Mauprat, by George Sand

xv

One the eve of M. de la Marche’s departure, and after the abbe’s letter had been sent, a little incident had happened in Varenne which, when I heard of it in America, caused me considerable surprise and pleasure. Moreover, it is linked in a remarkable manner with the most important events of my life, as you will see later.

Although rather seriously wounded in the unfortunate affair of Savannah, I was actively engaged in Virginia, under General Greene, in collecting the remains of the army commanded by Gates, whom I considered a much greater hero than his more fortunate rival, Washington. We had just learnt of the landing of M. de Ternay’s squadron, and the depression which had fallen on us at this period of reverses and distress was beginning to vanish before the prospect of re-enforcements. These, as a fact, were less considerable than we had expected. I was strolling through the woods with Arthur, a short distance from the camp, and we were taking advantage of this short respite to have a talk about other matters than Cornwallis and the infamous Arnold. Long saddened by the sight of the woes of the American nation, by the fear of seeing injustice and cupidity triumphing over the cause of the people, we were seeking relief in a measure of gaiety. When I had an hour’s leisure I used to escape from my stern toils to the oasis of my own thoughts in the family at Sainte–Severe. At such a time I was wont to tell my kind friend Arthur some of the comic incidents of my entry into life after leaving Roche–Mauprat. At one time I would give him a description of the costume in which I first appeared; at another I would describe Mademoiselle Leblanc’s contempt and loathing for my person, and her recommendation to her friend Saint–Jean never to approach within arms’ length of me. As I thought of these amusing individuals, the face of the solemn hidalgo, Marcasse, somehow arose in my memory, and I began to give a faithful and detailed picture of the dress, and bearing, and conversation of this enigmatic personage. Not that Marcasse was actually as comic as he appeared to be in my imagination; but at twenty a man is only a boy, especially when he is a soldier and has just escaped great dangers, and so is filled with careless pride at the conquest of his own life. Arthur would laugh right heartily as he listened to me, declaring that he would give his whole collection of specimens for such a curious animal as I had just described. The pleasure he derived from my childish chatter increased my vivacity, and I do not know whether I should have been able to resist the temptation to exaggerate my uncle’s peculiarities, when suddenly at a turn in our path we found ourselves in the presence of a tall man, poorly dressed, and terribly haggard, who was walking towards us with a serious pensive expression, and carrying in his hand a long naked sword, the point of which was peacefully lowered to the ground. This individual bore such a strong resemblance to the one I had just described to Arthur, struck by the parallel, burst into uncontrollable laughter, and moving aside to make way for Marcasse’s double, threw himself upon the grass in a convulsive fit of coughing.

For myself, I was far from laughing; for nothing that has a supernatural air about it fails to produce a vivid impression even on the man most accustomed to dangers. With staring eyes and outstretched arms we drew near to each other, myself and he, not the shade of Marcasse, but the venerable person himself, in flesh and blood, of the hidalgo mole-catcher.

Petrified with astonishment when I saw what I had taken for his ghost slowly carry his hand to the corner of his hat and raise it without bending the fraction of an inch, I started back a yard or two; and this movement, which Arthur thought was a joke on my part, only increased his merriment. The weasel-hunter was by no means disconcerted; perhaps in his judicial gravity he was thinking that this was the usual way to greet people on the other side of the ocean.

But Arthur’s laughter almost proved infectious when Marcasse said to me with incomparable gravity:

“Monsieur Bernard, I have had the honour of searching for you for a long time.”

“For a long time, in truth, my good Marcasse,” I replied, as I shook my old friend’s hand with delight. “But, tell me by what strange power I have been lucky enough to draw you hither. In the old days you passed for a sorcerer; is it possible that I have become one too without knowing it?”

“I will explain all that, my dear general,” answered Marcasse, who was apparently dazzled by my captain’s uniform. “If you will allow me to accompany you I will tell you many things — many things!”

On hearing Marcasse repeat his words in a low voice, as if furnishing an echo for himself, a habit which only a minute before I was in the act of imitating, Arthur burst out laughing again. Marcasse turned toward him and after surveying him intently bowed with imperturbable gravity. Arthur, suddenly recovering his serious mood, rose and, with comic dignity, bowed in return almost to the ground.

We returned to the camp together. On the way Marcasse told me his story in that brief style of his, which, as it forced his hearer to ask a thousand wearisome questions, far from simplifying his narrative, made it extraordinarily complicated. It afforded Arthur great amusement; but as you would not derive the same pleasure from listening to an exact reproduction of this interminable dialogue, I will limit myself to telling you how Marcasse had come to leave his country and his friends, in order to give the American cause the help of his sword.

M. de la Marche happened to be setting out for America at the very time when Marcasse came to his castle in Berry for a week, to make his annual round among the beams and joists in the barns. The inmates of the chateau, in their excitement at the count’s departure, indulged in wonderful commentaries on that far country, so full of dangers and marvels, from which, according to the village wiseacres, no man ever returned without a vast fortune, and so many gold and silver ingots that he needed ten ships to carry them all. Now, under his icy exterior, Don Marcasse, like some hyperborean volcano, concealed a glowing imagination, a passionate love of the marvellous. Accustomed to live in a state of equilibrium on narrow beams in evidently loftier regions than other men, and not insensible to the glory of astounding the bystanders every day by the calm daring of his acrobatic movements, he let himself be fired by these pictures of Eldorado; and his dreams were the more extravagant because, as usual, he unbosomed himself to no one. M. de la Marche, therefore, was very much surprised when, on the eve of his departure, Marcasse presented himself, and proposed to accompany him to America as his valet. In vain did M. de la Marche remind him that he was very old to abandon his calling and run the risks of a new kind of life. Marcasse displayed so much firmness that in the end he gained his point. Various reasons led M. de la Marche to consent to the strange request. He had resolved to take with him a servant older still than the weasel-hunter, a man who was accompanying him only with great reluctance. But this man enjoyed his entire confidence, a favour which M. de la Marche was very slow to grant, since he was only able to keep up the outward show of a man of quality, and wished to be served faithfully, and with economy and prudence. He knew, however, that Marcasse was scrupulously honest, and even singularly unselfish; for there was something of Don Quixote in the man’s soul as well as in his appearance. He had found in some ruins a sort of treasure-trove, that is to say, an earthenware jar containing a sum of about ten thousand francs in old gold and silver coins; and not only had he handed it over to the owner of the ruins, whom he might easily have deceived, but further he had refused to accept any reward, declaring emphatically in his abbreviated jargon, “honesty would die selling itself.”

Marcasse’s economy, his discretion, his punctuality, seemed likely to make him a valuable man, if he could be trained to put these qualities at the service of others. The one thing to be feared was that he might not be able to accustom himself to his loss of independence. However, M. de la Marche thought that, before M. de Ternay’s squadron sailed, he would have time to test his new squire sufficiently.

On his side, Marcasse felt many regrets at taking leave of his friends and home; for if he had “friends everywhere and everywhere a native place,” as he said, in allusion to his wandering life, he still had a very marked preference for Varenne; and of all his castles (for he was accustomed to call every place he stopped at “his”), the chateau of Sainte–Severe was the only one which he arrived at with pleasure and left with regret. One day, when he had missed his footing on the roof and had rather a serious fall, Edmee, then still a child, had won his heart by the tears she had shed over this accident, and the artless attentions she had shown him. And ever since Patience had come to dwell on the edge of the park, Marcasse had felt still more attracted toward Sainte–Severe; for in Patience Marcasse had found his Orestes. Marcasse did not always understand Patience; but Patience was the only man who thoroughly understood Marcasse, and who knew how much chivalrous honesty and noble courage lay hidden beneath that odd exterior. Humbly bowing to the hermit’s intellectual superiority, the weasel-hunter would stop respectfully whenever the poetic frenzy took possession of Patience and made his words unintelligible. At such a time Marcasse would refrain from questions and ill-timed remarks with touching gentleness; would lower his eyes, and nodding his head from time to time as if he understood and approved, would, at least, afford his friend the innocent pleasure of being listened to without contradiction.

Marcasse, however, had understood enough to make him embrace republican ideas and share in those romantic hopes of universal levelling and a return to the golden age, which had been so ardently fostered by old Patience. Having frequently heard his friend say that these doctrines were to be cultivated with prudence (a precept, however, to which Patience gave but little heed himself), the hidalgo, inclined to reticence both by habit and inclination, never spoke of his philosophy; but he proved himself a more efficacious propagandist by carrying about from castle to cottage, and from house to farm, those little cheap editions of La Science du Bonhomme Richard, and other small treatises on popular patriotism, which, according to the Jesuits, a secret society of Voltairian philosophers, devoted to the diabolical practice of freemasonry, circulated gratis among the lower classes.

Thus in Marcasse’s sudden resolution there was as much revolutionary enthusiasm as love of adventure. For a long time the dormouse and polecat had seemed to him overfeeble enemies for his restless valour, even as the granary floor seemed to afford too narrow a field. Every day he read the papers of the previous day in the servants’ hall of the houses he visited; and it appeared to him that this war in America, which was hailed as the awakening of the spirit of justice and liberty in the New World, ought to produce a revolution in France. It is true he had a very literal notion of the way in which ideas were to cross the seas and take possession of the minds of our continent. In his dreams he used to see an army of victorious Americans disembarking from numberless ships, and bringing the olive branch of peace and the horn of plenty to the French nation. In these same dreams he beheld himself at the head of a legion of heroes returning to Varenne as a warrior, a legislator, a rival of Washington, suppressing abuses, cutting down enormous fortunes, assigning to each proletarian a suitable share, and, in the midst of his far-reaching and vigorous measures, protecting the good and fair-dealing nobles, and assuring an honourable existence to them. Needless to say, the distress inseparable from all great political crises never entered into Marcasse’s mind, and not a single drop of blood sullied the romantic picture which Patience had unrolled before his eyes.

From these sublime hopes to the role of valet to M. de la Marche was a far cry; but Marcasse could reach his goal by no other way. The ranks of the army corps destined for America had long been filled, and it was only in the character of a passenger attached to the expedition that he could take his place on one of the merchant ships that followed the expedition. He had questioned the abbe on these points without revealing his plans. His departure quite staggered all the inhabitants of Varenne.

No sooner had he set foot on the shores of the States than he felt an irresistible inclination to take his big hat and his big sword and go off all alone through the woods, as he had been accustomed to do in his own country. His conscience, however, prevented him from quitting his master after having pledged himself to serve him. He had calculated that fortune would help him, and fortune did. The war proved much more bloody and vigorous than had been expected, and M. de la Marche feared, though wrongly, that he might be impeded by the poor health of his gaunt squire. Having a suspicion, too, of the man’s desire for liberty, he offered him a sum of money and some letters of recommendation, to enable him to join the American troops as a volunteer. Marcasse, knowing the state of his master’s fortune, refused the money, and only accepted the letters; and then set off with as light a step as the nimblest weasels that he had ever killed.

His intention was to make for Philadelphia; but, through a chance occurrence which I need not relate, he learnt that I was in the South, and, rightly calculating that he would obtain both advice and help from me, he had set out to find me, alone, on foot, through unknown countries almost uninhabited and often full of danger of all kinds. His clothes alone had suffered; his yellow face had not changed its tint, and he was no more surprised at his latest exploit than if he had merely covered the distance from Sainte–Severe to Gazeau Tower.

The only fresh habit that I noticed in him, was that he would turn round from time to time, and look behind him, as if he had felt inclined to call some one; then immediately after he would smile and sigh almost at the same instant. I could not resist a desire to ask him the cause of his uneasiness.

“Alas!” he replied, “habit can’t get rid of; a poor dog! good dog! Always saying, ‘Here Blaireau! Blaireau, here!’”

“I understand,” I said, “Blaireau is dead, and you cannot accustom yourself to the idea that you will never see him at your heels again.”

“Dead!” he exclaimed, with an expression of horror. “No, thank God! Friend Patience, great friend! Blaireau quite well off, but sad like his master; his master alone!”

“If Blaireau is with Patience,” said Arthur, “he is well off, as you say; for Patience wants nothing. Patience will love him because he loves his master, and you are certain to see your good friend and faithful dog again.”

Marcasse turned his eyes upon the individual who seemed to be so well acquainted with his life; but, feeling sure that he had never seen him before, he acted as he was wont to do when he did not understand; he raised his hat and bowed respectfully.

On my immediate recommendation Marcasse was enrolled in my company and, a little while afterward, was made a sergeant. The worthy man went through the whole campaign with me, and went through it bravely; and in 1782, when I rejoined Rochambeau’s army to fight under the French flag, he followed me, as he was anxious to share my lot until the end. In the early days I looked upon him rather as an amusement than a companion; but his excellent conduct and calm fearlessness soon won for him the esteem of all, and I had reason to be proud of my protege. Arthur also conceived a great friendship for him; and, when off duty, he accompanied us in all our walks, carrying the naturalist’s box and running the snakes through with his sword.

But when I tried to make him speak of my cousin, he by no means satisfied me. Whether he did not understand how eager I felt to learn all the details of the life she was leading far away from me, or whether in this matter he was obeying one of those inviolable laws which governed his conscience, I could never obtain from him any clear solution of the doubts which harassed me. Quite early he told me that there was no question of her marriage with any one; but, accustomed though I was to his vague manner of expressing himself, I imagined he seemed embarrassed in making this assertion and had the air of a man who had sworn to keep a secret. Honour forbade me to insist to such an extent as to let him see my hopes, and so there always remained between us a painful point which I tried to avoid touching upon, but to which, in spite of myself, I was continually returning. As long as Arthur was near me, I retained my reason, and interpreted Edmee’s letters in the most loyal way; but when I was unfortunate enough to be separated from him, my sufferings revived, and my stay in America became more irksome to me every day.

Our separation took place when I left the American army to fight under the command of the French general. Arthur was an American; and, moreover, he was only waiting for the end of the war to retire from the service, and settle in Boston with Dr. Cooper, who loved him as his son, and who had undertaken to get him appointed principal librarian to the library of the Philadelphia Society. This was all the reward Arthur desired for his labours.

The events which filled my last years in America belong to history. It was with a truly personal delight that I hailed the peace which proclaimed the United States a free nation. I had begun to chafe at my long absence from France; my passion had been growing ever greater, and left no room for the intoxication of military glory. Before my departure I went to take leave of Arthur. Then I sailed with the worthy Marcasse, divided between sorrow at parting from my only friend, and joy at the prospect of once more seeing my only love. The squadron to which my ship belonged experienced many vicissitudes during the passage, and several times I gave up all hope of ever kneeling before Edmee under the great oaks of Sainte–Severe. At last, after a final storm off the coast of France, I set foot on the shores of Brittany, and fell into the arms of my poor sergeant, who had borne our common misfortunes, if not with greater physical courage, at least with a calmer spirit, and we mingled our tears.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sand/george/mauprat/chapter15.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29