managed to add, "After that, I do not wonder that you
changed your boots and trousers, you must have been made
to swim. As for me, I was not hoaxed quite so far as you
I stopped on the bank but then you are so much cleverer
than I am "
"You forget, dear, that I do not know what you are talk r
ing about/' put in Mme. de Montcornet, with a trace of pique,
caused by Blondet's confusion. At this the General recovered
his gravity, and Blondet himself told the story of his otter
"But if they really have an otter," said the Countess, "they
are not so much to blame, poor things."
"Yes ; only no one has seen the otter for these ten years !"
returned the -pitiless General.
"M. le Comte," said Frangois, "the child vows and declares
that he has caught one "
"If they have an otter, I will pay them for it," said the
70 THE PEASANTRY
"Providence can never have condemned the Aigues to be
without otters for ever," put in the Abbe Brossette.
"Oh, M. le Cure, if you let loose Providence upon us "
"But who can have come ?" the Countess asked quickly.
"Mouche, my lady, the little boy that always goes about
with old Fourchon," the servant answered.
"Send him in if madame has no objection," said the Gen-
eral. "He will perhaps amuse you."
"But at any rate we ought to know what to believe, ought
we not ?" asked the Countess.
A few moments later Mouche appeared in his almost naked
condition. At this apparition of poverty personified in the
splendid dining-room, when the price of a single mirror on
the walls would have been a fortune to the barefooted, bare-
legged, bare-headed child, it was impossible not to give way
to charitable impulses. Mouche's eyes, like glowing coals,
gazed from the glories of the room to the riches on the table.
"You have no mother, of course?" said the Countess, un-
able to explain such destitution in any other way.
"No, my lady ; mammy died of fretting because daddy went
for a soldier in 1812, and she never saw him again; he did
not marry her with the papers before he went, and he was
frozen, saving your presence. But I have my grandad Four-
chon, who is very good to me, though he does beat me now and
again like a Jesus."
"How does it happen, dear, that any one on your land is
so wretched?" asked the Countess, looking at the General.
"No one need be wretched here, Madame la Comtesse, un-
less they choose," said the Cure. "M. le Comte means well
by them, but you have to do with a people without religion,
people who have but one idea how to live at your expense."
"But, my dear cure," said Blondet, "you are here to keep
them in order."
"My lord Bishop sent me here as a missionary among
heathen, monsieur," said the Abbe Brossette; "but, as I had
the honor of pointing out to him, our heathen in France are
THE PEASANTRY 71
unapproachable; they make it a rule not to listen to us; now
in America you can appeal to the savages."
"M'sieu le Cure, they do a little for me now, but if I went
to your church they would give over helping me altogether.
I should have them calling 'shovel hats' after me."
"But religion ought to begin by giving him trousers, my
dear Abbe," said Blondet. "Do not your missions begin by
coaxing the savage ?"
"He would have sold his clothes before long," the Abbe
answered, lowering his voice, "and my stipend does not allow
me to traffic in souls in that way."
"M. le Cure is right," said the General, who was looking
at Mouche. The urchin's tactics consisted in feigning igno-
rance whenever he had the worst of it.
"The little rascal is evidently intelligent enough to know
right from wrong," continued the General. "He is old enough
to work, and his one thought is how to transgress and escape
punishment. He is well known to the foresters. Before I
was mayor he knew, young as he was, that if a man is witness
of a trespass on his own land, he cannot lodge a complaint
himself, and he would brazenly stay in my meadows grazing
his cows under my eyes ; now, he makes off."
"Oh ! that is very wrong," said the Countess ; "we ought
not to take other people's goods, dear child."
"One must eat, my lad} r . Grandad gives me more cuffs
than crusts, and it makes you feel hollow inside, does a hiding.
When the cows have milk, I help myself to a little, and that
keeps life in me. Is his lordship so poor that he can't spare
a little grass so that I may drink ?"
"Why, perhaps he has had nothing to eat to-day," said .the
Countess, touched by such dire poverty. "Just let him have
.some bread and the rest of the fowl; give him some break-
fast in fact," she said, looking at the servant. "Where do
you sleep ?" she added.
"Anywhere, wherever they will let us sleep in the winter,
my lady, and out of doors in the summer/'
"How old are you?"
72 THE PEASANTRY
"Then something might be made of him yet/' said the
Countess, turning to her husband.
"Might make a soldier," said the General gruffly; "he is
in good training for it. I myself have been through quite as
much of that sort of thing as he has, and yet here I am."
"Asking your pardon, General, I am not on the register,"
said the child. "I shall not be drawn. My poor mother was
not married, and I was born out in the fields ; I am a son of
the airih, as grandad says. Mammy saved me from the
militia. I don't call myself Mouche any more than anything
else. Grandad showed me plainly where I was well off. The
Government haven't got me on their papers, and when I am
old enough to be drawn I shall go on my travels through
France. They won't catch me!"
"Do you love your grandfather?" asked the Countess, try-
ing to read the heart of twelve years old.
"Lord, he cuffs me whenever the fit takes him, but there is
no help for it. He is so funny, such a good sort ! And then
he says that he is taking pay for teaching me to read and
"Can you read?" asked the Count.
"I should think I could, M. le Comte, and fine writing too !
true as it is that we have an otter !"
"What is this ?" the Count asked, holding out a newspaper.
"The Cu-o-ti-dienne" pronounced Mouche, without stumb-
ling more than three times over the word. Everybody, even
the Abbe Brossette, joined in the laugh that followed.
"Well," cried Mouche sulkily, "you are setting me to
read them newspapers, and grandad says that they are written
for rich people, but you always get to know later on what
there is inside them."
"The child is right, General; he makes me long to meet
the man who got the better of me this morning once again,"
said Blondet ; "I see that there was a touch of Mouche in his
Mouche understood perfectly well that he was there for the
THE PEASANTRY 73
master's amusement. Old Fourchon's scholar showed him-
self worthy of his master ; he began to cry.
"How can you make fun of a barefooted child ?" asked the
"A child who thinks it quite natural that his grandfather
should take his pay for his schooling in slaps ?" asked Blon-
"Poor little one, look here/' said the lady; "have you
caught an otter ?"
"Yes, my lady, as true as that you are the prettiest lady I
have seen or ever shall see," said the child, wiping away his
"Just let us see this otter," said the General.
"Oh, M'sieu le Comte, grandad hid her away; but she was
still kicking when we were at the ropewalk. You can send
for my grandad, for he wants to sell her himself."
"Take him to the kitchen and give him his breakfast, and
send Charles for old Fourchon meanwhile," the Countess bade
Frangois. "And see if you can, find some shoes and trousers
and a jacket for the boy. Those who come here naked must
go away again clothed
"God bless you, dear lady," said Mouche as he went.
"M'sieu le Cure may be sure that the clothes you give me
will be laid up for high days and holidays."
Fjmile and Mme. Montcornet exchanged glances. This last
remark surprised them. "That boy is not so silly," their
looks seemed to tell the cure.
"Certainly, madame," said the cure as soon as the boy had
gone, "you cannot call a reckoning with poverty. To my
thinking, the poor have justifications which God alone can
see and take into account, justifications in physical causes
which often produce' baleful results, and other justifications
springing from character, produced by tendencies, blame-
worthy as we think, but yet the result of qualities which,
unfortunately for society, find no outlet. The miracles
worked on battlefields have taught us that the lowest scoun-
drel may have the makings of a hero in him. . . . But
74 THE PEASANTRY
here you are placed in a very unusual position ; and if reflec-
tion does not keep pace with benevolence, you run the risk
of subsidizing your .enemies '
"Enemies?" echoed the Countess.
"Bitter enemies," the General spoke gravely.
"Old Fourchon and his son-in-law Tonsard represent the
whole intelligence of the poorest folk in the valley ; their ad-
vice is asked and taken in the most trifling matters. Their
Machiavelism reaches an incredible pitch. You may take this
for granted, that ten peasants in a wineshop are the small
change for a big intrigue "
As he was speaking, Frangois announced M. Sibilet.
"This is the minister of finance," said the General, smil-
ing; "send him in. He will explain the gravity of the situa-
tion to you," he added, glancing from his wife to Blondet.
"And so much the better in that he will scarcely make the
least of it," said the cure, in a scarcely audible voice.
Blondet saw for the first time a personage whose acquaint-
ance he wished to make the steward of the Aigues, of whoTn
he had heard much since his arrival. Sibilet was a man of
thirty or thereabouts; he was of middle height, with a sullen,
unpleasant face, which a laugh seemed to suit ill. The eyes
of changing green, under an anxious brow, looked different
ways, and thus disguised his thoughts. His long, straight
hair gave him a somewhat clerical appearance; he wore a
brown greatcoat and a black waistcoat and trousers; he was
knock-kneed, and the trousers imperfectly concealed this de-
fect. In spite of his unwholesome appearance, sallow com-
plexion, and flabby muscles, Sibilet had a strong constitu-
tion. The somewhat gruff tones of his voice harmonized with
the generally unprepossessing appearance of the man.
Blondet and the Abbe Brossette exchanged a furtive glance,
and in the fleeting expression in the eyes of the young ec-
clesiastic Blondet read the confirmation of his own sus-
"You set down the peasants' thefts at about one-fourth the
value of the yearly returns, do you not, my dear Sibilet?"
asked the General.
THE PEASANTRY 75
"At a good deal more than that, M. le CoTnte," returned
the steward. "Your paupers take more than the Government
asks of you. There is a young rogue called Mouche who
gleans his two bushels per day ; and old women, whom any one
would think at their last gasp, will recover health and youth
and the use of their limbs at harvest-time. That is a phe-
nomenon which you can see for yourself," continued Bibilet,
turning to Blondet, "for we shall begin in six days' tin^e ; the
rain in July has made the harvest late this year. Wu shall
be cutting the rye next week. Nobody ought to glean without
a certificate of poverty from the mayor of the commune, and
a commune ought on no account to allow any but the very
poor to glean at all, but all the communes in the district
glean over each other without certificates. For sixty poor
people in the commune, there are forty more who will not do
a day's work ; and, as a matter of fact, even those who have set
up for themselves will leave their work to glean in the fields
or the vineyards.
"Here these folk will pick up three hundred bushels a day
among them, and the harvest lasts a fortnight four thousand
five hundred bushels taken away in the canton. So the glean-
ing amounts to about one-tenth of the whole harvest; and as
to the abuse of grazing, that makes a hole in our profits, about
a sixth of the value of our meadows goes in that way. Then
there are the woods, they do incalculable mischief there, cut-
ting down the young saplings six years old. The damage
done to your estate, M. le Comte, mounts up to twenty and
some odd thousand francs per annum."
"Well, madame," said the General, "do you hear that ?"
"Is it not exaggerated?" asked Mme. de Montcornet.
"No, unhappily it is not, madame," said the cure. "There
is poor Father Niseron, the white-haired old man who unites
in person all the offices of bellringer, beadle, sexton, sacristan,
and chanter, in spite of his republican opinions in fact, he
is the grandfather of that little Genevieve whom you placed
under Mme. Michaud
"La Pechina !" said Sibilet, interrupting the Abbe.
"La Pechina ?" asked the Countess. "What do you mean ?"
76 THE PEASANTRY
"Mme. la Comtesse, when you saw little Genevi&ve by
the wayside looking so forlorn, you exclaimed in Italian :
Piccina! And now it has become a nickname, and so cor-
rupted that the whole commune knows your protegee by the
name of the Pechina. She is the only one who comes to
church, poor little thing, with Mme. Michaud and Mme. Sibi-
let," added the cure.
"Yes, and she is none the better off for that," said the
steward. "She is persecuted for her religion."
"Well," continued the cure, "this poor old man of seventy-
two picks up a bushel and a half in a day, and does it hon-
estly moreover, but he is too conscientious to sell his gleanings
as the rest of them do; he keeps the corn for his own con-
sumption. As a favor to me, M. Langlume, your deputy,
grinds his corn for nothing, and my servant bakes his bread
"I had forgotten my little protegee," said the Countess,
startled by Sibilet's remarks. "Your coming has put other
things out of my head," she added, turning to Blondet. "But
after breakfast we will go to the Avonne gate, and I will show
you a living woman like a fifteenth century painter's dream."
As she spoke, a pair of cracked sabots was put down with
a clatter at the kitchen door, and old Fourchon was an-
nounced by Frangois. The Countess nodded permission, and
Frangois brought the old man into the room, Mouche fol-
lowing behind with his mouth full, and holding the otter by
a string tied to its yellow paws, ribbed like a duck's foot. Old
Fourchon glanced at the gentry seated at table, gave Sibilet
the half-defiant, half-servile look that veils a peasant's
thoughts ; then he brandished the amphibian triumphantly.
"Here she is !" he cried, looking at Blondet.
"That is my otter, though," demurred the Parisian; "I
paid plenty for it."
"Oh, your otter got away, my dear sir !" retorted old Four-
chon. "She is in her hole at this minute; she had no mind
to come out of it; she was the female, while this here is the
male! Mouche saw it come out, a long way off, after you
THE PEASANTRY 77
had gone. 'Tis as true as that M. le Comte covered himself
with glory along with his Cuirassiers at Waterloo ! The otter
is as much mine as the Aigues belongs to his lordship the
General. . . . But for twenty francs the otter is yours,
otherwise I will take it to our sub-perfect. If M. Gourdon
thinks it too dear, as we went hunting together this morning,
I give the gentleman from Paris the preference, as is but
"Twenty francs !" put in Blondet. "In plain French, that
is not exactly what you might call giving me the preference."
"Eh ! my dear sir," cried the old man, "I know so little
French, that if you like I will ask you for them in Burgun-
dian ; it's all one to me so long as I get the francs, I will speak
Latin : latinus, latina, latinum. After all, it is only what you
promised me yourself this morning ; and besides, my children
have taken your mony from me already ; I cried about it as
I came along. You ask Charles I don't like to summons
them for ten francs and publish their bad doings at the court.
As soon as I make a few sous they get them away from me
by making me drink. It is hard that I can't go to take a
glass of wine in my own daughter's house, but that is what
children are in these days ! That is what comes of the Revo-
lution ; it's everything for the children now, and their fathers
are put upon. Ah ! I am eddicating Mouche here in quite
another way. The little rapscallion is fond of me," he re-
marked, administering a slap to his grandson.
"It looks to me as if you were making him into a petty
thief, just like the rest of them," said Sibilet, "for he never
lies down without something on his conscience."
"Oh! Master Sibilet, his conscience is easier than what
yours is ! . . . Poor child, what does he take ? A trifle
of grass, that is better than throttling a man ! Lord, he
doesn't know mathematics like you; he doesn't understand
subtraction and addition and multiplication. . . . You
do a lot of harm, you do ! . You tell people that we are a pack
of brigands, and you are at the bottom of the division be-
78 THE PEASANTRY
tween his lordship there, who is a good man, and the rest of
us, who are good folk. There ain't a better place than this is.
"Look here ! Have we money coming in ? Don't we go
without clothes to our backs, as you may say, Mouche and I ?
Fine sheets we sleep in, bleached in the dew every morning;
and unless you grudge us the air we breathe, and the light
of the sun, and our drink, there is nothing that I see that
any one can want to take from us ! The bourgeois do their
robberies in the chimney corner, and it pays much better than
picking up things that lie about in corners of the wood. There
are no foresters nor mounted keepers for Master Gaubertin,
who came here bare as a worm, and has two million francs
" 'Thieves !' is soon said ; but there is old Guerbet, as col-
lects the taxes, has gone out of our village at night with his
receipts these fifteen years, and nobody has ever asked him
for two farthings. That is not the way in a country of
thieves. We are not much the richer for theft. Just show
me this whether it is we or you who live by doing nothing ?"
"If you had not been idle, you would have something to
live on," said the cure. "God blesses work."
"I don't like to contradict you, Mosieur 1'Abbe, for you
know more than I do, and perhaps you can explain this to
me. Here am I, am I not? A lazy, idle sot, a good-for-nothing
of an old Fourchon, who has had some education, has been a
farmer, fell into difficulties, and never got out of them !
. . . Well, now, where is the difference between me and
that good, honest old man Niseron, a vinedresser, seventy
years old (for he and I are of an age), who has been digging
the soil ? up before daylight every morning to go to his work,
till he has a body like iron and a noble soul. I see that he
is just as poor as I am. There is La Pechina, his grand-
daughter, gone out to service with Ma'am Michaud, while
my little Mouche is free as the air! Is the poor old man
rewarded for his virtues in the same way that I am punished
for my vices ? He does not know what a glass of wine is ; he
THE PEASANTRY 79
is as sober as an apostle; he digs graves for the dead, and
I set the living a-dancing. He has dined with Duke Hum-
phrey, while I have tippled down the liquor like a rollicking
devil-may-care creature. And one has come just as far as
the other; we have the same snow on our heads, the same
cash in our pockets, he rings the bell, and I make the rope.
He is a Republican, and I am a sinner, and not even a publi-
can. Let the peasant do ill or well, according to your notions,
he will end as he began, in rags, and you in fine linen "
Nobody interrupted old Fourchon, who seemed to owe his
eloquence to the bottled wine; at the outset Sibilet tried to
cut him short, but at a sign from Blondet the steward was
dumb. The cure, the General, and the Countess gathered
from the journalist's glances that he wished to study the
problem of pauperism from the life, and perhaps to be quits
with old Fourchon.
"And what do you mean about Mouche's education ? How
do you set to work to bring him up to be a better child to you
than your daughters?"
"Does he so much as speak to him of God?" asked the
"Oh! not I, Mosieur le Cure, I be'ant telling him to fear
God, but men. God is good, and has promised, according to
you parsons, that we shall have the kingdom of heaven, as
the rich keep the kingdom of earth. I say to him 'Mouche !
fear the jail ! for you go out of jail to the scaffold. Never
steal anything ; make them give you what you want ! Stealing
leads to murder, and murder brings down the justice of men
on you. The razor of justice that is to be feared ; it secures
the rich man's slumber against the poor man that lies awake.
Learn to read. Education will put it in your power to make
money under cover of the law, like clever M. Gaubertin. You
will be a steward, eh ! like M. Sibilet, whom his lordship the
Count allows his rations. The great thing is to keep well with
the rich; there are crumbs under rich men's tables/ That
is what I call a fine education, and thorough too. So the
young whelp keeps on this side of the law. He will be a
steady boy ; he will take care of me !"
80 THE PEASANTRY
"And what will you make of him ?" inquired Blondet.
"A gentleman's servant, to begin with," answered Four-
chon, "because seeing the masters from near, his education will
be thoroughly finished, that it will ! Good example will teach
him to make his way with the law to back him like the rest
of you! ... If his lordship will take him into his
stables to learn to rub down the horses, the little fellow will
be very much pleased seeing that though he fears men, he
js not afraid cf animals."
"You are a clever man, Daddy Fourchon," began Blondet.
"You know quite well what you are saying, and there is some
sense in what you say."
"Oh ! my certy ! no, I have left my senses at the Grand-I-
Vert along with my two five-franc pieces."
"How came such a man as you to drift into such poverty?
For as things are now, a peasant has only himself to thank
if he does badly; he is free, he can become rich. It is not as
it used to be any longer. If a peasant can scrape a little
money together, he finds a bit of land, he can buy it, and he
is his own master."
"I saw the old times, and I see the new, my dear learned
sir," replied Fourchon; "they have put up a new signboard,
but the liquor is the same as ever. To-day is only yesterday's
younger brother. There ! you put that in your paper ! En-
franchised, are we ? We still belong to the same" village, and
the seigneur is there still ; I call him Hard Labor. The hoe,
which is all our property, has not passed out of our hands.
And anyhow, whether we work for the seigneur or for the
tax collector, who takes the best part of what we make, we
have to sweat our lives out "
"But why not choose a handicraft and try your luck else-
where?" asked Blondet.
"Are you talking to me of setting out to seek my fortune ?
But where should I go? I must have a passport, which
costs forty sous, before I can go out of the department. These
forty years I have not been able to hear a slut of a two-franc
piece jangle with another in my pocket. If you go straight
THE PEASANTRY 81
before you, for every village you come to you want a three-
franc piece, and there are not many of the Fourchon family
that have the wherewithal to visit six villages! Nothing
drags us from our communes except the conscription. And
what does the army do for us ? The colonel lives on the com-
mon soldier as the master lives on the laborer. Does one
colonel out of a hundred spring from our loins ? In the army,
as in the rest of the world, for one that grows rich a hundred
drop out. F.or want of what ? God knows so do the money-
"So the best thing we can do is to stop in our communes,
where we are penned up like sheep by the force of circum-
stances, just as we used to be by the seigneurs. And I care
not a rap who nails me here. Nailed down by necessity, or
nailed down by the nobles, we are condemned for life to
labor on the soil. Wherever we are, we turn up the
soil, and dig it and dung it, and work for you that
are born rich, as we are born poor. The mass will always
be the same ; what it is, it p.lways is. Those of us who go up
in the world are fewer than those of you who come down.
We know this very well, if we haven't book learning, that it
won't do to be down upon us at every moment. We leave
you in peace ; let us live. Otherwise, if this goes on, you will
be forced to feed us in your prisons, where we are far more