and lighted by her eyes, he is fit to envy the birds their wings,
that so he may return to the ceaseless and thrilling dramatic
spectacle of Paris, and its harrowing struggles for existence.
From the length of the journalist's letter, any shrewd ob-
server should guess that the writer had mentally and physi-
cally reached that peculiar phase of repletion consequent on
satisfied desire and glut of happiness, which is perfectly illus-
trated by the state of the domestic fowl, when, fattened by
force, with head declining upon a too protuberant crop, the
victim stands planted on both feet, unable and unwilling to
give so much as a glance to the most tempting morsel. When,
therefore, Blondet had finished his formidable letter, he felt
a longing to go beyond the bounds of this Armida's Garden,
to find anything to enliven the deadly dulness of the early
hours of the day, for between breakfast and dinner he spent
his time with his hostess, who knew how to make it pass
Mme. de Montcornet had kept a clever man a whole month
in the country, and had not seen the feigned smile of satiety
on his face, nor detected the incipient yawn of boredom which
can never be concealed. This is one of a woman's greatest
triumphs. An affection proof against such tests should last
22 THE PEASANTRY
for ever. Why women do not put their lovers on a trial which
neither fool nor egoist nor narrow nature can abide, is utterly
incomprehensible. Philip II. himself, that Alexander of dis-
simulation, would have begun to blab his secrets after a
month's tete-a-tete in the country. For which reason, kings
spend their lives in a perpetual bustle and racket, and never
allow anybody to see them for more than a quarter of an hour
at a time.
Yet notwithstanding the delicate attentions of one of the
most charming women in Paris, Emile Blondet played truant
with a relish long forgotten. The day when his letter was
finished he told Frangois (the head-servant, specially ap-
pointed to wait upon him) to call him early. He had made
up his mind to explore the valley of the Avonne.
The Avonne at its head is a small river. Many streams that
rise round about the Aigues go to swell it below Conches, and
at Ville-aux-Fayes it joins one of the largest affluents of the
Seine. The Avonne is navigable for rafts for four leagues;
Jean Eouvet's invention has given all their commercial value
to the forests of Aigues, Soulanges, and Eonquerolles, on the
heights above the picturesque river. The park of the Aigues
takes up most of the valley between the river that flows below
the wooded heights on either side, called the Forest of the
Aigues, and the king's highway, mapped out on the horizon
by a line of old warped elm-trees running parallel with the
hills (so called) of the Avonne, the lowest steps of the grand
amphitheatre of the Morvan.
To use a homely metaphor, the shape of the park was some-
thing like a huge fish lying in the valley bottom, with the head
at Conches and the tail at Blangy, the length much exceeding
the breadth, and the broadest part in the middle full five times
the width of the valley at Blangy, or six times the width at
Conches. Possibly the lie of the land, thus set among three
villages (Soulanges, whence you plunge down into this Eden,
being but a league away), may have assisted to foment dis-
cord, and suggested the excesses which form the chief subject
of this Scene; for if passing travelers look down on the para-
THE PEASANTRY 23
clise of the Aigues from Ville-aux-Fayes with envious eyes,
how should the well-to-do townsfolk of Soulanges and Ville-
aux-Fayes feel less covetous when they behold it every day of
their lives ? .
This last bit of topographical detail is needed if the posi-
tion is to be understood, as well as the why and wherefore of
four park gates at the Aigues; for the whole park was shut
in by walls, save where a ha-ha fence had been substituted
for the sake of the view. The four gates, called respectively
the Conches gate, the Avonne, the Avenue, and Blangy gates,
were so full of the character of the different times in which
they were built, that they shall be described in their place for
the benefit of archaeologists ; but the subject shall receive the
concise treatment which Blondet gave to the avenue itself.
For a week the illustrious editor of the Journal des Debats
had taken his walks abroad with the Countess, till he knew by
heart the Chinese pavilion, bridges, islands, kiosks, hermit-
age, chalet, ruined temple, Babylonish ice-house ; in short, all
the ins and outs of the gardens planned by an architect with
nine hundred acres at his disposal. Now, therefore, he felt
inclined to trace the course of the Avonne, which his host
and hostess daily praised to him. Every evening he had
planned the excursion, every morning he forgot all about it.
And, indeed, above the park the Avonne is like an Alpine tor-
rent, hollowing out its rocky bed, and fashioning deep pools,
where it sinks underground. Here and there there is a water-
fall, when some little stream unexpectedly splashes into it;
here and there it broadens out like a miniature Loire, and
ripples over sandy shallows, but it is a stream so changeful
in its moods that rafts are out of the question. Blondet struck
up through the park by the shortest way to the Conches gate,
which deserves a few words of description, if only for the sake
of the historical associations connected with the property.
The founder of the Aigues was a cadet -oi the house of
Soulanges, who married an heiress, and was minded to snap
his fingers at his oldest brother, an amiable sentiment to which
we also owe the Isola-Bella, the fairyland on Lake Maggiore.
24 THE PEASANTRY
In the Middle Ages the castle of the Aigues stood beside the
Avonne; but of the whole stronghold only one gateway re-
mained, a porched gateway of the kind usual in fortified
towns, with a pepper-box turret on either side of.it. The pon-
derous masonry above the arch was gay with wallflowers, and
pierced by three great mullion windows. A spiral stair-
case had been contrived to give access to two dwelling-rooms
in the first turret, and to a kitchen in the second. On the
roof ridge of the porch, steep pitched, like all such construc-
tions in the olden time, stood a couple of weather-cocks,
adorned with quaint ironwork. Not many places can boast
of a townhall so imposing.
The scutcheon of the Soulanges family was still visible on
the keystone of the arch of a hard stone selected for its pur-
pose by the craftsman whose chisel had engraven the arms of
Soulanges azure, three palmer's staves per pale argent, five
crosslets fitchy sable on a fess gules over all, differenced by a
mark of cadency. Blondet spelt out the device Je soule agir
It is my wont to act a bit of word-play such as crusaders
loved to make on their names, and an excellent maxim which
Montcornet to his sorrow neglected, as shall be seen. The
heavy old wooden door was heavier yet by reason of the iron
studs arranged in groups of five upon it. A pretty girl
opened it for Blondet ; and a keeper, awakened by the groan-
ing of the hinges, put his head out of the window. The man
was in his night-shirt.
"What is this? Our keepers are still abed at this time of
day, are they?" thought the Parisian, who imagined that he
knew all about forest customs.
With a quarter of an hour's walk he reached the springs of
the river, and from the upper end of the valley at Conches
the whole enchanting view lay before his eyes. A descrip-
tion of that landscape, like the history of France, might fill a
thousand volumes, or could be condensed into a single book.
Let a couple of phrases suffice.
Picture a bulging mass of rock, covered with the velvet of
dwarf shrubs, placed so that it looks like some huge tortoise
THE PEASANTRY 25
set across the Avonne which wears its way out at the foot, a
rock that describes an arch through which you behold a little
sheet of water, clear as a mirror, where Avonne seems to sleep
before it breaks in waterfalls over the huge boulders where
the dwarf willows, supple as springs, perpetually yield to the
force of the current, only to fly back again.
Up above the waterfalls the hillsides are cut sharply away,
like some Rhineland crag clad with mosses and heather; they
are rifted, too, like the Rhine crag by strata of schist, where
springs of white water bubble out here and there, each one
above a little space of grass, always fresh and green, which
serves as a cup for the spring ; and finally, by way of contrast
to the wild solitude of nature, you see the outposts of civiliza-
tion : Conches, and the gardens on the edge of the fields, and
beyond the picturesque wilderness the assembled roofs of the
village and the church spire.
Behold the two phrases ! But the sunrise, the pure air, the
dew crystals, -the blended music of woods and water, these
must be divined !
"Faith, it is nearly as fine as the Opera !" said Blondet to
himself, as he clambered up the torrent bed of the Avonne.
The caprices of the higher stream brought out all the depth,
stillness, and straightness of the Avonne in the valley, shut in
by tall trees and the Forest of the Aigues. He did not, how-
ever, pursue his morning walk very far. He was soon brought
to a stand by a peasant, one of the subordinate characters so
necessary to the action of this drama that it is doubtful
whether they or the principal characters play the more im-
Blondet, that clever writer, reached a boulder-strewn spot,
where the main stream was pent as if between two doors, when
he saw the man standing so motionless that his journalist's
curiosity would have been aroused, even if the figure and
clothing of the living statue had not already puzzled him not
In that poverty-stricken figure he saw an old man such as
Charlet loved to draw; the strongly-built frame, schooled to
26 THE PEASANTRY
endure hardship, might have belonged to one of the troopers
depicted by the soldier's Homer; the rugged purplish-red
countenance gave him kinship with Charlet's immortal scav-
engers, unschooled by resignation. An almost bald head was
protected from the inclemency of the weather by a coarse felt
hat, the brim stitched to the crown here and there, and from
under the hat one or two locks of hair straggled out ; an artist
would have given four francs an hour for the chance of study-
ing from the life that dazzling snow, arranged after the
fashion of the Eternal Father of classic art. Yet there was
something in the way in which the cheeks sank in, continuing
the lines of the mouth, that plainly said that this toothless
old person went more often to the barrel than to the bread-
hutch. The short white bristles of a scanty beard gave an ex-
pression of menace to his face. A pair of little eyes, oblique
as a pig's, and too small for his huge countenance, suggested
a combination of sloth and cunning ; but at that moment, as
he pored upon the river, fire seemed to flash frpm them.
For all clothing the poor man wor,e a blouse, which had
been blue in former times, and a pair of trousers of the coarse
canvas that they use in Paris for packing material. Any
town-dweller would have shuddered at the sight of his broken
sabots, without so much as a little straw by way of padding in
the cracks. As for the blouse and trousers, they had reached
the stage when a textile fabric is fit for nothing but the pulp-
ing-trough of a paper-mill.
Blondet, as he gazed at the rustic Diogenes, was convinced
that the typical peasant of old tapestry, old pictures, and
carvings was not, as he had hitherto imagined, a purely fancy
portrait. Nor did he utterly condemn, as heretofore, the pro-
ductions of the School of Ugliness; he began to see that in
man the beautiful is but a gratifying exception to a general
rule, a chimerical vision in which he struggles to believe.
"I wonder what the ideas and manner of life of such a
human being may be ! What is he thinking about ?" Blondet
asked himself, and curiosity seized upon him. "Is that my
fellow-man ? We have only our human shape in common, and
THE PEASANTRY 27
He looked at the hard tissues peculiar to those who lead an
out-of-door life, accustomed to all weathers, and to excessive
heat and cold, and to hardships, in fact, of every kind, a
training which turns the skin to something like tanned
leather, and makes the sinews well-nigh pain-proof, like those
of the Arabs or Cossacks.
"That is one of Fenimore Cooper's Kedskins," said Blondet
to himself; "there is no need to go to America to study the
The Parisian was not two paces away, but the old man did
not look round ; he stood and stared at the opposite bank with
the fixity that glazes a Hindoo fakir's eyes and induces anchy-
losis of every joint. This kind of magnetism is more infec-
tious than people think ; it was too much for Blondet, he
too began at last to stare into the water.
A good quarter of an hour went by in this way,, and Blondet
still found no sufficient motive for the proceeding. "Well,
my good man," he asked, "what is there over yonder ?"
"Hush-sh !" the other said, with a sign to Blondet that he
must not disturb the air with his voice. "You will scare
"An otter, mister. If her hears us, her's just the one to
give us the slip and get away under water. There ain't
no need to say that her jumped in there. There ! Do you
see the water a-bubbling up? Oh, her's lying in wait for a
fish; but when her tries to come out, my boy will catch hold
of her. It's like this, you see, an otter is the rarest thing. It
is a scientific animal to catch, fine and delicate eating, all
the same; they will give me ten francs for it at the Aigues,
seeing as the lady there doesn't eat meat of a Friday, and to-
morrow is Friday. Time was when the lady that's dead and
gone has paid me as much as twenty francs for one, and her
would let me have the skin back too Mouche," he called in
a loud whisper, "keep a good lookout
On the other side of this branch stream of the Avonne,
Blondet saw a pair of eyes gleaming like a cat's eyes from
VOL. IO 28
28 THE PEASANTRY
under a clump of alders; then he made out the brown fore-
head and shock head of a boy of twelve or thereabouts, who was
lying there flat on his stomach; the urchin pointed out the
otter, with a sign which indicated that he was keeping the
animal in view. The consuming anxiety of the old man and
the child got the better of Blondet; he fell a willing victim
to the devouring demon of Sport.
Now that demon has two claws, called Hope and Curiosity,
by which he leads you whither he will.
"You sell the skin to the hatters," the old man went on.
"So fine it is and soft. They make caps of it "
"Do you believe that, my good man ?"
"Of course, mister, you ought to know a lot more about it
than I do, for all I am seventy years old," said the old person
meekly and respectfully; then, with unctuous insinuation
"and you can tell me, no doubt, why coach-guards and inn-
keepers think such a lot of it, sir ?"
Blondet, that master of irony, had his suspicions ; the word
"scientific" had not escaped him; he remembered the
Marechal'de Eichelieu, and fancied that this old rustic was
laughing at him, but the simplicity of the man's manner and
stupid expression dismissed the idea.
"There were plenty of otters to be seen hereabouts when I
was young, the country suits them," the good soul went on;
"but they have hunted them down so much, that if we see a
tail of one on 'em once in seven years, it is the most you will
do. There's the sub-perfect over at Ville-aux-Fayes you
know him, mister? He is a nice young man, like you, for
all he is a Parisian, and he is fond of curiosities. So, know-
ing that I was good at catching otters, for I know them as
well as ever you know your alphabet, he just says to me like
this, 'Father Fourchon, when you find an otter, you bring it
to me,' says he, 'and I'll pay you well for it ; and if her should
have white dots on her back,' he says, 'I would give you thirty
francs for her.' That is what he says to me on the quay at
Ville-aux-Fayes, and that's the truth : true as I believe in
God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. There is an-
THE PEASANTRY 2f
other learned man over at Soulanges, M. Gourdon, our doc-
tor he is, they say he is making a cabinet of natural history ;
there is not his like in Dijon, he is the learnedest man in these
parts in fact, and he would give me a good price for her ! He
knows how to stuff man and beast ! And there's my boy here
stands me out that this one is white all over! 'If that is
so/ I says to him, 'the Lord A'mighty have borne us in mind
this morning !' Look at the water a-bubbling, do you see ?
Oh ! her's there. Her lives in a kind of a burrow on land, but
for all that, her'll stop under water whole days together.
Ah ! her heard you, mister, her is suspicious, for there ain't
no animile cleverer than that one; her is worse than a
"Perhaps that is why the otter is called her" suggested
"Lord, mister, being from Paris as you are, you know bet-
ter about it than we do. But you would have done us a better
turn by lying a-bed of a morning, because do you see
that ripple-like over yonder? Her's getting away under-
neath. . . . Come along, Mouche ! Her has heard the
gentleman, her has, and her is just the one to keep us here
cooling our heels till midnight ; let us be going. There's our
thirty francs swimming away."
Mouche got up, but wistfully. He was a touzle-headed
youth, with a brown face, like an angel's in some fifteenth
century picture. To all intents and purposes, he wore
breeches, for his trousers ended at the knee in a jagged fringe
ornamented with thorns and dead leaves. This indispensable
garment was secured to his person by a couple of strands of
tow by way of braces, and a shirt of sacking (originally of the
same pattern as his grandsire's trousers, but thickened by raw-
edged patches) left a sun-burned chest exposed to view. In
the matter of simplicity Mouche's clothes marked a distinct
advance on old Fourchon's costume.
"What good, simple souls they are out here !" said Blondet
to himself. "Round about Paris the work-people would cut
up rough if a swell came and spoiled sport." And as he
30 THE PEASANTRY
had never set eyes on an otter, not even in the Museum, he was
quite delighted with this episode in his walk.
"Come, now," he began, feeling touched, for the old man
was going away without asking for anything, "you say that
you are an expert otter-hunter. If you are sure that the otter
is there "
Mouche, on the opposite bank, pointed to the air-bubbles
rising to the surface of the Avonne, to die away in eddies in
the middle of the pool.
"Her has gone back again," said old Fourchon; "her has
been to draw a breath of air, the slut ! It is her as has made
that fuss there. How do her manage to breathe under water ?
But the thing's so cunning, it laughs at science."
"Very well," said Blondet, deciding that the last pleasantry
was a current bucolic witticism, and no product of the brain
of the individual before him ; "stop and catch the otter."
"And how about our day's work, mine and Mouche's ?"
"What is a day's work ?"
"For the two of us, me and my apprentice ? . . . Five
francs " said the old man, looking Blondet in the eyes
with a hesitation which plainly said that this was a prodigious
The journalist took some coins from his pocket, saying,
"Here are ten francs for you, and you shall have at least as
much again for the otter."
"Her'll be cheap to you at that, if her has white dots on
her back, for the sub-perfect told me that our museum has
only one of that sort. And he knows a good deal, all the
same, does our sub-perfect, he is no fool. If I go after otters,
Master des Lupeaulx is after Master Gaub.ertin's daughter,
who has a fine white dot on her back. Stay, mister, no offence
to you, but you go and beat up the water by that stone yon-
der in the Avonne. When we have driven out the otter, her
will come down with the stream, for that is a trick the ani-
mals have; them'll go up stream to fish, and when they have
as much as they can carry, they come down to their burrow ;
they know it's easier going down stream. Didn't I tell you
THE PEASANTRY 31
that they are cunning ! If I had learned cunning in their
school, I should be living like a gentleman at this day. I
found out too late that you have to get up early in the morn-
ing to make headway up stream and get the first chance at
the booty. There was a spell cast over me when I was born,
in fact. Perhaps the three of us together will be too clever
for the otter."
"And how, old necromancer?"
"Lord, sir, we peasants are such stupid animals ourselves,
that we come at last to understand the animals. This is what
we will do. When the otter turns to go home, we will scare
her here, and you will scare her there, and scared of both
sides, her'll make a dash for the bank. If her takes to the
land, it is all over with her. The thing can't walk, it's made
to swim, with its goose-feet. Oh ! you will have some fun,
for it is a regular double game you fish and hunt at the
same time. The General at the Aigues, where you are stay-
ing, came back three times running, he took such a fancy to
Blondet obediently hopped from stone to stone till he
reached the middle of the Avonne, where he took his stand,
duly provided with a green branch, which the old otter-hunter
cut for him, ready to whip the stream at the word of com-
"Yes, just there, mister," and there Blondet remained, un-
conscious of the flight of time, for every moment the old man's
gestures kept him on the lookout for a successful issue, and
time never passes more quickly than when every faculty is
on the alert in expectation of energetic action to succeed to
the profound silence of lying in wait.
"Daddy Fourchon," the boy whispered, when he was alone
with the old man, "there really be an otter there "
"Do you see her?"
"There her is !"
The old man was dumfounded. He distinctly saw the
brown skin of an otter swimming along under the water.
"Her is coming along tow'rds me," said the little fellow.
32 THE PEASANTS Y
"Fetch her a slap on the head, and jump in and hold her
down at the bottom, and don't let her go "
Mouche dived into the Avonne like a scared frog.
"Quick, quick ! 'mister," old Fourchon shouted, as he like-
wise jumped into the Avonne (leaving his sabots on the
bank). "Just give her a scare! There! look her is swim-
ming tow'rds you !"
The old man splashed along through the water to Blondet,
shouting with the gravity that rustics can preserve through
the keenest sense of fun.
"Look, do you see her, along of those rocks." Blondet, pur-
posely placed so that the sun shone into his eyes, thrashed the
water in all good faith.
"There! there! nearer the rocks!" shouted old Fourchon,
"that is where her hole is to your left." Carried away by
vexation, excited by the long suspense, Blondet took an im-
promptu footbath, slipping off the stones into the water.
"Hold on ! hold on ! mister, you have got her. Oh, heaven
and earth ! there she goes, right between your legs ! Her is
off! Her is off!" cried the old man in desperation. And
like one possessed with the fury of the chase, he splashed
across till he confronted Blondet.
" 'Twas your doing that we lost her," old Fourchon con-
tinued; Blondet held out a hand, and he emerged from the
water like a Triton a vanquished Triton. "Her is there
under the rock, the wench ! Her dropped her fish," he added,
pointing to something floating down the stream some distance
away. "Anyhow, we shall have the tench, for a tench it
As he spoke they saw a liveried servant on horseback, gal-
loping along the Conches road, holding a second horse by the
"There! it looks as if the servants from the chateau were
looking for you," he went on. "If you want to get back across
the river, I will lend you a hand. Oh ! I would as soon have
a soaking as not, it saves you the trouble of washing your
THE PEASANTRY 33
"And how about catching cold ?" asked Blondet.
"Ah, indeed ! Don't you see that the sun has browned our
shanks like an old pensioner's tobacco pipe. Lean on me, mis-
ter. You are from Paris, you don't know how to get foothold
on our rocks, for so many things as you know. If you stop
here awhile, you will learn a sight of things out of the book
of nature, you that write the news in the papers."
Blondet, arrived on the opposite banks, encountered the