Mauprat by George Sand

On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as
Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak
and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the
country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined
chateau. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were
about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees
around and the scattered rocks above, bury it in everlasting obscurity;
and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad
daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling
against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name
given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.

It was not so long ago that the last of the Mauprats, the heir to this
property, had the roofing taken away and all the woodwork sold. Then,
as if to give a kick to the memory of his ancestors, he ordered the
entrance gate to be thrown down, the north tower to be gutted, and a
breach to be made in the surrounding wall. This done, he departed with
his workmen, shaking the dust from off his feet, and abandoning his
domain to foxes, and cormorants, and vipers. Since then, whenever the
wood-cutters and charcoal-burners from the huts in the neighbourhood
pass along the top of the Roche-Mauprat ravine, if it is in daytime they
whistle with a defiant air or hurl a hearty curse at the ruins; but
when day falls and the goat-sucker begins to screech from the top of
the loopholes, wood-cutter and charcoal-burner pass by silently, with
quickened step, and cross themselves from time to time to ward off the
evil spirits that hold sway among the ruins.

For myself, I own that I have never skirted the ravine at night without
feeling a certain uneasiness; and I would not like to swear that on some
stormy nights I have not given my horse a touch of the spur, in order
to escape the more quickly from the disagreeable impression this
neighbourhood made on me.

The reason is that in childhood I classed the name of Mauprat with those
of Cartouche and Bluebeard; and in the course of horrible dreams I often
used to mix up the ancient legends of the Ogre and the Bogey with the
quite recent events which in our province had given such a sinister
lustre to this Mauprat family.

Frequently, out shooting, when my companions and I have left our posts
to go and warm ourselves at the charcoal fires which the workmen keep
up all night, I have heard this name dying away on their lips at our
approach. But when they had recognised us and thoroughly satisfied
themselves that the ghosts of none of these robbers were hiding in our
midst, they would tell us in a whisper such stories as might make one’s
hair stand on end, stories which I shall take good care not to pass on
to you, grieved as I am that they should ever have darkened and pained
my own memory.

Not that the story I am about to tell is altogether pleasant and
cheerful. On the contrary, I must ask your pardon for unfolding so
sombre a tale. Yet, in the impression which it has made on myself there
is something so consoling and, if I may venture the phrase, so healthful
to the soul, that you will excuse me, I hope, for the sake of the
result. Besides this is a story which has just been told to me. And now
you ask me for one. The opportunity is too good to be missed for one of
my laziness or lack of invention.

It was only last week that I met Bernard Mauprat, the last of the
line, the man who, having long before severed himself from his infamous
connections, determined to demolish his manor as a sign of the horror
aroused in him by the recollections of childhood. This Bernard is one of
the most respected men in the province. He lives in a pretty house near
Chateauroux, in a flat country. Finding myself in the neighbourhood,
with a friend of mine who knows him, I expressed a wish to be
introduced; and my friend, promising me a hearty welcome, took me to his
house then and there.

I already knew in outline the remarkable history of this old man; but I
had always felt a keen desire to fill in the details, and above all to
receive them from himself. For me, the strange destiny of the man was
a philosophical problem to be solved. I therefore noticed his features,
his manners, and his home with peculiar interest.

Bernard Mauprat must be fully eighty-four, though his robust health, his
upright figure, his firm step, and the absence of any infirmity might
indicate some fifteen or twenty years less. His face would have appeared
to me extremely handsome, had not a certain harshness of expression
brought before my eyes, in spite of myself, the shades of his fathers.
I very much fear that, externally at all events, he must resemble them.
This he alone could have told us; for neither my friend nor myself had
known any other Mauprat. Naturally, however, we were very careful not to
inquire.

It struck us that his servants waited on him with a promptitude and
punctuality quite marvellous in Berrichon domestics. Nevertheless, at
the least semblance of delay he raised his voice, knitted his eyebrows
(which still showed very black under his white hair), and muttered a few
expressions of impatience which lent wings even to the slowest. At first
I was somewhat shocked at this habit; it appeared to savour rather too
strongly of the Mauprats. But the kindly and almost paternal manner in
which he spoke to them a moment later, and their zeal, which seemed so
distinct from fear, soon reconciled me to him. Towards us, moreover, he
showed an exquisite politeness, and expressed himself in the choicest
terms. Unfortunately, at the end of dinner, a door which had been left
open and through which a cold air found its way to his venerable skull,
drew from him such a frightful oath that my friend and I exchanged a
look of surprise. He noticed it.

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he said. “I am afraid you find me an odd
mixture. Ah, you see but a short distance. I am an old branch, happily
torn from a vile trunk and transplanted into good soil, but still
knotted and rough like the wild holly of the original stock. I have,
believe me, had no little trouble in reaching the state of comparative
gentleness and calm in which you behold me. Alas! if I dared, I should
reproach Providence with a great injustice–that of having allotted me
a life as short as other men’s. When one has to struggle for forty or
fifty years to transform one’s self from a wolf into a man, one ought to
live a hundred years longer to enjoy one’s victory. Yet what good
would that do me?” he added in a tone of sadness. “The kind fairy who
transformed me is here no more to take pleasure in her work. Bah! it is
quite time to have done with it all.”

Then he turned towards me, and, looking at me with big dark eyes, still
strangely animated, said:

“Come, my dear young man; I know what brings you to see me; you are
curious to hear my history. Draw nearer the fire, then. Mauprat though
I am, I will not make you do duty for a log. In listening you are giving
me the greatest pleasure you could give. Your friend will tell you,
however, that I do not willingly talk of myself. I am generally afraid
of having to deal with blockheads, but you I have already heard of;
I know your character and your profession; you are an observer and
narrator–in other words, pardon me, inquisitive and a chatterbox.”

He began to laugh, and I made an effort to laugh too, though with
a rising suspicion that he was making game of us. Nor could I help
thinking of the nasty tricks that his grandfather took a delight in
playing on the imprudent busybodies who called upon him. But he put his
arm through mine in a friendly way, and making me sit down in front of a
good fire, near a table covered with cups–

“Don’t be annoyed,” he said. “At my age I cannot get rid of hereditary
sarcasm; but there is nothing spiteful in mine. To speak seriously, I am
delighted to see you and to confide in you the story of my life. A man
as unfortunate as I have been deserves to find a faithful biographer to
clear his memory from all stain. Listen, then, and take some coffee.”

I offered him a cup in silence. He refused it with a wave of the arm
and a smile which seemed to say, “That is rather for your effeminate
generation.”

Then he began his narrative in these words:

I

You live not very far from Roche-Mauprat, and must have often passed by
the ruins. Thus there is no need for me to describe them. All I can tell
you is that the place has never been so attractive as it is now. On the
day that I had the roof taken off, the sun for the first time brightened
the damp walls within which my childhood was passed; and the lizards
to which I have left them are much better housed there than I once was.
They can at least behold the light of day and warm their cold limbs in
the rays of the sun at noon.

There used to be an elder and a younger branch of the Mauprats. I belong
to the elder. My grandfather was that old Tristan de Mauprat who ran
through his fortune, dishonoured his name, and was such a blackguard
that his memory is already surrounded by a halo of the marvelous. The
peasants still believe that his ghost appears, either in the body of a
wizard who shows malefactors the way to the dwellings of Varenne, or in
that of an old white hare which reveals itself to people meditating
some evil deed. When I came into the world the only living member of the
younger branch was Monsieur Hubert de Mauprat, known as the chevalier,
because he belonged to the Order of the Knights of Malta; a man just as
good as his cousin was bad. Being the youngest son of his family, he had
taken the vow of celibacy; but, when he found himself the sole survivor
of several brothers and sisters, he obtained release from his vow, and
took a wife the year before I was born. Rumour says that before changing
his existence in this way he made strenuous efforts to find some
descendant of the elder branch worthy to restore the tarnished family
name, and preserve the fortune which had accumulated in the hands of the
younger branch. He had endeavoured to put his cousin Tristan’s affairs
in order, and had frequently paid off the latter’s creditors. Seeing,
however, that the only effect of his kindness was to encourage the vices
of the family, and that, instead of respect and gratitude, he received
nothing but secret hatred and churlish jealousy, he abandoned all
attempts at friendship, broke with his cousins, and in spite of his
advanced age (he was over sixty), took a wife in order to have heirs of
his own. He had one daughter, and there his hopes of posterity ended;
for soon afterward his wife died of a violent illness which the doctors
called iliac passion. He then left that part of the country and returned
but rarely to his estates. These were situated about six leagues from
Roche-Mauprat, on the borders of the Varenne du Fromental. He was a
prudent man and a just, because he was cultured, because his father had
moved with the spirit of his century, and had had him educated. None the
less he had preserved a firm character and an enterprising mind, and,
like his ancestors, he was proud of hearing as a sort of surname the
knightly title of Headbreaker, hereditary in the original Mauprat stock.
As for the elder branch, it had turned out so badly, or rather had
preserved from the old feudal days such terrible habits of brigandage,
that it had won for itself the distinctive title of Hamstringer. [I
hazard “Headbreaker” and “Hamstringer” as poor equivalents for the
“Casse-Tete” and “Coupe-Jarret” of the French.–TR.] Of the sons of
Tristan, my father, the eldest, was the only one who married. I was his
only child. Here it is necessary to mention a fact of which I was long
ignorant. Hubert de Mauprat, on hearing of my birth, begged me of my
parents, undertaking to make me his heir if he were allowed absolute
control over my education. At a shooting-party about this time my
father was killed by an accidental shot, and my grandfather refused the
chevalier’s offer, declaring that his children were the sole legitimate
heirs of the younger branch, and that consequently he would resist with
all his might any substitution in my favour. It was then that Hubert’s
daughter was born. But when, seven years later, his wife died leaving
him this one child, the desire, so strong in the nobles of that time, to
perpetuate their name, urged him to renew his request to my mother. What
her answer was I do not know; she fell ill and died. The country doctors
again brought in a verdict of iliac passion. My grandfather had spent
the last two days she passed in this world with her.

Pour me out a glass of Spanish wine; for I feel a cold shiver running
through my body. It is nothing serious–merely the effect that these
early recollections have on me when I begin to narrate them. It will
soon pass off.

He swallowed a large glass of wine, and we did the same; for a sensation
of cold came upon us too as we gazed at his stern face and listened to
his brief, abrupt sentences. He continued:

Thus at the age of seven I found myself an orphan. My grandfather
searched my mother’s house and seized all the money and valuables he
could carry away. Then, leaving the rest, and declaring he would have
nothing to do with lawyers, he did not even wait for the funeral, but
took me by the collar and flung me on to the crupper of his horse,
saying: “Now, my young ward, come home with me; and try to stop that
crying soon, for I haven’t much patience with brats.” In fact, after
a few seconds he gave me such hard cuts with his whip that I stopped
crying, and, withdrawing myself like a tortoise into my shell, completed
the journey without daring to breathe.

He was a tall old man, bony and cross-eyed. I fancy I see him now as he
was then. The impression that evening made on me can never be effaced.
It was a sudden realization of all the horrors which my mother had
foreshadowed when speaking of her execrable father-in-law and his
brigands of sons. The moon, I remember, was shining here and there
through the dense foliage of the forest. My grandfather’s horse was
lean, hardy, and bad-tempered like himself. It kicked at every cut of
the whip, and its master gave it plenty. Swift as an arrow it jumped the
ravines and little torrents which everywhere intersect Varenne in all
directions. At each jump I lost my balance, and clung in terror to the
saddle or my grandfather’s coat. As for him, he was so little concerned
about me that, had I fallen, I doubt whether he would have taken the
trouble to pick me up. Sometimes, noticing my terror, he would jeer at
me, and, to make me still more afraid, set his horse plunging again.
Twenty times, in a frenzy of despair, I was on the point of throwing
myself off; but the instinctive love of life prevented me from giving
way to the impulse. At last, about midnight, we suddenly stopped before
a small pointed gate, and the drawbridge was soon lifted behind us. My
grandfather took me, bathed in a cold sweat as I was, and threw me
over to a great fellow, lame and horribly ugly, who carried me into the
house. This was my Uncle John, and I was at Roche-Mauprat.

At that time my grandfather, along with his eight sons, formed the last
relic in our province of that race of petty feudal tyrants by
which France had been overrun and harassed for so many centuries.
Civilization, already advancing rapidly towards the great convulsion of
the Revolution, was gradually stamping out the systematic extortions
of these robbers. The light of education, a species of good taste
reflected, however dimly, from a polished court, and perhaps a
presentiment of the impending terrible awakening of the people, were
spreading through the castles and even through the half-rustic manors
of the lordlings. Ever in our midland provinces, the most backward by
reason of their situation, the sentiment of social equality was
already driving out the customs of a barbarous age. More than one vile
scapegrace had been forced to reform, in spite of his privileges; and
in certain places where the peasants, driven to desperation, had rid
themselves of their overlord, the law had not dreamt of interfering, nor
had the relatives dared to demand redress.

In spite of the prevailing tone of mind, my grandfather had long
maintained his position in the country without experiencing any
opposition. But, having had a large family, endowed like himself with a
goodly number of vices, he finally found himself pestered and besieged
by creditors who, instead of being frightened by his threats, as of old,
were themselves threatening to make him suffer. He was obliged to devise
some means of avoiding the bailiffs on the one hand, and, on the other,
the fights which were continually taking place. In these fights the
Mauprats no longer shone, despite their numbers, their complete union,
and their herculean strength; since the whole population of the district
sided with their opponents and took upon itself the duty of stoning
them. So, rallying his progeny around him, as the wild boar gathers
together its young after a hunt, Tristan withdrew into his castle and
ordered the drawbridge to be raised. Shut up with him were ten or twelve
peasants, his servants, all of them poachers or refugees, who like
himself had some interest in “retiring from the world” (his own
expression), and in finding a place of safety behind good stout walls.
An enormous pile of hunting weapons, duck-guns, carbines, blunderbusses,
spears, and cutlasses, were raised on the platform, and the porter
received orders never to let more than two persons at a time approach
within range of his gun.

From that day Mauprat and his sons broke with all civil laws as they had
already broken with all moral laws. They formed themselves into a band
of adventurers. While their well-beloved and trusty poachers supplied
the house with game, they levied illegal taxes on the small farms in the
neighbourhood. Now, without being cowards (and they are far from that),
the peasants of our province, as you know, are meek and timid, partly
from listlessness, partly from distrust of the law, which they have
never understood, and of which even to this day they have but a scanty
knowledge. No province of France has preserved more old traditions or
longer endured the abuses of feudalism. Nowhere else, perhaps, has the
title of the lord of the manor been handed down, as hitherto with us, to
the owners of certain estates; and nowhere is it so easy to frighten the
people with reports of some absurd and impossible political event. At
the time of which I speak the Mauprats, being the only powerful family
in a district remote from towns and cut off from communication with the
outside world, had little difficulty in persuading their vassals that
serfdom was about to be re-established, and that it would go hard with
all who resisted. The peasants hesitated, listened timorously to the few
among themselves who preached independence, then thought the matter over
and decided to submit. The Mauprats were clever enough not to demand
money of them, for money is what the peasant in such a district
obtains with the greatest difficulty, and parts from with the greatest
reluctance. “Money is dear,” is one of his proverbs, because in his
eyes money stands for something different from manual labour. It means
traffic with men and things outside his world, an effort of foresight or
circumspection, a bargain, a sort of intellectual struggle, which lifts
him out of his ordinary heedless habits; it means, in a word, mental
labour, and this for him is the most painful and the most wearing.

The Mauprats, knowing how the ground lay, and having no particular need
of money any longer, since they had repudiated their debts, demanded
payments in kind only. They ruled that one man should contribute capons,
another calves, a third corn, a fourth fodder, and so on. They were
careful, too, to tax judiciously, to demand from each the commodity
he could provide with least inconvenience to himself. In return they
promised help and protection to all; and up to a certain point they kept
their word. They cleared the land of wolves and foxes, gave a welcome
and a hiding-place to all deserters, and helped to defraud the state by
intimidating the excise officers and tax-collectors.

They took advantage of their power to give the poor man a false notion
of his real interests, and to corrupt the simple folk by undermining all
sense of their dignity and natural liberty. They made the whole district
combine in a sort of secession from the law, and they so frightened
the functionaries appointed to enforce respect for it, that after a few
years it fell into a veritable desuetude. Thus it happened that, while
France at a short distance from this region was advancing with rapid
strides towards the enfranchisement of the poorer classes, Varenne was
executing a retrograde march and returning at full speed to the ancient
tyranny of the country squires. It was easy enough for the Mauprats to
pervert these poor folk; they feigned a friendly interest in them
to mark their difference from the other nobles in the province whose
manners still retained some of the haughtiness of their ancient power.
Above all, my grandfather lost no opportunity of making the peasants
share his own hatred of his own cousin, Hubert de Mauprat. The latter,
whenever he interviewed his vassals, would remain seated in his
arm-chair, while they stood before him bareheaded; whereas Tristan de
Mauprat would make them sit down at his table, and drink some of the
wine they had brought him as a sign of voluntary homage. He would then
have them led home by his men in the middle of the night, all dead
drunk, torches in hand, and making the forest resound with ribald songs.
Libertinism completed the demoralization of the peasantry. In every
family the Mauprats soon had their mistresses. This was tolerated,
partly because it was profitable, and partly (alas! that it should
have to be said) because it gratified vanity. The very isolation of the
houses was favourable to the evil. No scandal, no denunciation were
to be feared. The tiniest village would have been sufficient for the
creation and maintenance of a public opinion. There, however, there
were only scattered cottages and isolated farms; wastes and woods so
separated the families from one another that the exercise of any mutual
control was impossible. Shame is stronger than conscience. I need not
tell you of all the bonds of infamy that united masters and slaves.
Debauchery, extortion, and fraud were both precept and example for my
youth, and life went on merrily. All notions of justice were scoffed at;
creditors were defrauded of both interest and capital; any law officer
who ventured to serve a summons received a sound thrashing, and the
mounted police were fired on if they approached too near the turrets. A
plague on parliament; starvation to all imbued with the new philosophy;
and death to the younger branch of the Mauprats–such were the
watchwords of these men who, to crown all, gave themselves the airs of
knights-errant of the twelfth century. My grandfather talked of nothing
but his pedigree and the prowess of his ancestors. He regretted the good
old days when every lordling had instruments of torture in his manor,
and dungeons, and, best, of all cannon. In ours we only had pitchforks
and sticks, and a second-rate culverin which my Uncle John used to
point–and point very well, in fact–and which was sufficient to keep at
a respectful distance the military force of the district.