While Joseph and Madame Bridau were journeying from Orleans to Issoudun, the Knights of Idleness perpetrated one of their best tricks. An old Spaniard, a former prisoner of war, who after the peace had remained in the neighborhood, where he did a small business in grain, came early one morning to market, leaving his empty cart at the foot of the tower of Issoudun. Maxence, who arrived at a rendezvous of the Knights, appointed on that occasion at the foot of the tower, was soon assailed with the whispered question, “What are we to do to-night?”
“Here’s Pere Fario’s cart,” he answered. “I nearly cracked my shins over it. Let us get it up on the embankment of the tower in the first place, and we’ll make up our minds afterwards.”
When Richard Coeur-deLion built the tower of Issoudun he raised it, as we have said, on the ruins of the basilica, which itself stood above the Roman temple and the Celtic Dun. These ruins, each of which represents a period of several centuries, form a mound big with the monuments of three distinct ages. The tower is, therefore, the apex of a cone, from which the descent is equally steep on all sides, and which is only approached by a series of steps. To give in a few words an idea of the height of this tower, we may compare it to the obelisk of Luxor on its pedestal. The pedestal of the tower of Issoudun, which hid within its breast such archaeological treasures, was eighty feet high on the side towards the town. In an hour the cart was taken off its wheels and hoisted, piece by piece, to the top of the embankment at the foot of the tower itself — a work that was somewhat like that of the soldiers who carried the artillery over the pass of the Grand Saint–Bernard. The cart was then remounted on its wheels, and the Knights, by this time hungry and thirsty, returned to Mere Cognette’s, where they were soon seated round the table in the low room, laughing at the grimaces Fario would make when he came after his barrow in the morning.
The Knights, naturally, did not play such capers every night. The genius of Sganarelle, Mascarille, and Scapin combined would not have sufficed to invent three hundred and sixty-five pieces of mischief a year. In the first place, circumstances were not always propitious: sometimes the moon shone clear, or the last prank had greatly irritated their betters; then one or another of their number refused to share in some proposed outrage because a relation was involved. But if the scamps were not at Mere Cognette’s every night, they always met during the day, enjoying together the legitimate pleasures of hunting, or the autumn vintages and the winter skating. Among this assemblage of twenty youths, all of them at war with the social somnolence of the place, there are some who were more closely allied than others to Max, and who made him their idol. A character like his often fascinates other youths. The two grandsons of Madame Hochon — Francois Hochon and Baruch Borniche — were his henchmen. These young fellows, accepting the general opinion of the left-handed parentage of Lousteau, looked upon Max as their cousin. Max, moreover, was liberal in lending them money for their pleasures, which their grandfather Hochon refused; he took them hunting, let them see life, and exercised a much greater influence over them than their own family. They were both orphans, and were kept, although each had attained his majority, under the guardianship of Monsieur Hochon, for reasons which will be explained when Monsieur Hochon himself comes upon the scene.
At this particular moment Francois and Baruch (we will call them by their Christian names for the sake of clearness) were sitting, one on each side of Max, at the middle of a table that was rather ill lighted by the fuliginous gleams of four tallow candles of eight to the pound. A dozen to fifteen bottles of various wines had just been drunk, for only eleven of the Knights were present. Baruch — whose name indicates pretty clearly that Calvinism still kept some hold on Issoudun — said to Max, as the wine was beginning to unloose all tongues —
“You are threatened in your stronghold.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Max.
“Why, my grandmother has had a letter from Madame Bridau, who is her goddaughter, saying that she and her son are coming here. My grandmother has been getting two rooms ready for them.”
“What’s that to me?” said Max, taking up his glass and swallowing the contents at a gulp with a comic gesture.
Max was then thirty-four years old. A candle standing near him threw a gleam upon his soldierly face, lit up his brow, and brought out admirably his clear skin, his ardent eyes, his black and slightly curling hair, which had the brilliancy of jet. The hair grew vigorously upward from the forehead and temples, sharply defining those five black tongues which our ancestors used to call the “five points.” Notwithstanding this abrupt contrast of black and white, Max’s face was very sweet, owing its charm to an outline like that which Raphael gave to the faces of his Madonnas, and to a well-cut mouth whose lips smiled graciously, giving an expression of countenance which Max had made distinctively his own. The rich coloring which blooms on a Berrichon cheek added still further to his look of kindly good-humor. When he laughed heartily, he showed thirty-two teeth worthy of the mouth of a pretty woman. In height about five feet six inches, the young man was admirably well-proportioned — neither too stout nor yet too thin. His hands, carefully kept, were white and rather handsome; but his feet recalled the suburb and the foot-soldier of the Empire. Max would certainly have made a good general of division; he had shoulders that were worth a fortune to a marshal of France, and a breast broad enough to wear all the orders of Europe. Every movement betrayed intelligence; born with grace and charm, like nearly all the children of love, the noble blood of his real father came out in him.
“Don’t you know, Max,” cried the son of a former surgeon-major named Goddet — now the best doctor in the town — from the other end of the table, “that Madame Hochon’s goddaughter is the sister of Rouget? If she is coming here with her son, no doubt she means to make sure of getting the property when he dies, and then — good-by to your harvest!”
Max frowned. Then, with a look which ran from one face to another all round the table, he watched the effect of this announcement on the minds of those present, and again replied —
“What’s that to me?”
“But,” said Francois, “I should think that if old Rouget revoked his will — in case he has made one in favor of the Rabouilleuse —”
Here Max cut short his henchman’s speech. “I’ve stopped the mouths of people who have dared to meddle with you, my dear Francois,” he said; “and this is the way you pay your debts? You use a contemptuous nickname in speaking of a woman to whom I am known to be attached.”
Max had never before said as much as this about his relations with the person to whom Francois had just applied a name under which she was known at Issoudun. The late prisoner at Cabrera — the major of the grenadiers of the Guard — knew enough of what honor was to judge rightly as to the causes of the disesteem in which society held him. He had therefore never allowed any one, no matter who, to speak to him on the subject of Mademoiselle Flore Brazier, the servant-mistress of Jean–Jacques Rouget, so energetically termed a “slut” by the respectable Madame Hochon. Everybody knew it was too ticklish a subject with Max, ever to speak of it unless he began it; and hitherto he had never begun it. To risk his anger or irritate him was altogether too dangerous; so that even his best friends had never joked him about the Rabouilleuse. When they talked of his liaison with the girl before Major Potel and Captain Renard, with whom he lived on intimate terms, Potel would reply —
“If he is the natural brother of Jean–Jacques Rouget where else would you have him live?”
“Besides, after all,” added Captain Renard, “the girl is a worthless piece, and if Max does live with her where’s the harm?”
After this merited snub, Francois could not at once catch up the thread of his ideas; but he was still less able to do so when Max said to him, gently —
“Faith, no!” cried Francois.
“You needn’t get angry, Max,” said young Goddet; “didn’t we agree to talk freely to each other at Mere Cognette’s? Shouldn’t we all be mortal enemies if we remembered outside what is said, or thought, or done here? All the town calls Flore Brazier the Rabouilleuse; and if Francois did happen to let the nickname slip out, is that a crime against the Order of Idleness?”
“No,” said Max, “but against our personal friendship. However, I thought better of it; I recollected we were in session, and that was why I said, ‘Go on.’”
A deep silence followed. The pause became so embarrassing for the whole company that Max broke it by exclaiming:—
“I’ll go on for him,” [sensation] “— for all of you,” [amazement] “— and tell you what you are thinking” [profound sensation]. “You think that Flore, the Rabouilleuse, La Brazier, the housekeeper of Pere Rouget — for they call him so, that old bachelor, who can never have any children! — you think, I say, that that woman supplies all my wants ever since I came back to Issoudun. If I am able to throw three hundred francs a month to the dogs, and treat you to suppers — as I do to-night — and lend money to all of you, you think I get the gold out of Mademoiselle Flore Brazier’s purse? Well, yes” [profound sensation]. “Yes, ten thousand times yes! Yes, Mademoiselle Brazier is aiming straight for the old man’s property.”
“She gets it from father to son,” observed Goddet, in his corner.
“You think,” continued Max, smiling at Goddet’s speech, “that I intend to marry Flore when Pere Rouget dies, and so this sister and her son, of whom I hear to-night for the first time, will endanger my future?”
“That’s just it,” cried Francois.
“That is what every one thinks who is sitting round this table,” said Baruch.
“Well, don’t be uneasy, friends,” answered Max. “Forewarned is forearmed! Now then, I address the Knights of Idleness. If, to get rid of these Parisians I need the help of the Order, will you lend me a hand? Oh! within the limits we have marked out for our fooleries,” he added hastily, perceiving a general hesitation. “Do you suppose I want to kill them — poison them? Thank God I’m not an idiot. Besides, if the Bridaus succeed, and Flore has nothing but what she stands in, I should be satisfied; do you understand that? I love her enough to prefer her to Mademoiselle Fichet — if Mademoiselle Fichet would have me.”
Mademoiselle Fichet was the richest heiress in Issoudun, and the hand of the daughter counted for much in the reported passion of the younger Goddet for the mother. Frankness of speech is a pearl of such price that all the Knights rose to their feet as one man.
“You are a fine fellow, Max!”
“Well said, Max; we’ll stand by you!”
“A fig for the Bridaus!”
“We’ll bridle them!”
“After all, it is only three swains to a shepherdess.”
“The deuce! Pere Lousteau loved Madame Rouget; isn’t it better to love a housekeeper who is not yoked?”
“If the defunct Rouget was Max’s father, the affair is in the family.”
“Liberty of opinion now-a-days!”
“Hurrah for Max!”
“Down with all hypocrites!”
“Here’s a health to the beautiful Flore!”
Such were the eleven responses, acclamations, and toasts shouted forth by the Knights of Idleness, and characteristic, we may remark, of their excessively relaxed morality. It is now easy to see what interest Max had in becoming their grand master. By leading the young men of the best families in their follies and amusements, and by doing them services, he meant to create a support for himself when the day for recovering his position came. He rose gracefully and waved his glass of claret, while all the others waited eagerly for the coming allocution.
“As a mark of the ill-will I bear you, I wish you all a mistress who is equal to the beautiful Flore! As to this irruption of relations, I don’t feel any present uneasiness; and as to the future, we’ll see what comes —”
“Don’t let us forget Fario’s cart!”
“Hang it! that’s safe enough!” said Goddet.
“Oh! I’ll engage to settle that business,” cried Max. “Be in the market-place early, all of you, and let me know when the old fellow goes for his cart.”
It was striking half-past three in the morning as the Knights slipped out in silence to go to their homes; gliding close to the walls of the houses without making the least noise, shod as they were in list shoes. Max slowly returned to the place Saint–Jean, situated in the upper part of the town, between the port Saint–Jean and the port Vilatte, the quarter of the rich bourgeoisie. Maxence Gilet had concealed his fears, but the news had struck home. His experience on the hulks at Cabrera had taught him a dissimulation as deep and thorough as his corruption. First, and above all else, the forty thousand francs a year from landed property which old Rouget owned was, let it be clearly understood, the constituent element of Max’s passion for Flore Brazier. By his present bearing it is easy to see how much confidence the woman had given him in the financial future she expected to obtain through the infatuation of the old bachelor. Nevertheless, the news of the arrival of the legitimate heirs was of a nature to shake Max’s faith in Flore’s influence. Rouget’s savings, accumulating during the last seventeen years, still stood in his own name; and even if the will, which Flore declared had long been made in her favor, were revoked, these savings at least might be secured by putting them in the name of Mademoiselle Brazier.
“That fool of a girl never told me, in all these seven years, a word about the sister and nephews!” cried Max, turning from the rue de la Marmouse into the rue l’Avenier. “Seven hundred and fifty thousand francs placed with different notaries at Bourges, and Vierzon, and Chateauroux, can’t be turned into money and put into the Funds in a week, without everybody knowing it in this gossiping place! The most important thing is to get rid of these relations; as soon as they are driven away we ought to make haste to secure the property. I must think it over.”
Max was tired. By the help of a pass-key, he let himself into Pere Rouget’s house, and went to bed without making any noise, saying to himself —
“To-morrow, my thoughts will be clear.”
It is now necessary to relate where the sultana of the place Saint–Jean picked up the nickname of “Rabouilleuse,” and how she came to be the quasi-mistress of Jean–Jacques Rouget’s home.
As old Doctor Rouget, the father of Jean–Jacques and Madame Bridau, advanced in years, he began to perceive the nonentity of his son; he then treated him harshly, trying to break him into a routine that might serve in place of intelligence. He thus, though unconsciously, prepared him to submit to the yoke of the first tyranny that threw its halter over his head.
Coming home one day from his professional round, the malignant and vicious old man came across a bewitching little girl at the edge of some fields that lay along the avenue de Tivoli. Hearing the horse, the child sprang up from the bottom of one of the many brooks which are to be seen from the heights of Issoudun, threading the meadows like ribbons of silver on a green robe. Naiad-like, she rose suddenly on the doctor’s vision, showing the loveliest virgin head that painters ever dreamed of. Old Rouget, who knew the whole country-side, did not know this miracle of beauty. The child, who was half naked, wore a forlorn little petticoat of coarse woollen stuff, woven in alternate strips of brown and white, full of holes and very ragged. A sheet of rough writing paper, tied on by a shred of osier, served her for a hat. Beneath this paper — covered with pot-hooks and round O’s, from which it derived the name of “schoolpaper”— the loveliest mass of blonde hair that ever a daughter of Eve could have desired, was twisted up, and held in place by a species of comb made to comb out the tails of horses. Her pretty tanned bosom, and her neck, scarcely covered by a ragged fichu which was once a Madres handkerchief, showed edges of the white skin below the exposed and sun-burned parts. One end of her petticoat was drawn between the legs and fastened with a huge pin in front, giving that garment the look of a pair of bathing drawers. The feet and the legs, which could be seen through the clear water in which she stood, attracted the eye by a delicacy which was worthy of a sculptor of the middle ages. The charming limbs exposed to the sun had a ruddy tone that was not without beauty of its own. The neck and bosom were worthy of being wrapped in silks and cashmeres; and the nymph had blue eyes fringed with long lashes, whose glance might have made a painter or a poet fall upon his knees. The doctor, enough of an anatomist to trace the exquisite figure, recognized the loss it would be to art if the lines of such a model were destroyed by the hard toil of the fields.
“Where do you come from, little girl? I have never seen you before,” said the old doctor, then sixty-two years of age. This scene took place in the month of September, 1799.
“I belong in Vatan,” she answered.
Hearing Rouget’s voice, an ill-looking man, standing at some distance in the deeper waters of the brook, raised his head. “What are you about, Flore?” he said, “While you are talking instead of catching, the creatures will get away.”
“Why have you come here from Vatan?” continued the doctor, paying no heed to the interruption.
“I am catching crabs for my uncle Brazier here.”
“Rabouiller” is a Berrichon word which admirably describes the thing it is intended to express; namely, the action of troubling the water of a brook, making it boil and bubble with a branch whose end-shoots spread out like a racket. The crabs, frightened by this operation, which they do not understand, come hastily to the surface, and in their flurry rush into the net the fisher has laid for them at a little distance. Flore Brazier held her “rabouilloir” in her hand with the natural grace of childlike innocence.
“Has your uncle got permission to hunt crabs?”
“Hey! are not we all under a Republic that is one and indivisible?” cried the uncle from his station.
“We are under a Directory,” said the doctor, “and I know of no law which allows a man to come from Vatan and fish in the territory of Issoudun”; then he said to Flore, “Have you got a mother, little one!”
“No, monsieur; and my father is in the asylum at Bourges. He went mad from a sun-stroke he got in the fields.”
“How much do you earn?”
“Five sous a day while the season lasts; I catch ’em as far as the Braisne. In harvest time, I glean; in winter, I spin.”
“You are about twelve years old?”
“Do you want to come with me? You shall be well fed and well dressed, and have some pretty shoes.”
“No, my niece will stay with me; I am responsible to God and man for her,” said Uncle Brazier who had come up to them. “I am her guardian, d’ye see?”
The doctor kept his countenance and checked a smile which might have escaped most people at the aspect of the man. The guardian wore a peasant’s hat, rotted by sun and rain, eaten like the leaves of a cabbage that has harbored several caterpillars, and mended, here and there, with white thread. Beneath the hat was a dark and sunken face, in which the mouth, nose, and eyes, seemed four black spots. His forlorn jacket was a bit of patchwork, and his trousers were of crash towelling.
“I am Doctor Rouget,” said that individual; “and as you are the guardian of the child, bring her to my house, in the place Saint–Jean. It will not be a bad day’s work for you; nor for her, either.”
Without waiting for an answer, and sure that Uncle Brazier would soon appear with his pretty “rabouilleuse,” Doctor Rouget set spurs to his horse and returned to Issoudun. He had hardly sat down to dinner, before his cook announced the arrival of the citoyen and citoyenne Brazier.
“Sit down,” said the doctor to the uncle and niece.
Flore and her guardian, still barefooted, looked round the doctor’s dining-room with wondering eyes; never having seen its like before.
The house, which Rouget inherited from the Descoings estate, stands in the middle of the place Saint–Jean, a so-called square, very long and very narrow, planted with a few sickly lindens. The houses in this part of town are better built than elsewhere, and that of the Descoings’s was one of the finest. It stands opposite to the house of Monsieur Hochon, and has three windows in front on the first storey, and a porte-cochere on the ground-floor which gives entrance to a courtyard, beyond which lies the garden. Under the archway of the porte-cochere is the door of a large hall lighted by two windows on the street. The kitchen is behind this hall, part of the space being used for a staircase which leads to the upper floor and to the attic above that. Beyond the kitchen is a wood-shed and wash-house, a stable for two horses and a coach-house, over which are some little lofts for the storage of oats, hay, and straw, where, at that time, the doctor’s servant slept.
The hall which the little peasant and her uncle admired with such wonder is decorated with wooden carvings of the time of Louis XV., painted gray, and a handsome marble chimney-piece, over which Flore beheld herself in a large mirror without any upper division and with a carved and gilded frame. On the panelled walls of the room, from space to space, hung several pictures, the spoil of various religious houses, such as the abbeys of Deols, Issoudun, Saint–Gildas, La Pree, Chezal–Beniot, Saint–Sulpice, and the convents of Bourges and Issoudun, which the liberality of our kings had enriched with the precious gifts of the glorious works called forth by the Renaissance. Among the pictures obtained by the Descoings and inherited by Rouget, was a Holy Family by Albano, a Saint–Jerome of Demenichino, a Head of Christ by Gian Bellini, a Virgin of Leonardo, a Bearing of the Cross by Titian, which formerly belonged to the Marquis de Belabre (the one who sustained a siege and had his head cut off under Louis XIII.); a Lazarus of Paul Veronese, a Marriage of the Virgin by the priest Genois, two church paintings by Rubens, and a replica of a picture by Perugino, done either by Perugino himself or by Raphael; and finally, two Correggios and one Andrea del Sarto.
The Descoings had culled these treasures from three hundred church pictures, without knowing their value, and selecting them only for their good preservation. Many were not only in magnificent frames, but some were still under glass. Perhaps it was the beauty of the frames and the value of the glass that led the Descoings to retain the pictures. The furniture of the room was not wanting in the sort of luxury we prize in these days, though at that time it had no value in Issoudun. The clock, standing on the mantle-shelf between two superb silver candlesticks with six branches, had an ecclesiastical splendor which revealed the hand of Boulle. The armchairs of carved oak, covered with tapestry-work due to the devoted industry of women of high rank, would be treasured in these days, for each was surmounted with a crown and coat-of-arms. Between the windows stood a rich console, brought from some castle, on whose marble slab stood an immense China jar, in which the doctor kept his tobacco. But neither Rouget, nor his son, nor the cook, took the slightest care of all these treasures. They spat upon a hearth of exquisite delicacy, whose gilded mouldings were now green with verdigris. A handsome chandelier, partly of semi-transparent porcelain, was peppered, like the ceiling from which it hung, with black speckles, bearing witness to the immunity enjoyed by the flies. The Descoings had draped the windows with brocatelle curtains torn from the bed of some monastic prior. To the left of the entrance-door, stood a chest or coffer, worth many thousand francs, which the doctor now used for a sideboard.
“Here, Fanchette,” cried Rouget to his cook, “bring two glasses; and give us some of the old wine.”
Fanchette, a big Berrichon countrywoman, who was considered a better cook than even La Cognette, ran in to receive the order with a celerity which said much for the doctor’s despotism, and something also for her own curiosity.
“What is an acre of vineyard worth in your parts?” asked the doctor, pouring out a glass of wine for Brazier.
“Three hundred francs in silver.”
“Well, then! leave your niece here as my servant; she shall have three hundred francs in wages, and, as you are her guardian, you can take them.”
“Every year?” exclaimed Brazier, with his eyes as wide as saucers.
“I leave that to your conscience,” said the doctor. “She is an orphan; up to eighteen, she has no right to what she earns.”
“Twelve to eighteen — that’s six acres of vineyard!” said the uncle. “Ay, she’s a pretty one, gentle as a lamb, well made and active, and obedient as a kitten. She were the light o’ my poor brother’s eyes —”
“I will pay a year in advance,” observed the doctor.
“Bless me! say two years, and I’ll leave her with you, for she’ll be better off with you than with us; my wife beats her, she can’t abide her. There’s none but I to stand up for her, and the little saint of a creature is as innocent as a new-born babe.”
When he heard the last part of this speech, the doctor, struck by the word “innocent,” made a sign to the uncle and took him out into the courtyard and from thence to the garden; leaving the Rabouilleuse at the table with Fanchette and Jean–Jacques, who immediately questioned her, and to whom she naively related her meeting with the doctor.
“There now, my little darling, good-by,” said Uncle Brazier, coming back and kissing Flore on the forehead; “you can well say I’ve made your happiness by leaving you with this kind and worthy father of the poor; you must obey him as you would me. Be a good girl, and behave nicely, and do everything he tells you.”
“Get the room over mine ready,” said the doctor to Fanchette. “Little Flore — I am sure she is worthy of the name — will sleep there in future. To-morrow, we’ll send for a shoemaker and a dressmaker. Put another plate on the table; she shall keep us company.”
That evening, all Issoudun could talk of nothing else than the sudden appearance of the little “rabouilleuse” in Doctor Rouget’s house. In that region of satire the nickname stuck to Mademoiselle Brazier before, during, and after the period of her good fortune.
The doctor no doubt intended to do with Flore Brazier, in a small way, what Louis XV. did in a large one with Mademoiselle de Romans; but he was too late about it; Louis XV. was still young, whereas the doctor was in the flower of old age. From twelve to fourteen, the charming little Rabouilleuse lived a life of unmixed happiness. Always well-dressed, and often much better tricked out than the richest girls in Issoudun, she sported a gold watch and jewels, given by the doctor to encourage her studies, and she had a master who taught her to read, write, and cipher. But the almost animal life of the true peasant had instilled into Flore such deep repugnance to the bitter cup of knowledge, that the doctor stopped her education at that point. His intentions with regard to the child, whom he cleansed and clothed, and taught, and formed with a care which was all the more remarkable because he was thought to be utterly devoid of tenderness, were interpreted in a variety of ways by the cackling society of the town, whose gossip often gave rise to fatal blunders, like those relating to the birth of Agathe and that of Max. It is not easy for the community of a country town to disentangle the truth from the mass of conjecture and contradictory reports to which a single fact gives rise. The provinces insist — as in former days the politicians of the little Provence at the Tuileries insisted — on full explanations, and they usually end by knowing everything. But each person clings to the version of the event which he, or she, likes best; proclaims it, argues it, and considers it the only true one. In spite of the strong light cast upon people’s lives by the constant spying of a little town, truth is thus often obscured; and to be recognized, it needs the impartiality which historians or superior minds acquire by looking at the subject from a higher point of view.
“What do you suppose that old gorilla wants at his age with a little girl only fifteen years old?” society was still saying two years after the arrival of the Rabouilleuse.
“Ah! that’s true,” they answered, “his days of merry-making are long past.”
“My dear fellow, the doctor is disgusted at the stupidity of his son, and he persists in hating his daughter Agathe; it may be that he has been living a decent life for the last two years, intending to marry little Flore; suppose she were to give him a fine, active, strapping boy, full of life like Max?” said one of the wise heads of the town.
“Bah! don’t talk nonsense! After such a life as Rouget and Lousteau led from 1770 to 1787, is it likely that either of them would have children at sixty-five years of age? The old villain has read the Scriptures, if only as a doctor, and he is doing as David did in his old age; that’s all.”
“They say that Brazier, when he is drunk, boasts in Vatan that he cheated him,” cried one of those who always believed the worst of people.
“Good heavens! neighbor; what won’t they say at Issoudun?”
From 1800 to 1805, that is, for five years, the doctor enjoyed all the pleasures of educating Flore without the annoyances which the ambitions and pretensions of Mademoiselle de Romans inflicted, it is said, on Louis le Bien–Aime. The little Rabouilleuse was so satisfied when she compared the life she led at the doctor’s with that she would have led at her uncle Brazier’s, that she yielded no doubt to the exactions of her master as if she had been an Eastern slave. With due deference to the makers of idylls and to philanthropists, the inhabitants of the provinces have very little idea of certain virtues; and their scruples are of a kind that is roused by self-interest, and not by any sentiment of the right or the becoming. Raised from infancy with no prospect before them but poverty and ceaseless labor, they are led to consider anything that saves them from the hell of hunger and eternal toil as permissible, particularly if it is not contrary to any law. Exceptions to this rule are rare. Virtue, socially speaking, is the companion of a comfortable life, and comes only with education.
Thus the Rabouilleuse was an object of envy to all the young peasant-girls within a circuit of ten miles, although her conduct, from a religious point of view, was supremely reprehensible. Flore, born in 1787, grew up in the midst of the saturnalias of 1793 and 1798, whose lurid gleams penetrated these country regions, then deprived of priests and faith and altars and religious ceremonies; where marriage was nothing more than legal coupling, and revolutionary maxims left a deep impression. This was markedly the case at Issoudun, a land where, as we have seen, revolt of all kinds is traditional. In 1802, Catholic worship was scarcely re-established. The Emperor found it a difficult matter to obtain priests. In 1806, many parishes all over France were still widowed; so slowly were the clergy, decimated by the scaffold, gathered together again after their violent dispersion.
In 1802, therefore, nothing was likely to reproach Flore Brazier, unless it might be her conscience; and conscience was sure to be weaker than self-interest in the ward of Uncle Brazier. If, as everybody chose to suppose, the cynical doctor was compelled by his age to respect a child of fifteen, the Rabouilleuse was none the less considered very “wide awake,” a term much used in that region. Still, some persons thought she could claim a certificate of innocence from the cessation of the doctor’s cares and attentions in the last two years of his life, during which time he showed her something more than coldness.
Old Rouget had killed too many people not to know when his own end was nigh; and his notary, finding him on his death-bed, draped as it were, in the mantle of encyclopaedic philosophy, pressed him to make a provision in favor of the young girl, then seventeen years old.
“So I do,” he said, cynically; “my death sets her at liberty.”
This speech paints the nature of the old man. Covering his evil doings with witty sayings, he obtained indulgence for them, in a land where wit is always applauded — especially when addressed to obvious self-interest. In those words the notary read the concentrated hatred of a man whose calculations had been balked by Nature herself, and who revenged himself upon the innocent object of an impotent love. This opinion was confirmed to some extent by the obstinate resolution of the doctor to leave nothing to the Rabouilleuse, saying with a bitter smile, when the notary again urged the subject upon him —
“Her beauty will make her rich enough!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05