Sons of the Soil
Bent by toil, with pallid face and silvery hair, the old vinedresser, now the sole representative of civic virtue in the community, had been, during the Revolution, president of the Jacobin club at Ville- aux-Fayes, and a juror in the revolutionary tribunal of the district. Jean-Francois Niseron, carved out of the wood that the apostles were made of, was of the type of Saint Peter; whom painters and sculptors have united in representing with the square brow of the people, the thick, naturally curling hair of the laborer, the muscles of the man of toil, the complexion of a fisherman; with the large nose, the shrewd, half-mocking lips that scoff at fate, the neck and shoulders of the strong man who cuts his wood to cook his dinner while the doctrinaires of his opinions talk.
Such, at forty years of age on the breaking out of the Revolution, was this man, strong as iron, pure as gold. Advocate of the people, he believed in a republic through the very roll of that name, more formidable in sound perhaps than in reality. He believed in the republic of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the brotherhood of man, in the exchange of noble sentiments, in the proclamation of virtue, in the choice of merit without intrigue,—in short, in all that the narrow limits of one arrondissement like Sparta made possible, and which the vast proportions of an empire make chimerical. He signed his beliefs with his blood,—his only son went to war; he did more, he signed them with the prosperity of his life,—last sacrifice of self. Nephew and sole heir of the curate of Blangy, the then all-powerful tribune might have enforced his rights and recovered the property left by the priest to his pretty servant-girl, Arsene; but he respected his uncle's wishes and accepted poverty, which came upon him as rapidly as the fall of his cherished republic came upon France.
Never a farthing's worth, never so much as the branch of a tree belonging to another passed into the hands of this notable republican, who would have made the republic acceptable to the world if he and such as he could have guided it. He refused to buy the national domains; he denied the right of the Republic to confiscate property. In reply to all demands of the committee of public safety he asserted that the virtue of citizens would do for their sacred country what low political intriguers did for money. This patriot of antiquity publicly reproved Gaubertin's father for his secret treachery, his underhand bargaining, his malversations. He reprimanded the virtuous Mouchon, that representative of the people whose virtue was nothing more nor less than incapacity,—as it is with so many other legislators who, gorged with the greatest political resources that any nation ever gave, armed with the whole force of a people, are still unable to bring forth from them the grandeur which Richelieu wrung for France out of the weakness of a king. Consequently, citizen Niseron became a living reproach to the people about him. They endeavored to put him out of sight and mind with the reproachful remark, "Nothing satisfies that man."
The patriot peasant returned to his cot at Blangy and watched the destruction, one by one, of his illusions; he saw his republic come to an end at the heels of an emperor, while he himself fell into utter poverty, to which Rigou stealthily managed to reduce him. And why? Because Niseron had never been willing to accept anything from him. Reiterated refusals showed the ex-priest in what profound contempt the nephew of the curate held him; and now that icy scorn was revenged by the terrible threat as to his little granddaughter, about which the Abbe Brossette spoke to the countess.
The old man had composed in his own mind a history of the French republic, filled with the glorious features which gave immortality to that heroic period to the exclusion of all else. The infamous deeds, the massacres, the spoliations, his virtuous soul ignored; he admired, with a single mind, the devotedness of the people, the "Vengeur," the gifts to the nation, the uprising of the country to defend its frontier; and he still pursued his dream that he might sleep in peace.
The Revolution produced many poets like old Niseron, who sang their poems in the country solitudes, in the army, openly or secretly, by deeds buried beneath the whirlwind of that storm, just as the wounded left behind to die in the great wars of the empire cried out, "Long live the Emperor!" This sublimity of soul belongs especially to France. The Abbe Brossette respected the convictions of the old man, who became simply but deeply attached to the priest from hearing him say, "The true republic is in the Gospel." The stanch republican carried the cross, and wore the sexton's robe, half-red, half-black, and was grave and dignified in church,—supporting himself by the triple functions with which he was invested by the abbe, who was able to give the fine old man, not, to be sure, enough to live on, but enough to keep him from dying of hunger.
Niseron, the Aristides of Blangy, spoke little, like all noble dupes who wrap themselves in the mantle of resignation; but he was never silent against evil, and the peasants feared him as thieves fear the police. He seldom came more than six times a year to the Grand-I-Vert, though he was always warmly welcomed there. The old man cursed the want of charity of the rich,—their selfishness disgusted him; and through this fiber of his mind he seemed to the peasants to belong to them; they were in the habit of saying, "Pere Niseron doesn't like the rich; he's one of us."
The civic crown won by this noble life throughout the valley lay in these words: "That good old Niseron! there's not a more honest man." Often taken as umpire in certain kinds of disputes, he embodied the meaning of that archaic term,—the village elder. Always extremely clean, though threadbare, he wore breeches, coarse woollen stockings, hob-nailed shoes, the distinctively French coat with large buttons and the broad-brimmed felt hat to which all old peasants cling; but for daily wear he kept a blue jacket so patched and darned that it looked like a bit of tapestry. The pride of a man who feels he is free, and knows he is worthy of freedom, gave to his countenance and his whole bearing a SOMETHING that was inexpressibly noble; you would have felt he wore a robe, not rags.
"Hey! what's happening so unusual?" he said, "I heard the noise down here from the belfry."
They told him of Vatel's attack on the old woman, talking all at once after the fashion of country-people.
"If she didn't cut the tree, Vatel was wrong; but if she did cut it, you have done two bad actions," said Pere Niseron.
"Take some wine," said Tonsard, offering a full glass to the old man.
"Shall we start?" said Vermichel to the sheriff's officer.
"Yes," replied Brunet, "we must do without Pere Fourchon and take the assistant at Conches. Go on before me; I have a paper to carry to the chateau. Rigou has gained his second suit, and I've got to deliver the verdict."
So saying, Monsieur Brunet, all the livelier for a couple of glasses of brandy, mounted his gray mare after saying good-bye to Pere Niseron; for the whole valley were desirous in their hearts of the good man's esteem.
No science, not even that of statistics, can explain the rapidity with which news flies in the country, nor how it spreads over those ignorant and untaught regions which are, in France, a standing reproach to the government and to capitalists. Contemporaneous history can show that a famous banker, after driving post-horses to death between Waterloo and Paris (everybody knows why—he gained what the Emperor had lost, a commission!) carried the fatal news only three hours in advance of rumor. So, not an hour after the encounter between old mother Tonsard and Vatel, a number of the customers of the Grand- I-Vert assembled there to hear the tale.
PART I Whoso land hath, contention hath.