own advantage. You'd be prepared to do a good deal, wouldn't you, for the sake of keeping your money and your children? Of course you would, or you'd be a set of arrant blockheads."
No one was drinking now, and an uneasy expression began to appear on the peasants' heavy faces. Canon continued his address, revelling beforehand in the effect which he was going to produce.
"And that's why I'm at ease. I've known all about your feelings since you've driven me away from your doors with stones. As that stout gentleman here said, you will all rally to our side, to us, the Reds and the Communists, when we are installed at the Tuileries."
"No, no! indeed no!" cried Buteau, Delhomme, and the others, all at once.
Hourdequin, who had been listening attentively, shrugged his shoulders.
"You're wasting your breath, my good fellow," he said.
Canon, however, still smiled with the confident expression of a believer, and leaning back against the wall, he rubbed first one shoulder and then the other with an air of quiet satisfaction. Then he began to tell them all about the coming revolution, vague mysterious hints of which had been wafted from farm to farm, alarming both masters and servants. Their comrades in Paris, he said, would commence by forcibly assuming the reins of government. There would not be much difficulty about that, and it would not be necessary to shoot as many people as might, perhaps, be expected; all the big bazaar would topple down at the least touch; it was so thoroughly rotten. Then, as soon as they had gained supreme power, they would abolish all payment of rent and confiscate all large fortunes, so that that all the money, as well as all the machinery and plant, would come into possession of the nation. Then they would reorganise society upon an entirely new basis, making it one vast financial, industrial, and commercial house of business, in which each would have his fair share of work and comfort. In the country districts matters would be still simpler. They would commence by turning out the landowners and taking possession of the soil!
"You'd better try it on!" interrupted Hourdequin. "You'll find yourself received with pitchforks! The poorest little landowner in the country wouldn't let you carry off a handful of his soil!"
"Have I said a word about touching poor folks?" replied Canon, blandly. "No, we are not such fools as to quarrel with the small owners. No, no, we shall not touch the land of the poor fellows who are making a starvation livelihood out of a few acres. It's only the plump gentlemen like yourself, with their four and five hundred acres, who grow rich by the sweat of their labourers, whose possessions we shall confiscate. Ah, confound it, I don't fancy you'll find any of your neighbours coming to your defence with their pitchforks. They'd be only too glad to see you stripped."
Macqueron broke out into a loud laugh, as though he looked upon the whole matter as a joke, and the others followed his example. The farmer turned somewhat pale, feeling that the old hereditary hatred still abode in the peasants' breasts. The scoundrel was right. Every one of all these peasants, even the honestest of them, would help to plunder him of La Borderie.
"But in my case now," asked Buteau, gravely; "I own about a score of acres, shall I be allowed to keep them?"
"By all means, my friend; but later on when you see the results attained in the national farms around you you will certainly come of your own accord, without the least solicitation, and add your own land to them. We shall do everything on a large scale, with the command of great capital, and all the resources of art and science at our disposal. But that's a matter I don't know so much about. You ought to hear some of the people up in Paris relate how it is that agriculture is hopeless if carried on upon any other basis than this. Yes, you'll come and offer your land of your own accord."
Buteau's face now wore an expression of profound incredulity. He no longer understood Canon, still he felt reassured at being told that he would not be forced to give up anything. As for Hourdequin, his curiosity was excited upon hearing Canon hazily hold forth on the subject of this great scheme of national farming, and he once more lent an attentive ear. The others awaited the finish as if they had been at the theatre. Lequeu, whose pallid face kept flushing crimson, had twice opened his mouth as though he were going to interpose a remark, but each time, like a prudent man, he had withheld it.
"And what is my share to be?" suddenly exclaimed Hyacinthe. "Every one must have his share! Liberty, equality, and fraternity!"
Canon at once lost his temper, and raised his hand as though he were going to strike his friend.
"Hold your row with your liberty, and equality, and fraternity! Does any one need to be free? No, freedom's a farce. You want the gentlefolks to put us into their pockets again, eh? No, no, people must be forced into being happy, whether they will or no! And as for equality and fraternity, would you ever consent to being the equal and the brother of a bailiff? No, no; it was by believing nonsense of that kind that the Republicans of '48 made fools of themselves!"
Hyacinthe, quite at a loss, simply declared that he was in favour of the great Revolution.
"Hold your tongue; you rile me!" cried Canon. "That's your tune, eh? A nice pack of lies always being drummed into our ears! Can that ridiculous farce be compared for a single moment with what we mean to do? You'll see it all when the people are the masters; and it won't be very long coming, all's cracking, and I'll promise you that this century of ours will finish up in a very much prettier fashion than the last one did. There'll be such a sweeping clean-out as has never yet been witnessed!"
All the company shuddered, and even that sot Hyacinthe drew back, alarmed and disgusted at hearing that they were not all to be brothers. Jean, who had hitherto been interested in what was going on, also made a gesture of repulsion. Canon, however, had sprung to his feet, with his eyes glistening, while his face seemed bathed in a prophetic ecstasy.
"And it must come," he cried; "it's fated. It can no more help happening than a stone thrown up in the air can help falling down. And we shall have no more twaddling priests, and stories of another world, and right and justice, things which no one has ever seen any more than they've seen God. No, the only thing we shall concern ourselves about is being perfectly happy. Ah! my fine fellow, we shall arrange matters so that every one shall have the greatest amount of enjoyment with the least possible amount of work. We shall make machinery work for us, and four hours' daily superintendence of it will be the most that will be required. It may be that in time we shall have absolutely nothing to do, and be able to fold our arms in complete idleness. And everywhere there'll be a glut of pleasure; and all our desires will be pampered and satisfied. Yes, there will be meat, and wine, and women galore, and we shall be able to take treble the quantity of pleasure that we can take now, for we shall be stronger and healthier. There will be no more poverty, no more invalids, no more old folks, thanks to our improved organisation, our easier life, our perfect hospitals, and comfortable free homes. It will be an absolute Paradise! All the science in the world will be called into use for our pleasure! And life will then be real enjoyment!"
Buteau, fairly carried away, brought his fist down upon the table with a bang as he shouted:
"No more taxes! no more conscription! no more worries of any sort! nothing but pleasure! Yes, I'm quite willing to sign that programme."
"Certainly," observed Delhomme, sagaciously. "A man would be his own enemy not to sign it."
Fouan also expressed his approval, as did Macqueron, Clou, and the others. Bécu, who, with his authoritative principles, was quite stupefied and overcome, stepped up to Hourdequin, and asked him in a whisper if he ought not to take this blackguard who attacked the Emperor to the lock-up. The farmer, however, calmed him by shrugging his shoulders. Happiness! Ah, yes, they now dreamed of winning it through science, as they had previously dreamed of winning it through right and justice! Perhaps the new theory might be the more logical, but anyway it was not likely to bear the expected fruit yet awhile! The farmer then again prepared to leave, and called to Jean, who was still absorbed in the discussion, but just at that moment Lequeu suddenly yielded to his eager longing to join in the debate. He had for some time past been choking with suppressed rage.
"Take care," he burst out in his shrill voice, "take care that you are not all killed before this fine state of affairs comes off; killed by hunger, or by the bullets of the gendarmes, if starvation should make you refractory——"
The others looked at him without understanding him.
"Nothing can be more certain," he continued, "if corn continues to be imported from America, in a hundred years from now there won't be a single peasant left in all France. Do you think that our land can contend with yonder one? Long before we have had time to put these new plans in practice, the foreigners will have inundated us with grain. I have read a book which tells all about it. You fellows are all doomed——"
In his angry excitement, he suddenly became aware that all the scared faces were turned towards him; and he did not even finish the sentence he was uttering, but making an angry gesture, pretended to bury himself in his newspaper again.
"The American corn will certainly do for you all," exclaimed Canon, "unless the people take possession of the large holdings."
"And I," said Hourdequin in conclusion, "I tell you again that this American corn must not be allowed to enter the country. And now go and vote for Monsieur Rochefontaine if you are tired of having me for your mayor, and want to see corn at forty-three francs."
He then mounted into his gig, followed by Jean, who exchanged a meaning glance with Françoise. As the young man whipped the horse on, he said to his master:
"It doesn't do to think too much about all those affairs, they would drive one crazy."
Hourdequin signified his approval by nodding his head.
In the tavern, Macqueron was now talking in a low but animated tone with Delhomme, while Canon, who had once more assumed an air of supercilious scorn for everybody, finished the brandy, and ridiculed the snubbed Hyacinthe, dubbing him "Miss Ninety-three." Buteau, waking up from a reverie, now suddenly noticed that Jean had gone away, and he was surprised to see Françoise still standing at the door of the room, where she and Berthe had come to listen to what was going on. He felt annoyed with himself for having wasted his time over politics, when he had serious business on hand. Those wretched politics seemed able to make a man forget everything else. He now entered into a long conversation with Cœlina, who ultimately prevented him from making an immediate scandal. It would be much preferable, she said, if Françoise returned to his house of her own accord, when they had succeeded in calming her. Then he went off, threatening, however, that he would return to fetch the girl with a rope and a stick, if the Macquerons did not prevail upon her to come back.
On the following Sunday Monsieur Rochefontaine was elected deputy; and Hourdequin having sent in his resignation to the prefect, to avoid being dismissed, Macqueron at last became mayor, and almost burst through the skin in his insolent triumph.