A SMALL TOWN
Put thousands together less bad,
But the cage less gay.—Hobbes.
The little town of Verrières can pass for one of the prettiest in Franche-Comté. Its white houses with their pointed red-tiled roofs stretch along the slope of a hill, whose slightest undulations are marked by groups of vigorous chestnuts. The Doubs flows to within some hundred feet above its fortifications, which were built long ago by the Spaniards, and are now in ruins.
Verrières is sheltered on the north by a high mountain which is one of the branches of the Jura. The jagged peaks of the Verra are covered with snow from the beginning of the October frosts. A torrent which rushes down from the mountains traverses Verrières before throwing itself into the Doubs, and supplies the motive power for a great number of saw mills. The industry is very simple, and secures a certain prosperity to the majority of the inhabitants who are more peasant than bourgeois. It is not, however, the wood saws which have enriched this little town. It is the manufacture of painted tiles, called Mulhouse tiles, that is responsible for that general affluence which has caused the façades of nearly all the houses in Verrières to be rebuilt since the fall of Napoleon.
One has scarcely entered the town, before one is stunned by the din of a strident machine of terrifying aspect. Twenty heavy hammers which fall with a noise that makes the paved floor tremble, are lifted up by a wheel set in motion by the torrent. Each of these hammers manufactures every day I don’t know how many thousands of nails. The little pieces of iron which are rapidly transformed into nails by these enormous hammers, are put in position by fresh pretty young girls. This labour so rough at first sight is one of the industries which most surprises the traveller who penetrates for the first time the mountains which separate France and Helvetia. If when he enters Verrières, the traveller asks who owns this fine nail factory which deafens everybody who goes up the Grande-Rue, he is answered in a drawling tone “Eh! it belongs to M. the Mayor.”
And if the traveller stops a few minutes in that Grande-Rue of Verrières which goes on an upward incline from the bank of the Doubs to nearly as far as the summit of the hill, it is a hundred to one that he will see a big man with a busy and important air.
When he comes in sight all hats are quickly taken off. His hair is grizzled and he is dressed in grey. He is a Knight of several Orders, has a large forehead and an aquiline nose, and if you take him all round, his features are not devoid of certain regularity. One might even think on the first inspection that it combines with the dignity of the village mayor that particular kind of comfortableness which is appropriate to the age of forty-eight or fifty. But soon the traveller from Paris will be shocked by a certain air of self-satisfaction and self-complacency mingled with an almost indefinable narrowness and lack of inspiration. One realises at last that this man’s talent is limited to seeing that he is paid exactly what he is owed, and in paying his own debts at the latest possible moment.
Such is M. de Rênal, the mayor of Verrières. After having crossed the road with a solemn step, he enters the mayoral residence and disappears from the eye of the traveller. But if the latter continues to walk a hundred steps further up, he will perceive a house with a fairly fine appearance, with some magnificent gardens behind an iron grill belonging to the house. Beyond that is an horizon line formed by the hills of Burgundy, which seem ideally made to delight the eyes. This view causes the traveller to forget that pestilential atmosphere of petty money-grubbing by which he is beginning to be suffocated.
He is told that this house belongs to M. de Rênal. It is to the profits which he has made out of his big nail factory that the mayor of Verrières owes this fine residence of hewn stone which he is just finishing. His family is said to be Spanish and ancient, and is alleged to have been established in the country well before the conquest of Louis XIV.
Since 1815, he blushes at being a manufacturer: 1815 made him mayor of Verrières. The terraced walls of this magnificent garden which descends to the Doubs, plateau by plateau, also represent the reward of M. de Rênal’s proficiency in the iron-trade. Do not expect to find in France those picturesque gardens which surround the manufacturing towns of Germany, like Leipsic, Frankfurt and Nurenburgh, etc. The more walls you build in Franche-Comté and the more you fortify your estate with piles of stone, the more claim you will acquire on the respect of your neighbours. Another reason for the admiration due to M. de Rênal’s gardens and their numerous walls, is the fact that he has purchased, through sheer power of the purse, certain small parcels of the ground on which they stand. That saw-mill, for instance, whose singular position on the banks of the Doubs struck you when you entered Verrières, and where you notice the name of SOREL written in gigantic characters on the chief beam of the roof, used to occupy six years ago that precise space on which is now reared the wall of the fourth terrace in M. de Rênal’s gardens.
Proud man that he was, the mayor had none the less to negotiate with that tough, stubborn peasant, old Sorel. He had to pay him in good solid golden louis before he could induce him to transfer his workshop elsewhere. As to the public stream which supplied the motive power for the saw-mill, M. de Rênal obtained its diversion, thanks to the influence which he enjoyed at Paris. This favour was accorded him after the election of 182-.
He gave Sorel four acres for every one he had previously held, five hundred yards lower down on the banks of the Doubs. Although this position was much more advantageous for his pine-plank trade, father Sorel (as he is called since he has become rich) knew how to exploit the impatience and mania for landed ownership which animated his neighbour to the tune of six thousand francs.
It is true that this arrangement was criticised by the wiseacres of the locality. One day, it was on a Sunday four years later, as M. de Rênal was coming back from church in his mayor’s uniform, he saw old Sorel smiling at him, as he stared at him some distance away surrounded by his three sons. That smile threw a fatal flood of light into the soul of the mayor. From that time on, he is of opinion that he could have obtained the exchange at a cheaper rate.
In order to win the public esteem of Verrières it is essential that, though you should build as many walls as you can, you should not adopt some plan imported from Italy by those masons who cross the passes of the Jura in the spring on their way to Paris. Such an innovation would bring down upon the head of the imprudent builder an eternal reputation for wrongheadedness, and he will be lost for ever in the sight of those wise, well-balanced people who dispense public esteem in Franche-Comté.
As a matter of fact, these prudent people exercise in the place the most offensive despotism. It is by reason of this awful word, that anyone who has lived in that great republic which is called Paris, finds living in little towns quite intolerable. The tyranny of public opinion (and what public opinion!) is as stupid in the little towns of France as in the United States of America.
Importance! What is it, sir after all? The respect of fools, the wonder of children, the envy of the rich, the contempt of the wise man.—Barnave
Happily for the reputation of M. de Rênal as an administrator an immense wall of support was necessary for the public promenade which goes along the hill, a hundred steps above the course of the Doubs. This admirable position secures for the promenade one of the most picturesque views in the whole of France. But the rain water used to make furrows in the walk every spring, caused ditches to appear, and rendered it generally impracticable. This nuisance, which was felt by the whole town, put M. de Rênal in the happy position of being compelled to immortalise his administration by building a wall twenty feet high and thirty to forty yards long.
The parapet of this wall, which occasioned M. de Rênal three journeys to Paris (for the last Minister of the Interior but one had declared himself the mortal enemy of the promenade of Verrières), is now raised to a height of four feet above the ground, and as though to defy all ministers whether past or present, it is at present adorned with tiles of hewn stone.
How many times have my looks plunged into the valley of the Doubs, as I thought of the Paris balls which I had abandoned on the previous night, and leant my breast against the great blocks of stone, whose beautiful grey almost verged on blue. Beyond the left bank, there wind five or six valleys, at the bottom of which I could see quite distinctly several small streams. There is a view of them falling into the Doubs, after a series of cascades. The sun is very warm in these mountains. When it beats straight down, the pensive traveller on the terrace finds shelter under some magnificent plane trees. They owe their rapid growth and their fine verdure with its almost bluish shade to the new soil, which M. the mayor has had placed behind his immense wall of support for (in spite of the opposition of the Municipal Council) he has enlarged the promenade by more than six feet (and although he is an Ultra and I am a Liberal, I praise him for it), and that is why both in his opinion and in that of M. Valenod, the fortunate Director of the workhouse of Verrières, this terrace can brook comparison with that of Saint-Germain en Laye.
I find personally only one thing at which to cavil in the COURS DE LA FIDELITE, (this official name is to be read in fifteen to twenty places on those immortal tiles which earned M. de Rênal an extra cross.) The grievance I find in the Cours de la Fidélité is the barbarous manner in which the authorities have cut these vigorous plane trees and clipped them to the quick. In fact they really resemble with their dwarfed, rounded and flattened heads the most vulgar plants of the vegetable garden, while they are really capable of attaining the magnificent development of the English plane trees. But the wish of M. the mayor is despotic, and all the trees belonging to the municipality are ruthlessly pruned twice a year. The local Liberals suggest, but they are probably exaggerating, that the hand of the official gardener has become much more severe, since M. the Vicar Maslon started appropriating the clippings. This young ecclesiastic was sent to Besançon some years ago to keep watch on the abbé Chélan and some cures in the neighbouring districts. An old Surgeon-Major of Napoleon’s Italian Army, who was living in retirement at Verrières, and who had been in his time described by M. the mayor as both a Jacobin and a Bonapartiste, dared to complain to the mayor one day of the periodical mutilation of these fine trees.
“I like the shade,” answered M. de Rênal, with just a tinge of that hauteur which becomes a mayor when he is talking to a surgeon, who is a member of the Legion of Honour. “I like the shade, I have my trees clipped in order to give shade, and I cannot conceive that a tree can have any other purpose, provided of course it is not bringing in any profit, like the useful walnut tree.”
This is the great word which is all decisive at Verrières. “BRINGING IN PROFIT,” this word alone sums up the habitual trend of thought of more than three-quarters of the inhabitants.
Bringing in profit is the consideration which decides everything in this little town which you thought so pretty. The stranger who arrives in the town is fascinated by the beauty of the fresh deep valleys which surround it, and he imagines at first that the inhabitants have an appreciation of the beautiful. They talk only too frequently of the beauty of their country, and it cannot be denied that they lay great stress on it, but the reason is that it attracts a number of strangers, whose money enriches the inn-keepers, a process which brings in profit to the town, owing to the machinery of the octroi.
It was on a fine, autumn day that M. de Rênal was taking a promenade on the Cours de la Fidélité with his wife on his arm. While listening to her husband (who was talking in a somewhat solemn manner) Madame de Rênal followed anxiously with her eyes the movements of three little boys. The eldest, who might have been eleven years old, went too frequently near the parapet and looked as though he was going to climb up it. A sweet voice then pronounced the name of Adolphe and the child gave up his ambitious project. Madame de Rênal seemed a woman of thirty years of age but still fairly pretty.
“He may be sorry for it, may this fine gentleman from Paris,” said M. de Rênal, with an offended air and a face even paler than usual. “I am not without a few friends at court!” But though I want to talk to you about the provinces for two hundred pages, I lack the requisite barbarity to make you undergo all the long-windedness and circumlocutions of a provincial dialogue.
This fine gentleman from Paris, who was so odious to the mayor of Verrières, was no other than the M. Appert, who had two days previously managed to find his way not only into the prison and workhouse of Verrières, but also into the hospital, which was gratuitously conducted by the mayor and the principal proprietors of the district.
“But,” said Madame de Rênal timidly, “what harm can this Paris gentleman do you, since you administer the poor fund with the utmost scrupulous honesty?”
“He only comes to throw blame and afterwards he will get some articles into the Liberal press.”
“You never read them, my dear.”
“But they always talk to us about those Jacobin articles, all that distracts us and prevents us from doing good. Personally, I shall never forgive the curé.”
 Historically true.
THE POOR FUND
A virtuous curé who does not intrigue is a providence for the village.—Fleury
It should be mentioned that the curé of Verrières, an old man of ninety, who owed to the bracing mountain air an iron constitution and an iron character, had the right to visit the prison, the hospital and the workhouse at any hour. It had been at precisely six o’clock in the morning that M. Appert, who had a Paris recommendation to the curé, had been shrewd enough to arrive at a little inquisitive town. He had immediately gone on to the curé’s house.
The curé Chélan became pensive as he read the letter written to him by the M. le Marquis de La Mole, Peer of France, and the richest landed proprietor of the province.
“I am old and beloved here,” he said to himself in a whisper, “they would not dare!” Then he suddenly turned to the gentleman from Paris, with eyes, which in spite of his great age, shone with that sacred fire which betokens the delight of doing a fine but slightly dangerous act.
“Come with me, sir,” he said, “but please do not express any opinion of the things which we shall see, in the presence of the jailer, and above all not in the presence of the superintendents of the workhouse.”
M. Appert realised that he had to do with a man of spirit. He followed the venerable curé, visited the hospital and workhouse, put a lot of questions, but in spite of somewhat extraordinary answers, did not indulge in the slightest expression of censure.
This visit lasted several hours; the curé invited M. Appert to dine, but the latter made the excuse of having some letters to write; as a matter of fact, he did not wish to compromise his generous companion to any further extent. About three o’clock these gentlemen went to finish their inspection of the workhouse and then returned to the prison. There they found the jailer by the gate, a kind of giant, six feet high, with bow legs. His ignoble face had become hideous by reason of his terror.
“Ah, monsieur,” he said to the curé as soon as he saw him, “is not the gentleman whom I see there, M. Appert?”
“What does that matter?” said the curé.
“The reason is that I received yesterday the most specific orders, and M. the Prefect sent a message by a gendarme who must have galloped during the whole of the night, that M. Appert was not to be allowed in the prisons.”
“I can tell you, M. Noiroud,” said the curé, “that the traveller who is with me is M. Appert, but do you or do you not admit that I have the right to enter the prison at any hour of the day or night accompanied by anybody I choose?”
“Yes, M. the curé,” said the jailer in a low voice, lowering his head like a bull-dog, induced to a grudging obedience by fear of the stick, “only, M. the curé, I have a wife and children, and shall be turned out if they inform against me. I only have my place to live on.”
“I, too, should be sorry enough to lose mine,” answered the good curé, with increasing emotion in his voice.
“What a difference!” answered the jailer keenly. “As for you, M. le curé, we all know that you have eight hundred francs a year, good solid money.”
Such were the facts which, commented upon and exaggerated in twenty different ways, had been agitating for the last two days all the odious passions of the little town of Verrières.
At the present time they served as the text for the little discussion which M. de Rênal was having with his wife. He had visited the curé earlier in the morning accompanied by M. Valenod, the director of the workhouse, in order to convey their most emphatic displeasure. M. Chélan had no protector, and felt all the weight of their words.
“Well, gentlemen, I shall be the third curé of eighty years of age who has been turned out in this district. I have been here for fifty-six years. I have baptized nearly all the inhabitants of the town, which was only a hamlet when I came to it. Every day I marry young people whose grandparents I have married in days gone by. Verrières is my family, but I said to myself when I saw the stranger, ‘This man from Paris may as a matter of fact be a Liberal, there are only too many of them about, but what harm can he do to our poor and to our prisoners?'”
The reproaches of M. de Rênal, and above all, those of M. Valenod, the director of the workhouse, became more and more animated.
“Well, gentlemen, turn me out then,” the old curé exclaimed in a trembling voice; “I shall still continue to live in the district. As you know, I inherited forty-eight years ago a piece of land that brings in eight hundred francs a year; I shall live on that income. I do not save anything out of my living, gentlemen; and that is perhaps why, when you talk to me about it, I am not particularly frightened.”
M. de Rênal always got on very well with his wife, but he did not know what to answer when she timidly repeated the phrase of M. le curé, “What harm can this Paris gentleman do the prisoners?” He was on the point of quite losing his temper when she gave a cry. Her second son had mounted the parapet of the terrace wall and was running along it, although the wall was raised to a height of more than twenty feet above the vineyard on the other side. The fear of frightening her son and making him fall prevented Madame de Rênal speaking to him. But at last the child, who was smiling at his own pluck, looked at his mother, saw her pallor, jumped down on to the walk and ran to her. He was well scolded.
This little event changed the course of the conversation.
“I really mean to take Sorel, the son of the sawyer, into the house,” said M. de Rênal; “he will look after the children, who are getting too naughty for us to manage. He is a young priest, or as good as one, a good Latin scholar, and will make the children get on. According to the curé, he has a steady character. I will give him three hundred francs a year and his board. I have some doubts as to his morality, for he used to be the favourite of that old Surgeon-Major, Member of the Legion of Honour, who went to board with the Sorels, on the pretext that he was their cousin. It is quite possible that that man was really simply a secret agent of the Liberals. He said that the mountain air did his asthma good, but that is something which has never been proved. He has gone through all Buonaparte’s campaigns in Italy, and had even, it was said, voted against the Empire in the plebiscite. This Liberal taught the Sorel boy Latin, and left him a number of books which he had brought with him. Of course, in the ordinary way, I should have never thought of allowing a carpenter’s son to come into contact with our children, but the curé told me, the very day before the scene which has just estranged us for ever, that Sorel has been studying theology for three years with the intention of entering a seminary. He is, consequently, not a Liberal, and he certainly is a good Latin scholar.
“This arrangement will be convenient in more than one way,” continued M. de Rênal, looking at his wife with a diplomatic air. “That Valenod is proud enough of his two fine Norman horses which he has just bought for his carriage, but he hasn’t a tutor for his children.”
“He might take this one away from us.”
“You approve of my plan, then?” said M. de Rênal, thanking his wife with a smile for the excellent idea which she had just had. “Well, that’s settled.”
“Good gracious, my dear, how quickly you make up your mind!”
“It is because I’m a man of character, as the curé found out right enough. Don’t let us deceive ourselves; we are surrounded by Liberals in this place. All those cloth merchants are jealous of me, I am certain of it; two or three are becoming rich men. Well, I should rather fancy it for them to see M. de Rênal’s children pass along the street as they go out for their walk, escorted by their tutor. It will impress people. My grandfather often used to tell us that he had a tutor when he was young. It may run me into a hundred crowns, but that ought to be looked upon as an expense necessary for keeping up our position.”
This sudden resolution left Madame de Rênal quite pensive. She was a big, well-made woman, who had been the beauty of the country, to use the local expression. She had a certain air of simplicity and youthfulness in her deportment. This naive grace, with its innocence and its vivacity, might even have recalled to a Parisian some suggestion of the sweets he had left behind him. If she had realised this particular phase of her success, Madame de Rênal would have been quite ashamed of it. All coquetry, all affectation, were absolutely alien to her temperament. M. Valenod, the rich director of the workhouse, had the reputation of having paid her court, a fact which had cast a singular glamour over her virtue; for this M. Valenod, a big young man with a square, sturdy frame, florid face, and big, black whiskers, was one of those coarse, blustering, and noisy people who pass in the provinces for a “fine man.”
Madame de Rênal, who had a very shy, and apparently a very uneven temperament, was particularly shocked by M. Valenod’s lack of repose, and by his boisterous loudness. Her aloofness from what, in the Verrières’ jargon, was called “having a good time,” had earned her the reputation of being very proud of her birth. In fact, she never thought about it, but she had been extremely glad to find the inhabitants of the town visit her less frequently. We shall not deny that she passed for a fool in the eyes of their good ladies because she did not wheedle her husband, and allowed herself to miss the most splendid opportunities of getting fine hats from Paris or Besançon. Provided she was allowed to wander in her beautiful garden, she never complained. She was a naïve soul, who had never educated herself up to the point of judging her husband and confessing to herself that he bored her. She supposed, without actually formulating the thought, that there was no greater sweetness in the relationship between husband and wife than she herself had experienced. She loved M. de Rênal most when he talked about his projects for their children. The elder he had destined for the army, the second for the law, and the third for the Church. To sum up, she found M. de Rênal much less boring than all the other men of her acquaintance.
This conjugal opinion was quite sound. The Mayor of Verrières had a reputation for wit, and above all, a reputation for good form, on the strength of half-a-dozen “chestnuts” which he had inherited from an uncle. Old Captain de Rênal had served, before the Revolution, in the infantry regiment of M. the Duke of Orleans, and was admitted to the Prince’s salons when he went to Paris. He had seen Madame de Montesson, the famous Madame de Genlis, M. Ducret, the inventor, of the Palais-Royal. These personages would crop up only too frequently in M. de Rênal’s anecdotes. He found it, however, more and more of a strain to remember stories which required such delicacy in the telling, and for some time past it had only been on great occasions that he would trot out his anecdotes concerning the House of Orleans. As, moreover, he was extremely polite, except on money matters, he passed, and justly so, for the most aristocratic personage in Verrières.
A FATHER AND A SON
E sara mia colpa
Se cosi è?
“My wife really has a head on her shoulders,” said the mayor of Verrières at six o’clock the following morning, as he went down to the saw-mill of Father Sorel. “It had never occurred to me that if I do not take little Abbé Sorel, who, they say, knows Latin like an angel, that restless spirit, the director of the workhouse, might have the same idea and snatch him away from me, though of course I told her that it had, in order to preserve my proper superiority. And how smugly, to be sure, would he talk about his children’s tutor!… The question is, once the tutor’s mine, shall he wear the cassock?”
M. de Rênal was absorbed in this problem when he saw a peasant in the distance, a man nearly six feet tall, who since dawn had apparently been occupied in measuring some pieces of wood which had been put down alongside the Doubs on the towing-path. The peasant did not look particularly pleased when he saw M. the Mayor approach, as these pieces of wood obstructed the road, and had been placed there in breach of the rules.
Father Sorel (for it was he) was very surprised, and even more pleased at the singular offer which M. de Rênal made him for his son Julien. None the less, he listened to it with that air of sulky discontent and apathy which the subtle inhabitants of these mountains know so well how to assume. Slaves as they have been since the time of the Spanish Conquest, they still preserve this feature, which is also found in the character of the Egyptian fellah.
Sorel’s answer was at first simply a long-winded recitation of all the formulas of respect which he knew by heart. While he was repeating these empty words with an uneasy smile, which accentuated all the natural disingenuousness, if not, indeed, knavishness of his physiognomy, the active mind of the old peasant tried to discover what reason could induce so important a man to take into his house his good-for-nothing of a son. He was very dissatisfied with Julien, and it was for Julien that M. de Rênal offered the undreamt-of salary of 300 fcs. a year, with board and even clothing. This latter claim, which Father Sorel had had the genius to spring upon the mayor, had been granted with equal suddenness by M. de Rênal.
This demand made an impression on the mayor. It is clear, he said to himself, that since Sorel is not beside himself with delight over my proposal, as in the ordinary way he ought to be, he must have had offers made to him elsewhere, and whom could they have come from, if not from Valenod. It was in vain that M. de Rênal pressed Sorel to clinch the matter then and there. The old peasant, astute man that he was, stubbornly refused to do so. He wanted, he said, to consult his son, as if in the provinces, forsooth, a rich father consulted a penniless son for any other reason than as a mere matter of form.
A water saw-mill consists of a shed by the side of a stream. The roof is supported by a framework resting on four large timber pillars. A saw can be seen going up and down at a height of eight to ten feet in the middle of the shed, while a piece of wood is propelled against this saw by a very simple mechanism. It is a wheel whose motive-power is supplied by the stream, which sets in motion this double piece of mechanism, the mechanism of the saw which goes up and down, and the mechanism which gently pushes the piece of wood towards the saw, which cuts it up into planks.
Approaching his workshop, Father Sorel called Julien in his stentorian voice; nobody answered. He only saw his giant elder sons, who, armed with heavy axes, were cutting up the pine planks which they had to carry to the saw. They were engrossed in following exactly the black mark traced on each piece of wood, from which every blow of their axes threw off enormous shavings. They did not hear their father’s voice. The latter made his way towards the shed. He entered it and looked in vain for Julien in the place where he ought to have been by the side of the saw. He saw him five or six feet higher up, sitting astride one of the rafters of the roof. Instead of watching attentively the action of the machinery, Julien was reading. Nothing was more anti-pathetic to old Sorel. He might possibly have forgiven Julien his puny physique, ill adapted as it was to manual labour, and different as it was from that of his elder brothers; but he hated this reading mania. He could not read himself.
It was in vain that he called Julien two or three times. It was the young man’s concentration on his book, rather than the din made by the saw, which prevented him from hearing his father’s terrible voice. At last the latter, in spite of his age, jumped nimbly on to the tree that was undergoing the action of the saw, and from there on to the cross-bar that supported the roof. A violent blow made the book which Julien held, go flying into the stream; a second blow on the head, equally violent, which took the form of a box on the ears, made him lose his balance. He was on the point of falling twelve or fifteen feet lower down into the middle of the levers of the running machinery which would have cut him to pieces, but his father caught him as he fell, in his left hand.
“So that’s it, is it, lazy bones! always going to read your damned books are you, when you’re keeping watch on the saw? You read them in the evening if you want to, when you go to play the fool at the curé’s, that’s the proper time.”
Although stunned by the force of the blow and bleeding profusely, Julien went back to his official post by the side of the saw. He had tears in his eyes, less by reason of the physical pain than on account of the loss of his beloved book.
“Get down, you beast, when I am talking to you,” the noise of the machinery prevented Julien from hearing this order. His father, who had gone down did not wish to give himself the trouble of climbing up on to the machinery again, and went to fetch a long fork used for bringing down nuts, with which he struck him on the shoulder. Julien had scarcely reached the ground, when old Sorel chased him roughly in front of him and pushed him roughly towards the house. “God knows what he is going to do with me,” said the young man to himself. As he passed, he looked sorrowfully into the stream into which his book had fallen, it was the one that he held dearest of all, the Memorial of St. Helena.
He had purple cheeks and downcast eyes. He was a young man of eighteen to nineteen years old, and of puny appearance, with irregular but delicate features, and an aquiline nose. The big black eyes which betokened in their tranquil moments a temperament at once fiery and reflective were at the present moment animated by an expression of the most ferocious hate. Dark chestnut hair, which came low down over his brow, made his forehead appear small and gave him a sinister look during his angry moods. It is doubtful if any face out of all the innumerable varieties of the human physiognomy was ever distinguished by a more arresting individuality.
A supple well-knit figure, indicated agility rather than strength. His air of extreme pensiveness and his great pallor had given his father the idea that he would not live, or that if he did, it would only be to be a burden to his family. The butt of the whole house, he hated his brothers and his father. He was regularly beaten in the Sunday sports in the public square.
A little less than a year ago his pretty face had begun to win him some sympathy among the young girls. Universally despised as a weakling, Julien had adored that old Surgeon-Major, who had one day dared to talk to the mayor on the subject of the plane trees.
This Surgeon had sometimes paid Father Sorel for taking his son for a day, and had taught him Latin and History, that is to say the 1796 Campaign in Italy which was all the history he knew. When he died, he had bequeathed his Cross of the Legion of Honour, his arrears of half pay, and thirty or forty volumes, of which the most precious had just fallen into the public stream, which had been diverted owing to the influence of M. the Mayor.
Scarcely had he entered the house, when Julien felt his shoulder gripped by his father’s powerful hand; he trembled, expecting some blows.
“Answer me without lying,” cried the harsh voice of the old peasant in his ears, while his hand turned him round and round, like a child’s hand turns round a lead soldier. The big black eyes of Julien filled with tears, and were confronted by the small grey eyes of the old carpenter, who looked as if he meant to read to the very bottom of his soul.