In that closed, sequestered town of Plassans, where class distinction was so clearly marked in 1848, the commotion caused by political events was very slight. Even at the present day the popular voice sounds very faintly there; the middle classes bring their prudence to bear in the matter, the nobility their mute despair, and the clergy their shrewd cunning. Kings may usurp thrones, or republics may be established, without scarcely any stir in the town. Plassans sleeps while Paris fights. But though on the surface the town may appear calm and indifferent, in the depths hidden work goes on which it is curious to study. If shots are rare in the streets, intrigues consume the drawing-rooms of both the new town and the Saint–Marc quarter. Until the year 1830 the masses were reckoned of no account. Even at the present time they are similarly ignored. Everything is settled between the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie. The priests, who are very numerous, give the cue to the local politics; they lay subterranean mines, as it were, and deal blows in the dark, following a prudent tactical system, which hardly allows of a step in advance or retreat even in the course of ten years. The secret intrigues of men who desire above all things to avoid noise requires special shrewdness, a special aptitude for dealing with small matters, and a patient endurance such as one only finds in persons callous to all passions. It is thus that provincial dilatoriness, which is so freely ridiculed in Paris, is full of treachery, secret stabs, hidden victories and defeats. These worthy men, particularly when their interests are at stake, kill at home with a snap of the fingers, as we, the Parisians, kill with cannon in the public thoroughfares.
The political history of Plassans, like that of all little towns in Provence, is singularly characteristic. Until 1830, the inhabitants remained observant Catholics and fervent royalists; even the lower classes only swore by God and their legitimate sovereigns. Then there came a sudden change; faith departed, the working and middle classes deserted the cause of legitimacy, and gradually espoused the great democratic movement of our time. When the Revolution of 1848 broke out, the nobility and the clergy were left alone to labour for the triumph of Henri V. For a long time they had regarded the accession of the Orleanists as a ridiculous experiment, which sooner or later would bring back the Bourbons; although their hopes were singularly shaken, they nevertheless continued the struggle, scandalised by the defection of their former allies, whom they strove to win back to their cause. The Saint–Marc quarter, assisted by all the parish priests, set to work. Among the middle classes, and especially among the people, the enthusiasm was very great on the morrow of the events of February; these apprentice republicans were in haste to display their revolutionary fervour. As regards the gentry of the new town, however, the conflagration, bright though it was, lasted no longer than a fire of straw. The small houseowners and retired tradespeople who had had their good days, or had made snug little fortunes under the monarchy, were soon seized with panic; the Republic, with its constant shocks and convulsions, made them tremble for their money and their life of selfishness.
Consequently, when the Clerical reaction of 1849 declared itself, nearly all the middle classes passed over to the Conservative party. They were received with open arms. The new town had never before had such close relations with the Saint–Marc quarter: some of the nobility even went so far as to shake hands with lawyers and retired oil-dealers. This unexpected familiarity kindled the enthusiasm of the new quarter, which henceforward waged bitter warfare against the republican government. To bring about such a coalition, the clergy had to display marvellous skill and endurance. The nobility of Plassans for the most part lay prostrate, as if half dead. They retained their faith, but lethargy had fallen on them, and they preferred to remain inactive, allowing the heavens to work their will. They would gladly have contented themselves with silent protest, feeling, perhaps, a vague presentiment that their divinities were dead, and that there was nothing left for them to do but rejoin them. Even at this period of confusion, when the catastrophe of 1848 was calculated to give them a momentary hope of the return of the Bourbons, they showed themselves spiritless and indifferent, speaking of rushing into the melee, yet never quitting their hearths without a pang of regret.
The clergy battled indefatigably against this feeling of impotence and resignation. They infused a kind of passion into their work: a priest, when he despairs, struggles all the more fiercely. The fundamental policy of the Church is to march straight forward; even though she may have to postpone the accomplishment of her projects for several centuries, she never wastes a single hour, but is always pushing forward with increasing energy. So it was the clergy who led the reaction of Plassans; the nobility only lent them their name, nothing more. The priests hid themselves behind the nobles, restrained them, directed them, and even succeeded in endowing them with a semblance of life. When they had induced them to overcome their repugnance so far as to make common cause with the middle classes, they believed themselves certain of victory. The ground was marvellously well prepared. This ancient royalist town, with its population of peaceful householders and timorous tradespeople, was destined to range itself, sooner or later, on the side of law and order. The clergy, by their tactics, hastened the conversion. After gaining the landlords of the new town to their side, they even succeeded in convincing the little retail-dealers of the old quarter. From that time the reactionary movement obtained complete possession of the town. All opinions were represented in this reaction; such a mixture of embittered Liberals, Legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, and Clericals had never before been seen. It mattered little, however, at that time. The sole object was to kill the Republic; and the Republic was at the point of death. Only a fraction of the people — a thousand workmen at most, out of the ten thousand souls in the town — still saluted the tree of liberty planted in the middle of the square in front of the Sub–Prefecture.
The shrewdest politicians of Plassans, those who led the reactionary movement, did not scent the approach of the Empire until very much later. Prince Louis Napoleon’s popularity seemed to them a mere passing fancy of the multitude. His person inspired them with but little admiration. They reckoned him a nonentity, a dreamer, incapable of laying his hands on France, and especially of maintaining his authority. To them he was only a tool whom they would make use of, who would clear the way for them, and whom they would turn out as soon as the hour arrived for the rightful Pretender to show himself.[*] However, months went by, and they became uneasy. It was only then that they vaguely perceived they were being duped: they had no time, however, to take any steps; the Coup d’Etat burst over their heads, and they were compelled to applaud. That great abomination, the Republic, had been assassinated; that, at least, was some sort of triumph. So the clergy and the nobility accepted accomplished facts with resignation; postponing, until later, the realisation of their hopes, and making amends for their miscalculations by uniting with the Bonapartists for the purpose of crushing the last Republicans.
[*] The Count de Chambord, “Henri V.”
It was these events that laid the foundation of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with the various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. These bandits had been lying in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as it had been strangled, they helped to plunder it.
After the events of February 1848, Felicite, who had the keenest scent of all the members of the family, perceived that they were at last on the right track. So she began to flutter round her husband, goading him on to bestir himself. The first rumours of the Revolution that had overturned King Louis Philippe had terrified Pierre. When his wife, however, made him understand that they had little to lose and much to gain from a convulsion, he soon came round to her way of thinking.
“I don’t know what you can do,” Felicite repeatedly said, “but it seems to me that there’s plenty to be done. Did not Monsieur de Carnavant say to us one day that he would be rich if ever Henri V. should return, and that this sovereign would magnificently recompense those who had worked for his restoration? Perhaps our fortune lies in that direction. We may yet be lucky.”
The Marquis de Carnavant, the nobleman who, according to the scandalous talk of the town, had been on very familiar terms with Felicite’s mother, used occasionally to visit the Rougons. Evil tongues asserted that Madame Rougon resembled him. He was a little, lean, active man, seventy-five years old at that time, and Felicite certainly appeared to be taking his features and manner as she grew older. It was said that the wreck of his fortune, which had already been greatly diminished by his father at the time of the Emigration, had been squandered on women. Indeed, he cheerfully acknowledged his poverty. Brought up by one of his relatives, the Count de Valqueyras, he lived the life of a parasite, eating at the count’s table and occupying a small apartment just under his roof.
“Little one,” he would often say to Felicite, as he patted her on the cheek, “if ever Henri V. gives me a fortune, I will make you my heiress!”
He still called Felicite “little one,” even when she was fifty years old. It was of these friendly pats, of these repeated promises of an inheritance, that Madame Rougon was thinking when she endeavoured to drive her husband into politics. Monsieur de Carnavant had often bitterly lamented his inability to render her any assistance. No doubt he would treat her like a father if ever he should acquire some influence. Pierre, to whom his wife half explained the situation in veiled terms, declared his readiness to move in any direction indicated.
The marquis’s peculiar position qualified him to act as an energetic agent of the reactionary movement at Plassans from the first days of the Republic. This bustling little man, who had everything to gain from the return of his legitimate sovereigns, worked assiduously for their cause. While the wealthy nobility of the Saint–Marc quarter were slumbering in mute despair, fearing, perhaps that they might compromise themselves and again be condemned to exile, he multiplied himself, as it were, spread the propaganda and rallied faithful ones together. He was a weapon whose hilt was held by an invisible hand. From that time forward he paid daily visits to the Rougons. He required a centre of operations. His relative, Monsieur de Valqueyras, had forbidden him to bring any of his associates into his house, so he had chosen Felicite’s yellow drawing-room. Moreover, he very soon found Pierre a valuable assistant. He could not go himself and preach the cause of Legitimacy to the petty traders and workmen of the old quarter; they would have hooted him. Pierre, on the other hand, who had lived among these people, spoke their language and knew their wants, was able to catechise them in a friendly way. He thus became an indispensable man. In less than a fortnight the Rougons were more determined royalists than the king himself. The marquis, perceiving Pierre’s zeal, shrewdly sheltered himself behind him. What was the use of making himself conspicuous, when a man with such broad shoulders was willing to bear on them the burden of all the follies of a party? He allowed Pierre to reign, puff himself out with importance and speak with authority, content to restrain or urge him on, according to the necessities of the cause. Thus, the old oil-dealer soon became a personage of mark. In the evening, when they were alone, Felicite used to say to him: “Go on, don’t be frightened. We’re on the right track. If this continues we shall be rich; we shall have a drawing-room like the tax-receiver’s, and be able to entertain people.”
A little party of Conservatives had already been formed at the Rougons’ house, and meetings were held every evening in the yellow drawing-room to declaim against the Republic.
Among those who came were three or four retired merchants who trembled for their money, and clamoured with all their might for a wise and strong government. An old almond-dealer, a member of the Municipal Council, Monsieur Isidore Granoux, was the head of this group. His hare-lipped mouth was cloven a little way from the nose; his round eyes, his air of mingled satisfaction and astonishment, made him resemble a fat goose whose digestion is attended by wholesome terror of the cook. He spoke little, having no command of words; and he only pricked up his ears when anyone accused the Republicans of wishing to pillage the houses of the rich; whereupon he would colour up to such a degree as to make one fear an approaching apoplectic fit, and mutter low imprecations, in which the words “idlers,” “scoundrels,” “thieves,” and “assassins” frequently recurred.
All those who frequented the yellow drawing-room were not, however, as heavy as this fat goose. A rich landowner, Monsieur Roudier, with a plump, insinuating face, used to discourse there for hours altogether, with all the passion of an Orleanist whose calculations had been upset by the fall of Louis Philippe. He had formerly been a hosier at Paris, and a purveyor to the Court, but had now retired to Plassans. He had made his son a magistrate, relying on the Orleanist party to promote him to the highest dignities. The revolution having ruined all his hopes, he had rushed wildly into the reaction. His fortune, his former commercial relations with the Tuileries, which he transformed into friendly intercourse, that prestige which is enjoyed by every man in the provinces who has made his money in Paris and deigns to come and spend it in a far away department, gave him great influence in the district; some persons listened to him as though he were an oracle.
However, the strongest intellect of the yellow drawing-room was certainly Commander Sicardot, Aristide’s father-inlaw. Of Herculean frame, with a brick-red face, scarred and planted with tufts of grey hair, he was one of the most glorious old dolts of the Grande Armee. During the February Revolution he had been exasperated with the street warfare and never wearied of referring to it, proclaiming with indignation that this kind of fighting was shameful: whereupon he recalled with pride the grand reign of Napoleon.
Another person seen at the Rougons’ house was an individual with clammy hands and equivocal look, one Monsieur Vuillet, a bookseller, who supplied all the devout ladies of the town with holy images and rosaries. Vuillet dealt in both classical and religious works; he was a strict Catholic, a circumstance which insured him the custom of the numerous convents and parish churches. Further, by a stroke of genius he had added to his business the publication of a little bi-weekly journal, the “Gazette de Plassans,” which was devoted exclusively to the interests of the clergy. This paper involved an annual loss of a thousand francs, but it made him the champion of the Church, and enabled him to dispose of his sacred unsaleable stock. Though he was virtually illiterate and could not even spell correctly, he himself wrote the articles of the “Gazette” with a humility and rancour that compensated for his lack of talent. The marquis, in entering on the campaign, had perceived immediately the advantage that might be derived from the cooperation of this insipid sacristan with the coarse, mercenary pen. After the February Revolution the articles in the “Gazette” contained fewer mistakes; the marquis revised them.
One can now imagine what a singular spectacle the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room presented every evening. All opinions met there to bark at the Republic. Their hatred of that institution made them agree together. The marquis, who never missed a meeting, appeased by his presence the little squabbles which occasionally arose between the commander and the other adherents. These plebeians were inwardly flattered by the handshakes which he distributed on his arrival and departure. Roudier, however, like a free-thinker of the Rue Saint–Honore, asserted that the marquis had not a copper to bless himself with, and was disposed to make light of him. M. de Carnavant on his side preserved the amiable smile of a nobleman lowering himself to the level of these middle class people, without making any of those contemptuous grimaces which any other resident of the Saint–Marc quarter would have thought fit under such circumstances. The parasite life he had led had rendered him supple. He was the life and soul of the group, commanding in the name of unknown personages whom he never revealed. “They want this, they don’t want that,” he would say. The concealed divinities who thus watched over the destinies of Plassans from behind some cloud, without appearing to interfere directly in public matters, must have been certain priests, the great political agents of the country. When the marquis pronounced that mysterious word “they,” which inspired the assembly with such marvellous respect, Vuillet confessed, with a gesture of pious devotion, that he knew them very well.
The happiest person in all this was Felicite. At last she had people coming to her drawing-room. It was true she felt a little ashamed of her old yellow velvet furniture. She consoled herself, however, thinking of the rich things she would purchase when the good cause should have triumphed. The Rougons had, in the end, regarded their royalism as very serious. Felicite went as far as to say, when Roudier was not present, that if they had not made a fortune in the oil business the fault lay in the monarchy of July. This was her mode of giving a political tinge to their poverty. She had a friendly word for everybody, even for Granoux, inventing each evening some new polite method of waking him up when it was time for departure.
The drawing-room, that little band of Conservatives belonging to all parties, and daily increasing in numbers, soon wielded powerful influence. Owing to the diversified characters of its members, and especially to the secret impulse which each one received from the clergy, it became the centre of the reactionary movement and spread its influence throughout Plassans. The policy of the marquis, who sank his own personality, transformed Rougon into the leader of the party. The meetings were held at his house, and this circumstance sufficed in the eyes of most people to make him the head of the group, and draw public attention to him. The whole work was attributed to him; he was believed to be the chief artisan of the movement which was gradually bringing over to the Conservative party those who had lately been enthusiastic Republicans. There are some situations which benefit only persons of bad repute. These lay the foundations of their fortune where men of better position and more influence would never dare to risk theirs. Roudier, Granoux, and the others, all men of means and respectability, certainly seemed a thousand times preferable to Pierre as the acting leaders of the Conservative party. But none of them would have consented to turn his drawing-room into a political centre. Their convictions did not go so far as to induce them to compromise themselves openly; in fact, they were only so many provincial babblers, who liked to inveigh against the Republic at a neighbour’s house as long as the neighbour was willing to bear the responsibility of their chatter. The game was too risky. There was no one among the middle classes of Plassans who cared to play it except the Rougons, whose ungratified longings urged them on to extreme measures.
In the month of April, 1849, Eugene suddenly left Paris, and came to stay with his father for a fortnight. Nobody ever knew the purpose of this journey. It is probable that Eugene wanted to sound his native town, to ascertain whether he might successfully stand as a candidate for the legislature which was about to replace the Constituent Assembly. He was too shrewd to risk a failure. No doubt public opinion appeared to him little in his favour, for he abstained from any attempt. It was not known at Plassans what had become of him in Paris, what he was doing there. On his return to his native place, folks found him less heavy and somnolent than formerly. They surrounded him and endeavoured to make him speak out concerning the political situation. But he feigned ignorance and compelled them to talk. A little perspicacity would have detected that beneath his apparent unconcern there was great anxiety with regard to the political opinions of the town. However, he seemed to be sounding the ground more on behalf of a party than on his own account.
Although he had renounced all hope for himself, he remained at Plassans until the end of the month, assiduously attending the meetings in the yellow drawing-room. As soon as the bell rang, announcing the first visitor, he would take up his position in one of the window recesses as far as possible from the lamp. And he remained there the whole evening, resting his chin on the palm of his right hand, and listening religiously. The greatest absurdities did not disturb his equanimity. He nodded approval even to the wild grunts of Granoux. When anyone asked him his own opinion, he politely repeated that of the majority. Nothing seemed to tire his patience, neither the hollow dreams of the marquis, who spoke of the Bourbons as if 1815 were a recent date, nor the effusions of citizen Roudier, who grew quite pathetic when he recounted how many pairs of socks he had supplied to the citizen king, Louis Philippe. On the contrary, he seemed quite at his ease in this Tower of Babel. Sometimes, when these grotesque personages were storming against the Republic, his eyes would smile, while his lips retained their expression of gravity. His meditative manner of listening, and his invariable complacency, had earned him the sympathy of everyone. He was considered a nonentity, but a very decent fellow. Whenever an old oil or almond dealer failed to get a hearing, amidst the clamour, for some plan by which he could save France if he were only a master, he took himself off to Eugene and shouted his marvellous suggestions in his ear. And Eugene gently nodded his head, as though delighted with the grand projects he was listening to. Vuillet, alone, regarded him with a suspicious eye. This bookseller, half-sacristan and half-journalist, spoke less than the others, but was more observant. He had noticed that Eugene occasionally conversed at times in a corner with Commander Sicardot. So he determined to watch them, but never succeeded in overhearing a word. Eugene silenced the commander by a wink whenever Vuillet approached them. From that time, Sicardot never spoke of the Napoleons without a mysterious smile.
Two days before his return to Paris, Eugene met his brother Aristide, on the Cours Sauvaire, and the latter accompanied him for a short distance with the importunity of a man in search of advice. As a matter of fact, Aristide was in great perplexity. Ever since the proclamation of the Republic, he had manifested the most lively enthusiasm for the new government. His intelligence, sharpened by two years’ stay at Paris, enabled him to see farther than the thick heads of Plassans. He divined the powerlessness of the Legitimists and Orleanists, without clearly distinguishing, however, what third thief would come and juggle the Republic away. At all hazard he had ranged himself on the side of the victors, and he had severed his connection with his father, whom he publicly denounced as an old fool, an old dolt whom the nobility had bamboozled.
“Yet my mother is an intelligent woman,” he would add. “I should never have thought her capable of inducing her husband to join a party whose hopes are simply chimerical. They are taking the right course to end their lives in poverty. But then women know nothing about politics.”
For his part he wanted to sell himself as dearly as possible. His great anxiety as to the direction in which the wind was blowing, so that he might invariably range himself on the side of that party, which, in the hour of triumph, would be able to reward him munificently. Unfortunately, he was groping in the dark. Shut up in his far away province, without a guide, without any precise information, he felt quite lost. While waiting for events to trace out a sure and certain path, he preserved the enthusiastic republican attitude which he had assumed from the very first day. Thanks to this demeanour, he remained at the Sub–Prefecture; and his salary was even raised. Burning, however, with the desire to play a prominent part, he persuaded a bookseller, one of Vuillet’s rivals, to establish a democratic journal, to which he became one of the most energetic contributors. Under his impulse the “Independant” waged merciless warfare against the reactionaries. But the current gradually carried him further than he wished to go; he ended by writing inflammatory articles, which made him shudder when he re-perused them. It was remarked at Plassans that he directed a series of attacks against all whom his father was in the habit of receiving of an evening in his famous yellow drawing-room. The fact is that the wealth of Roudier and Granoux exasperated Aristide to such a degree as to make him forget all prudence. Urged on by his jealous, insatiate bitterness, he had already made the middle classes his irreconcilable enemy, when Eugene’s arrival and demeanour at Plassans caused him great consternation. He confessed to himself that his brother was a skilful man. According to him, that big, drowsy fellow always slept with one eye open, like a cat lying in wait before a mouse-hole. And now here was Eugene spending entire evenings in the yellow drawing-room, and devoting himself to those same grotesque personages whom he, Aristide, had so mercilessly ridiculed. When he discovered from the gossip of the town that his brother shook hands with Granoux and the marquis, he asked himself, with considerable anxiety, what was the meaning of it? Could he himself have been deceived? Had the Legitimists or the Orleanists really any chance of success? The thought terrified him. He lost his equilibrium, and, as frequently happens, he fell upon the Conservatives with increased rancour, as if to avenge his own blindness.
On the evening prior to the day when he stopped Eugene on the Cours Sauvaire, he had published, in the “Independant,” a terrible article on the intrigues of the clergy, in response to a short paragraph from Vuillet, who had accused the Republicans of desiring to demolish the churches. Vuillet was Aristide’s bugbear. Never a week passed but these two journalists exchanged the greatest insults. In the provinces, where a periphrastic style is still cultivated, polemics are clothed in high-sounding phrases. Aristide called his adversary “brother Judas,” or “slave of Saint–Anthony.” Vuillet gallantly retorted by terming the Republican “a monster glutted with blood whose ignoble purveyor was the guillotine.”
In order to sound his brother, Aristide, who did not dare to appear openly uneasy, contented himself with asking: “Did you read my article yesterday? What do you think of it?”
Eugene lightly shrugged his shoulders. “You’re a simpleton, brother,” was his sole reply.
“Then you think Vuillet right?” cried the journalist, turning pale; “you believe in Vuillet’s triumph?”
“I! — Vuillet ——”
He was certainly about to add, “Vuillet is as big a fool as you are.” But, observing his brother’s distorted face anxiously extended towards him, he experienced sudden mistrust. “Vuillet has his good points,” he calmly replied.
On parting from his brother, Aristide felt more perplexed than before. Eugene must certainly have been making game of him, for Vuillet was really the most abominable person imaginable. However, he determined to be prudent and not tie himself down any more; for he wished to have his hands free should he ever be called upon to help any party in strangling the Republic.
Eugene, on the morning of his departure, an hour before getting into the diligence, took his father into the bedroom and had a long conversation with him. Felicite, who remained in the drawing-room, vainly tried to catch what they were saying. They spoke in whispers, as if they feared lest a single word should be heard outside. When at last they quitted the bedroom they seemed in high spirits. After kissing his father and mother, Eugene, who usually spoke in a drawling tone, exclaimed with vivacity: “You have understood me, father? There lies our fortune. We must work with all our energy in that direction. Trust in me.”
“I’ll follow your instructions faithfully,” Rougon replied. “Only don’t forget what I asked you as the price of my cooperation.”
“If we succeed your demands shall be satisfied, I give you my word. Moreover, I will write to you and guide you according to the direction which events may take. Mind, no panic or excitement. You must obey me implicitly.”
“What have you been plotting there?” Felicite asked inquisitively.
“My dear mother,” Eugene replied with a smile, “you have had too little faith in me thitherto to induce me to confide in you my hopes, particularly as at present they are only based on probabilities. To be able to understand me you would require faith. However, father will inform you when the right time comes.”
Then, as Felicite assumed the demeanour of a woman who feels somewhat piqued, he added in her ear, as he kissed her once more: “I take after you, although you disowned me. Too much intelligence would be dangerous at the present moment. When the crisis comes, it is you who will have to manage the business.”
He then quitted the room, but, suddenly re-opening the door, exclaimed in an imperious tone: “Above all things, do not trust Aristide; he is a mar-all, who would spoil everything. I have studied him sufficiently to feel certain that he will always fall on his feet. Don’t have any pity; if we make a fortune, he’ll know well enough how to rob us of his share.”
When Eugene had gone, Felicite endeavoured to ferret out the secret that was being hidden from her. She knew her husband too well to interrogate him openly. He would have angrily replied that it was no business of hers. In spite, however, of the clever tactics she pursued, she learnt absolutely nothing. Eugene had chosen a good confidant for those troubled times, when the greatest discretion was necessary. Pierre, flattered by his son’s confidence, exaggerated that passive ponderosity which made him so impenetrable. When Felicite saw she would not learn anything from him, she ceased to flutter round him. On one point only did she remain inquisitive, but in this respect her curiosity was intense. The two men had mentioned a price stipulated by Pierre himself. What could that price be? This after all was the sole point of interest for Felicite, who did not care a rap for political matters. She knew that her husband must have sold himself dearly, but she was burning to know the nature of the bargain. One evening, when they had gone to bed, finding Pierre in a good humour, she brought the conversation round to the discomforts of their poverty.
“It’s quite time to put an end to this,” she said. “We have been ruining ourselves in oil and fuel since those gentlemen have been coming here. And who will pay the reckoning? Nobody perhaps.”
Her husband fell into the trap, and smiled with complacent superiority. “Patience,” said he. And with an air of shrewdness he looked into his wife’s eyes and added: “Would you be glad to be the wife of a receiver of taxes?”
Felicite’s face flushed with a joyous glow. She sat up in bed and clapped her old withered little hands like a child.
“Really?” she stammered. “At Plassans?”
Pierre, without replying, gave a long affirmative nod. He enjoyed his consort’s astonishment and emotion.
“But,” she at last resumed, half sitting, “you would have to deposit an enormous sum as security. I have heard that our neighbour, Monsieur Peirotte, had to deposit eighty thousand francs with the Treasury.”
“Eh!” said the retired oil-dealer, “that’s nothing to do with me; Eugene will see to that. He will get the money advanced by a banker in Paris. You see, I selected an appointment bringing in a good income. Eugene at first made a wry face, saying one must be rich to occupy such posts, to which influential men were usually nominated. I persisted, however, and he yielded. To be a receiver of taxes one need not know either Greek or Latin. I shall have a representative, like Monsieur Peirotte, and he will do all the work.”
Felicite listened to him with rapture.
“I guessed, however,” he continued, “what it was that worried our dear son. We’re not much liked here. People know that we have no means, and will make themselves obnoxious. But all sorts of things occur in a time of crisis. Eugene wished to get me an appointment in another town. However, I objected; I want to remain at Plassans.”
“Yes, yes, we must remain here,” the old woman quickly replied. “We have suffered here, and here we must triumph. Ah! I’ll crush them all, those fine ladies on the Mail, who scornfully eye my woollen dresses! I didn’t think of the appointment of receiver of taxes at all; I thought you wanted to become mayor.”
“Mayor! Nonsense. That appointment is honorary. Eugene also mentioned the mayoralty to me. I replied: ‘I’ll accept, if you give me an income of fifteen thousand francs.’”
This conversation, in which high figures flew about like rockets, quite excited Felicite. She felt delightfully buoyant. But at last she put on a devout air, and gravely said: “Come, let us reckon it out. How much will you earn?”
“Well,” said Pierre, “the fixed salary, I believe, is three thousand francs.”
“Three thousand,” Felicite counted.
“Then there is so much per cent on the receipts, which at Plassans, may produce the sum of twelve thousand francs.”
“That makes fifteen thousand.”
“Yes, about fifteen thousand francs. That’s what Peirotte earns. That’s not all. Peirotte does a little banking business on his own account. It’s allowed. Perhaps I shall be disposed to make a venture when I feel luck on my side.”
“Well, let us say twenty thousand. Twenty thousand francs a year!” repeated Felicite, overwhelmed by the amount.
“We shall have to repay the advances,” Pierre observed.
“That doesn’t matter,” Felicite replied, “we shall be richer than many of those gentlemen. Are the marquis and the others going to share the cake with you?”
“No, no; it will be all for us,” he replied.
Then, as she continued to importune him with her questions, Pierre frowned, thinking that she wanted to wrest his secret from him. “We’ve talked enough,” he said, abruptly. “It’s late, let us go to sleep. It will bring us bad luck to count our chickens beforehand. I haven’t got the place yet. Above all things, be prudent.”
When the lamp was extinguished, Felicite could not sleep. With her eyes closed she built the most marvellous castles in the air. Those twenty thousand francs a year danced a diabolical dance before her in the darkness. She occupied splendid apartments in the new town, enjoyed the same luxuries as Monsieur Peirotte, gave parties, and bespattered the whole place with her wealth. That, however, which tickled her vanity most was the high position that her husband would then occupy. He would pay their state dividends to Granoux, Roudier, and all those people who now came to her house as they might come to a cafe, to swagger and learn the latest news. She had noticed the free-and-easy manner in which these people entered her drawing-room, and it had made her take a dislike to them. Even the marquis, with his ironical politeness, was beginning to displease her. To triumph alone, therefore, to keep the cake for themselves, as she expressed it, was a revenge which she fondly cherished. Later on, when all those ill-bred persons presented themselves, hats off, before Monsieur Rougon the receiver of taxes, she would crush them in her turn. She was busy with these thoughts all night; and on the morrow, as she opened the shutters, she instinctively cast her first glance across the street towards Monsieur Peirotte’s house, and smiled as she contemplated the broad damask curtains hanging in the windows.
Felicite’s hopes, in becoming modified, had grown yet more intense. Like all women, she did not object to a tinge of mystery. The secret object that her husband was pursuing excited her far more than the Legitimist intrigues of Monsieur de Carnavant had ever done. She abandoned, without much regret, the calculations she had based on the marquis’s success now that her husband declared he would be able to make large profits by other means. She displayed, moreover, remarkable prudence and discretion.
In reality, she was still tortured by anxious curiosity; she studied Pierre’s slightest actions, endeavouring to discover their meaning. What if by chance he were following the wrong track? What if Eugene were dragging them in his train into some break-neck pit, whence they would emerge yet more hungry and impoverished? However, faith was dawning on her. Eugene had commanded with such an air of authority that she ultimately came to believe in him. In this case again some unknown power was at work. Pierre would speak mysteriously of the high personages whom their eldest son visited in Paris. For her part she did not know what he could have to do with them, but on the other hand she was unable to close her eyes to Aristide’s ill-advised acts at Plassans. The visitors to her drawing-room did not scruple to denounce the democratic journalist with extreme severity. Granoux muttered that he was a brigand, and Roudier would three or four times a week repeat to Felicite: “Your son is writing some fine articles. Only yesterday he attacked our friend Vuillet with revolting scurrility.”
The whole room joined in the chorus, and Commander Sicardot spoke of boxing his son-inlaw’s ears, while Pierre flatly disowned him. The poor mother hung her head, restraining her tears. For an instant she felt an inclination to burst forth, to tell Roudier that her dear child, in spite of his faults, was worth more than he and all the others put together. But she was tied down, and did not wish to compromise the position they had so laboriously attained. Seeing the whole town so bitter against Aristide, she despaired of his future, thinking he was hopelessly ruining himself. On two occasions she spoke to him in secret, imploring him to return to them, and not to irritate the yellow drawing-room any further. Aristide replied that she did not understand such matters; that she was the one who had committed a great blunder in placing her husband at the service of the marquis. So she had to abandon her son to his own courses, resolving, however that if Eugene succeeded she would compel him to share the spoils with the poor fellow who was her favourite child.
After the departure of his eldest son, Pierre Rougon pursued his reactionary intrigues. Nothing seemed to have changed in the opinions of the famous yellow drawing-room. Every evening the same men came to join in the same propaganda in favour of the establishment of a monarchy, while the master of the house approved and aided them with as much zeal as in the past. Eugene had left Plassans on May 1. A few days later, the yellow drawing-room was in raptures. The gossips were discussing the letter of the President of the Republic to General Oudinot, in which the siege of Rome had been decided upon. This letter was regarded as a brilliant victory, due to the firm demeanour of the reactionary party. Since 1848 the Chambers had been discussing the Roman question; but it had been reserved for a Bonaparte to stifle a rising Republic by an act of intervention which France, if free, would never have countenanced. The marquis declared, however, that one could not better promote the cause of legitimacy, and Vuillet wrote a superb article on the matter. The enthusiasm became unbounded when, a month later, Commander Sicardot entered the Rougons’ house one evening and announced to the company that the French army was fighting under the walls of Rome. Then, while everybody was raising exclamations at this news, he went up to Pierre, and shook hands with him in a significant manner. And when he had taken a seat, he began to sound the praises of the President of the Republic, who, said he, was the only person able to save France from anarchy.
“Let him save it, then, as quickly as possible,” interrupted the marquis, “and let him then understand his duty by restoring it to its legitimate masters.”
Pierre seemed to approve this fine retort, and having thus given proof of his ardent royalism, he ventured to remark that Prince Louis Bonaparte had his entire sympathy in the matter. He thereupon exchanged a few short sentences with the commander, commending the excellent intentions of the President, which sentences one might have thought prepared and learnt beforehand. Bonapartism now, for the first time, made its entry into the yellow drawing-room. It is true that since the election of December 10 the Prince had been treated there with a certain amount of consideration. He was preferred a thousand times to Cavaignac, and the whole reactionary party had voted for him. But they regarded him rather as an accomplice than a friend; and, as such, they distrusted him, and even began to accuse him of a desire to keep for himself the chestnuts which he had pulled out of the fire. On that particular evening, however, owing to the fighting at Rome, they listened with favour to the praises of Pierre and the commander.
The group led by Granoux and Roudier already demanded that the President should order all republican rascals to be shot; while the marquis, leaning against the mantelpiece, gazed meditatively at a faded rose on the carpet. When he at last lifted his head, Pierre, who had furtively watched his countenance as if to see the effect of his words, suddenly ceased speaking. However, Monsieur de Carnavant merely smiled and glanced at Felicite with a knowing look. This rapid by-play was not observed by the other people. Vuillet alone remarked in a sharp tone:
“I would rather see your Bonaparte at London than at Paris. Our affairs would get along better then.”
At this the old oil-dealer turned slightly pale, fearing that he had gone too far. “I’m not anxious to retain ‘my’ Bonaparte,” he said, with some firmness; “you know where I would send him to if I were the master. I simply assert that the expedition to Rome was a good stroke.”
Felicite had followed this scene with inquisitive astonishment. However, she did not speak of it to her husband, which proved that she adopted it as the basis of secret study. The marquis’s smile, the significance of which escaped her, set her thinking.
From that day forward, Rougon, at distant intervals, whenever the occasion offered, slipped in a good word for the President of the Republic. On such evenings, Commander Sicardot acted the part of a willing accomplice. At the same time, Clerical opinions still reigned supreme in the yellow drawing-room. It was more particularly in the following year that this group of reactionaries gained decisive influence in the town, thanks to the retrograde movement which was going on at Paris. All those anti-Liberal laws which the country called “the Roman expedition at home” definitively secured the triumph of the Rougon faction. The last enthusiastic bourgeois saw the Republic tottering, and hastened to rally round the Conservatives. Thus the Rougons’ hour had arrived; the new town almost gave them an ovation on the day when the tree of Liberty, planted on the square before the Sub–Prefecture, was sawed down. This tree, a young poplar brought from the banks of the Viorne, had gradually withered, much to the despair of the republican working-men, who would come every Sunday to observe the progress of the decay without being able to comprehend the cause of it. A hatter’s apprentice at last asserted that he had seen a woman leave Rougon’s house and pour a pail of poisoned water at the foot of the tree. It thenceforward became a matter of history that Felicite herself got up every night to sprinkle the poplar with vitriol. When the tree was dead the Municipal Council declared that the dignity of the Republic required its removal. For this, as they feared the displeasure of the working classes, they selected an advanced hour of the night. However, the conservative householders of the new town got wind of the little ceremony, and all came down to the square before the Sub–Prefecture in order to see how the tree of Liberty would fall. The frequenters of the yellow drawing-room stationed themselves at the windows there. When the poplar cracked and fell with a thud in the darkness, as tragically rigid as some mortally stricken hero, Felicite felt bound to wave a white handkerchief. This induced the crowd to applaud, and many responded to the salute by waving their handkerchiefs likewise. A group of people even came under the window shouting: “We’ll bury it, we’ll bury it.”
They meant the Republic, no doubt. Such was Felicite’s emotion, that she almost had a nervous attack. It was a fine evening for the yellow drawing-room.
However, the marquis still looked at Felicite with the same mysterious smile. This little old man was far too shrewd to be ignorant of whither France was tending. He was among the first to scent the coming of the Empire. When the Legislative Assembly, later on, exhausted its energies in useless squabbling, when the Orleanists and the Legitimists tacitly accepted the idea of the Coup d’Etat, he said to himself that the game was definitely lost. In fact, he was the only one who saw things clearly. Vuillet certainly felt that the cause of Henry V., which his paper defended, was becoming detestable; but it mattered little to him; he was content to be the obedient creature of the clergy; his entire policy was framed so as to enable him to dispose of as many rosaries and sacred images as possible. As for Roudier and Granoux, they lived in a state of blind scare; it was not certain whether they really had any opinions; all that they desired was to eat and sleep in peace; their political aspirations went no further. The marquis, though he had bidden farewell to his hopes, continued to come to the Rougons’ as regularly as ever. He enjoyed himself there. The clash of rival ambitions among the middle classes, and the display of their follies, had become an extremely amusing spectacle to him. He shuddered at the thought of again shutting himself in the little room which he owed to the beneficence of the Count de Valqueyras. With a kind of malicious delight, he kept to himself the conviction that the Bourbons’ hour had not yet arrived. He feigned blindness, working as hitherto for the triumph of Legitimacy, and still remaining at the orders of the clergy and nobility, though from the very first day he had penetrated Pierre’s new course of action, and believed that Felicite was his accomplice.
One evening, being the first to arrive, he found the old lady alone in the drawing-room. “Well! little one,” he asked, with his smiling familiarity, “are your affairs going on all right? Why the deuce do you make such mysteries with me?”
“I’m not hiding anything from you,” Felicite replied, somewhat perplexed.
“Come, do you think you can deceive an old fox like me, eh? My dear child, treat me as a friend. I’m quite ready to help you secretly. Come now, be frank!”
A bright idea struck Felicite. She had nothing to tell; but perhaps she might find out something if she kept quiet.
“Why do you smile?” Monsieur de Carnavant resumed. “That’s the beginning of a confession, you know. I suspected that you must be behind your husband. Pierre is too stupid to invent the pretty treason you are hatching. I sincerely hope the Bonapartists will give you what I should have asked for you from the Bourbons.”
This single sentence confirmed the suspicions which the old woman had entertained for some time past.
“Prince Louis has every chance, hasn’t he?” she eagerly inquired.
“Will you betray me if I tell you that I believe so?” the marquis laughingly replied. “I’ve donned my mourning over it, little one. I’m simply a poor old man, worn out and only fit to be laid on the shelf. It was for you, however, that I was working. Since you have been able to find the right track without me, I shall feel some consolation in seeing you triumph amidst my own defeat. Above all things, don’t make any more mysteries. Come to me if you are ever in trouble.”
And he added, with the sceptical smile of a nobleman who has lost caste: “Pshaw! I also can go in for a little treachery!”
At this moment the clan of retired oil and almond dealers arrived.
“Ah! the dear reactionaries!” Monsieur de Carnavant continued in an undertone. “You see, little one, the great art of politics consists in having a pair of good eyes when other people are blind. You hold all the best cards in the pack.”
On the following day, Felicite, incited by this conversation, desired to make sure on the matter. They were then in the first days of the year 1851. For more than eighteen months, Rougon had been in the habit of receiving a letter from his son Eugene regularly every fortnight. He would shut himself in the bedroom to read these letters, which he then hid at the bottom of an old secretaire, the key of which he carefully kept in his waistcoat pocket. Whenever his wife questioned him about their son he would simply answer: “Eugene writes that he is going on all right.” Felicite had long since thought of laying hands on her son’s letters. So early on the morning after her chat with the marquis, while Pierre was still asleep, she got up on tiptoes, took the key of the secretaire from her husband’s waistcoat and substituted in its place that of the chest of drawers, which was of the same size. Then, as soon as her husband had gone out, she shut herself in the room in her turn, emptied the drawer, and read all the letters with feverish curiosity.
Monsieur de Carnavant had not been mistaken, and her own suspicions were confirmed. There were about forty letters, which enabled her to follow the course of that great Bonapartist movement which was to terminate in the second Empire. The letters constituted a sort of concise journal, narrating events as they occurred, and drawing hopes and suggestions from each of them. Eugene was full of faith. He described Prince Louis Bonaparte to his father as the predestined necessary man who alone could unravel the situation. He had believed in him prior even to his return to France, at a time when Bonapartism was treated as a ridiculous chimera. Felicite understood that her son had been a very active secret agent since 1848. Although he did not clearly explain his position in Paris, it was evident that he was working for the Empire, under the orders of personages whose names he mentioned with a sort of familiarity. Each of his letters gave information as to the progress of the cause, to which an early denouement was foreshadowed; and usually concluded by pointing out the line of action that Pierre should pursue at Plassans. Felicite could now comprehend certain words and acts of her husband, whose significance had previously escaped her; Pierre was obeying his son, and blindly following his recommendations.
When the old woman had finished reading, she was convinced. Eugene’s entire thoughts were clearly revealed to her. He reckoned upon making his political fortune in the squabble, and repaying his parents the debt he owed them for his education, by throwing them a scrap of the prey as soon as the quarry was secured. However small the assistance his father might render to him and to the cause, it would not be difficult to get him appointed receiver of taxes. Nothing would be refused to one who like Eugene had steeped his hands in the most secret machinations. His letters were simply a kind attention on his part, a device to prevent the Rougons from committing any act of imprudence, for which Felicite felt deeply grateful. She read certain passages of the letters twice over, notably those in which Eugene spoke, in vague terms, of “a final catastrophe.” This catastrophe, the nature or bearings of which she could not well conceive became a sort of end of the world for her. God would range the chosen ones on His right hand and the damned on His left, and she placed herself among the former.
When she succeeded in replacing the key in her husband’s waistcoat pocket on the following night, she made up her mind to employ the same expedient for reading every fresh letter that arrived. She resolved, likewise, to profess complete ignorance. This plan was an excellent one. Henceforward, she gave her husband the more assistance as she appeared to render it unconsciously. When Pierre thought he was working alone it was she who brought the conversation round to the desired topic, recruiting partisans for the decisive moment. She felt hurt at Eugene’s distrust of her. She wanted to be able to say to him, after the triumph: “I knew all, and so far from spoiling anything, I have secured the victory.” Never did an accomplice make less noise or work harder. The marquis, whom she had taken into her confidence, was astounded at it.
The fate of her dear Aristide, however, continued to make her uneasy. Now that she shared the faith of her eldest son, the rabid articles of the “Independant” alarmed her all the more. She longed to convert the unfortunate republican to Napoleonist ideas; but she did not know how to accomplish this in a discreet manner. She recalled the emphasis with which Eugene had told them to be on their guard against Aristide. At last she submitted the matter to Monsieur de Carnavant, who was entirely of the same opinion.
“Little one,” he said to her, “in politics one must know how to look after one’s self. If you were to convert your son, and the ‘Independant’ were to start writing in defence of Bonapartism, it would deal the party a rude blow. The ‘Independant’ has already been condemned, its title alone suffices to enrage the middle classes of Plassans. Let dear Aristide flounder about; this only moulds young people. He does not appear to me to be cut out for carrying on the role of a martyr for any length of time.”
However, in her eagerness to point out the right way to her family, now that she believed herself in possession of the truth, Felicite even sought to convert her son Pascal. The doctor, with the egotism of a scientist immersed in his researches, gave little heed to politics. Empires might fall while he was making an experiment, yet he would not have deigned to turn his head. He at last yielded, however, to certain importunities of his mother, who accused him more than ever of living like an unsociable churl.
“If you were to go into society,” she said to him, “you would get some well-to-do patients. Come, at least, and spend some evenings in our drawing-room. You will make the acquaintance of Messieurs Roudier, Granoux, and Sicardot, all gentlemen in good circumstances, who will pay you four or five francs a visit. The poor people will never enrich you.”
The idea of succeeding in life, of seeing all her family attain to fortune, had become a form of monomania with Felicite. Pascal, in order to be agreeable to her, came and spent a few evenings in the yellow drawing-room. He was much less bored there than he had apprehended. At first he was rather stupefied at the degree of imbecility to which sane men can sink. The old oil and almond dealers, the marquis and the commander even, appeared to him so many curious animals, which he had not hitherto had an opportunity of studying. He looked with a naturalist’s interest at their grimacing faces, in which he discerned traces of their occupations and appetites; he listened also to their inane chatter, just as he might have tried to catch the meaning of a cat’s mew or a dog’s bark. At this period he was occupied with comparative natural history, applying to the human race the observations which he had made upon animals with regard to the working of heredity. While he was in the yellow drawing-room, therefore, he amused himself with the belief that he had fallen in with a menagerie. He established comparisons between the grotesque creatures he found there and certain animals of his acquaintance. The marquis, with his leanness and small crafty-looking head, reminded him exactly of a long green grasshopper. Vuillet impressed him as a pale, slimy toad. He was more considerate for Roudier, a fat sheep, and for the commander, an old toothless mastiff. But the prodigious Granoux was a perpetual cause of astonishment to him. He spent a whole evening measuring this imbecile’s facial angle. When he heard him mutter indistinct imprecations against those blood-suckers the Republicans, he always expected to hear him moan like a calf; and he could never see him rise from his chair without imagining that he was about to leave the room on all fours.
“Talk to them,” his mother used to say in an undertone; “try and make a practice out of these gentlemen.”
“I am not a veterinary surgeon,” he at last replied, exasperated.
One evening Felicite took him into a corner and tired to catechise him. She was glad to see him come to her house rather assiduously. She thought him reconciled to Society, not suspecting for a moment the singular amusement that he derived from ridiculing these rich people. She cherished the secret project of making him the fashionable doctor of Plassans. It would be sufficient if men like Granoux and Roudier consented to give him a start. She wished, above all, to impart to him the political views of the family, considering that a doctor had everything to gain by constituting himself a warm partisan of the regime which was to succeed the Republic.
“My dear boy,” she said to him, “as you have now become reasonable, you must give some thought to the future. You are accused of being a Republican, because you are foolish enough to attend all the beggars of the town without making any charge. Be frank, what are your real opinions?”
Pascal looked at his mother with naïve astonishment, then with a smile replied: “My real opinions? I don’t quite know — I am accused of being a Republican, did you say? Very well! I don’t feel at all offended. I am undoubtedly a Republican, if you understand by that word a man who wishes the welfare of everybody.”
“But you will never attain to any position,” Felicite quickly interrupted. “You will be crushed. Look at your brothers, they are trying to make their way.”
Pascal then comprehended that he was not called upon to defend his philosophic egotism. His mother simply accused him of not speculating on the political situation. He began to laugh somewhat sadly, and then turned the conversation into another channel. Felicite could never induce him to consider the chances of the various parties, nor to enlist in that one of them which seemed likely to carry the day. However, he still occasionally came to spend an evening in the yellow drawing-room. Granoux interested him like an antediluvian animal.
In the meantime, events were moving. The year 1851 was a year of anxiety and apprehension for the politicians of Plassans, and the cause which the Rougons served derived advantage from this circumstance. The most contradictory news arrived from Paris; sometimes the Republicans were in the ascendant, sometimes the Conservative party was crushing the Republic. The echoes of the squabbles which were rending the Legislative Assembly reached the depths of the provinces, now in an exaggerated, now in an attenuated form, varying so greatly as to obscure the vision of the most clear-sighted. The only general feeling was that a denouement was approaching. The prevailing ignorance as to the nature of this denouement kept timid middle class people in a terrible state of anxiety. Everybody wished to see the end. They were sick of uncertainty, and would have flung themselves into the arms of the Grand Turk, if he would have deigned to save France from anarchy.
The marquis’s smile became more acute. Of an evening, in the yellow drawing-room, when Granoux’s growl was rendered indistinct by fright, he would draw near to Felicite and whisper in her ear: “Come, little one, the fruit is ripe — but you must make yourself useful.”
Felicite, who continued to read Eugene’s letters, and knew that a decisive crisis might any day occur, had already often felt the necessity of making herself useful, and reflected as to the manner in which the Rougons should employ themselves. At last she consulted the marquis.
“It all depends upon circumstances,” the little old man replied. “If the department remains quiet, if no insurrection occurs to terrify Plassans, it will be difficult for you to make yourselves conspicuous and render any services to the new government. I advise you, in that case, to remain at home, and peacefully await the bounties of your son Eugene. But if the people rise, and our brave bourgeois think themselves in danger, there will be a fine part to play. Your husband is somewhat heavy —”
“Oh!” said Felicite, “I’ll undertake to make him supple. Do you think the department will revolt?”
“To my mind it’s a certainty. Plassans, perhaps, will not make a stir; the reaction has secured too firm a hold here for that. But the neighbouring towns, especially the small ones and the villages, have long been worked by certain secret societies, and belong to the advanced Republican party. If a Coup d’Etat should burst forth, the tocsin will be heard throughout the entire country, from the forests of the Seille to the plateau of Sainte–Roure.”
Felicite reflected. “You think, then,” she resumed, “that an insurrection is necessary to ensure our fortune!”
“That’s my opinion,” replied Monsieur de Carnavant. And he added, with a slightly ironical smile: “A new dynasty is never founded excepting upon an affray. Blood is good manure. It will be a fine thing for the Rougons to date from a massacre, like certain illustrious families.”
These words, accompanied by a sneer, sent a cold chill through Felicite’s bones. But she was a strong-minded woman, and the sight of Monsieur Peirotte’s beautiful curtains, which she religiously viewed every morning, sustained her courage. Whenever she felt herself giving way, she planted herself at the window and contemplated the tax-receiver’s house. For her it was the Tuileries. She had determined upon the most extreme measures in order to secure an entree into the new town, that promised land, on the threshold of which she had stood with burning longing for so many years.
The conversation which she had held with the marquis had at last clearly revealed the situation to her. A few days afterwards, she succeeded in reading one of Eugene’s letters, in which he, who was working for the Coup d’Etat, seemed also to rely upon an insurrection as the means of endowing his father with some importance. Eugene knew his department well. All his suggestions had been framed with the object of placing as much influence as possible in the hands of the yellow drawing-room reactionaries, so that the Rougons might be able to hold the town at the critical moment. In accordance with his desires, the yellow drawing-room was master of Plassans in November, 1851. Roudier represented the rich citizens there, and his attitude would certainly decide that of the entire new town. Granoux was still more valuable; he had the Municipal Council behind him: he was its most powerful member, a fact which will give some idea of its other members. Finally, through Commander Sicardot, whom the marquis had succeeded in getting appointed as chief of the National Guard, the yellow drawing-room had the armed forces at their disposal.
The Rougons, those poor disreputable devils, had thus succeeded in rallying round themselves the instruments of their own fortune. Everyone, from cowardice or stupidity, would have to obey them and work in the dark for their aggrandisement. They simply had to fear those other influences which might be working with the same object as themselves, and might partially rob them of the merit of victory. That was their great fear, for they wanted to reserve to themselves the role of deliverers. They knew beforehand that they would be aided rather than hindered by the clergy and the nobility. But if the sub-prefect, the mayor, and the other functionaries were to take a step in advance and at once stifle the insurrection they would find themselves thrown into the shade, and even arrested in their exploits; they would have neither time nor means to make themselves useful. What they longed for was complete abstention, general panic among the functionaries. If only all regular administration should disappear, and they could dispose of the destinies of Plassans for a single day, their fortune would be firmly established.
Happily for them, there was not a man in the government service whose convictions were so firm or whose circumstances were so needy as to make him disposed to risk the game. The sub-prefect was a man of liberal spirit whom the executive had forgetfully left at Plassans, owing, no doubt, to the good repute of the town. Of timid character and incapable of exceeding his authority, he would no doubt be greatly embarrassed in the presence of an insurrection. The Rougons, who knew that he was in favour of the democratic cause, and who consequently never dreaded his zeal, were simply curious to know what attitude he would assume. As for the municipality, this did not cause them much apprehension. The mayor, Monsieur Garconnet, was a Legitimist whose nomination had been procured by the influence of the Saint–Marc quarter in 1849. He detested the Republicans and treated them with undisguised disdain; but he was too closely united by bonds of friendship with certain members of the church to lend any active hand in a Bonapartist Coup d’Etat. The other functionaries were in exactly the same position. The justices of the peace, the post-master, the tax-collector, as well as Monsieur Peirotte, the chief receiver of taxes, were all indebted for their posts to the Clerical reaction, and could not accept the Empire with any great enthusiasm. The Rougons, though they did not quite see how they might get rid of these people and clear the way for themselves, nevertheless indulged in sanguine hopes on finding there was little likelihood of anybody disputing their role as deliverers.
The denouement was drawing near. In the last few days of November, as the rumour of a Coup d’Etat was circulating, the prince-president was accused of seeking the position of emperor.
“Eh! we’ll call him whatever he likes,” Granoux exclaimed, “provided he has those Republican rascals shot!”
This exclamation from Granoux, who was believed to be asleep, caused great commotion. The marquis pretended not to have heard it; but all the bourgeois nodded approval. Roudier, who, being rich, did not fear to applaud the sentiment aloud, went so far as to declare, while glancing askance at Monsieur de Carnavant, that the position was no longer tenable, and that France must be chastised as soon as possible, never mind by what hand.
The marquis still maintained a silence which was interpreted as acquiescence. And thereupon the Conservative clan, abandoning the cause of Legitimacy, ventured to offer up prayers in favour of the Empire.
“My friends,” said Commander Sicardot, rising from his seat, “only a Napoleon can now protect threatened life and property. Have no fear, I’ve taken the necessary precautions to preserve order at Plassans.”
As a matter of fact the commander, in concert with Rougon, had concealed, in a kind of cart-house near the ramparts, both a supply of cartridges and a considerable number of muskets; he had also taken steps to secure the cooperation of the National Guard, on which he believed he could rely. His words produced a very favourable impression. On separating for the evening, the peaceful citizens of the yellow drawing-room spoke of massacring the “Reds” if they should dare to stir.
On December 1, Pierre Rougon received a letter from Eugene which he went to read in his bedroom, in accordance with his prudent habit. Felicite observed, however, that he was very agitated when he came out again. She fluttered round the secretaire all day. When night came, she could restrain her impatience no longer. Her husband had scarcely fallen asleep, when she quietly got up, took the key of the secretaire from the waistcoat pocket, and gained possession of the letter with as little noise as possible. Eugene, in ten lines, warned his father that the crisis was at hand, and advised him to acquaint his mother with the situation of affairs. The hour for informing her had arrived; he might stand in need of her advice.
Felicite awaited, on the morrow, a disclosure which did not come. She did not dare to confess her curiosity; but continued to feign ignorance, though enraged at the foolish distrust of her husband, who, doubtless, considered her a gossip, and weak like other women. Pierre, with that marital pride which inspires a man with the belief in his own superiority at home, had ended by attributing all their past ill-luck to his wife. From the time that he fancied he had been conducting matters alone everything seemed to him to have gone as he desired. He had decided, therefore, to dispense altogether with his consort’s counsels, and to confide nothing to her, in spite of his son’s recommendations.
Felicite was piqued to such a degree that she would have upset the whole affair had she not desired the triumph as ardently as Pierre. So she continued to work energetically for victory, while endeavouring to take her revenge.
“Ah! if he could only have some great fright,” thought she; “if he would only commit some act of imprudence! Then I should see him come to me and humbly ask for advice; it would be my turn to lay down the law.”
She felt somewhat uneasy at the imperious attitude Pierre would certainly assume if he were to triumph without her aid. On marrying this peasant’s son, in preference to some notary’s clerk, she had intended to make use of him as a strongly made puppet, whose strings she would pull in her own way; and now, at the decisive moment, the puppet, in his blind stupidity, wanted to work alone! All the cunning, all the feverish activity within the old woman protested against this. She knew Pierre was quite capable of some brutal resolve such as that which he had taken when he compelled his mother to sign the receipt for fifty thousand francs; the tool was indeed a useful and unscrupulous one; but she felt the necessity for guiding it, especially under present circumstances, when considerable suppleness was requisite.
The official news of the Coup d’Etat did not reach Plassans until the afternoon of December 3 — a Thursday. Already, at seven o’clock in the evening, there was a full meeting in the yellow drawing-room. Although the crisis had been eagerly desired, vague uneasiness appeared on the faces of the majority. They discussed events amid endless chatter. Pierre, who like the others was slightly pale, thought it right, as an extreme measure of prudence, to excuse Prince Louis’s decisive act to the Legitimists and Orleanists who were present.
“There is talk of an appeal to the people,” he said; “the nation will then be free to choose whatever government it likes. The president is a man to retire before our legitimate masters.”
The marquis, who had retained his aristocratic coolness, was the only one who greeted these words with a smile. The others, in the enthusiasm of the moment, concerned themselves very little about what might follow. All their opinions foundered. Roudier, forgetting the esteem which as a former shopkeeper he had entertained for the Orleanists, stopped Pierre rather abruptly. And everybody exclaimed: “Don’t argue the matter. Let us think of preserving order.”
These good people were terribly afraid of the Republicans. There had, however been very little commotion in the town on the announcement of the events in Paris. People had collected in front of the notices posted on the door of the Sub–Prefecture; it was also rumoured that a few hundred workmen had left their work and were endeavouring to organise resistance. That was all. No serious disturbance seemed likely to occur. The course which the neighbouring towns and rural districts might take seemed more likely to occasion anxiety; however, it was not yet known how they had received the news of the Coup d’Etat.
Granoux arrived at about nine o’clock, quite out of breath. He had just left a sitting of the Municipal Council which had been hastily summoned together. Choking with emotion, he announced that the mayor, Monsieur Garconnet, had declared, while making due reserves, that he was determined to preserve order by the most stringent measures. However, the intelligence which caused the noisiest chattering in the yellow drawing-room was that of the resignation of the sub-prefect. This functionary had absolutely refused to communicate the despatches of the Minister of the Interior to the inhabitants of Plassans; he had just left the town, so Granoux asserted, and it was thanks to the mayor that the messages had been posted. This was perhaps the only sub-prefect in France who ever had the courage of his democratic opinions.
Although Monsieur Garconnet’s firm demeanour caused the Rougons some secret anxiety, they rubbed their hands at the flight of the sub-prefect, which left the post vacant for them. It was decided on this memorable evening that the yellow drawing-room party should accept the Coup d’Etat and openly declare that it was in favour of accomplished facts. Vuillet was commissioned to write an article to that effect, and publish it on the morrow in the “Gazette.” Neither he nor the marquis raised any objection. They had, no doubt, received instructions from the mysterious individuals to whom they sometimes made pious allusions. The clergy and the nobility were already resigned to the course of lending a strong hand to the victors, in order to crush their common enemy, the Republic.
While the yellow drawing-room was deliberating on the evening in question, Aristide was perspiring with anxiety. Never had gambler, staking his last louis on a card, felt such anguish. During the day the resignation of his chief, the sub-prefect, had given him much matter for reflection. He had heard him repeat several times that the Coup d’Etat must prove a failure. This functionary, endowed with a limited amount of honesty, believed in the final triumph of the democracy, though he had not the courage to work for that triumph by offering resistance. Aristide was in the habit of listening at the doors of the Sub–Prefecture, in order to get precise information, for he felt that he was groping in the dark, and clung to the intelligence which he gleaned from the officials. The sub-prefect’s opinion struck him forcibly; but he remained perplexed. He thought to himself: “Why does the fellow go away if he is so certain that the prince-president will meet with a check?” However, as he was compelled to espouse one side or the other, he resolved to continue his opposition. He wrote a very hostile article on the Coup d’Etat, and took it to the “Independant” the same evening for the following morning’s issue. He had corrected the proofs of this article, and was returning home somewhat calmed, when, as he passed along the Rue de la Banne, he instinctively raised his head and glanced at the Rougons’ windows. Their windows were brightly lighted up.
“What can they be plotting up there?” the journalist asked himself, with anxious curiosity.
A fierce desire to know the opinion of the yellow drawing-room with regard to recent events then assailed him. He credited this group of reactionaries with little intelligence; but his doubts recurred, he was in that frame of mind when one might seek advice from a child. He could not think of entering his father’s home at that moment, after the campaign he had waged against Granoux and the others. Nevertheless, he went upstairs, reflecting what a singular figure he would cut if he were surprised on the way by anyone. On reaching the Rougons’ door, he could only catch a confused echo of voices.
“What a child I am,” said he, “fear makes me stupid.” And he was going to descend again, when he heard the approach of his mother, who was about to show somebody out. He had barely time to hide in a dark corner formed by a little staircase leading to the garrets of the house. The Rougons’ door opened, and the marquis appeared, followed by Felicite. Monsieur de Carnavant usually left before the gentlemen of the new town did, in order no doubt to avoid having to shake hands with them in the street.
“Eh! little one,” he said on the landing, in a low voice, “these men are greater cowards than I should have thought. With such men France will always be at the mercy of whoever dares to lay his hands upon her!” And he added, with some bitterness, as though speaking to himself: “The monarchy is decidedly becoming too honest for modern times. Its day is over.”
“Eugene announced the crisis to his father,” replied Felicite. “Prince Louis’s triumph seems to him certain.”
“Oh, you can proceed without fear,” the marquis replied, as he descended the first steps. “In two or three days the country will be well bound and gagged. Good-bye till tomorrow, little one.”
Felicite closed the door again. Aristide had received quite a shock in his dark corner. However, without waiting for the marquis to reach the street, he bounded down the staircase, four steps at a time, rushed outside like a madman, and turned his steps towards the printing-office of the “Independant.” A flood of thoughts surged through his mind. He was enraged, and accused his family of having duped him. What! Eugene kept his parents informed of the situation, and yet his mother had never given him any of his eldest brother’s letters to read, in order that he might follow the advice given therein! And it was only now he learnt by chance that his eldest brother regarded the success of the Coup d’Etat as certain! This circumstance, moreover, confirmed certain presentiments which that idiot of a sub-prefect had prevented him from obeying. He was especially exasperated against his father, whom he had thought stupid enough to be a Legitimist, but who revealed himself as a Bonapartist at the right moment.
“What a lot of folly they have allowed me to perpetrate,” he muttered as he ran along. “I’m a fine fellow now. Ah! what a lesson! Granoux is more capable than I.”
He entered the office of the “Independant” like a hurricane, and asked for his article in a choking voice. The article had already been imposed. He had the forme unlocked and would not rest until he had himself destroyed the setting, mixing the type in a furious manner, like a set of dominoes. The bookseller who managed the paper looked at him in amazement. He was, in reality, rather glad of the incident, as the article had seemed to him somewhat dangerous. But he was absolutely obliged to have some copy, if the “Independant” was to appear.
“Are you going to give me something else?” he asked.
“Certainly,” replied Aristide.
He sat down at the table and began a warm panegyric on the Coup d’Etat. At the very first line, he swore that Prince Louis had just saved the Republic; but he had hardly written a page before he stopped and seemed at a loss how to continue. A troubled look came over his pole-cat face.
“I must go home,” he said at last. “I will send you this immediately. Your paper can appear a little later, if necessary.”
He walked slowly on his way home, lost in meditation. He was again giving way to indecision. Why should he veer round so quickly? Eugene was an intelligent fellow, but his mother had perhaps exaggerated the significance of some sentence in his letter. In any case, it would be better to wait and hold his tongue.
An hour later Angele called at the bookseller’s, feigning deep emotion.
“My husband has just severely injured himself,” she said. “He jammed his four fingers in a door as he was coming in. In spite of his sufferings, he has dictated this little note, which he begs you to publish tomorrow.”
On the following day the “Independant,” made up almost entirely of miscellaneous items of news, appeared with these few lines at the head of the first column:
“A deplorable accident which has occurred to our eminent contributor Monsieur Aristide Rougon will deprive us of his articles for some time. He will suffer at having to remain silent in the present grave circumstances. None of our readers will doubt, however, the good wishes which he offers up with patriotic feelings for the welfare of France.”
This burlesque note had been maturely studied. The last sentence might be interpreted in favour of all parties. By this expedient, Aristide devised a glorious return for himself on the morrow of battle, in the shape of a laudatory article on the victors. On the following day he showed himself to the whole town, with his arm in a sling. His mother, frightened by the notice in the paper, hastily called upon him, but he refused to show her his hand, and spoke with a bitterness which enlightened the old woman.
“It won’t be anything,” she said in a reassuring and somewhat sarcastic tone, as she was leaving. “You only want a little rest.”
It was no doubt owing to this pretended accident, and the sub-prefect’s departure, that the “Independant” was not interfered with, like most of the democratic papers of the departments.
The 4th day of the month proved comparatively quiet at Plassans. In the evening there was a public demonstration which the mere appearance of the gendarmes sufficed to disperse. A band of working-men came to request Monsieur Garconnet to communicate the despatches he had received from Paris, which the latter haughtily refused to do; as it retired the band shouted: “Long live the Republic! Long live the Constitution!” After this, order was restored. The yellow drawing-room, after commenting at some length on this innocent parade, concluded that affairs were going on excellently.
The 5th and 6th were, however, more disquieting. Intelligence was received of successive risings in small neighbouring towns; the whole southern part of the department had taken up arms; La Palud and Saint–Martin-deVaulx had been the first to rise, drawing after them the villages of Chavanos, Nazeres, Poujols, Valqueyras and Vernoux. The yellow drawing-room party was now becoming seriously alarmed. It felt particularly uneasy at seeing Plassans isolated in the very midst of the revolt. Bands of insurgents would certainly scour the country and cut off all communications. Granoux announced, with a terrified look, that the mayor was without any news. Some people even asserted that blood had been shed at Marseilles, and that a formidable revolution had broken out in Paris. Commander Sicardot, enraged at the cowardice of the bourgeois, vowed he would die at the head of his men.
On Sunday the 7th the terror reached a climax. Already at six o’clock the yellow drawing-room, where a sort of reactionary committee sat en permanence, was crowded with pale, trembling men, who conversed in undertones, as though they were in a chamber of death. It had been ascertained during the day that a column of insurgents, about three thousand strong, had assembled at Alboise, a big village not more than three leagues away. It was true that this column had been ordered to make for the chief town of the department, leaving Plassans on its left; but the plan of campaign might at any time be altered; moreover, it sufficed for these cowardly cits to know that there were insurgents a few miles off, to make them feel the horny hands of the toilers already tightened round their throats. They had had a foretaste of the revolt in the morning; the few Republicans at Plassans, seeing that they would be unable to make any determined move in the town, had resolved to join their brethren of La Palud and Saint–Martin-deVaulx; the first group had left at about eleven o’clock, by the Porte de Rome, shouting the “Marseillaise” and smashing a few windows. Granoux had had one broken. He mentioned the circumstance with stammerings of terror.
Meantime, the most acute anxiety agitated the yellow drawing-room. The commander had sent his servant to obtain some information as to the exact movements of the insurgents, and the others awaited this man’s return, making the most astonishing surmises. They had a full meeting. Roudier and Granoux, sinking back in their arm-chairs, exchanged the most pitiable glances, whilst behind them moaned a terror-stricken group of retired tradesmen. Vuillet, without appearing over scared, reflected upon what precautions he should take to protect his shop and person; he was in doubt whether he should hide himself in his garret or cellar, and inclined towards the latter. For their part Pierre and the commander walked up and down, exchanging a word ever and anon. The old oil-dealer clung to this friend Sicardot as if to borrow a little courage from him. He, who had been awaiting the crisis for such a long time, now endeavoured to keep his countenance, in spite of the emotion which was stifling him. As for the marquis, more spruce and smiling than usual, he conversed in a corner with Felicite, who seemed very gay.
At last a ring came. The gentlemen started as if they had heard a gun-shot. Dead silence reigned in the drawing-room when Felicite went to open the door, towards which their pale, anxious faces were turned. Then the commander’s servant appeared on the threshold, quite out of breath, and said abruptly to his master: “Sir, the insurgents will be here in an hour.”
This was a thunderbolt. They all started up, vociferating, and raising their arms towards the ceiling. For several minutes it was impossible to hear one’s self speak. The company surrounded the messenger, overwhelming him with questions.
“Damnation!” the commander at length shouted, “don’t make such a row. Be calm, or I won’t answer for anything.”
Everyone sank back in his chair again, heaving long-drawn sighs. They then obtained a few particulars. The messenger had met the column at Les Tulettes, and had hastened to return.
“There are at least three thousand of them,” said he. “They are marching in battalions, like soldiers. I thought I caught sight of some prisoners in their midst.”
“Prisoners!” cried the terrified bourgeois.
“No doubt,” the marquis interrupted in his shrill voice. “I’ve heard that the insurgents arrest all persons who are known to have conservative leanings.”
This information gave a finishing touch to the consternation of the yellow drawing-room. A few bourgeois got up and stealthily made for the door, reflecting that they had not too much time before them to gain a place of safety.
The announcement of the arrests made by the Republicans appeared to strike Felicite. She took the marquis aside and asked him: “What do these men do with the people they arrest?”
“Why, they carry them off in their train,” Monsieur de Carnavant replied. “They no doubt consider them excellent hostages.”
“Ah!” the old woman rejoined, in a strange tone.
Then she again thoughtfully watched the curious scene of panic around her. The bourgeois gradually disappeared; soon there only remained Vuillet and Roudier, whom the approaching danger inspired with some courage. As for Granoux, he likewise remained in his corner, his legs refusing to perform their office.
“Well, I like this better,” Sicardot remarked, as he observed the flight of the other adherents. “Those cowards were exasperating me at last. For more than two years they’ve been speaking of shooting all the Republicans in the province, and today they wouldn’t even fire a halfpenny cracker under their noses.”
Then he took up his hat and turned towards the door.
“Let’s see,” he continued, “time presses. Come, Rougon.”
Felicite, it seemed, had been waiting for this moment. She placed herself between the door and her husband, who, for that matter, was not particularly eager to follow the formidable Sicardot.
“I won’t have you go out,” she cried, feigning sudden despair. “I won’t let you leave my side. Those scoundrels will kill you.”
The commander stopped in amazement.
“Hang it all!” he growled, “if the women are going to whine now — Come along, Rougon!’
“No, no,” continued the old woman, affecting increase of terror, “he sha’n’t follow you. I will hang on to his clothes and prevent him.”
The marquis, very much surprised at the scene, looked inquiringly at Felicite. Was this really the woman who had just now been conversing so merrily? What comedy was she playing? Pierre, meantime, seeing that his wife wanted to detain him, deigned a determination to force his way out.
“I tell you you shall not go,” the old woman reiterated, as she clung to one of his arms. And turning towards the commander, she said to him: “How can you think of offering any resistance? They are three thousand strong, and you won’t be able to collect a hundred men of any spirit. You are rushing into the cannon’s mouth to no purpose.”
“Eh! that is our duty,” said Sicardot, impatiently.
Felicite burst into sobs.
“If they don’t kill him, they’ll make him a prisoner,” she continued, looked fixedly at her husband. “Good heavens! What will become of me, left alone in an abandoned town?”
“But,” exclaimed the commander, “we shall be arrested just the same if we allow the insurgents to enter the town unmolested. I believe that before an hour has elapsed the mayor and all the functionaries will be prisoners, to say nothing of your husband and the frequenters of this drawing-room.”
The marquis thought he saw a vague smile play about Felicite’s lips as she answered, with a look of dismay: “Do you really think so?”
“Of course!” replied Sicardot; “the Republicans are not so stupid as to leave enemies behind them. To-morrow Plassans will be emptied of its functionaries and good citizens.”
At these words, which she had so cleverly provoked, Felicite released her husband’s arms. Pierre no longer looked as if he wanted to go out. Thanks to his wife, whose skilful tactics escaped him, however, and whose secret complicity he never for a moment suspected, he had just lighted on a whole plan of campaign.
“We must deliberate before taking any decision,” he said to the commander. “My wife is perhaps not wrong in accusing us of forgetting the true interests of our families.”
“No, indeed, madame is not wrong,” cried Granoux, who had been listening to Felicite’s terrified cries with the rapture of a coward.
Thereupon the commander energetically clapped his hat on his head, and said in a clear voice: “Right or wrong, it matters little to me. I am commander of the National Guard. I ought to have been at the mayor’s before now. Confess that you are afraid, that you leaven me to act alone. . . . Well, good-night.”
He was just turning the handle of the door, when Rougon forcibly detained him.
“Listen, Sicardot,” he said.
He drew him into a corner, on seeing Vuillet prick up his big ears. And there he explained to him, in an undertone, that it would be a good plan to leave a few energetic men behind the insurgents, so as to restore order in the town. And as the fierce commander obstinately refused to desert his post, Pierre offered to place himself at the head of such a reserve corps.
“Give me the key of the cart-shed in which the arms and ammunition are kept,” he said to him, “and order some fifty of our men not to stir until I call for them.”
Sicardot ended by consenting to these prudent measures. He entrusted Pierre with the key of the cart-shed, convinced as he was of the inexpediency of present resistance, but still desirous of sacrificing himself.
During this conversation, the marquis had whispered a few words in Felicite’s ear with a knowing look. He complimented her, no doubt, on her theatrical display. The old woman could not repress a faint smile. But, as Sicardot shook hands with Rougon and prepared to go, she again asked him with an air of fright: “Are you really determined to leave us?”
“It is not for one of Napoleon’s old soldiers to let himself be intimidated by the mob,” he replied.
He was already on the landing, when Granoux hurried after him, crying: “If you go to the mayor’s tell him what’s going on. I’ll just run home to my wife to reassure her.”
Then Felicite bent towards the marquis’s ear, and whispered with discreet gaiety: “Upon my word, it is best that devil of a commander should go and get himself arrested. He’s far too zealous.”
However, Rougon brought Granoux back to the drawing-room. Roudier, who had quietly followed the scene from his corner, making signs in support of the proposed measures of prudence, got up and joined them. When the marquis and Vuillet had likewise risen, Pierre began:
“Now that we are alone, among peaceable men, I propose that we should conceal ourselves so as to avoid certain arrest, and be at liberty as soon as ours again becomes the stronger party.”
Granoux was ready to embrace him. Roudier and Vuillet breathed more easily.
“I shall want you shortly, gentlemen,” the oil-dealer continued, with an important air. “It is to us that the honour of restoring order in Plassans is reserved.”
“You may rely upon us!” cried Vuillet, with an enthusiasm which disturbed Felicite.
Time was pressing. These singular defenders of Plassans, who hid themselves the better to protect the town, hastened away, to bury themselves in some hole or other. Pierre, on being left alone with his wife, advised her not to make the mistake of barricading herself indoors, but to reply, if anybody came to question her, that he, Pierre, had simply gone on a short journey. And as she acted the simpleton, feigning terror and asking what all this was coming to, he replied abruptly: “It’s nothing to do with you. Let me manage our affairs alone. They’ll get on all the better.”
A few minutes later he was rapidly threading his way along the Rue de la Banne. On reaching the Cours Sauvaire, he saw a band of armed workmen coming out of the old quarter and singing the “Marseillaise.”
“The devil!” he thought. “It was quite time, indeed; here’s the town itself in revolt now!”
He quickened his steps in the direction of the Porte de Rome. Cold perspiration came over him while he waited there for the dilatory keeper to open the gate. Almost as soon as he set foot on the high road, he perceived in the moonlight at the other end of the Faubourg the column of insurgents, whose gun barrels gleamed like white flames. So it was at a run that he dived into the Impasse Saint–Mittre, and reached his mother’s house, which he had not visited for many a long year.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02