It was about five o’clock in the morning when Rougon at last ventured to leave his mother’s house. The old woman had gone to sleep on a chair. He crept stealthily to the end of the Impasse Saint–Mittre. There was not a sound, not a shadow. He pushed on as far as the Porte de Rome. The gates stood wide open in the darkness that enveloped the slumbering town. Plassans was sleeping as sound as a top, quite unconscious, apparently, of the risk it was running in allowing the gates to remain unsecured. It seemed like a city of the dead. Rougon, taking courage, made his way into the Rue de Nice. He scanned from a distance the corners of each successive lane; and trembled at every door, fearing lest he should see a band of insurgents rush out upon him. However, he reached the Cours Sauvaire without any mishap. The insurgents seemed to have vanished in the darkness like a nightmare.
Pierre then paused for a moment on the deserted pavement, heaving a deep sigh of relief and triumph. So those rascals had really abandoned Plassans to him. The town belonged to him now; it slept like the foolish thing it was; there it lay, dark and tranquil, silent and confident, and he had only to stretch out his hand to take possession of it. That brief halt, the supercilious glance which he cast over the drowsy place, thrilled him with unspeakable delight. He remained there, alone in the darkness, and crossed his arms, in the attitude of a great general on the eve of a victory. He could hear nothing in the distance but the murmur of the fountains of the Cours Sauvaire, whose jets of water fell into the basins with a musical plashing.
Then he began to feel a little uneasy. What if the Empire should unhappily have been established without his aid? What if Sicardot, Garconnet, and Peirotte, instead of being arrested and led away by the insurrectionary band, had shut the rebels up in prison? A cold perspiration broke out over him, and he went on his way again, hoping that Felicite would give him some accurate information. He now pushed on more rapidly, and was skirting the houses of the Rue de la Banne, when a strange spectacle, which caught his eyes as he raised his head, riveted him to the ground. One of the windows of the yellow drawing-room was brilliantly illuminated, and, in the glare, he saw a dark form, which he recognized as that of his wife, bending forward, and shaking its arms in a violent manner. He asked himself what this could mean, but, unable to think of any explanation, was beginning to feel seriously alarmed, when some hard object bounded over the pavement at his feet. Felicite had thrown him the key of the cart-house, where he had concealed a supply of muskets. This key clearly signified that he must take up arms. So he turned away again, unable to comprehend why his wife had prevented him from going upstairs, and imagining the most horrible things.
He now went straight to Roudier, whom he found dressed and ready to march, but completely ignorant of the events of the night. Roudier lived at the far end of the new town, as in a desert, whither no tidings of the insurgents’ movements had penetrated. Pierre, however, proposed to him that they should go to Granoux, whose house stood on one of the corners of the Place des Recollets, and under whose windows the insurgent contingents must have passed. The municipal councillor’s servant remained for a long time parleying before consenting to admit them, and they heard poor Granoux calling from the first floor in a trembling voice:
“Don’t open the door, Catherine! The streets are full of bandits.”
He was in his bedroom, in the dark. When he recognised his two faithful friends he felt relieved; but he would not let the maid bring a lamp, fearing lest the light might attract a bullet. He seemed to think that the town was still full of insurgents. Lying back on an arm-chair near the window, in his pants, and with a silk handkerchief round his head, he moaned: “Ah! my friends, if you only knew! — I tried to go to bed, but they were making such a disturbance! At last I lay down in my arm-chair here. I’ve seen it all, everything. Such awful-looking men; a band of escaped convicts! Then they passed by again, dragging brave Commander Sicardot, worthy Monsieur Garconnet, the postmaster, and others away with them, and howling the while like cannibals!”
Rougon felt a thrill of joy. He made Granoux repeat to him how he had seen the mayor and the others surrounded by the “brigands.”
“I saw it all!” the poor man wailed. “I was standing behind the blind. They had just seized Monsieur Peirotte, and I heard him saying as he passed under my window: ‘Gentlemen, don’t hurt me!’ They were certainly maltreating him. It’s abominable, abominable.”
However, Roudier calmed Granoux by assuring him that the town was free. And the worthy gentleman began to feel quite a glow of martial ardour when Pierre informed him that he had come to recruit his services for the purpose of saving Plassans. These three saviours then took council together. They each resolved to go and rouse their friends, and appoint a meeting at the cart-shed, the secret arsenal of the reactionary party. Meantime Rougon constantly bethought himself of Felicite’s wild gestures, which seemed to betoken danger somewhere. Granoux, assuredly the most foolish of the three, was the first to suggest that there must be some Republicans left in the town. This proved a flash of light, and Rougon, with a feeling of conviction, reflected: “There must be something of Macquart’s doing under all this.”
An hour or so later the friends met again in the cart-shed, which was situated in a very lonely spot. They had glided stealthily from door to door, knocking and ringing as quietly as possible, and picking up all the men they could. However, they had only succeeded in collecting some forty, who arrived one after the other, creeping along in the dark, with the pale and drowsy countenances of men who had been violently startled from their sleep. The cart-shed, let to a cooper, was littered with old hoops and broken casks, of which there were piles in every corner. The guns were stored in the middle, in three long boxes. A taper, stuck on a piece of wood, illumined the strange scene with a flickering glimmer. When Rougon had removed the covers of the three boxes, the spectacle became weirdly grotesque. Above the fire-arms, whose barrels shown with a bluish, phosphorescent glitter, were outstretched necks and heads that bent with a sort of secret fear, while the yellow light of the taper cast shadows of huge noses and locks of stiffened hair upon the walls.
However, the reactionary forces counted their numbers, and the smallness of the total filled them with hesitation. They were only thirty-nine all told, and this adventure would mean certain death for them. A father of a family spoke of his children; others, without troubling themselves about excuses, turned towards the door. Then, however, two fresh conspirators arrived, who lived in the neighbourhood of the Town Hall, and knew for certain that there were not more than about twenty Republicans still at the mayor’s. The band thereupon deliberated afresh. Forty-one against twenty — these seemed practicable conditions. So the arms were distributed amid a little trembling. It was Rougon who took them from the boxes, and each man present, as he received his gun, the barrel of which on that December night was icy cold, felt a sudden chill freeze him to his bones. The shadows on the walls assumed the clumsy postures of bewildered conscripts stretching out their fingers. Pierre closed the boxes regretfully; he left there a hundred and nine guns which he would willingly have distributed; however, he now had to divide the cartridges. Of these, there were two large barrels full in the furthest corner of the cart-shed, sufficient to defend Plassans against an army. And as this corner was dark, one of the gentlemen brought the taper near, whereupon another conspirator — a burly pork-butcher, with immense fists — grew angry, declaring that it was most imprudent to bring a light so close. They strongly approved his words, so the cartridges were distributed in the dark. They completely filled their pockets with them. Then, after they had loaded their guns, with endless precautions, they lingered there for another moment, looking at each other with suspicious eyes, or exchanging glances in which cowardly ferocity was mingled with an expression of stupidity.
In the streets they kept close to the houses, marching silently and in single file, like savages on the war-path. Rougon had insisted upon having the honour of marching at their head; the time had come when he must needs run some risk, if he wanted to see his schemes successful. Drops of perspiration poured down his forehead in spite of the cold. Nevertheless he preserved a very martial bearing. Roudier and Granoux were immediately behind him. Upon two occasions the column came to an abrupt halt. They fancied they had heard some distant sound of fighting; but it was only the jingle of the little brass shaving-dishes hanging from chains, which are used as signs by the barbers of Southern France. These dishes were gently shaking to and fro in the breeze. After each halt, the saviours of Plassans continued their stealthy march in the dark, retaining the while the mien of terrified heroes. In this manner they reached the square in front of the Town Hall. There they formed a group round Rougon, and took counsel together once more. In the facade of the building in front of them only one window was lighted. It was now nearly seven o’clock and the dawn was approaching.
After a good ten minutes’ discussion, it was decided to advance as far as the door, so as to ascertain what might be the meaning of this disquieting darkness and silence. The door proved to be half open. One of the conspirators thereupon popped his head in, but quickly withdrew it, announcing that there was a man under the porch, sitting against the wall fast asleep, with a gun between his legs. Rougon, seeing a chance of commencing with a deed of valour, thereupon entered first, and, seizing the man, held him down while Roudier gagged him. This first triumph, gained in silence, singularly emboldened the little troop, who had dreamed of a murderous fusillade. And Rougon had to make imperious signs to restrain his soldiers from indulging in over-boisterous delight.
They continued their advance on tip-toes. Then, on the left, in the police guard-room, which was situated there, they perceived some fifteen men lying on camp-beds and snoring, amid the dim glimmer of a lantern hanging from the wall. Rougon, who was decidedly becoming a great general, left half of his men in front of the guard-room with orders not to rouse the sleepers, but to watch them and make them prisoners if they stirred. He was personally uneasy about the lighted window which they had seen from the square. He still scented Macquart’s hand in the business, and, as he felt that he would first have to make prisoners of those who were watching upstairs, he was not sorry to be able to adopt surprise tactics before the noise of a conflict should impel them to barricade themselves in the first-floor rooms. So he went up quietly, followed by the twenty heroes whom he still had at his disposal. Roudier commanded the detachment remaining in the courtyard.
As Rougon had surmised, it was Macquart who was comfortably installed upstairs in the mayor’s office. He sat in the mayor’s arm-chair, with his elbows on the mayor’s writing-table. With the characteristic confidence of a man of coarse intellect, who is absorbed by a fixed idea and bent upon his own triumph, he had imagined after the departure of the insurgents that Plassans was now at his complete disposal, and that he would be able to act there like a conqueror. In his opinion that body of three thousand men who had just passed through the town was an invincible army, whose mere proximity would suffice to keep the bourgeois humble and docile in his hands. The insurgents had imprisoned the gendarmes in their barracks, the National Guard was already dismembered, the nobility must be quaking with terror, and the retired citizens of the new town had certainly never handled a gun in their lives. Moreover, there were no arms any more than there were soldiers. Thus Macquart did not even take the precaution to have the gates shut. His men carried their confidence still further by falling asleep, while he calmly awaited the dawn which he fancied would attract and rally all the Republicans of the district round him.
He was already meditating important revolutionary measures; the nomination of a Commune of which he would be the chief, the imprisonment of all bad patriots, and particularly of all such persons as had incurred his displeasure. The thought of the baffled Rougons and their yellow drawing-room, of all that clique entreating him for mercy, thrilled him with exquisite pleasure. In order to while away the time he resolved to issue a proclamation to the inhabitants of Plassans. Four of his party set to work to draw up this proclamation, and when it was finished Macquart, assuming a dignified manner in the mayor’s arm-chair, had it read to him before sending it to the printing office of the “Independant,” on whose patriotism he reckoned. One of the writers was commencing, in an emphatic voice, “Inhabitants of Plassans, the hour of independence has struck, the reign of justice has begun ——” when a noise was heard at the door of the office, which was slowly pushed open.
“Is it you, Cassoute?” Macquart asked, interrupting the perusal.
Nobody answered; but the door opened wider.
“Come in, do!” he continued, impatiently. “Is my brigand of a brother at home?”
Then, all at once both leaves of the door were violently thrown back and slammed against the walls, and a crowd of armed men, in the midst of whom marched Rougon, with his face very red and his eyes starting out of their sockets, swarmed into the office, brandishing their guns like cudgels.
“Ah! the blackguards, they’re armed!” shouted Macquart.
He was about to seize a pair of pistols which were lying on the writing-table, when five men caught hold of him by the throat and held him in check. The four authors of the proclamation struggled for an instant. There was a good deal of scuffling and stamping, and a noise of persons falling. The combatants were greatly hampered by their guns, which they would not lay aside, although they could not use them. In the struggle, Rougon’s weapon, which an insurgent had tried to wrest from him, went off of itself with a frightful report, and filled the room with smoke. The bullet shattered a magnificent mirror that reached from the mantelpiece to the ceiling, and was reputed to be one of the finest mirrors in the town. This shot, fired no one knew why, deafened everybody, and put an end to the battle.
Then, while the gentlemen were panting and puffing, three other reports were heard in the courtyard. Granoux immediately rushed to one of the windows. And as he and the others anxiously leaned out, their faces lengthened perceptibly, for they were in nowise eager for a struggle with the men in the guard-room, whom they had forgotten amidst their triumph. However, Roudier cried out from below that all was right. And Granoux then shut the window again, beaming with joy. The fact of the matter was, that Rougon’s shot had aroused the sleepers, who had promptly surrendered, seeing that resistance was impossible. Then, however, three of Roudier’s men, in their blind haste to get the business over, had discharged their firearms in the air, as a sort of answer to the report from above, without knowing quite why they did so. It frequently happens that guns go off of their own accord when they are in the hands of cowards.
And now, in the room upstairs, Rougon ordered Macquart’s hands to be bound with the bands of the large green curtains which hung at the windows. At this, Macquart, wild with rage, broke into scornful jeers. “All right; go on,” he muttered. “This evening or tomorrow, when the others return, we’ll settle accounts!”
This allusion to the insurrectionary forces sent a shudder to the victors’ very marrow; Rougon for his part almost choked. His brother, who was exasperated at having been surprised like a child by these terrified bourgeois, who, old soldier that he was, he disdainfully looked upon as good-for-nothing civilians, defied him with a glance of the bitterest hatred.
“Ah! I can tell some pretty stories about you, very pretty ones!” the rascal exclaimed, without removing his eyes from the retired oil merchant. “Just send me before the Assize Court, so that I may tell the judge a few tales that will make them laugh.”
At this Rougon turned pale. He was terribly afraid lest Macquart should blab then and there, and ruin him in the esteem of the gentlemen who had just been assisting him to save Plassans. These gentlemen, astounded by the dramatic encounter between the two brothers, and, foreseeing some stormy passages, had retired to a corner of the room. Rougon, however, formed a heroic resolution. He advanced towards the group, and in a very proud tone exclaimed: “We will keep this man here. When he has reflected on his position he will be able to give us some useful information.” Then, in a still more dignified voice, he went on: “I will discharge my duty, gentlemen. I have sworn to save the town from anarchy, and I will save it, even should I have to be the executioner of my nearest relative.”
One might have thought him some old Roman sacrificing his family on the altar of his country. Granoux, who felt deeply moved, came to press his hand with a tearful countenance, which seemed to say: “I understand you; you are sublime!” And then he did him the kindness to take everybody away, under the pretext of conducting the four other prisoners into the courtyard.
When Pierre was alone with his brother, he felt all his self-possession return to him. “You hardly expected me, did you?” he resumed. “I understand things now; you have been laying plots against me. You wretched fellow; see what your vices and disorderly life have brought you to!”
Macquart shrugged his shoulders. “Shut up,” he replied; “go to the devil. You’re an old rogue. He laughs best who laughs last.”
Thereupon Rougon, who had formed no definite plan with regard to him, thrust him into a dressing-room whither Monsieur Garconnet retired to rest sometimes. This room lighted from above, had no other means of exit than the doorway by which one entered. It was furnished with a few arm-chairs, a sofa, and a marble wash-stand. Pierre double-locked the door, after partially unbinding his brother’s hands. Macquart was then heard to throw himself on the sofa, and start singing the “Ca Ira” in a loud voice, as though he were trying to sing himself to sleep.
Rougon, who at last found himself alone, now in his turn sat down in the mayor’s arm-chair. He heaved a sigh as he wiped his brow. How hard, indeed, it was to win fortune and honours! However, he was nearing the end at last. He felt the soft seat of the arm-chair yield beneath him, while with a mechanical movement he caressed the mahogany writing-table with his hands, finding it apparently quite silky and delicate, like the skin of a beautiful woman. Then he spread himself out, and assumed the dignified attitude which Macquart had previously affected while listening to the proclamation. The silence of the room seemed fraught with religious solemnity, which inspired Rougon with exquisite delight. Everything, even the dust and the old documents lying in the corners, seemed to exhale an odour of incense, which rose to his dilated nostrils. This room, with its faded hangings redolent of petty transactions, all the trivial concerns of a third-rate municipality, became a temple of which he was the god.
Nevertheless, amidst his rapture, he started nervously at every shout from Macquart. The words aristocrat and lamp-post, the threats of hanging that form the refrain of the famous revolutionary song, the “Ca Ira,” reached him in angry bursts, interrupting his triumphant dream in the most disagreeable manner. Always that man! And his dream, in which he saw Plassans at his feet, ended with a sudden vision of the Assize Court, of the judges, the jury, and the public listening to Macquart’s disgraceful revelations; the story of the fifty thousand francs, and many other unpleasant matters; or else, while enjoying the softness of Monsieur Garconnet’s arm-chair, he suddenly pictured himself suspended from a lamp-post in the Rue de la Banne. Who would rid him of that wretched fellow? At last Antoine fell asleep, and then Pierre enjoyed ten good minutes’ pure ecstasy.
Roudier and Granoux came to rouse him from this state of beatitude. They had just returned from the prison, whither they had taken the insurgents. Daylight was coming on apace, the town would soon be awake, and it was necessary to take some decisive step. Roudier declared that, before anything else, it would be advisable to issue a proclamation to the inhabitants. Pierre was, at that moment, reading the one which the insurgents had left upon the table.
“Why,” cried he, “this will suit us admirably! There are only a few words to be altered.”
And, in fact, a quarter of an hour sufficed for the necessary changes, after which Granoux read out, in an earnest voice: “Inhabitants of Plassans — The hour of resistance has struck, the reign of order has returned ——”
It was decided that the proclamation should be printed at the office of the “Gazette,” and posted at all the street corners.
“Now listen,” said Rougon; “we’ll go to my house; and in the meantime Monsieur Granoux will assemble here the members of the municipal council who had not been arrested and acquaint them with the terrible events of the night.” Then he added, majestically: “I am quite prepared to accept the responsibility of my actions. If what I have already done appears a satisfactory pledge of my desire for order, I am willing to place myself at the head of a municipal commission, until such time as the regular authorities can be reinstated. But, in order, that nobody may accuse me of ambitious designs, I shall not re-enter the Town Hall unless called upon to do so by my fellow-citizens.”
At this Granoux and Roudier protested that Plassans would not be ungrateful. Their friend had indeed saved the town. And they recalled all that he had done for the cause of order: the yellow drawing-room always open to the friends of authority, his services as spokesman in the three quarters of the town, the store of arms which had been his idea, and especially that memorable night — that night of prudence and heroism — in which he had rendered himself forever illustrious. Granoux added that he felt sure of the admiration and gratitude of the municipal councillors.
“Don’t stir from your house,” he concluded; “I will come and fetch you to lead you back in triumph.”
Then Roudier said that he quite understood the tact and modesty of their friend, and approved it. Nobody would think of accusing him of ambition, but all would appreciate the delicacy which prompted him to take no office save with the consent of his fellow-citizens. That was very dignified, very noble, altogether grand.
Under this shower of eulogies, Rougon humbly bowed his head. “No, no; you go too far,” he murmured, with voluptuous thrillings of exquisite pleasure. Each sentence that fell from the retired hosier and the old almond-merchant, who stood on his right and left respectively, fell sweetly on his ears; and, leaning back in the mayor’s arm-chair, steeped in the odour of officiality which pervaded the room, he bowed to the right and to the left, like a royal pretender whom a coup d’etat is about to convert into an emperor.
When they were tired of belauding each other, they all three went downstairs. Granoux started off to call the municipal council together, while Roudier told Rougon to go on in front, saying that he would join him at his house, after giving the necessary orders for guarding the Town Hall. The dawn was now fast rising, and Pierre proceeded to the Rue de la Banne, tapping his heels in a martial manner on the still deserted pavement. He carried his hat in his hand in spite of the bitter cold; for puffs of pride sent all his blood to his head.
On reaching his house he found Cassoute at the bottom of the stairs. The navvy had not stirred, for he had seen nobody enter. He sat there, on the first step, resting his big head in his hands, and gazing fixedly in front of him, with the vacant stare and mute stubbornness of a faithful dog.
“You were waiting for me, weren’t you?” Pierre said to him, taking in the situation at a glance. “Well, go and tell Monsieur Macquart that I’ve come home. Go and ask for him at the Town Hall.”
Cassoute rose and took himself off, with an awkward bow. He was going to get himself arrested like a lamb, to the great delight of Pierre, who laughed as he went upstairs, asking himself, with a feeling of vague surprise: “I have certainly plenty of courage; shall I turn out as good a diplomatist?”
Felicite had not gone to bed last night. He found her dressed in her Sunday clothes, wearing a cap with lemon-coloured ribbons, like a lady expecting visitors. She had sat at the window in vain; she had heard nothing, and was dying with curiosity.
“Well?” she asked, rushing to meet her husband.
The latter, quite out of breath, entered the yellow drawing-room, whither she followed him, carefully closing the door behind her. He sank into an arm-chair, and, in a gasping voice, faltered: “It’s done; we shall get the receivership.”
At this she fell on his neck and kissed him.
“Really? Really?” she cried. “But I haven’t heard anything. Oh, my darling husband, do tell me; tell me all!”
She felt fifteen years old again, and began to coax him and whirl round him like a grasshopper fascinated by the light and heat. And Pierre, in the effusion of his triumph, poured out his heart to her. He did not omit a single detail. He even explained his future projects, forgetting that, according to his theories, wives were good for nothing, and that his must be kept in complete ignorance of what went on if he wished to remain master. Felicite leant over him and drank in his words. She made him repeat certain parts of his story, declaring she had not heard; in fact, her delight bewildered her so much that at times she seemed quite deaf. When Pierre related the events at the Town Hall, she burst into a fit of laughter, changed her chair three times, and moved the furniture about, quite unable to sit still. After forty years of continuous struggle, fortune had at last yielded to them. Eventually she became so mad over it that she forgot all prudence.
“It’s to me you owe all this!” she exclaimed, in an outburst of triumph. “If I hadn’t looked after you, you would have been nicely taken in by the insurgents. You booby, it was Garconnet, Sicardot, and the others, that had got to be thrown to those wild beasts.”
Then, showing her teeth, loosened by age, she added, with a girlish smile: “Well, the Republic for ever! It has made our path clear.”
But Pierre had turned cross. “That’s just like you!” he muttered; “you always fancy that you’ve foreseen everything. It was I who had the idea of hiding myself. As though women understood anything about politics! Bah, my poor girl, if you were to steer the bark we should very soon be shipwrecked.”
Felicite bit her lip. She had gone too far and forgotten her self-assigned part of good, silent fairy. Then she was seized with one of those fits of covert exasperation, which she generally experienced when her husband tried to crush her with his superiority. And she again promised herself, when the right time should arrive, some exquisite revenge, which would deliver this man into her power, bound hand and foot.
“Ah! I was forgetting!” resumed Rougon, “Monsieur Peirotte is amongst them. Granoux saw him struggling in the hands of the insurgents.”
Felicite gave a start. She was just at that moment standing at the window, gazing with longing eyes at the house where the receiver of taxes lived. She had felt a desire to do so, for in her mind the idea of triumph was always associated with envy of that fine house.
“So Monsieur Peirotte is arrested!” she exclaimed in a strange tone as she turned round.
For an instant she smiled complacently; then a crimson blush rushed to her face. A murderous wish had just ascended from the depths of her being. “Ah! if the insurgents would only kill him!”
Pierre no doubt read her thoughts in her eyes.
“Well, if some ball were to hit him,” he muttered, “our business would be settled. There would be no necessity to supercede him, eh? and it would be no fault of ours.”
But Felicite shuddered. She felt that she had just condemned a man to death. If Monsieur Peirotte should now be killed, she would always see his ghost at night time. He would come and haunt her. So she only ventured to cast furtive glances, full of fearful delight, at the unhappy man’s windows. Henceforward all her enjoyment would be fraught with a touch of guilty terror.
Moreover, Pierre, having now poured out his soul, began to perceive the other side of the situation. He mentioned Macquart. How could they get rid of that blackguard? But Felicite, again fired with enthusiasm, exclaimed: “Oh! one can’t do everything at once. We’ll gag him, somehow. We’ll soon find some means or other.”
She was now walking to and fro, putting the arm-chairs in order, and dusting their backs. Suddenly, she stopped in the middle of the room, and gave the faded furniture a long glance.
“Good Heavens!” she said, “how ugly it is here! And we shall have everybody coming to call upon us!”
“Bah!” replied Pierre, with supreme indifference, “we’ll alter all that.”
He who, the night before, had entertained almost religious veneration for the arm-chairs and the sofa, would now have willingly stamped on them. Felicite, who felt the same contempt, even went so far as to upset an arm-chair which was short of a castor and did not yield to her quickly enough.
It was at this moment that Roudier entered. It at once occurred to the old woman that he had become much more polite. His “Monsieur” and “Madame” rolled forth in delightfully musical fashion. But the other habitues were now arriving one after the other; and the drawing-room was fast getting full. Nobody yet knew the full particulars of the events of the night, and all had come in haste, with wondering eyes and smiling lips, urged on by the rumours which were beginning to circulate through the town. These gentlemen who, on the previous evening, had left the drawing-room with such precipitation at the news of the insurgents’ approach, came back, inquisitive and importunate, like a swarm of buzzing flies which a puff of wind would have dispersed. Some of them had not even taken time to put on their braces. They were very impatient, but it was evident that Rougon was waiting for some one else before speaking out. He constantly turned an anxious look towards the door. For an hour there was only significant hand-shaking, vague congratulation, admiring whispering, suppressed joy of uncertain origin, which only awaited a word of enlightenment to turn to enthusiasm.
At last Granoux appeared. He paused for a moment on the threshold, with his right hand pressed to his breast between the buttons of his frock-coat; his broad pale face was beaming; in vain he strove to conceal his emotion beneath an expression of dignity. All the others became silent on perceiving him; they felt that something extraordinary was about to take place. Granoux walked straight up to Rougon, through two lines of visitors, and held out his hand to him.
“My friend,” he said, “I bring you the homage of the Municipal Council. They call you to their head, until our mayor shall be restored to us. You have saved Plassans. In the terrible crisis through which we are passing we want men who, like yourself, unite intelligence with courage. Come —”
At this point Granoux, who was reciting a little speech which he had taken great trouble to prepare on his way from the Town Hall to the Rue de la Banne felt his memory fail him. But Rougon, overwhelmed with emotion, broke in, shaking his hand and repeating: “Thank you, my dear Granoux; I thank you very much.”
He could find nothing else to say. However, a loud burst of voices followed. Every one rushed upon him, tried to shake hands, poured forth praises and compliments, and eagerly questioned him. But he, already putting on official dignity, begged for a few minutes’ delay in order that he might confer with Messieurs Granoux and Roudier. Business before everything. The town was in such a critical situation! Then the three accomplices retired to a corner of the drawing-room, where, in an undertone, they divided power amongst themselves; the rest of the visitors, who remained a few paces away, trying meanwhile to look extremely wise and furtively glancing at them with mingled admiration and curiosity. It was decided that Rougon should take the title of president of the Municipal Commission; Granoux was to be secretary; whilst, as for Roudier, he became commander-inchief of the reorganised National Guard. They also swore to support each other against all opposition.
However, Felicite, who had drawn near, abruptly inquired: “And Vuillet?”
At this they looked at each other. Nobody had seen Vuillet. Rougon seemed somewhat uneasy.
“Perhaps they’ve taken him away with the others,” he said, to ease his mind.
But Felicite shook her head. Vuillet was not the man to let himself be arrested. Since nobody had seen or heard him, it was certain he had been doing something wrong.
Suddenly the door opened and Vuillet entered, bowing humbly, with blinking glance and stiff sacristan’s smile. Then he held out his moist hand to Rougon and the two others.
Vuillet had settled his little affairs alone. He had cut his own slice out of the cake, as Felicite would have said. While peeping through the ventilator of his cellar he had seen the insurgents arrest the postmaster, whose offices were near his bookshop. At daybreak, therefore, at the moment when Rougon was comfortably seated in the mayor’s arm-chair, he had quietly installed himself in the postmaster’s office. He knew the clerks; so he received them on their arrival, told them that he would replace their chief until his return, and that meantime they need be in nowise uneasy. Then he ransacked the morning mail with ill-concealed curiosity. He examined the letters, and seemed to be seeking a particular one. His new berth doubtless suited his secret plans, for his satisfaction became so great that he actually gave one of the clerks a copy of the “Oeuvres Badines de Piron.” Vuillet, it should be mentioned, did business in objectionable literature, which he kept concealed in a large drawer, under the stock of heads and religious images. It is probable that he felt some slight qualms at the free-and-easy manner in which he had taken possession of the post office, and recognised the desirability of getting his usurpation confirmed as far as possible. At all events, he had thought it well to call upon Rougon, who was fast becoming an important personage.
“Why! where have you been?” Felicite asked him in a distrustful manner.
Thereupon he related his story with sundry embellishments. According to his own account he had saved the post-office from pillage.
“All right then! That’s settled! Stay on there!” said Pierre, after a moment’s reflection. “Make yourself useful.”
This last sentence revealed the one great fear that possessed the Rougons. They were afraid that some one might prove too useful, and do more than themselves to save the town. Still, Pierre saw no serious danger in leaving Vuillet as provisional postmaster; it was even a convenient means of getting rid of him. Felicite, however, made a sharp gesture of annoyance.
The consultation having ended, the three accomplices mingled with the various groups that filled the drawing-room. They were at last obliged to satisfy the general curiosity by giving detailed accounts of recent events. Rougon proved magnificent. He exaggerated, embellished, and dramatised the story which he had related to his wife. The distribution of the guns and cartridges made everybody hold their breath. But it was the march through the deserted streets and the seizure of the town-hall that most amazed these worthy bourgeois. At each fresh detail there was an interruption.
“And you were only forty-one; it’s marvellous!”
“Ah, indeed! it must have been frightfully dark!”
“No; I confess I never should have dared it!”
“Then you seized him, like that, by the throat?
“And the insurgents, what did they say?”
These remarks and questions only incited Rougon’s imagination the more. He replied to everybody. He mimicked the action. This stout man, in his admiration of his own achievements, became as nimble as a schoolboy; he began afresh, repeated himself, amidst the exclamations of surprise and individual discussions which suddenly arose about some trifling detail. And thus he continued blowing his trumpet, making himself more and more important as if some irresistible force impelled him to turn his narrative into a genuine epic. Moreover Granoux and Roudier stood by his side prompting him, reminding him of such trifling matters as he omitted. They also were burning to put in a word, and occasionally they could not restrain themselves, so that all three went on talking together. When, in order to keep the episode of the broken mirror for the denouement, like some crowning glory, Rougon began to describe what had taken place downstairs in the courtyard, after the arrest of the guard, Roudier accused him of spoiling the narrative by changing the sequence of events. For a moment they wrangled about it somewhat sharply. Then Roudier, seeing a good opportunity for himself, suddenly exclaimed: “Very well, let it be so. But you weren’t there. So let me tell it.”
He thereupon explained at great length how the insurgents had awoke, and how the muskets of the town’s deliverers had been levelled at them to reduce them to impotence. He added, however, that no blood, fortunately, had been shed. This last sentence disappointed his audience, who had counted upon one corpse at least.
“But I thought you fired,” interrupted Felicite, recognising that the story was wretchedly deficient in dramatic interest.
“Yes, yes, three shots,” resumed the old hosier. “The pork-butcher Dubruel, Monsieur Lievin, and Monsieur Massicot discharged their guns with really culpable alacrity.” And as there were some murmurs at this remark; “Culpable, I repeat the word,” he continued. “There are quite enough cruel necessities in warfare without any useless shedding of blood. Besides, these gentlemen swore to me that it was not their fault; they can’t understand how it was their guns went off. Nevertheless, a spent ball after ricocheting grazed the cheek of one of the insurgents and left a mark on it.”
This graze, this unexpected wound, satisfied the audience. Which cheek, right or left, had been grazed, and how was it that a bullet, a spent one, even, could strike a cheek without piercing it? These points supplied material for some long discussions.
“Meantime,” continued Rougon at the top of his voice, without giving time for the excitement to abate; “meantime we had plenty to do upstairs. The struggle was quite desperate.”
Then he described, at length, the arrival of his brother and the four other insurgents, without naming Macquart, whom he simply called “the leader.” The words, “the mayor’s office,” “the mayor’s arm-chair,” “the mayor’s writing table,” recurred to him every instant, and in the opinion of his audience imparted marvellous grandeur to the terrible scene. It was not at the porter’s lodge that the fight was now being waged, but in the private sanctum of the chief magistrate of the town. Roudier was quite cast in to the background. Then Rougon at last came to the episode which he had been keeping in reserve from the commencement, and which would certainly exalt him to the dignity of a hero.
“Thereupon,” said he, “an insurgent rushes upon me. I push the mayor’s arm-chair away, and seize the man by the throat. I hold him tightly, you may be sure of it! But my gun was in my way. I didn’t want to let it drop; a man always sticks to his gun. I held it, like this, under the left arm. All of a sudden, it went off —”
The whole audience hung on Rougon’s lips. But Granoux, who was opening his mouth wide with a violent itching to say something, shouted: “No, no, that isn’t right. You were not in a position to see things, my friend; you were fighting like a lion. But I saw everything, while I was helping to bind one of the prisoners. The man tried to murder you; it was he who fired the gun; I saw him distinctly slip his black fingers under your arm.”
“Really?” said Rougon, turning quite pale.
He did not know he had been in such danger, and the old almond merchant’s account of the incident chilled him with fright. Granoux, as a rule, did not lie; but, on a day of battle, it is surely allowable to view things dramatically.
“I tell you the man tried to murder you,” he repeated, with conviction.
“Ah,” said Rougon in a faint voice, “that’s how it is I heard the bullet whiz past my ear!”
At this, violent emotion came upon the audience. Everybody gazed at the hero with respectful awe. He had heard a bullet whiz past his ear! Certainly, none of the other bourgeois who were there could say as much. Felicite felt bound to rush into her husband’s arms so as to work up the emotion to boiling point. But Rougon immediately freed himself, and concluded his narrative with this heroic sentence, which has become famous at Plassans: “The shot goes off; I hear the bullet whiz past my ear; and whish! it smashes the mayor’s mirror.”
This caused complete consternation. Such a magnificent mirror, too! It was scarcely credible! the damage done to that looking-glass almost out-balanced Rougon’s heroism, in the estimation of the company. The glass became an object of absorbing interest, and they talked about it for a quarter of an hour, with many exclamations and expressions of regret, as though it had been some dear friend that had been stricken to the heart. This was the culminating point that Rougon had aimed at, the denouement of his wonderful Odyssey. A loud hubbub of voices filled the yellow drawing-room. The visitors were repeating what they had just heard, and every now and then one of them would leave a group to ask the three heroes the exact truth with regard to some contested incident. The heroes set the matter right with scrupulous minuteness, for they felt that they were speaking for history!
At last Rougon and his two lieutenants announced that they were expected at the town-hall. Respectful silence was then restored, and the company smiled at each other discreetly. Granoux was swelling with importance. He was the only one who had seen the insurgent pull the trigger and smash the mirror; this sufficed to exalt him, and almost made him burst his skin. On leaving the drawing-room, he took Roudier’s arm with the air of a great general who is broken down with fatigue. “I’ve been up for thirty-six hours,” he murmured, “and heaven alone knows when I shall get to bed!”
Rougon, as he withdrew, took Vuillet aside and told him that the party of order relied more than ever on him and the “Gazette.” He would have to publish an effective article to reassure the inhabitants and treat the band of villains who had passed through Plassans as it deserved.
“Be easy!” replied Vuillet. “In the ordinary course the ‘Gazette’ ought not to appear till tomorrow morning, but I’ll issue it this very evening.”
When the leaders had left, the rest of the visitors remained in the yellow drawing-room for another moment, chattering like so many old women, whom the escape of a canary has gathered together on the pavement. These retired tradesmen, oil dealers, and wholesale hatters, felt as if they were in a sort of fairyland. Never had they experienced such thrilling excitement before. They could not get over their surprise at discovering such heroes as Rougon, Granoux, and Roudier in their midst. At last, half stifled by the stuffy atmosphere, and tired of ever telling each other the same things, they decided to go off and spread the momentous news abroad. They glided away one by one, each anxious to have the glory of being the first to know and relate everything, and Felicite, as she leaned out of the window, on being left alone, saw them dispersing in the Rue de la Banne, waving their arms in an excited manner, eager as they were to diffuse emotion to the four corners of the town.
It was ten o’clock, and Plassans, now wide awake, was running about the streets, wildly excited by the reports which were circulating. Those who had seen or heard the insurrectionary forces, related the most foolish stories, contradicting each other, and indulging in the wildest suppositions. The majority, however, knew nothing at all about the matter; they lived at the further end of the town, and listened with gaping mouths, like children to a nursery tale, to the stories of how several thousand bandits had invaded the streets during the night and vanished before daybreak like an army of phantoms. A few of the most sceptical said: “Nonsense!” Yet some of the details were very precise; and Plassans at last felt convinced that some frightful danger had passed over it while it slept. The darkness which had shrouded this danger, the various contradictory reports that spread, all invested the matter with mystery and vague horror, which made the bravest shudder. Whose hand had diverted the thunderbolt from them? There seemed to be something quite miraculous about it. There were rumours of unknown deliverers, of a handful of brave men who had cut off the hydra’s head; but no one seemed acquainted with the exact particulars, and the whole story appeared scarcely credible, until the company from the yellow drawing-room spread through the streets, scattering tidings, ever repeating the same narrative at each door they came to.
It was like a train of powder. In a few minutes the story had spread from one end of the town to the other. Rougon’s name flew from mouth to mouth, with exclamations of surprise in the new town, and of praise in the old quarter. The idea of being without a sub-prefect, a mayor, a postmaster, a receiver of taxes, or authorities of any kind, at first threw the inhabitants into consternation. They were stupefied at having been able to sleep through the night and get up as usual, in the absence of any settled government. Their first stupor over, they threw themselves recklessly into the arms of their liberators. The few Republicans shrugged their shoulders, but the petty shopkeepers, the small householders, the Conservatives of all shades, invoked blessings on those modest heroes whose achievements had been shrouded by the night. When it was known that Rougon had arrested his own brother, the popular admiration knew no bounds. People talked of Brutus, and thus the indiscretion which had made Pierre rather anxious, really redounded to his glory. At this moment when terror still hovered over them, the townsfolk were virtually unanimous in their gratitude. Rougon was accepted as their saviour without the slightest show of opposition.
“Just think of it!” the poltroons exclaimed, “there were only forty-one of them!”
That number of forty-one amazed the whole town, and this was the origin of the Plassans legend of how forty-one bourgeois had made three thousand insurgents bite the dust. There were only a few envious spirits of the new town, lawyers without work and retired military men ashamed of having slept ingloriously through that memorable night, who raised any doubts. The insurgents, these sceptics hinted, had no doubt left the town of their own accord. There were no indications of a combat, no corpses, no blood-stains. So the deliverers had certainly had a very easy task.
“But the mirror, the mirror!” repeated the enthusiasts. “You can’t deny that the mayor’s mirror has been smashed; go and see it for yourselves.”
And, in fact, until night-time, quite a stream of town’s-people flowed, under one pretext or another, into the mayor’s private office, the door of which Rougon left wide open. The visitors planted themselves in front of the mirror, which the bullet had pierced and starred, and they all gave vent to the same exclamation: “By Jove; that ball must have had terrible force!”
Then they departed quite convinced.
Felicite, at her window, listened with delight to all the rumours and laudatory and grateful remarks which arose from the town. At that moment all Plassans was talking of her husband. She felt that the two districts below her were quivering, wafting her the hope of approaching triumph. Ah! how she would crush that town which she had been so long in getting beneath her feet! All her grievances crowded back to her memory, and her past disappointments redoubled her appetite for immediate enjoyment.
At last she left the window, and walked slowly round the drawing-room. It was there that, a little while previously, everybody had held out their hands to her husband and herself. He and she had conquered; the citizens were at their feet. The yellow drawing-room seemed to her a holy place. The dilapidated furniture, the frayed velvet, the chandelier soiled with fly-marks, all those poor wrecks now seemed to her like the glorious bullet-riddled debris of a battle-field. The plain of Austerlitz would not have stirred her to deeper emotion.
When she returned to the window, she perceived Aristide wandering about the place of the Sub–Prefecture, with his nose in the air. She beckoned to him to come up, which he immediately did. It seemed as if he had only been waiting for this invitation.
“Come in,” his mother said to him on the landing, seeing that he hesitated. “Your father is not here.”
Aristide evinced all the shyness of a prodigal son returning home. He had not been inside the yellow drawing-room for nearly four years. He still carried his arm in a sling.
“Does your hand still pain you?” his mother asked him, ironically.
He blushed as he answered with some embarrassment: “Oh! it’s getting better; it’s nearly well again now.”
Then he lingered there, loitering about and not knowing what to say. Felicite came to the rescue. “I suppose you’ve heard them talking about your father’s noble conduct?” she resumed.
He replied that the whole town was talking of it. And then, as he regained his self-possession, he paid his mother back for her raillery in her own coin. Looking her full in the face he added: “I came to see if father was wounded.”
“Come, don’t play the fool!” cried Felicite, petulantly. “If I were you I would act boldly and decisively. Confess now that you made a false move in joining those good-for-nothing Republicans. You would be very glad, I’m sure, to be well rid of them, and to return to us, who are the stronger party. Well, the house is open to you!”
But Aristide protested. The Republic was a grand idea. Moreover, the insurgents might still carry the day.
“Don’t talk nonsense to me!” retorted the old woman, with some irritation. “You’re afraid that your father won’t have a very warm welcome for you. But I’ll see to that. Listen to me: go back to your newspaper, and, between now and tomorrow, prepare a number strongly favouring the Coup d’Etat. To-morrow evening, when this number has appeared, come back here and you will be received with open arms.”
Then seeing that the young man remained silent: “Do you hear?” she added, in a lower and more eager tone; “it is necessary for our sake, and for your own, too, that it should be done. Don’t let us have any more nonsense and folly. You’ve already compromised yourself enough in that way.”
The young man made a gesture — the gesture of a Caesar crossing the Rubicon — and by doing so escaped entering into any verbal engagement. As he was about to withdraw, his mother, looking for the knot in his sling, remarked: “First of all, you must let me take off this rag. It’s getting a little ridiculous, you know!”
Aristide let her remove it. When the silk handkerchief was untied, he folded it neatly and placed it in his pocket. And as he kissed his mother he exclaimed: “Till tomorrow then!”
In the meanwhile, Rougon was taking official possession of the mayor’s offices. There were only eight municipal councillors left; the others were in the hands of the insurgents, as well as the mayor and his two assessors. The eight remaining gentlemen, who were all on a par with Granoux, perspired with fright when the latter explained to them the critical situation of the town. It requires an intimate knowledge of the kind of men who compose the municipal councils of some of the smaller towns, in order to form an idea of the terror with which these timid folk threw themselves into Rougon’s arms. At Plassans, the mayor had the most incredible blockheads under him, men without any ideas of their own, and accustomed to passive obedience. Consequently, as Monsieur Garconnet was no longer there, the municipal machine was bound to get out of order, and fall completely under the control of the man who might know how to set it working. Moreover, as the sub-prefect had left the district, Rougon naturally became sole and absolute master of the town; and thus, strange to relate, the chief administrative authority fell into the hands of a man of indifferent repute, to whom, on the previous evening, not one of his fellow-citizens would have lent a hundred francs.
Pierre’s first act was to declare the Provisional Commission “en permanence.” Then he gave his attention to the organisation of the national guard, and succeeded in raising three hundred men. The hundred and nine muskets left in the cart-shed were also distributed to volunteers, thereby bringing up the number of men armed by the reactionary party to one hundred and fifty; the remaining one hundred and fifty guards consisted of well-affected citizens and some of Sicardot’s soldiers. When Commander Roudier reviewed the little army in front of the town-hall, he was annoyed to see the market-people smiling in their sleeves. The fact is that several of his men had no uniforms, and some of them looked very droll with their black hats, frock-coats, and muskets. But, at any rate, they meant well. A guard was left at the town-hall and the rest of the forces were sent in detachments to the various town gates. Roudier reserved to himself the command of the guard stationed at the Grand’-Porte, which seemed to be more liable to attack than the others.
Rougon, who now felt very conscious of his power, repaired to the Rue Canquoin to beg the gendarmes to remain in their barracks and interfere with nothing. He certainly had the doors of the gendarmerie opened — the keys having been carried off by the insurgents — but he wanted to triumph alone, and had no intention of letting the gendarmes rob him of any part of his glory. If he should really have need of them he could always send for them. So he explained to them that their presence might tend to irritate the working-men and thus aggravate the situation. The sergeant in command thereupon complimented him on his prudence. When Rougon was informed that there was a wounded man in the barracks, he asked to see him, by way of rendering himself popular. He found Rengade in bed, with his eye bandaged, and his big moustaches just peeping out from under the linen. With some high-sounding words about duty, Rougon endeavoured to comfort the unfortunate fellow who, having lost an eye, was swearing with exasperation at the thought that his injury would compel him to quit the service. At last Rougon promised to send the doctor to him.
“I’m much obliged to you, sir,” Rengade replied; “but, you know, what would do me more good than any quantity of doctor’s stuff would be to wring the neck of the villain who put my eye out. Oh! I shall know him again; he’s a little thin, palish fellow, quite young.”
Thereupon Pierre bethought himself of the blood he had seen on Silvere’s hand. He stepped back a little, as though he was afraid that Rengade would fly at his throat, and cry: “It was your nephew who blinded me; and you will have to pay for it.” And whilst he was mentally cursing his disreputable family, he solemnly declared that if the guilty person were found he should be punished with all the rigour of the law.
“No, no, it isn’t worth all that trouble,” the one-eyed man replied; “I’ll just wring his neck for him when I catch him.”
Rougon hastened back to the town-hall. The afternoon was employed in taking various measures. The proclamation posted up about one o’clock produced an excellent impression. It ended by an appeal to the good sense of the citizens, and gave a firm assurance that order would not again be disturbed. Until dusk, in fact, the streets presented a picture of general relief and perfect confidence. On the pavements, the groups who were reading the proclamation exclaimed:
“It’s all finished now; we shall soon see the troops who have been sent in pursuit of the insurgents.”
This belief that some soldiers were approaching was so general that the idles of the Cours Sauvaire repaired to the Nice road, in order to meet and hear the regimental band. But they returned at nightfall disappointed, having seen nothing; and then a feeling of vague alarm began to disturb the townspeople.
At the town-hall, the Provisional Commission had talked so much, without coming to any decision, that the members, whose stomachs were quite empty, began to feel alarmed again. Rougon dismissed them to dine, saying that they would meet afresh at nine o’clock in the evening. He was just about to leave the room himself, when Macquart awoke and began to pommel the door of his prison. He declared he was hungry, then asked what time it was, and when his brother had told him it was five o’clock, he feigned great astonishment, and muttered, with diabolical malice, that the insurgents had promised to return much earlier, and that they were very slow in coming to deliver him. Rougon, having ordered some food to be taken to him, went downstairs, quite worried by the earnestness with which the rascal spoke of the return of the insurgents.
When he reached the street, his disquietude increased. The town seemed to him quite altered. It was assuming a strange aspect; shadows were gliding along the footpaths, which were growing deserted and silent, while gloomy fear seemed, like fine rain, to be slowly, persistently falling with the dusk over the mournful-looking houses. The babbling confidence of the daytime was fatally terminating in groundless panic, in growing alarm as the night drew nearer; the inhabitants were so weary and so satiated with their triumph that they had no strength left but to dream of some terrible retaliation on the part of the insurgents. Rougon shuddered as he passed through this current of terror. He hastened his steps, feeling as if he would choke. As he passed a cafe on the Place des Recollets, where the lamps had just been lit, and where the petty cits of the new town were assembled, he heard a few words of terrifying conversation.
“Well! Monsieur Picou,” said one man in a thick voice, “you’ve heard the news? The regiment that was expected has not arrived.”
“But nobody expected any regiment, Monsieur Touche,” a shrill voice replied.
“I beg your pardon. You haven’t read the proclamation, then?”
“Oh yes, it’s true the placards declare that order will be maintained by force, if necessary.”
“You see, then, there’s force mentioned; that means armed forces, of course.”
“What do people say then?”
“Well, you know, folks are beginning to feel rather frightened; they say that this delay on the part of the soldiers isn’t natural, and that the insurgents may well have slaughtered them.”
A cry of horror resounded through the cafe. Rougon was inclined to go in and tell those bourgeois that the proclamation had never announced the arrival of a regiment, that they had no right to strain its meaning to such a degree, nor to spread such foolish theories abroad. But he himself, amidst the disquietude which was coming over him, was not quite sure he had not counted upon a despatch of troops; and he did, in fact, consider it strange that not a single soldier had made his appearance. So he reached home in a very uneasy state of mind. Felicite, still petulant and full of courage, became quite angry at seeing him upset by such silly trifles. Over the dessert she comforted him.
“Well, you great simpleton,” she said, “so much the better, if the prefect does forget us! We shall save the town by ourselves. For my part, I should like to see the insurgents return, so that we might receive them with bullets and cover ourselves with glory. Listen to me, go and have the gates closed, and don’t go to bed; bustle about all night; it will all be taken into account later on.”
Pierre returned to the town-hall in rather more cheerful spirits. He required some courage to remain firm amidst the woeful maunderings of his colleagues. The members of the Provisional Commission seemed to reek with panic, just as they might with damp in the rainy season. They all professed to have counted upon the despatch of a regiment, and began to exclaim that brave citizens ought not to be abandoned in such a manner to the fury of the rabble. Pierre, to preserve peace, almost promised they should have a regiment on the morrow. Then he announced, in a solemn manner, that he was going to have the gates closed. This came as a relief. Detachments of the national guards had to repair immediately to each gate and double-lock it. When they had returned, several members confessed that they really felt more comfortable; and when Pierre remarked that the critical situation of the town imposed upon them the duty of remaining at their posts, some of them made arrangements with the view of spending the night in an arm-chair. Granoux put on a black silk skull cap which he had brought with him by way of precaution. Towards eleven o’clock, half of the gentlemen were sleeping round Monsieur Garconnet’s writing table. Those who still managed to keep their eyes open fancied, as they listened to the measured tramp of the national guards in the courtyard, that they were heroes and were receiving decorations. A large lamp, placed on the writing-table, illumined this strange vigil. All at once, however, Rougon, who had seemed to be slumbering, jumped up, and sent for Vuillet. He had just remembered that he had not received the “Gazette.”
The bookseller made his appearance in a very bad humour.
“Well!” Rougon asked him as he took him aside, “what about the article you promised me? I haven’t seen the paper.”
“Is that what you disturbed me for?” Vuillet angrily retorted. “The ‘Gazette’ has not been issued; I’ve no desire to get myself murdered tomorrow, should the insurgents come back.”
Rougon tried to smile as he declared that, thank heaven, nobody would be murdered at all. It was precisely because false and disquieting rumours were running about that the article in question would have rendered great service to the good cause.
“Possibly,” Vuillet resumed; “but the best of causes at the present time is to keep one’s head on one’s shoulders.” And he added, with maliciousness, “And I was under the impression you had killed all the insurgents! You’ve left too many of them for me to run any risk.”
Rougon, when he was alone again, felt amazed at this mutiny on the part of a man who was usually so meek and mild. Vuillet’s conduct seemed to him suspicious. But he had no time to seek an explanation; he had scarcely stretched himself out afresh in his arm-chair, when Roudier entered, with a big sabre, which he had attached to his belt, clattering noisily against his legs. The sleepers awoke in a fright. Granoux thought it was a call to arms.
“Eh? what! What’s the matter?” he asked, as he hastily put his black silk cap into his pocket.
“Gentlemen,” said Roudier, breathlessly, without thinking of taking any oratorical precautions, “I believe that a band of insurgents is approaching the town.”
These words were received with the silence of terror. Rougon alone had the strength to ask, “Have you seen them?”
“No,” the retired hosier replied; “but we hear strange noises out in the country; one of my men assured me that he had seen fires along the slope of the Garrigues.”
Then, as all the gentlemen stared at each other white and speechless, “I’ll return to my post,” he continued. “I fear an attack. You had better take precautions.”
Rougon would have followed him, to obtain further particulars, but he was already too far away. After this the Commission was by no means inclined to go to sleep again. Strange noises! Fires! An attack! And in the middle of the night too! It was very easy to talk of taking precautions, but what were they to do? Granoux was very near advising the course which had proved so successful the previous evening: that is of hiding themselves, waiting till the insurgents has passed through Plassans, and then triumphing in the deserted streets. Pierre, however, fortunately remembering his wife’s advice, said that Roudier might have made a mistake, and that the best thing would be to go and see for themselves. Some of the members made a wry face at this suggestion; but when it had been agreed that an armed escort should accompany the Commission, they all descended very courageously. They only left a few men downstairs; they surrounded themselves with about thirty of the national guards, and then they ventured into the slumbering town, where the moon, creeping over the house roofs, slowly cast lengthened shadows. They went along the ramparts, from one gate to the other, seeing nothing and hearing nothing. The national guards at the various posts certainly told them that peculiar sounds occasionally reached them from the country through the closed gates. When they strained their ears, however, they detected nothing but a distant murmur, which Granoux said was merely the noise of the Viorne.
Nevertheless they remained doubtful. And they were about to return to the town-hall in a state of alarm, though they made a show of shrugging their shoulders and of treating Roudier as a poltroon and a dreamer, when Rougon, anxious to reassure them, thought of enabling them to view the plain over a distance of several leagues. Thereupon he led the little company to the Saint–Marc quarter and knocked at the door of the Valqueyras mansion.
At the very outset of the disturbances Count de Valqueyras had left for his chateau at Corbiere. There was no one but the Marquis de Carnavant at the Plassans house. He, since the previous evening, had prudently kept aloof; not that he was afraid, but because he did not care to be seen plotting with the Rougons at the critical moment. As a matter of fact, he was burning with curiosity. He had been compelled to shut himself up in order to resist the temptation of hastening to the yellow drawing-room. When the footman came to tell him, in the middle of the night, that there were some gentlemen below asking for him, he could not hold back any longer. He got up and went downstairs in all haste.
“My dear Marquis,” said Rougon, as he introduced to him the members of the Municipal Commission, “we want to ask a favour of you. Will you allow us to go into the garden of the mansion?”
“By all means,” replied the astonished marquis, “I will conduct you there myself.”
On the way thither he ascertained what their object was. At the end of the garden rose a terrace which overlooked the plain. A large portion of the ramparts had there tumbled in, leaving a boundless prospect to the view. It had occurred to Rougon that this would serve as an excellent post of observation. While conversing together the members of the Commission leaned over the parapet. The strange spectacle that spread out before them soon made them silent. In the distance, in the valley of the Viorne, across the vast hollow which stretched westward between the chain of the Garrigues and the mountains of the Seille, the rays of the moon were streaming like a river of pale light. The clumps of trees, the gloomy rocks, looked, here and there, like islets and tongues of land, emerging from a luminous sea; and, according to the bends of the Viorne one could now and again distinguish detached portions of the river, glittering like armour amidst the fine silvery dust falling from the firmament. It all looked like an ocean, a world, magnified by the darkness, the cold, and their own secret fears. At first the gentlemen could neither hear nor see anything. The quiver of light and of distant sound blinded their eyes and confused their ears. Granoux, though he was not naturally poetic, was struck by the calm serenity of that winter night, and murmured: “What a beautiful night, gentlemen!”
“Roudier was certainly dreaming,” exclaimed Rougon, rather disdainfully.
But the marquis, whose ears were quick, had begun to listen. “Ah!” he observed in his clear voice, “I hear the tocsin.”
At this they all leant over the parapet, holding their breath. And light and pure as crystal the distant tolling of a bell rose from the plain. The gentlemen could not deny it. It was indeed the tocsin. Rougon pretended that he recognised the bell of Beage, a village fully a league from Plassans. This he said in order to reassure his colleagues.
But the marquis interrupted him. “Listen, listen: this time it is the bell of Saint–Maur.” And he indicated another point of the horizon to them. There was, in fact, a second bell wailing through the clear night. And very soon there were ten bells, twenty bells, whose despairing tollings were detected by their ears, which had by this time grown accustomed to the quivering of the darkness. Ominous calls rose from all sides, like the faint rattles of dying men. Soon the whole plain seemed to be wailing. The gentlemen no longer jeered at Roudier; particularly as the marquis, who took a malicious delight in terrifying them, was kind enough to explain the cause of all this bell-ringing.
“It is the neighbouring villages,” he said to Rougon, “banding together to attack Plassans at daybreak.”
At this Granoux opened his eyes wide. “Didn’t you see something just this moment over there?” he asked all of a sudden.
Nobody had looked; the gentlemen had been keeping their eyes closed in order to hear the better.
“Ah! look!” he resumed after a short pause. “There, beyond the Viorne, near that black mass.”
“Yes, I see,” replied Rougon, in despair; “it’s a fire they’re kindling.”
A moment later another fire appeared almost immediately in front of the first one, then a third, and a fourth. In this wise red splotches appeared at nearly equal distances throughout the whole length of the valley, resembling the lamps of some gigantic avenue. The moonlight, which dimmed their radiance, made them look like pools of blood. This melancholy illumination gave a finishing touch to the consternation of the Municipal Commission.
“Of course!” the marquis muttered, with his bitterest sneer, “those brigands are signalling to each other.” And he counted the fires complacently, to get some idea, he said, as to how many men “the brave national guard of Plassans” would have to deal with. Rougon endeavoured to raise doubts by saying the villages were taking up arms in order to join the army of the insurgents, and not for the purpose of attacking the town. But the gentlemen, by their silent consternation, made it clear that they had formed their own opinion, and were not to be consoled.
“I can hear the ‘Marseillaise’ now,” remarked Granoux in a hushed voice.
It was indeed true. A detachment must have been following the course of the Viorne, passing, at that moment, just under the town. The cry, “To arms, citizens! Form your battalions!” reached the on-lookers in sudden bursts with vibrating distinctness. Ah! what an awful night it was! The gentlemen spent it leaning over the parapet of the terrace, numbed by the terrible cold, and yet quite unable to tear themselves away from the sight of that plain which resounded with the tocsin and the “Marseillaise,” and was all ablaze with signal-fires. They feasted their eyes upon that sea of light, flecked with blood-red flames; and they strained their ears in order to listen to the confused clamour, till at last their senses began to deceive them, and they saw and heard the most frightful things. Nothing in the world would have induced them to leave the spot. If they had turned their backs, they would have fancied that a whole army was at their heels. After the manner of a certain class of cowards, they wished to witness the approach of the danger, in order that they might take flight at the right moment. Towards morning, when the moon had set and they could see nothing in front of them but a dark void, they fell into a terrible fright. They fancied they were surrounded by invisible enemies, who were crawling along in the darkness, ready to fly at their throats. At the slightest noise they imagined there were enemies deliberating beneath the terrace, prior to scaling it. Yet there was nothing, nothing but darkness upon which they fixed their eyes distractedly. The marquis, as if to console them, said in his ironical way: “Don’t be uneasy! They will certainly wait till daybreak.”
Meanwhile Rougon cursed and swore. He felt himself again giving way to fear. As for Granoux, his hair turned completely white. At last the dawn appeared with weary slowness. This again was a terribly anxious moment. The gentlemen, at the first ray of light, expected to see an army drawn up in line before the town. It so happened that day that the dawn was lazy and lingered awhile on the edge of the horizon. With outstretched necks and fixed gaze, the party on the terrace peered anxiously into the misty expanse. In the uncertain light they fancied they caught glimpses of colossal profiles, the plain seemed to be transformed into a lake of blood, the rocks looked like corpses floating on its surface, and the clusters of trees took the forms of battalions drawn up and threatening attack. When the growing light had at last dispersed these phantoms, the morning broke so pale, so mournful, so melancholy, that even the marquis’s spirits sank. Not a single insurgent was to be seen, and the high roads were free; but the grey valley wore a gruesomely sad and deserted aspect. The fires had now gone out, but the bells still rang on. Towards eight o’clock, Rougon observed a small party of men who were moving off along the Viorne.
By this time the gentlemen were half dead with cold and fatigue. Seeing no immediate danger, they determined to take a few hours’ rest. A national guard was left on the terrace as a sentinel, with orders to run and inform Roudier if he should perceive any band approaching in the distance. Then Granoux and Rougon, quite worn out by the emotions of the night, repaired to their homes, which were close together, and supported each other on the way.
Felicite put her husband to bed with every care. She called him “poor dear,” and repeatedly told him that he ought not to give way to evil fancies, and that all would end well. But he shook his head; he felt grave apprehensions. She let him sleep till eleven o’clock. Then, after he had had something to eat, she gently turned him out of doors, making him understand that he must go through with the matter to the end. At the town-hall, Rougon found only four members of the Commission in attendance; the others had sent excuses, they were really ill. Panic had been sweeping through the town with growing violence all through the morning. The gentlemen had not been able to keep quiet respecting the memorable night they had spent on the terrace of the Valqueyras mansion. Their servants had hastened to spread the news, embellishing it with various dramatic details. By this time it had already become a matter of history that from the heights of Plassans troops of cannibals had been seen dancing and devouring their prisoners. Yes, bands of witches had circled hand in hand round their caldrons in which they were boiling children, while on and on marched endless files of bandits, whose weapons glittered in the moonlight. People spoke too of bells that of their own accord, sent the tocsin ringing through the desolate air, and it was even asserted that the insurgents had fired the neighbouring forests, so that the whole country side was in flames.
It was Tuesday, the market-day at Plassans, and Roudier had thought it necessary to have the gates opened in order to admit the few peasants who had brought vegetables, butter, and eggs. As soon as it had assembled, the Municipal Commission, now composed of five members only, including its president, declared that this was unpardonable imprudence. Although the sentinel stationed at the Valqueyras mansion had seen nothing, the town ought to have been kept closed. Then Rougon decided that the public crier, accompanied by a drummer, should go through the streets, proclaim a state of siege, and announce to the inhabitants that whoever might go out would not be allowed to return. The gates were officially closed in broad daylight. This measure, adopted in order to reassure the inhabitants, raised the scare to its highest pitch. And there could scarcely have been a more curious sight than that of this little city, thus padlocking and bolting itself up beneath the bright sunshine, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
When Plassans had buckled and tightened its belt of dilapidated ramparts, when it had bolted itself in like a besieged fortress at the approach of an assault, the most terrible anguish passed over the mournful houses. At every moment, in the centre of the town, people fancied they could hear a discharge of musketry in the Faubourgs. They no longer received any news; they were, so to say, at the bottom of a cellar, in a walled hole, where they were anxiously awaiting either deliverance or the finishing stroke. For the last two days the insurgents, who were scouring the country, had cut off all communication. Plassans found itself isolated from the rest of France. It felt that it was surrounded by a region in open rebellion, where the tocsin was ever ringing and the “Marseillaise” was ever roaring like a river that has overflowed its banks. Abandoned to its fate and shuddering with alarm the town lay there like some prey which would prove the reward of the victorious party. The strollers on the Cours Sauvaire were ever swaying between fear and hope according as they fancied that they could see the blouses of insurgents or the uniforms of soldiers at the Grand’-Porte. Never had sub-prefecture, pent within tumble-down walls, endured more agonising torture.
Towards two o’clock it was rumoured that the Coup d’Etat had failed, that the prince-president was imprisoned at Vincennes, and that Paris was in the hands of the most advanced demagogues. It was reported also that Marseilles, Toulon, Draguignan, the entire South, belonged to the victorious insurrectionary army. The insurgents would arrive in the evening and put Plassans to the sword.
Thereupon a deputation repaired to the town-hall to expostulate with the Municipal Commission for closing the gates, whereby they would only irritate the insurgents. Rougon, who was losing his head, defended his order with all his remaining strength. This locking of the gates seemed to him one of the most ingenious acts of his administration; he advanced the most convincing arguments in its justification. But the others embarrassed him by their questions, asking him where were the soldiers, the regiment that he had promised. Then he began to lie, and told them flatly that he had promised nothing at all. The non-appearance of this legendary regiment, which the inhabitants longed for with such eagerness that they had actually dreamt of its arrival, was the chief cause of the panic. Well-informed people even named the exact spot on the high road where the soldiers had been butchered.
At four o’clock Rougon, followed by Granoux, again repaired to the Valqueyras mansion. Small bands, on their way to join the insurgents at Orcheres, still passed along in the distance, through the valley of the Viorne. Throughout the day urchins climbed the ramparts, and bourgeois came to peep through the loopholes. These volunteer sentinels kept up the terror by counting the various bands, which were taken for so many strong battalions. The timorous population fancied it could see from the battlements the preparations for some universal massacre. At dusk, as on the previous evening, the panic became yet more chilling.
On returning to the municipal offices Rougon and his inseparable companion, Granoux, recognised that the situation was growing intolerable. During their absence another member of the Commission had disappeared. They were only four now, and they felt they were making themselves ridiculous by staying there for hours, looking at each other’s pale countenances, and never saying a word. Moreover, they were terribly afraid of having to spend a second night on the terrace of the Valqueyras mansion.
Rougon gravely declared that as the situation of affairs was unchanged, there was no need for them to continue to remain there en permanence. If anything serious should occur information would be sent to them. And, by a decision duly taken in council, he deputed to Roudier the carrying on of the administration. Poor Roudier, who remembered that he had served as a national guard in Paris under Louis–Philippe, was meantime conscientiously keeping watch at the Grand’-Porte.
Rougon went home looking very downcast, and creeping along under the shadows of the houses. He felt that Plassans was becoming hostile to him. He heard his name bandied about amongst the groups, with expressions of anger and contempt. He walked upstairs, reeling and perspiring. Felicite received him with speechless consternation. She, also, was beginning to despair. Their dreams were being completely shattered. They stood silent, face to face, in the yellow drawing-room. The day was drawing to a close, a murky winter day which imparted a muddy tint to the orange-coloured wall-paper with its large flower pattern; never had the room looked more faded, more mean, more shabby. And at this hour they were alone; they no longer had a crowd of courtiers congratulating them, as on the previous evening. A single day had sufficed to topple them over, at the very moment when they were singing victory. If the situation did not change on the morrow their game would be lost.
Felicite who, when gazing on the previous evening at the ruins of the yellow drawing-room, had thought of the plains of Austerlitz, now recalled the accursed field of Waterloo as she observed how mournful and deserted the place was. Then, as her husband said nothing, she mechanically went to the window — that window where she had inhaled with delight the incense of the entire town. She perceived numerous groups below on the square, but she closed the blinds upon seeing some heads turn towards their house, for she feared that she might be hooted. She felt quite sure that those people were speaking about them.
Indeed, voices rose through the twilight. A lawyer was clamouring in the tone of a triumphant pleader. “That’s just what I said; the insurgents left of their own accord, and they won’t ask the permission of the forty-one to come back. The forty-one indeed! a fine farce! Why, I believe there were at least two hundred.”
“No, indeed,” said a burly trader, an oil-dealer and a great politician, “there were probably not even ten. There was no fighting or else we should have seen some blood in the morning. I went to the town-hall myself to look; the courtyard was as clean as my hand.”
Then a workman, who stepped timidly up to the group, added: “There was no need of any violence to seize the building; the door wasn’t even shut.”
This remark was received with laughter, and the workman, thus encouraged, continued: “As for those Rougons, everybody knows that they are a bad lot.”
This insult pierced Felicite to the heart. The ingratitude of the people was heartrending to her, for she herself was at last beginning to believe in the mission of the Rougons. She called for her husband. She wanted him to learn how fickle was the multitude.
“It’s all a piece with their mirror,” continued the lawyer. “What a fuss they made about that broken glass! You know that Rougon is quite capable of having fired his gun at it just to make believe there had been a battle.”
Pierre restrained a cry of pain. What! they did not even believe in his mirror now! They would soon assert that he had not heard a bullet whiz past his ear. The legend of the Rougons would be blotted out; nothing would remain of their glory. But his torture was not at an end yet. The groups manifested their hostility as heartily as they had displayed their approval on the previous evening. A retired hatter, an old man seventy years of age, whose factory had formerly been in the Faubourg, ferreted out the Rougons’ past history. He spoke vaguely, with the hesitation of a wandering memory, about the Fouques’ property, and Adelaide, and her amours with a smuggler. He said just enough to give a fresh start to the gossip. The tattlers drew closer together and such words as “rogues,” “thieves,” and “shameless intriguers,” ascended to the shutter behind which Pierre and Felicite were perspiring with fear and indignation. The people on the square even went so far as to pity Macquart. This was the final blow. On the previous day Rougon had been a Brutus, a stoic soul sacrificing his own affections to his country; now he was nothing but an ambitious villain, who felled his brother to the ground and made use of him as a stepping-stone to fortune.
“You hear, you hear them?” Pierre murmured in a stifled voice. “Ah! the scoundrels, they are killing us; we shall never retrieve ourselves.”
Felicite, enraged, was beating a tattoo on the shutter with her impatient fingers.
“Let them talk,” she answered. “If we get the upper hand again they shall see what stuff I’m made of. I know where the blow comes from. The new town hates us.”
She guessed rightly. The sudden unpopularity of the Rougons was the work of a group of lawyers who were very much annoyed at the importance acquired by an old illiterate oil-dealer, whose house had been on the verge of bankruptcy. The Saint–Marc quarter had shown no sign of life for the last two days. The inhabitants of the old quarter and the new town alone remained in presence, and the latter had taken advantage of the panic to injure the yellow drawing-room in the minds of the tradespeople and working-classes. Roudier and Granoux were said to be excellent men, honourable citizens, who had been led away by the Rougons’ intrigues. Their eyes ought to be opened to it. Ought not Monsieur Isidore Granoux to be seated in the mayor’s arm-chair, in the place of that big portly beggar who had not a copper to bless himself with? Thus launched, the envious folks began to reproach Rougon for all the acts of his administration, which only dated from the previous evening. He had no right to retain the services of the former Municipal Council; he had been guilty of grave folly in ordering the gates to be closed; it was through his stupidity that five members of the Commission had contracted inflammation of the lungs on the terrace of the Valqueyras mansion. There was no end to his faults. The Republicans likewise raised their heads. They talked of the possibility of a sudden attack upon the town-hall by the workmen of the Faubourg. The reaction was at its last gasp.
Pierre, at this overthrow of all his hopes, began to wonder what support he might still rely on if occasion should require any.
“Wasn’t Aristide to come here this evening,” he asked, “to make it up with us?”
“Yes,” answered Felicite. “He promised me a good article. The ‘Independant’ has not appeared yet —”
But her husband interrupted her, crying: “See! isn’t that he who is just coming out of the Sub–Prefecture?”
The old woman glanced in that direction. “He’s got his arm in a sling again!” she cried.
Aristide’s hand was indeed wrapped in the silk handkerchief once more. The Empire was breaking up, but the Republic was not yet triumphant, and he had judged it prudent to resume the part of a disabled man. He crossed the square stealthily, without raising his head. Then doubtless hearing some dangerous and compromising remarks among the groups of bystanders, he made all haste to turn the corner of the Rue de la Banne.
“Bah! he won’t come here,” said Felicite bitterly. “It’s all up with us. Even our children forsake us!”
She shut the window violently, in order that she might not see or hear anything more. When she had lit the lamp, she and her husband sat down to dinner, disheartened and without appetite, leaving most of their food on their plates. They only had a few hours left them to take a decisive step. It was absolutely indispensable that before daybreak Plassans should be at their feet beseeching forgiveness, or else they must entirely renounce the fortune which they had dreamed of. The total absence of any reliable news was the sole cause of their anxious indecision. Felicite, with her clear intellect, had quickly perceived this. If they had been able to learn the result of the Coup d’Etat, they would either have faced it out and have still pursued their role of deliverers, or else have done what they could to efface all recollection of their unlucky campaign. But they had no precise information; they were losing their heads; the thought that they were thus risking their fortune on a throw, in complete ignorance of what was happening, brought a cold perspiration to their brows.
“And why the devil doesn’t Eugene write to me?” Rougon suddenly cried, in an outburst of despair, forgetting that he was betraying the secret of his correspondence to his wife.
But Felicite pretended not to have heard. Her husband’s exclamation had profoundly affected her. Why, indeed, did not Eugene write to his father? After keeping him so accurately informed of the progress of the Bonapartist cause, he ought at least to have announced the triumph or defeat of Prince Louis. Mere prudence would have counselled the despatch of such information. If he remained silent, it must be that the victorious Republic had sent him to join the pretender in the dungeons of Vincennes. At this thought Felicite felt chilled to the marrow; her son’s silence destroyed her last hopes.
At that moment somebody brought up the “Gazette,” which had only just appeared.
“Ah!” said Pierre, with surprise. “Vuillet has issued his paper!”
Thereupon he tore off the wrapper, read the leading article, and finished it looking as white as a sheet, and swaying on his chair.
“Here, read,” he resumed, handing the paper to Felicite.
It was a magnificent article, attacking the insurgents with unheard of violence. Never had so much stinging bitterness, so many falsehoods, such bigoted abuse flowed from pen before. Vuillet commenced by narrating the entry of the insurgents into Plassans. The description was a perfect masterpiece. He spoke of “those bandits, those villainous-looking countenances, that scum of the galleys,” invading the town, “intoxicated with brandy, lust, and pillage.” Then he exhibited them “parading their cynicism in the streets, terrifying the inhabitants with their savage cries and seeking only violence and murder.” Further on, the scene at the town-hall and the arrest of the authorities became a most horrible drama. “Then they seized the most respectable people by the throat; and the mayor, the brave commander of the national guard, the postmaster, that kindly functionary, were — even like the Divinity — crowned with thorns by those wretches, who spat in their faces.” The passage devoted to Miette and her red pelisse was quite a flight of imagination. Vuillet had seen ten, twenty girls steeped in blood: “and who,” he wrote, “did not behold among those monsters some infamous creatures clothed in red, who must have bathed themselves in the blood of the martyrs murdered by the brigands along the high roads? They were brandishing banners, and openly receiving the vile caresses of the entire horde.” And Vuillet added, with Biblical magniloquence, “The Republic ever marches on amidst debauchery and murder.”
That, however, was only the first part of the article; the narrative being ended, the editor asked if the country would any longer tolerate “the shamelessness of those wild beasts, who respected neither property nor persons.” He made an appeal to all valorous citizens, declaring that to tolerate such things any longer would be to encourage them, and that the insurgents would then come and snatch “the daughter from her mother’s arms, the wife from her husband’s embraces.” And at last, after a pious sentence in which he declared that Heaven willed the extermination of the wicked, he concluded with this trumpet blast: “It is asserted that these wretches are once more at our gates; well then let each one of us take a gun and shoot them down like dogs. I for my part shall be seen in the front rank, happy to rid the earth of such vermin.”
This article, in which periphrastic abuse was strung together with all the heaviness of touch which characterises French provincial journalism, quite terrified Rougon, who muttered, as Felicite replaced the “Gazette” on the table: “Ah! the wretch! he is giving us the last blow; people will believe that I inspired this diatribe.”
“But,” his wife remarked, pensively, “did you not this morning tell me that he absolutely refused to write against the Republicans? The news that circulated had terrified him, and he was as pale as death, you said.”
“Yes! yes! I can’t understand it at all. When I insisted, he went so far as to reproach me for not having killed all the insurgents. It was yesterday that he ought to have written that article; today he’ll get us all butchered!”
Felicite was lost in amazement. What could have prompted Vuillet’s change of front? The idea of that wretched semi-sacristan carrying a musket and firing on the ramparts of Plassans seemed to her one of the most ridiculous things imaginable. There was certainly some determining cause underlying all this which escaped her. Only one thing seemed certain. Vuillet was too impudent in his abuse and too ready with his valour, for the insurrectionary band to be really so near the town as some people asserted.
“He’s a spiteful fellow, I always said so,” Rougon resumed, after reading the article again. “He has only been waiting for an opportunity to do us this injury. What a fool I was to leave him in charge of the post-office!”
This last sentence proved a flash of light. Felicite started up quickly, as though at some sudden thought. Then she put on a cap and threw a shawl over her shoulders.
“Where are you going, pray?” her husband asked her with surprise. “It’s past nine o’clock.”
“You go to bed,” she replied rather brusquely, “you’re not well; go and rest yourself. Sleep on till I come back; I’ll wake you if necessary, and then we can talk the matter over.”
She went out with her usual nimble gait, ran to the post-office, and abruptly entered the room where Vuillet was still at work. On seeing her he made a hasty gesture of vexation.
Never in his life had Vuillet felt so happy. Since he had been able to slip his little fingers into the mail-bag he had enjoyed the most exquisite pleasure, the pleasure of an inquisitive priest about to relish the confessions of his penitents. All the sly blabbing, all the vague chatter of sacristies resounded in his ears. He poked his long, pale nose into the letters, gazed amorously at the superscriptions with his suspicious eyes, sounded the envelopes just like little abbes sound the souls of maidens. He experienced endless enjoyment, was titillated by the most enticing temptation. The thousand secrets of Plassans lay there. He held in his hand the honour of women, the fortunes of men, and had only to break a seal to know as much as the grand vicar at the cathedral who was the confidant of all the better people of the town. Vuillet was one of those terribly bitter, frigid gossips, who worm out everything, but never repeat what they hear, except by way of dealing somebody a mortal blow. He had, consequently, often longed to dip his arms into the public letter-box. Since the previous evening the private room at the post-office had become a big confessional full of darkness and mystery, in which he tasted exquisite rapture while sniffing at the letters which exhaled veiled longings and quivering avowals. Moreover, he carried on his work with consummate impudence. The crisis through which the country was passing secured him perfect impunity. If some letters should be delayed, or others should miscarry altogether, it would be the fault of those villainous Republicans who were scouring the country and interrupting all communication. The closing of the town gates had for a moment vexed him, but he had come to an understanding with Roudier, whereby the couriers were allowed to enter and bring the mails direct to him without passing by the town-hall.
As a matter of fact he had only opened a few letters, the important ones, those in which his keen scent divined some information which it would be useful for him to know before anybody else. Then he contented himself by locking up in a drawer, for delivery subsequently, such letters as might give information and rob him of the merit of his valour at a time when the whole town was trembling with fear. This pious personage, in selecting the management of the post-office as his own share of the spoils, had given proof of singular insight into the situation.
When Madame Rougon entered, he was taking his choice of a heap of letters and papers, under the pretext, no doubt, of classifying them. He rose, with his humble smile, and offered her a seat; his reddened eyelids blinking rather uneasily. But Felicite did not sit down; she roughly exclaimed: “I want the letter.”
At this Vuillet’s eyes opened widely, with an expression of perfect innocence.
“What letter, madame?” he asked.
“The letter you received this morning for my husband. Come, Monsieur Vuillet, I’m in a hurry.”
And as he stammered that he did not know, that he had not seen anything, that it was very strange, Felicite continued in a covertly threatening voice: “A letter from Paris, from my son, Eugene; you know what I mean, don’t you? I’ll look for it myself.”
Thereupon she stepped forward as if intending to examine the various packets which littered the writing table. But he at once bestirred himself, and said he would go and see. The service was necessarily in great confusion! Perhaps, indeed, there might be a letter. In that case they would find it. But, as far as he was concerned, he swore he had not seen any. While he was speaking he moved about the office turning over all the papers. Then he opened the drawers and the portfolios. Felicite waited, quite calm and collected.
“Yes, indeed, you’re right, here’s a letter for you,” he cried at last, as he took a few papers from a portfolio. “Ah! those confounded clerks, they take advantage of the situation to do nothing in the proper way.”
Felicite took the letter and examined the seal attentively, apparently quite regardless of the fact that such scrutiny might wound Vuillet’s susceptibilities. She clearly perceived that the envelope must have been opened; the bookseller, in his unskilful way, had used some sealing wax of a darker colour to secure it again. She took care to open the envelope in such a manner as to preserve the seal intact, so that it might serve as proof of this. Then she read the note. Eugene briefly announced the complete success of the Coup d’Etat. Paris was subdued, the provinces generally speaking remained quiet, and he counselled his parents to maintain a very firm attitude in face of the partial insurrection which was disturbing the South. In conclusion he told them that the foundation of their fortune was laid, if they did not weaken.
Madame Rougon put the letter in her pocket, and sat down slowly, looking into Vuillet’s face. The latter had resumed his sorting in a feverish manner, as though he were very busy.
“Listen to me, Monsieur Vuillet,” she said to him. And when he raised his head: “let us play our cards openly; you do wrong to betray us; some misfortune may befall you. If, instead of unsealing our letters —”
At this he protested, and feigned great indignation. But she calmly continued: “I know, I know your school, you never confess. Come, don’t let us waste any more words, what interest have you in favouring the Coup d’Etat?”
And, as he continued to assert his perfect honesty, she at last lost patience. “You take me for a fool!” she cried. “I’ve read your article. You would do much better to act in concert with us.”
Thereupon, without avowing anything, he flatly submitted that he wished to have the custom of the college. Formerly it was he who had supplied that establishment with school books. But it had become known that he sold objectionable literature clandestinely to the pupils; for which reason, indeed, he had almost been prosecuted at the Correctional Police Court. Since then he had jealously longed to be received back into the good graces of the directors.
Felicite was surprised at the modesty of his ambition, and told him so. To open letters and risk the galleys just for the sake of selling a few dictionaries and grammars!
“Eh!” he exclaimed in a shrill voice, “it’s an assured sale of four or five thousand francs a year. I don’t aspire to impossibilities like some people.”
She did not take any notice of his last taunting words. No more was said about his opening the letters. A treaty of alliance was concluded, by which Vuillet engaged that he would not circulate any news or take any step in advance, on condition that the Rougons should secure him the custom of the college. As she was leaving, Felicite advised him not to compromise himself any further. It would be sufficient for him to detain the letters and distribute them only on the second day.
“What a knave,” she muttered, when she reached the street, forgetting that she herself had just laid an interdict upon the mail.
She went home slowly, wrapped in thought. She even went out of her way, passing along the Cours Sauvaire, as if to gain time and ease for reflection before going in. Under the trees of the promenade she met Monsieur de Carnavant, who was taking advantage of the darkness to ferret about the town without compromising himself. The clergy of Plassans, to whom all energetic action was distasteful, had, since the announcement of the Coup d’Etat, preserved absolute neutrality. In the priests’ opinion the Empire was virtually established, and they awaited an opportunity to resume in some new direction their secular intrigues. The marquis, who had now become a useless agent, remained only inquisitive on one point — he wished to know how the turmoil would finish, and in what manner the Rougons would play their role to the end.
“Oh! it’s you, little one!” he exclaimed, as soon as he recognized Felicite. “I wanted to see you; your affairs are getting muddled!”
“Oh, no; everything is going on all right,” she replied, in an absent-minded way.
“So much the better. You’ll tell me all about it, won’t you? Ah! I must confess that I gave your husband and his colleagues a terrible fright the other night. You should have seen how comical they looked on the terrace, while I was pointing out a band of insurgents in every cluster of trees in the valley! You forgive me?”
“I’m much obliged to you,” said Felicite quickly. “You should have made them die of fright. My husband is a big sly-boots. Come and see me some morning, when I am alone.”
Then she turned away, as though this meeting with the marquis had determined her. From head to foot the whole of her little person betokened implacable resolution. At last she was going to revenge herself on Pierre for his petty mysteries, have him under her heel, and secure, once for all, her omnipotence at home. There would be a fine scene, quite a comedy, indeed, the points of which she was already enjoying in anticipation, while she worked out her plan with all the spitefulness of an injured woman.
She found Pierre in bed, sleeping heavily; she brought the candle near him for an instant, and gazed with an air of compassion, at his big face, across which slight twitches occasionally passed; then she sat down at the head of the bed, took off her cap, let her hair fall loose, assumed the appearance of one in despair, and began to sob quite loudly.
“Hallo! What’s the matter? What are you crying for?” asked Pierre, suddenly awaking.
She did not reply, but cried more bitterly.
“Come, come, do answer,” continued her husband, frightened by this mute despair. “Where have you been? Have you seen the insurgents?”
She shook her head; then, in a faint voice, she said: “I’ve just come from the Valqueyras mansion. I wanted to ask Monsieur de Carnavant’s advice. Ah! my dear, all is lost.”
Pierre sat up in bed, very pale. His bull neck, which his unbuttoned night-shirt exposed to view, all his soft, flabby flesh seemed to swell with terror. At last he sank back, pale and tearful, looking like some grotesque Chinese figure in the middle of the untidy bed.
“The marquis,” continued Felicite, “thinks that Prince Louis has succumbed. We are ruined; we shall never get a sou.”
Thereupon, as often happens with cowards, Pierre flew into a passion. It was the marquis’s fault, it was his wife’s fault, the fault of all his family. Had he ever thought of politics at all, until Monsieur de Carnavant and Felicite had driven him to that tomfoolery?
“I wash my hands of it altogether,” he cried. “It’s you two who are responsible for the blunder. Wasn’t it better to go on living on our little savings in peace and quietness? But then, you were always determined to have your own way! You see what it has brought us to.”
He was losing his head completely, and forgot that he had shown himself as eager as his wife. However, his only desire now was to vent his anger, by laying the blame of his ruin upon others.
“And, moreover,” he continued, “could we ever have succeeded with children like ours? Eugene abandons us just at the critical moment; Aristide has dragged us through the mire, and even that big simpleton Pascal is compromising us by his philanthropic practising among the insurgents. And to think that we brought ourselves to poverty simply to give them a university education!”
Then, as he drew breath, Felicite said to him softly: “You are forgetting Macquart.”
“Ah! yes; I was forgetting him,” he resumed more violently than ever; “there’s another whom I can’t think of without losing all patience! But that’s not all; you know little Silvere. Well, I saw him at my mother’s the other evening with his hands covered with blood. He has put some gendarme’s eye out. I did not tell you of it, as I didn’t want to frighten you. But you’ll see one of my nephews in the Assize Court. Ah! what a family! As for Macquart, he has annoyed us to such an extent that I felt inclined to break his head for him the other day when I had a gun in my hand. Yes, I had a mind to do it.”
Felicite let the storm pass over. She had received her husband’s reproaches with angelic sweetness, bowing her head like a culprit, whereby she was able to smile in her sleeve. Her demeanour provoked and maddened Pierre. When speech failed the poor man, she heaved deep sighs, feigning repentance; and then she repeated, in a disconsolate voice: “Whatever shall we do! Whatever shall we do! We are over head and ears in debt.”
“It’s your fault!” Pierre cried, with all his remaining strength.
The Rougons, in fact, owed money on every side. The hope of approaching success had made them forget all prudence. Since the beginning of 1851 they had gone so far as to entertain the frequenters of the yellow drawing-room every evening with syrup and punch, and cakes — providing, in fact, complete collations, at which they one and all drank to the death of the Republic. Besides this, Pierre had placed a quarter of his capital at the disposal of the reactionary party, as a contribution towards the purchase of guns and cartridges.
“The pastry-cook’s bill amounts to at least a thousand francs,” Felicite resumed, in her sweetest tone, “and we probably owe twice as much to the liqueur-dealer. Then there’s the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer ——”
Pierre was in agony. And Felicite struck him a final blow by adding: “I say nothing of the ten thousand francs you gave for the guns.”
“I, I!” he faltered, “but I was deceived, I was robbed! It was that idiot Sicardot who let me in for that by swearing that the Napoleonists would be triumphant. I thought I was only making an advance. But the old dolt will have to repay me my money.”
“Ah! you won’t get anything back,” said his wife, shrugging her shoulders. “We shall suffer the fate of war. When we have paid off everything, we sha’n’t even have enough to buy dry bread with. Ah! it’s been a fine campaign. We can now go and live in some hovel in the old quarter.”
This last phrase had a most lugubrious sound. It seemed like the knell of their existence. Pierre pictured the hovel in the old quarter, which had just been mentioned by Felicite. ’Twas there, then, that he would die on a pallet, after striving all his life for the enjoyment of ease and luxury. In vain had he robbed his mother, steeped his hands in the foulest intrigues, and lied and lied for many a long year. The Empire would not pay his debts — that Empire which alone could save him. He jumped out of bed in his night-shirt, crying: “No; I’ll take my gun; I would rather let the insurgents kill me.”
“Well!” Felicite rejoined, with great composure, “you can have that done tomorrow or the day after; the Republicans are not far off. And that way will do as well as another to make an end of matters.”
Pierre shuddered. It seemed as if some one had suddenly poured a large pail of cold water over his shoulders. He slowly got into bed again, and when he was warmly wrapped up in the sheets, he began to cry. This fat fellow easily burst into tears — gently flowing, inexhaustible tears — which streamed from his eyes without an effort. A terrible reaction was now going on within him. After his wrath he became as weak as a child. Felicite, who had been waiting for this crisis, was delighted to see him so spiritless, so resourceless, and so humbled before her. She still preserved silence, and an appearance of distressed humility. After a long pause, her seeming resignation, her mute dejection, irritated Pierre’s nerves.
“But do say something!” he implored; “let us think matters over together. Is there really no hope left us?”
“None, you know very well,” she replied; “you explained the situation yourself just now; we have no help to expect from anyone; even our children have betrayed us.”
“Let us flee, then. Shall we leave Plassans to-night — immediately?”
“Flee! Why, my dear, tomorrow we should be the talk of the whole town. Don’t you remember, too, that you have had the gates closed?”
A violent struggle was going on in Pierre’s mind, which he exerted to the utmost in seeking for some solution; at last, as though he felt vanquished, he murmured, in supplicating tones: “I beseech you, do try to think of something; you haven’t said anything yet.”
Felicite raised her head, feigning surprise; and with a gesture of complete powerlessness she said: “I am a fool in these matters. I don’t understand anything about politics, you’ve told me so a hundred times.”
And then, as her embarrassed husband held his tongue and lowered his eyes, she continued slowly, but not reproachfully: “You have not kept me informed of your affairs, have you? I know nothing at all about them, I can’t even give you any advice. It was quite right of you, though; women chatter sometimes, and it is a thousand times better for the men to steer the ship alone.”
She said this with such refined irony that her husband did not detect that she was deriding him. He simply felt profound remorse. And, all of a sudden, he burst out into a confession. He spoke of Eugene’s letters, explained his plans, his conduct, with all the loquacity of a man who is relieving his conscience and imploring a saviour. At every moment he broke off to ask: “What would you have done in my place?” or else he cried, “Isn’t that so? I was right, I could not act otherwise.” But Felicite did not even deign to make a sign. She listened with all the frigid reserve of a judge. In reality she was tasting the most exquisite pleasure; she had got that sly-boots fast at last; she played with him like a cat playing with a ball of paper; and he virtually held out his hands to be manacled by her.
“But wait,” he said hastily, jumping out of bed. “I’ll give you Eugene’s correspondence to read. You can judge the situation better then.”
She vainly tried to hold him back by his night-shirt. He spread out the letters on the table by the bed-side, and then got into bed again, and read whole pages of them, and compelled her to go through them herself. She suppressed a smile, and began to feel some pity for the poor man.
“Well,” he said anxiously, when he had finished, “now you know everything. Do you see any means of saving us from ruin!”
She still gave no answer. She appeared to be pondering deeply.
“You are an intelligent woman,” he continued, in order to flatter her, “I did wrong in keeping any secret from you; I see it now.”
“Let us say nothing more about that,” she replied. “In my opinion, if you had enough courage ——” And as he looked at her eagerly, she broke off and said, with a smile: “But you promise not to distrust me any more? You will tell me everything, eh? You will do nothing without consulting me?”
He swore, and accepted the most rigid conditions. Felicite then got into bed; and in a whisper, as if she feared somebody might hear them, she explained at length her plan of campaign. In her opinion the town must be allowed to fall into still greater panic, while Pierre was to maintain an heroic demeanour in the midst of the terrified inhabitants. A secret presentiment, she said, warned her that the insurgents were still at a distance. Moreover, the party of order would sooner or later carry the day, and the Rougons would be rewarded. After the role of deliverer, that of martyr was not to be despised. And she argued so well, and spoke with so much conviction, that her husband, surprised at first by the simplicity of her plan, which consisted in facing it out, at last detected in it a marvellous tactical scheme, and promised to conform to it with the greatest possible courage.
“And don’t forget that it is I who am saving you,” the old woman murmured in a coaxing tone. “Will you be nice to me?”
They kissed each other and said good-night. But neither of them slept; after a quarter of an hour had gone by, Pierre, who had been gazing at the round reflection of the night-lamp on the ceiling, turned, and in a faint whisper told his wife of an idea that had just occurred to him.
“Oh! no, no,” Felicite murmured, with a shudder. “That would be too cruel.”
“Well,” he resumed, “but you want to spread consternation among the inhabitants! They would take me seriously, if what I told you should occur.” Then perfecting his scheme, he cried: “We might employ Macquart. That would be a means of getting rid of him.”
Felicite seemed to be struck with the idea. She reflected, seemed to hesitate, and then, in a distressful tone faltered: “Perhaps you are right. We must see. After all we should be very stupid if we were over-scrupulous, for it’s a matter of life and death to us. Let me do it. I’ll see Macquart tomorrow, and ascertain if we can come to an understanding with him. You would only wrangle and spoil all. Good-night; sleep well, my poor dear. Our troubles will soon be ended, you’ll see.”
They again kissed each other and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, that stared wildly and fixedly upon the pale, slumbering couple who reeked with crime beneath their very sheets, and dreamt they could see a rain of blood falling in big drops which turned into golden coins as they plashed upon the floor.
On the morrow, before daylight, Felicite repaired to the town-hall, armed with instructions from Pierre to seek an interview with Macquart. She took her husband’s national guard uniform with her, wrapped in a cloth. There were only a few men fast asleep in the guard-house. The doorkeeper, who was entrusted with the duty of supplying Macquart with food, went upstairs with her to open the door of the dressing-room, which had been turned into a cell. Then quietly he came down again.
Macquart had now been kept in the room for two days and two nights. He had had time to indulge in lengthy reflections. After his sleep, his first hours had been given up to outbursts of impotent rage. Goaded by the idea that his brother was lording it in the adjoining room, he had felt a great longing to break the door open. At all events he would strangle Rougon with his own hands, as soon as the insurgents should return and release him. But, in the evening, at twilight, he calmed down, and gave over striding furiously round the little room. He inhaled a sweet odour there; a feeling of comfort relaxed his nerves. Monsieur Garconnet, who was very rich, refined, and vain, had caused this little room to be arranged in a very elegant fashion; the sofa was soft and warm; scents, pomades, and soaps adorned the marble washstand, and the pale light fell from the ceiling with a soft glow, like the gleams of a lamp suspended in an alcove. Macquart, amidst this perfumed soporific atmosphere fell asleep, thinking that those scoundrels, the rich, “were very fortunate, all the same.” He had covered himself with a blanket which had been given to him, and with his head and back and arms reposing on the cushions, he stretched himself out on the couch until morning. When he opened his eyes, a ray of sunshine was gliding through the opening above. Still he did not leave the sofa. He felt warm, and lay thinking as he gazed around him. He bethought himself that he would never again have such a place to wash in. The washstand particularly interested him. It was by no means hard, he thought, to keep oneself spruce when one had so many little pots and phials at one’s disposal. This made him think bitterly of his own life of privation. The idea occurred to him that perhaps he had been on the wrong track. There is nothing to be gained by associating with beggars. He ought to have played the scamp; he should have acted in concert with the Rougons.
Then, however, he rejected this idea. The Rougons were villains who had robbed him. But the warmth and softness of the sofa, continued to work upon his feelings, and fill him with vague regrets. After all, the insurgents were abandoning him, and allowing themselves to be beaten like idiots. Eventually he came to the conclusion that the Republic was mere dupery. Those Rougons were lucky! And he recalled his own bootless wickedness and underhand intrigues. Not one member of the family had ever been on his side; neither Aristide, nor Silvere’s brother, nor Silvere himself, who was a fool to grow so enthusiastic about the Republic and would never do any good for himself. Then Macquart reflected that his wife was dead, that his children had left him, and that he would die alone, like a dog in some wretched corner, without a copper to bless himself with. Decidedly, he ought to have sold himself to the reactionary party. Pondering in this fashion, he eyed the washstand, feeling a strong inclination to go and wash his hands with a certain powder soap which he saw in a glass jar. Like all lazy fellows who live upon their wives or children, he had foppish tastes. Although he wore patched trousers, he liked to inundate himself with aromatic oil. He spent hours with his barber, who talked politics, and brushed his hair for him between their discussions. So, at last, the temptation became too strong, and Macquart installed himself before the washstand. He washed his hands and face, dressed his hair, perfumed himself, in fact went through a complete toilet. He made use in turn of all the bottles, all the various soaps and powders; but his greatest pleasure was to dry his hands with the mayor’s towels, which were so soft and thick. He buried his wet face in them, and inhaled, with delight, all the odour of wealth. Then, having pomaded himself, and smelling sweetly from head to foot, he once more stretched himself on the sofa, feeling quite youthful again, and disposed to the most conciliatory thoughts. He felt yet greater contempt for the Republic since he had dipped his nose into Monsieur Garconnet’s phials. The idea occurred to him that there was, perhaps, still time for him to make peace with his brother. He wondered what he might well ask in return for playing the traitor. His rancour against the Rougons still gnawed at his heart; but he was in one of those moods when, lying on one’s back in silence, one is apt to admit stern facts, and scold oneself for neglecting to feather a comfortable nest in which one may wallow in slothful ease, even at the cost of relinquishing one’s most cherished animosities. Towards evening Antoine determined to send for his brother on the following day. But when, in the morning, he saw Felicite enter the room he understood that his aid was wanted, so he remained on his guard.
The negotiations were long and full of pitfalls, being conducted on either side with infinite skill. At first they both indulged in vague complaints, then Felicite, who was surprised to find Macquart almost polite, after the violent manner in which he had behaved at her house on the Sunday evening, assumed a tone of gentle reproach. She deplored the hatred which severed their families. But, in truth, he had so calumniated his brother, and manifested such bitter animosity towards him, that he had made poor Rougon quite lose his head.
“But, dash it, my brother has never behaved like a brother to me,” Macquart replied, with restrained violence. “Has he ever given me any assistance? He would have let me die in my hovel! When he behaved differently towards me — you remember, at the time he gave me two hundred francs — I am sure no one can reproach me with having said a single unpleasant word about him. I said everywhere that he was a very good-hearted fellow.”
This clearly signified: “If you had continued to supply me with money, I should have been very pleasant towards you, and would have helped you, instead of fighting against you. It’s your own fault. You ought to have bought me.”
Felicite understood this so well that she replied: “I know you have accused us of being hard upon you, because you imagine we are in comfortable circumstances; but you are mistaken, my dear brother; we are poor people; we have never been able to act towards you as our hearts would have desired.” She hesitated a moment, and then continued: “If it were absolutely necessary in some serious contingency, we might perhaps be able to make a sacrifice; but, truly, we are very poor, very poor!”
Macquart pricked up his ears. “I have them!” he thought. Then, without appearing to understand his sister-inlaw’s indirect offer, he detailed the wretchedness of his life in a doleful manner, and spoke of his wife’s death and his children’s flight. Felicite, on her side, referred to the crisis through which the country was passing, and declared that the Republic had completely ruined them. Then from word to word she began to bemoan the exigencies of a situation which compelled one brother to imprison another. How their hearts would bleed if justice refused to release its prey! And finally she let slip the word “galleys!”
“Bah! I defy you,” said Macquart calmly.
But she hastily exclaimed: “Oh! I would rather redeem the honour of the family with my own blood. I tell you all this to show you that we shall not abandon you. I have come to give you the means of effecting your escape, my dear Antoine.”
They gazed at each other for a moment, sounding each other with a look, before engaging in the contest.
“Unconditionally?” he asked, at length.
“Without any condition,” she replied.
Then she sat down beside him on the sofa, and continued, in a determined voice: “And even, before crossing the frontier, if you want to earn a thousand-franc note, I can put you in the way of doing so.”
There was another pause.
“If it’s all above board I shall have no objection,” Antoine muttered, apparently reflecting. “You know I don’t want to mix myself up with your underhand dealings.”
“But there are no underhand dealings about it,” Felicite resumed, smiling at the old rascal’s scruples. “Nothing can be more simple: you will presently leave this room, and go and conceal yourself in your mother’s house, and this evening you can assemble your friends and come and seize the town-hall again.”
Macquart did not conceal his extreme surprise. He did not understand it at all.
“I thought,” he said, “that you were victorious.”
“Oh! I haven’t got time now to tell you all about it,” the old woman replied, somewhat impatiently. “Do you accept or not?”
“Well, no; I don’t accept — I want to think it over. It would be very stupid of me to risk a possible fortune for a thousand francs.”
Felicite rose. “Just as you like my dear fellow,” she said, coldly. “You don’t seem to realise the position you are in. You came to my house and treated me as though I were a mere outcast; and then, when I am kind enough to hold out a hand to you in the hole into which you have stupidly let yourself fall, you stand on ceremony, and refuse to be rescued. Well, then, stay here, wait till the authorities come back. As for me, I wash my hands of the whole business.”
With these words she reached the door.
“But give me some explanations,” he implored. “I can’t strike a bargain with you in perfect ignorance of everything. For two days past I have been quite in the dark as to what’s going on. How do I know that you are not cheating me?”
“Bah! you’re a simpleton,” replied Felicite, who had retraced her steps at Antoine’s doleful appeal. “You are very foolish not to trust yourself implicitly to us. A thousand francs! That’s a fine sum, a sum that one would only risk in a winning cause. I advise you to accept.”
He still hesitated.
“But when we want to seize the place, shall we be allowed to enter quietly?”
“Ah! I don’t know,” she said, with a smile. “There will perhaps be a shot or two fired.”
He looked at her fixedly.
“Well, but I say, little woman,” he resumed in a hoarse voice, “you don’t intend, do you, to have a bullet lodged in my head?”
Felicite blushed. She was, in fact, just thinking that they would be rendered a great service, if, during the attack on the town-hall, a bullet should rid them of Antoine. It would be a gain of a thousand francs, besides all the rest. So she muttered with irritation: “What an idea! Really, it’s abominable to think such things!”
Then, suddenly calming down, she added:
“Do you accept? You understand now, don’t you?”
Macquart had understood perfectly. It was an ambush that they were proposing to him. He did not perceive the reasons or the consequences of it, and this was what induced him to haggle. After speaking of the Republic as though it were a mistress whom, to his great grief, he could no longer love, he recapitulated the risks which he would have to run, and finished by asking for two thousand francs. But Felicite abided by her original offer. They debated the matter until she promised to procure him, on his return to France, some post in which he would have nothing to do, and which would pay him well. The bargain was then concluded. She made him don the uniform she had brought with her. He was to betake himself quietly to aunt Dide’s, and afterwards, towards midnight, assemble all the Republicans he could in the neighbourhood of the town-hall, telling them that the municipal offices were unguarded, and that they had only to push open the door to take possession of them. Antoine then asked for earnest money, and received two hundred francs. Felicite undertook to pay the remaining eight hundred on the following day. The Rougons were risking the last sum they had at their disposal.
When Felicite had gone downstairs, she remained on the square for a moment to watch Macquart go out. He passed the guard-house, quietly blowing his nose. He had previously broken the skylight in the dressing-room, to make it appear that he had escaped that way.
“It’s all arranged,” Felicite said to her husband, when she returned home. “It will be at midnight. It doesn’t matter to me at all now. I should like to see them all shot. How they slandered us yesterday in the street!”
“It was rather silly of you to hesitate,” replied Pierre, who was shaving. “Every one would do the same in our place.”
That morning — it was a Wednesday — he was particularly careful about his toilet. His wife combed his hair and tied his cravat, turning him about like a child going to a distribution of prizes. And when he was ready, she examined him, declared that he looked very nice, and that he would make a very good figure in the midst of the serious events that were preparing. His big pale face wore an expression of grave dignity and heroic determination. She accompanied him to the first landing, giving him her last advice: he was not to depart in any way from his courageous demeanour, however great the panic might be; he was to have the gates closed more hermetically than ever, and leave the town in agonies of terror within its ramparts; it would be all the better if he were to appear the only one willing to die for the cause of order.
What a day it was! The Rougons still speak of it as of a glorious and decisive battle. Pierre went straight to the town-hall, heedless of the looks or words that greeted him on his way. He installed himself there in magisterial fashion, like a man who did not intend to quit the place, whatever might happen. And he simply sent a note to Roudier, to advise him that he was resuming authority.
“Keep watch at the gates,” he added, knowing that these lines might become public: “I myself will watch over the town and ensure the security of life and property. It is at the moment when evil passions reappear and threaten to prevail that good citizens should endeavour to stifle them, even at the peril of their lives.” The style, and the very errors in spelling, made this note — the brevity of which suggested the laconic style of the ancients — appear all the more heroic. Not one of the gentlemen of the Provisional Commission put in an appearance. The last two who had hitherto remained faithful, and Granoux himself, even, prudently stopped at home. Thus Rougon was the only member of the Commission who remained at his post, in his presidential arm-chair, all the others having vanished as the panic increased. He did not even deign to issue an order summoning them to attend. He was there, and that sufficed, a sublime spectacle, which a local journal depicted later on in a sentence: “Courage giving the hand to duty.”
During the whole morning Pierre was seen animating the town-hall with his goings and comings. He was absolutely alone in the large, empty building, whose lofty halls reechoed with the noise of his heels. All the doors were left open. He made an ostentatious show of his presidency over a non-existent council in the midst of this desert, and appeared so deeply impressed with the responsibility of his mission that the doorkeeper, meeting him two or three times in the passages, bowed to him with an air of mingled surprise and respect. He was seen, too, at every window, and, in spite of the bitter cold, he appeared several times on the balcony with bundles of papers in his hand, like a busy man attending to important despatches.
Then, towards noon, he passed through the town and visited the guard-houses, speaking of a possible attack, and letting it be understood, that the insurgents were not far off; but he relied, he said, on the courage of the brave national guards. If necessary they must be ready to die to the last man for the defence of the good cause. When he returned from this round, slowly and solemnly, after the manner of a hero who has set the affairs of his country in order, and now only awaits death, he observed signs of perfect stupor along his path; the people promenading in the Cours, the incorrigible little householders, whom no catastrophe would have prevented from coming at certain hours to bask in the sun, looked at him in amazement, as if they did not recognize him, and could not believe that one of their own set, a former oil-dealer, should have the boldness to face a whole army.
In the town the anxiety was at its height. The insurrectionists were expected every moment. The rumour of Macquart’s escape was commented upon in a most alarming manner. It was asserted that he had been rescued by his friends, the Reds, and that he was only waiting for nighttime in order to fall upon the inhabitants and set fire to the four corners of the town. Plassans, closed in and terror-stricken, gnawing at its own vitals within its prison-like walls, no longer knew what to imagine in order to frighten itself. The Republicans, in the face of Rougon’s bold demeanour, felt for a moment distrustful. As for the new town — the lawyers and retired tradespeople who had denounced the yellow drawing-room on the previous evening — they were so surprised that they dared not again openly attack such a valiant man. They contented themselves with saying “It was madness to brave victorious insurgents like that, and such useless heroism would bring the greatest misfortunes upon Plassans.” Then, at about three o’clock, they organised a deputation. Pierre, though he was burning with desire to make a display of his devotion before his fellow-citizens, had not ventured to reckon upon such a fine opportunity.
He spoke sublimely. It was in the mayor’s private room that the president of the Provisional Commission received the deputation from the new town. The gentlemen of the deputation, after paying homage to his patriotism, besought him to forego all resistance. But he, in a loud voice, talked of duty, of his country, of order, of liberty, and various other things. Moreover, he did not wish to compel any one to imitate him; he was simply discharging a duty which his conscience and his heart dictated to him.
“You see, gentlemen, I am alone,” he said in conclusion. “I will take all the responsibility, so that nobody but myself may be compromised. And if a victim is required I willingly offer myself; I wish to sacrifice my own life for the safety of the inhabitants.”
A notary, the wiseacre of the party, remarked that he was running to certain death.
“I know it,” he resumed solemnly. “I am prepared!”
The gentlemen looked at each other. Those words “I am prepared!” filled them with admiration. Decidedly this man was a brave fellow. The notary implored him to call in the aid of the gendarmes; but he replied that the blood of those brave soldiers was precious, and he would not have it shed, except in the last extremity. The deputation slowly withdrew, feeling deeply moved. An hour afterwards, Plassans was speaking of Rougon as of a hero; the most cowardly called him “an old fool.”
Towards evening, Rougon was much surprised to see Granoux hasten to him. The old almond-dealer threw himself in his arms, calling him “great man,” and declaring that he would die with him. The words “I am prepared!” which had just been reported to him by his maid-servant, who had heard it at the greengrocer’s, had made him quite enthusiastic. There was charming naivete in the nature of this grotesque, timorous old man. Pierre kept him with him, thinking that he would not be of much consequence. He was even touched by the poor fellow’s devotion, and resolved to have him publicly complimented by the prefect, in order to rouse the envy of the other citizens who had so cowardly abandoned him. And so both of them awaited the night in the deserted building.
At the same time Aristide was striding about at home in an uneasy manner. Vuillet’s article had astonished him. His father’s demeanour stupefied him. He had just caught sight of him at the window, in a white cravat and black frock-coat, so calm at the approach of danger that all his ideas were upset. Yet the insurgents were coming back triumphant, that was the belief of the whole town. But Aristide felt some doubts on the point; he had suspicions of some lugubrious farce. As he did not dare to present himself at his parents’ house, he sent his wife thither. And when Angele returned, she said to him, in her drawling voice: “Your mother expects you; she is not angry at all, she seems rather to be making fun of you. She told me several times that you could just put your sling back in your pocket.”
Aristide felt terribly vexed. However, he ran to the Rue de la Banne, prepared to make the most humble submission. His mother was content to receive him with scornful laughter. “Ah! my poor fellow,” said she, “you’re certainly not very shrewd.”
“But what can one do in a hole like Plassans!” he angrily retorted. “On my word of honour, I am becoming a fool here. No news, and everybody shivering! That’s what it is to be shut up in these villainous ramparts. Ah! If I had only been able to follow Eugene to Paris!”
Then, seeing that his mother was still smiling, he added bitterly: “You haven’t been very kind to me, mother. I know many things, I do. My brother kept you informed of what was going on, and you have never given me the faintest hint that might have been useful to me.”
“You know that, do you?” exclaimed Felicite, becoming serious and distrustful. “Well, you’re not so foolish as I thought, then. Do you open letters like some one of my acquaintance?”
“No; but I listen at doors,” Aristide replied, with great assurance.
This frankness did not displease the old woman. She began to smile again, and asked more softly: “Well, then, you blockhead, how is it you didn’t rally to us sooner?”
“Ah! that’s where it is,” the young man said, with some embarrassment. “I didn’t have much confidence in you. You received such idiots: my father-inlaw, Granoux, and the others! — And then, I didn’t want to go too far. . . . ” He hesitated, and then resumed, with some uneasiness: “To-day you are at least quite sure of the success of the Coup d’Etat, aren’t you?”
“I!” cried Felicite, wounded by her son’s doubts; “no, I’m not sure of anything.”
“And yet you sent word to say that I was to take off my sling!”
“Yes; because all the gentlemen are laughing at you.”
Aristide remained stock still, apparently contemplating one of the flowers of the orange-coloured wall-paper. And his mother felt sudden impatience as she saw him hesitating thus.
“Ah! well,” she said, “I’ve come back again to my former opinion; you’re not very shrewd. And you think you ought to have had Eugene’s letters to read? Why, my poor fellow you would have spoilt everything, with your perpetual vacillation. You never can make up your mind. You are hesitating now.”
“I hesitate?” he interrupted, giving his mother a cold, keen glance. “Ah! well, you don’t know me. I would set the whole town on fire if it were necessary, and I wanted to warm my feet. But, understand me, I’ve no desire to take the wrong road! I’m tired of eating hard bread, and I hope to play fortune a trick. But I only play for certainties.”
He spoke these words so sharply, with such a keen longing for success, that his mother recognised the cry of her own blood.
“Your father is very brave,” she whispered.
“Yes, I’ve seen him,” he resumed with a sneer. “He’s got a fine look on him! He reminded me of Leonidas at Thermopylae. Is it you, mother, who have made him cut this figure?”
And he added cheerfully, with a gesture of determination: “Well, so much the worse! I’m a Bonapartist! Father is not the man to risk the chance of being killed unless it pays him well.”
“You’re quite right,” his mother replied; “I mustn’t say anything; but tomorrow you’ll see.”
He did not press her, but swore that she would soon have reason to be proud of him; and then he took his departure, while Felicite, feeling her old preference reviving, said to herself at the window, as she watched him going off, that he had the devil’s own wit, that she would never have had sufficient courage to let him leave without setting him in the right path.
And now for the third time a night full of anguish fell upon Plassans. The unhappy town was almost at its death-rattle. The citizens hastened home and barricaded their doors with a great clattering of iron bolts and bars. The general feeling seemed to be that, by the morrow, Plassans would no longer exist, that it would either be swallowed up by the earth or would evaporate in the atmosphere. When Rougon went home to dine, he found the streets completely deserted. This desolation made him sad and melancholy. As a result of this, when he had finished his meal, he felt some slight misgivings, and asked his wife if it were necessary to follow up the insurrection that Macquart was preparing.
“Nobody will run us down now,” said he. “You should have seen those gentlemen of the new town, how they bowed to me! It seems to me quite unnecessary now to kill anybody — eh? What do you think? We shall feather our nest without that.”
“Ah! what a nerveless fellow you are!” Felicite cried angrily. “It was your own idea to do it, and now you back out! I tell you that you’ll never do anything without me! Go then, go your own way. Do you think the Republicans would spare you if they got hold of you?”
Rougon went back to the town-hall, and prepared for the ambush. Granoux was very useful to him. He despatched him with orders to the different posts guarding the ramparts. The national guards were to repair to the town-hall in small detachments, as secretly as possible. Roudier, that bourgeois who was quite out of his element in the provinces, and who would have spoilt the whole affair with his humanitarian preaching, was not even informed of it. Towards eleven o’clock, the court-yard of the town-hall was full of national guards. Then Rougon frightened them; he told them that the Republicans still remaining in Plassans were about to attempt a desperate coup de main, and plumed himself on having been warned in time by his secret police. When he had pictured the bloody massacre which would overtake the town, should these wretches get the upper hand, he ordered his men to cease speaking, and extinguish all lights. He took a gun himself. Ever since the morning he had been living as in a dream; he no longer knew himself; he felt Felicite behind him. The crisis of the previous night had thrown him into her hands, and he would have allowed himself to be hanged, thinking: “It does not matter, my wife will come and cut me down.” To augment the tumult, and prolong the terror of the slumbering town, he begged Granoux to repair to the cathedral and have the tocsin rung at the first shots he might hear. The marquis’s name would open the beadle’s door. And then, in darkness and dismal silence, the national guards waited in the yard, in a terrible state of anxiety, their eyes fixed on the porch, eager to fire, as though they were lying in wait for a pack of wolves.
In the meantime, Macquart had spent the day at aunt Dide’s house. Stretching himself on the old coffer, and lamenting the loss of Monsieur Garconnet’s sofa, he had several times felt a mad inclination to break into his two hundred francs at some neighbouring cafe. This money was burning a hole in his waistcoat pocket; however, he whiled away his time by spending it in imagination. His mother moved about, in her stiff, automatic way, as if she were not even aware of his presence. During the last few days her children had been coming to her rather frequently, in a state of pallor and desperation, but she departed neither from her taciturnity, nor her stiff, lifeless expression. She knew nothing of the fears which were throwing the pent-up town topsy-turvy, she was a thousand leagues away from Plassans, soaring into the one constant fixed idea which imparted such a blank stare to her eyes. Now and again, however, at this particular moment, some feeling of uneasiness, some human anxiety, occasionally made her blink. Antoine, unable to resist the temptation of having something nice to eat, sent her to get a roast chicken from an eating-house in the Faubourg. When it was set on the table: “Hey!” he said to her, “you don’t often eat fowl, do you? It’s only for those who work, and know how to manage their affairs. As for you, you always squandered everything. I bet you’re giving all your savings to that little hypocrite, Silvere. He’s got a mistress, the sly fellow. If you’ve a hoard of money hidden in some corner, he’ll ease you of it nicely some day.”
Macquart was in a jesting mood, glowing with wild exultation. The money he had in his pocket, the treachery he was preparing, the conviction that he had sold himself at a good price — all filled him with the self-satisfaction characteristic of vicious people who naturally became merry and scornful amidst their evil practices. Of all his talk, however, aunt Dide only heard Silvere’s name.
“Have you seen him?” she asked, opening her lips at last.
“Who? Silvere?” Antoine replied. “He was walking about among the insurgents with a tall red girl on his arm. It will serve him right if he gets into trouble.”
The grandmother looked at him fixedly, then, in a solemn voice, inquired: “Why?”
“Eh! Why, he shouldn’t be so stupid,” resumed Macquart, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “People don’t risk their necks for the sake of ideas. I’ve settled my own little business. I’m no fool.”
But aunt Dide was no longer listening to him. She was murmuring: “He had his hands covered with blood. They’ll kill him like the other one. His uncles will send the gendarmes after him.”
“What are you muttering there?” asked her son, as he finished picking the bones of the chicken. “You know I like people to accuse me to my face. If I have sometimes talked to the little fellow about the Republic, it was only to bring him round to a more reasonable way of thinking. He was dotty. I love liberty myself, but it mustn’t degenerate into license. And as for Rougon, I esteem him. He’s a man of courage and common-sense.”
“He had the gun, hadn’t he?” interrupted aunt Dide, whose wandering mind seemed to be following Silvere far away along the high road.
“The gun? Ah! yes; Macquart’s carbine,” continued Antoine, after casting a glance at the mantel-shelf, where the fire-arm was usually hung. “I fancy I saw it in his hands. A fine instrument to scour the country with, when one has a girl on one’s arm. What a fool!”
Then he thought he might as well indulge in a few coarse jokes. Aunt Dide had begun to bustle about the room again. She did not say a word. Towards the evening Antoine went out, after putting on a blouse, and pulling over his eyes a big cap which his mother had bought for him. He returned into the town in the same manner as he had quitted it, by relating some nonsensical story to the national guards who were on duty at the Rome Gate. Then he made his way to the old quarter, where he crept from house to house in a mysterious manner. All the Republicans of advanced views, all the members of the brotherhood who had not followed the insurrectionary army, met in an obscure inn, where Macquart had made an appointment with them. When about fifty men were assembled, he made a speech, in which he spoke of personal vengeance that must be wreaked, of a victory that must be gained, and of a disgraceful yoke that must be thrown off. And he ended by undertaking to deliver the town-hall over to them in ten minutes. He had just left it, it was quite unguarded, he said, and the red flag would wave over it that very night if they so desired. The workmen deliberated. At that moment the reaction seemed to be in its death throes. The insurgents were virtually at the gates of the town. It would therefore be more honourable to make an effort to regain power without awaiting their return, so as to be able to receive them as brothers, with the gates wide open, and the streets and squares adorned with flags. Moreover, none of those present distrusted Macquart. His hatred of the Rougons, the personal vengeance of which he spoke, could be taken as guaranteeing his loyalty. It was arranged that each of them who was a sportsman and had a gun at home should fetch it, and that the band should assemble at midnight in the neighbourhood of the town-hall. A question of detail very nearly put an end to their plans — they had no bullets; however, they decided to load their weapons with small shot: and even that seemed unnecessary, as they were told that they would meet with no resistance.
Once more Plassans beheld a band of armed men filing along close to the houses, in the quiet moonlight. When the band was assembled in front of the town-hall, Macquart, while keeping a sharp look-out, boldly advanced to the building. He knocked, and when the door-keeper, who had learnt his lesson, asked what was wanted, he uttered such terrible threats, that the man, feigning fright, made haste to open the door. Both leaves of it swung back slowly, and the porch then lay open and empty before them, while Macquart shouted in a loud voice: “Come on, my friends!”
That was the signal. He himself quickly jumped aside, and as the Republicans rushed in, there came, from the darkness of the yard, a stream of fire and a hail of bullets, which swept through the gaping porch with a roar as of thunder. The doorway vomited death. The national guards, exasperated by their long wait, eager to shake off the discomfort weighing upon them in that dismal court-yard, had fired a volley with feverish haste. The flash of the firing was so bright, that, through the yellow gleams Macquart distinctly saw Rougon taking aim. He fancied that his brother’s gun was deliberately levelled at himself, and he recalled Felicite’s blush, and made his escape, muttering: “No tricks! The rascal would kill me. He owes me eight hundred francs.”
In the meantime a loud howl had arisen amid the darkness. The surprised Republicans shouted treachery, and fired in their turn. A national guard fell under the porch. But the Republicans, on their side, had three dead. They took to flight, stumbling over the corpses, stricken with panic, and shouting through the quiet lanes: “Our brothers are being murdered!” in despairing voices which found no echo. Thereupon the defenders of order, having had time to reload their weapons, rushed into the empty square, firing at every street corner, wherever the darkness of a door, the shadow of a lamp-post, or the jutting of a stone made them fancy they saw an insurgent. In this wise they remained there ten minutes, firing into space.
The affray had burst over the slumbering town like a thunderclap. The inhabitants in the neighbouring streets, roused from sleep by this terrible fusillade, sat up in bed, their teeth chattering with fright. Nothing in the world would have induced them to poke their noses out of the window. And slowly, athwart the air, in which the shots had suddenly resounded, one of the cathedral bells began to ring the tocsin with so irregular, so strange a rhythm, that one might have thought the noise to be the hammering of an anvil or the echoes of a colossal kettle struck by a child in a fit of passion. This howling bell, whose sound the citizens did not recognise, terrified them yet more than the reports of the fire-arms had done; and there were some who thought they heard an endless train of artillery rumbling over the paving-stones. They lay down again and buried themselves beneath their blankets, as if they would have incurred some danger by still sitting up in bed in their closely-fastened rooms. With their sheets drawn up to their chins, they held their breath, and made themselves as small as possible, while their wives, by their side, almost fainted with terror as they buried their heads among the pillows.
The national guards who had remained at the ramparts had also heard the shots, and thinking that the insurgents had entered by means of some subterranean passage, they ran up helter-skelter, in groups of five or six, disturbing the silence of the streets with the tumult of their excited rush. Roudier was one of the first to arrive. However, Rougon sent them all back to their posts, after reprimanding them severely for abandoning the gates of the town. Thrown into consternation by this reproach — for in their panic, they had, in fact, left the gates absolutely defenceless — they again set off at a gallop, hurrying through the streets with still more frightful uproar. Plassans might well have thought that an infuriated army was crossing it in all directions. The fusillade, the tocsin, the marches and countermarches of the national guards, the weapons which were being dragged along like clubs, the terrified cries in the darkness, all produced a deafening tumult, such as might break forth in a town taken by assault and given over to plunder. It was the final blow of the unfortunate inhabitants, who really believed that the insurgents had arrived. They had, indeed, said that it would be their last night — that Plassans would be swallowed up in the earth, or would evaporate into smoke before daybreak; and now, lying in their beds, they awaited the catastrophe in the most abject terror, fancying at times that their houses were already tottering.
Meantime Granoux still rang the tocsin. When, in other respects, silence had again fallen upon the town, the mournfulness of that ringing became intolerable. Rougon, who was in a high fever, felt exasperated by its distant wailing. He hastened to the cathedral, and found the door open. The beadle was on the threshold.
“Ah! that’s quite enough!” he shouted to the man; “anybody would think there was some one crying; it’s quite unbearable.”
“But it isn’t me, sir,” replied the beadle in a distressed manner. “It’s Monsieur Granoux, he’s gone up into the steeple. I must tell you that I removed the clapper of the bell, by his Reverence’s order, precisely to prevent the tocsin from being sounded. But Monsieur Granoux wouldn’t listen to reason. He climbed up, and I’ve no idea what he can be making that noise with.”
Thereupon Rougon hastily ascended the staircase which led to the bells, shouting: “That will do! That will do! For goodness’ sake leave off!”
When he had reached the top he caught sight of Granoux, by the light of the moon which glided through an embrasure; the ex almond dealer was standing there hatless, and dealing furious blows with a heavy hammer. He did so with a right good will. He first threw himself back, then took a spring, and finally fell upon the sonorous bronze as if he wanted to crack it. One might have thought he was a blacksmith striking hot iron — but a frock-coated blacksmith, short and bald, working in a wild and awkward way.
Surprise kept Rougon motionless for a moment at the sight of this frantic bourgeois thus belabouring the bell in the moonlight. Then he understood the kettle-like clang which this strange ringer had disseminated over the town. He shouted to him to stop, but Granoux did not hear. Rougon was obliged to take hold of his frock-coat, and then the other recognising him, exclaimed in a triumphant voice: “Ah! you’ve heard it. At first I tried to knock the bell with my fists, but that hurt me. Fortunately I found this hammer. Just a few more blows, eh?”
However, Rougon dragged him away. Granoux was radiant. He wiped his forehead, and made his companion promise to let everybody know in the morning that he had produced all that noise with a mere hammer. What an achievement, and what a position of importance that furious ringing would confer upon him!
Towards morning, Rougon bethought himself of reassuring Felicite. In accordance with his orders, the national guards had shut themselves up in the town-hall. He had forbidden them to remove the corpses, under the pretext that it was necessary to give the populace of the old quarter a lesson. And as, while hastening to the Rue de la Banne, he passed over the square, on which the moon was no longer shining, he inadvertently stepped on the clenched hand of a corpse that lay beside the footpath. At this he almost fell. That soft hand, which yielded beneath his heel, brought him an indefinable sensation of disgust and horror. And thereupon he hastened at full speed along the deserted streets, fancying that a bloody fist was pursuing him.
“There are four of them on the ground,” he said, as he entered his house.
He and his wife looked at one another as though they were astonished at their crime.
The lamplight imparted the hue of yellow wax to their pale faces.
“Have you left them there?” asked Felicite; “they must be found there.”
“Of course! I didn’t pick them up. They are lying on their backs. I stepped on something soft ——”
Then he looked at his boot; its heel was covered with blood. While he was putting on a pair of shoes, Felicite resumed:
“Well! so much the better! It’s over now. People won’t be inclined to repeat that you only fire at mirrors.”
The fusillade which the Rougons had planned in order that they might be finally recognised as the saviours of Plassans, brought the whole terrified and grateful town to their feet. The day broke mournfully with the grey melancholy of a winter-morning. The inhabitants, hearing nothing further, ventured forth, weary of trembling beneath their sheets. At first some ten or fifteen appeared. Later on, when a rumour spread that the insurgents had taken flight, leaving their dead in every gutter, Plassans rose in a body and descended upon the town-hall. Throughout the morning people strolled inquisitively round the four corpses. They were horribly mutilated, particularly one, which had three bullets in the head. But the most horrible to look upon was the body of a national guard, who had fallen under the porch; he had received a charge of the small shot, used by the Republicans in lieu of bullets, full in the face; and blood oozed from his torn and riddled countenance. The crowd feasted their eyes upon this horror, with the avidity for revolting spectacles which is so characteristic of cowards. The national guard was freely recognised; he was the pork-butcher Dubruel, the man whom Roudier had accused on the Monday morning of having fired with culpable eagerness. Of the three other corpses, two were journeymen hatters; the third was not identified. For a long while gaping groups remained shuddering in front of the red pools which stained the pavement, often looking behind them with an air of mistrust, as though that summary justice which had restored order during the night by force of arms, were, even now, watching and listening to them, ready to shoot them down in their turn, unless they kissed with enthusiasm the hand that had just rescued them from the demagogy.
The panic of the night further augmented the terrible effect produced in the morning by the sight of the four corpses. The true history of the fusillade was never known. The firing of the combatants, Granoux’s hammering, the helter-skelter rush of the national guards through the streets, had filled people’s ears with such terrifying sounds that most of them dreamed of a gigantic battle waged against countless enemies. When the victors, magnifying the number of their adversaries with instinctive braggardism, spoke of about five hundred men, everybody protested against such a low estimate. Some citizens asserted that they had looked out of their windows and seen an immense stream of fugitives passing by for more than an hour. Moreover everybody had heard the bandits running about. Five hundred men would never have been able to rouse a whole town. It must have been an army, and a fine big army too, which the brave militia of Plassans had “driven back into the ground.” This phrase of their having been “driven back into the ground,” first used by Rougon, struck people as being singularly appropriate, for the guards who were charged with the defence of the ramparts swore by all that was holy that not a single man had entered or quitted the town, a circumstance which tinged what had happened with mystery, even suggesting the idea of horned demons who had vanished amidst flames, and thus fairly upsetting the minds of the multitude. It is true the guards avoided all mention of their mad gallops; and so the more rational citizens were inclined to believe that a band of insurgents had really entered the town either by a breach in the wall or some other channel. Later on, rumours of treachery were spread abroad, and people talked of an ambush. The cruel truth could no longer be concealed by the men whom Macquart had led to slaughter, but so much terror still prevailed, and the sight of blood had thrown so many cowards into the arms of the reactionary party, that these rumours were attributed to the rage of the vanquished Republicans. It was asserted, on the other hand, that Macquart had been made prisoner by Rougon, who kept him in a damp cell, where he was letting him slowly die of starvation. This horrible tale made people bow to the very ground whenever they encountered Rougon.
Thus it was that this grotesque personage, this pale, flabby, tun-bellied citizen became, in one night, a terrible captain, whom nobody dared to ridicule any more. He had steeped his foot in blood. The inhabitants of the old quarter stood dumb with fright before the corpses. But towards ten o’clock, when the respectable people of the new town arrived, the whole square hummed with subdued chatter. People spoke of the other attack, of the seizure of the mayor’s office, in which a mirror only had been wounded; but this time they no longer pooh-poohed Rougon, they spoke of him with respectful dismay; he was indeed a hero, a deliverer. The corpses, with open eyes, stared at those gentlemen, the lawyers and householders, who shuddered as they murmured that civil war had many cruel necessities. The notary, the chief of the deputation sent to the town-hall on the previous evening, went from group to group, recalling the proud words “I am prepared!” then used by the energetic man to whom the town owed its safety. There was a general feeling of humiliation. Those who had railed most cruelly against the forty-one, those, especially, who had referred to the Rougons as intriguers and cowards who merely fired shots in the air, were the first to speak of granting a crown of laurels “to the noble citizen of whom Plassans would be for ever proud.” For the pools of blood were drying on the pavement, and the corpses proclaimed to what a degree of audacity the party of disorder, pillage, and murder had gone, and what an iron hand had been required to put down the insurrection.
Moreover, the whole crowd was eager to congratulate Granoux, and shake hands with him. The story of the hammer had become known. By an innocent falsehood, however, of which he himself soon became unconscious, he asserted that, having been the first to see the insurgents, he had set about striking the bell, in order to sound the alarm, so that, but for him, the national guards would have been massacred. This doubled his importance. His achievement was declared prodigious. People spoke of him now as “Monsieur Isidore, don’t you know? the gentleman who sounded the tocsin with a hammer!” Although the sentence was somewhat lengthy, Granoux would willingly have accepted it as a title of nobility; and from that day forward he never heard the word “hammer” pronounced without imagining it to be some delicate flattery.
While the corpses were being removed, Aristide came to look at them. He examined them on all sides, sniffing and looking inquisitively at their faces. His eyes were bright, and he had a sharp expression of countenance. In order to see some wound the better he even lifted up the blouse of one corpse with the very hand which on the previous day had been suspended in a sling. This examination seemed to convince him and remove all doubt from his mind. He bit his lips, remained there for a moment in silence, and then went off for the purpose of hastening the issue of the “Independant,” for which he had written a most important article. And as he hurried along beside the houses he recalled his mother’s words: “You will see tomorrow!” Well, he had seen now; it was very clever; it even frightened him somewhat.
In the meantime, Rougon’s triumph was beginning to embarrass him. Alone in Monsieur Garconnet’s office, hearing the buzzing of the crowd, he became conscious of a strange feeling, which prevented him from showing himself on the balcony. That blood, in which he had stepped, seemed to have numbed his legs. He wondered what he should do until the evening. His poor empty brain, upset by the events of the night, sought desperately for some occupation, some order to give, or some measure to be taken, which might afford him some distraction. But he could think about nothing clearly. Whither was Felicite leading him? Was it really all finished now, or would he still have to kill somebody else? Then fear again assailed him, terrible doubts arose in his mind, and he already saw the ramparts broken down on all sides by an avenging army of the Republicans, when a loud shout: “The insurgents! The insurgents!” burst forth under the very windows of his room. At this he jumped up, and raising a curtain, saw the crowd rushing about the square in a state of terror. What a thunderbolt! In less than a second he pictured himself ruined, plundered, and murdered; he cursed his wife, he cursed the whole town. Then, as he looked behind him in a suspicious manner, seeking some means of escape, he heard the mob break out into applause, uttering shouts of joy, making the very glass rattle with their wild delight. Then he returned to the window; the women were waving their handkerchiefs, and the men were embracing each other. There were some among them who joined hands and began to dance. Rougon stood there stupefied, unable to comprehend it all, and feeling his head swimming. The big, deserted, silent building, in which he was alone, quite frightened him.
When he afterwards confessed his feelings to Felicite, he was unable to say how long his torture had lasted. He only remembered that a noise of footsteps, re-echoing through the vast halls, had roused him from his stupor. He expected to be attacked by men in blouses, armed with scythes and clubs, whereas it was the Municipal Commission which entered, quite orderly and in evening dress, each member with a beaming countenance. Not one of them was absent. A piece of good news had simultaneously cured all these gentlemen. Granoux rushed into the arms of his dear president.
“The soldiers!” he stammered, “the soldiers!”
A regiment had, in fact, just arrived, under the command of Colonel Masson and Monsieur de Bleriot, prefect of the department. The gunbarrels which had been observed from the ramparts, far away in the plain, had at first suggested the approach of the insurgents. Rougon was so deeply moved on learning the truth, that two big tears rolled down his cheeks. He was weeping, the great citizen! The Municipal Commission watched those big tears with most respectful admiration. But Granoux again threw himself on his friend’s neck, crying:
“Ah! how glad I am! You know I’m a straightforward man. Well, we were all of us afraid; it is not so, gentlemen? You, alone, were great, brave, sublime! What energy you must have had! I was just now saying to my wife: ‘Rougon is a great man; he deserves to be decorated.’”
Then the gentlemen proposed to go and meet the prefect. For a moment Rougon felt both stunned and suffocated; he was unable to believe in this sudden triumph, and stammered like a child. However, he drew breath, and went downstairs with the quiet dignity suited to the solemnity of the occasion. But the enthusiasm which greeted the commission and its president outside the town-hall almost upset his magisterial gravity afresh. His name sped through the crowd, accompanied this time by the warmest eulogies. He heard everyone repeat Granoux’s avowal, and treat him as a hero who had stood firm and resolute amidst universal panic. And, as far as the Sub–Prefecture, where the commission met the prefect, he drank his fill of popularity and glory.
Monsieur de Bleriot and Colonel Masson had entered the town alone, leaving their troops encamped on the Lyons road. They had lost considerable time through a misunderstanding as to the direction taken by the insurgents. Now, however, they knew the latter were at Orcheres; and it would only be necessary to stop an hour at Plassans, just sufficient time to reassure the population and publish the cruel ordinances which decreed the sequestration of the insurgents’ property, and death to every individual who might be taken with arms in his hands. Colonel Masson smiled when, in accordance with the orders of the commander of the national guards, the bolts of the Rome Gate were drawn back with a great rattling of rusty old iron. The detachment on duty there accompanied the prefect and the colonel as a guard of honour. As they traversed the Cours Sauvaire, Roudier related Rougon’s epic achievements to the gentlemen — the three days of panic that had terminated with the brilliant victory of the previous night. When the two processions came face to face therefore, Monsieur de Bleriot quickly advanced towards the president of the Commission, shook hands with him, congratulated him, and begged him to continue to watch over the town until the return of the authorities. Rougon bowed, while the prefect, having reached the door of the Sub–Prefecture, where he wished to take a brief rest, proclaimed in a loud voice that he would not forget to mention his brave and noble conduct in his report.
In the meantime, in spite of the bitter cold, everybody had come to their windows. Felicite, leaning forward at the risk of falling out, was quite pale with joy. Aristide had just arrived with a number of the “Independant,” in which he had openly declared himself in favour of the Coup d’Etat, which he welcomed “as the aurora of liberty in order and of order in liberty.” He had also made a delicate allusion to the yellow drawing-room, acknowledging his errors, declaring that “youth is presumptuous,” and that “great citizens say nothing, reflect in silence, and let insults pass by, in order to rise heroically when the day of struggle comes.” He was particularly pleased with this sentence. His mother thought his article extremely well written. She kissed her dear child, and placed him on her right hand. The Marquis de Carnavant, weary of incarcerating himself, and full of eager curiosity, had likewise come to see her, and stood on her left, leaning on the window rail.
When Monsieur de Bleriot offered his hand to Rougon on the square below Felicite began to weep. “Oh! see, see,” she said to Aristide. “He has shaken hands with him. Look! he is doing it again!” And casting a glance at the windows, where groups of people were congregated, she added: “How wild they must be! Look at Monsieur Peirotte’s wife, she’s biting her handkerchief. And over there, the notary’s daughter, and Madame Massicot, and the Brunet family, what faces, eh? how angry they look! Ah, indeed, it’s our turn now.”
She followed the scene which was being acted outside the Sub–Prefecture with thrills of delight, which shook her ardent, grasshopper-like figure from head to foot. She interpreted the slightest gesture, invented words which she was unable to catch, and declared that Pierre bowed very well indeed. She was a little vexed when the prefect deigned to speak to poor Granoux, who was hovering about him fishing for a word of praise. No doubt Monsieur de Bleriot already knew the story of the hammer, for the retired almond-dealer turned as red as a young girl, and seemed to be saying that he had only done his duty. However, that which angered Felicite still more was her husband’s excessive amiability in presenting Vuillet to the authorities. Vuillet, it is true, pushed himself forward amongst them, and Rougon was compelled to mention him.
“What a schemer!” muttered Felicite. “He creeps in everywhere. How confused my poor dear husband must be! See, there’s the colonel speaking to him. What can he be saying to him?”
“Ah! little one,” the marquis replied with a touch of irony, “he is complimenting him for having closed the gates so carefully.”
“My father has saved the town,” Aristide retorted curtly. “Have you seen the corpses, sir?”
Monsieur de Carnavant did not answer. He withdrew from the window, and sat down in an arm-chair, shaking his head with an air of some disgust. At that moment, the prefect having taken his departure, Rougon came upstairs and threw himself upon his wife’s neck.
“Ah! my dear!” he stammered.
He was unable to say more. Felicite made him kiss Aristide after telling him of the superb article which the young man had inserted in the “Independant.” Pierre would have kissed the marquis as well, he was deeply affected. However, his wife took him aside, and gave him Eugene’s letter which she had sealed up in an envelope again. She pretended that it had just been delivered. Pierre read it and then triumphantly held it out to her.
“You are a sorceress,” he said to her laughing. “You guessed everything. What folly I should have committed without you! We’ll manage our little affairs together now. Kiss me: you’re a good woman.”
He clasped her in his arms, while she discreetly exchanged a knowing smile with the marquis.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15