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Chapter III: The Napoleon Of The People 


"Pray, come in, sir!" cried Jacquotte. "A pretty time the gentlemen have been waiting for you! It is always the way! You always manage to spoil the dinner for me whenever it ought to be particularly good. Everything is cooked to death by this time----"

"Oh! well, here we are," answered Benassis with a smile.

The two horsemen dismounted, and went off to the salon, where the guests invited by the doctor were assembled.

"Gentlemen," he said taking Genestas by the hand, "I have the honor of introducing you to M. Bluteau, captain of a regiment of cavalry stationed at Grenoble--an old soldier, who has promised me that he will stay among us for a little while."

Then, turning to Genestas, he presented to him a tall, thin, gray- haired man, dressed in black.

"This gentleman," said Benassis, "is M. Dufau, the justice of the peace of whom I have already spoken to you, and who has so largely contributed to the prosperity of the Commune." Then he led his guest up to a pale, slight young man of middle height, who wore spectacles, and was also dressed in black. "And this is M. Tonnelet," he went on, "M. Gravier's son-in-law, and the first notary who came to the village."

The doctor next turned to a stout man, who seemed to belong half to the peasant, half to the middle class, the owner of a rough-pimpled but good-humored countenance.

"This is my worthy colleague M. Cambon," he went on, the timber- merchant, to whom I owe the confidence and good-will of the people here. He was one of the promoters of the road which you have admired. I have no need to tell you the profession of this gentleman," Benassis added, turning to the curate. "Here is a man whom no one can help loving."

There was an irresistible attraction in the moral beauty expressed by the cure's countenance, which engrossed Genestas' attention. Yet a certain harshness and austerity of outline might make M. Janvier's face seem unpleasing at a first glance. His attitude, and his slight, emaciated frame, showed that he was far from strong physically, but the unchanging serenity of his face bore witness to the profound inward peace of heart. Heaven seemed to be reflected in his eyes, and the inextinguishable fervor of charity which glowed in his heart appeared to shine from them. The gestures that he made but rarely were simple and natural, his appeared to be a quiet and retiring nature, and there was a modesty and simplicity like that of a young girl about his actions. At first sight he inspired respect and a vague desire to be admitted to his friendship.

"Ah! M. le Maire," he said, bending as though to escape from Benassis' eulogium.

Something in the cure's tones brought a thrill to Genestas' heart, and the two insignificant words uttered by this stranger priest plunged him into musings that were almost devout.

"Gentlemen," said Jacquotte, who came into the middle of the room, and there took her stand, with her hands on her hips, "the soup is on the table."

Invited by Benassis, who summoned each in turn so as to avoid questions of precedence, the doctor's five guests went into the dining-room; and after the cure, in low and quiet tones, had repeated a Benedicite, they took their places at table. The cloth that covered the table was of that peculiar kind of damask linen invented in the time of Henry IV. by the brothers Graindorge, the skilful weavers, who gave their name to the heavy fabric so well known to housekeepers. The linen was of dazzling whiteness, and fragrant with the scent of the thyme that Jacquotte always put into her wash-tubs. The dinner service was of white porcelain, edged with blue, and was in perfect order. The decanters were of the old-fashioned octagonal kind still in use in the provinces, though they have disappeared elsewhere. Grotesque figures had been carved on the horn handles of the knives. These relics of ancient splendor, which, nevertheless, looked almost new, seemed to those who scrutinized them to be in keeping with the kindly and open- hearted nature of the master of the house.

The lid of the soup-tureen drew a momentary glance from Genestas; he noticed that it was surmounted by a group of vegetables in high relief, skilfully colored after the manner of Bernard Palissy, the celebrated sixteenth century craftsman.

There was no lack of character about the group of men thus assembled. The powerful heads of Genestas and Benassis contrasted admirably with M. Janvier's apostolic countenance; and in the same fashion the elderly faces of the justice of the peace and the deputy-mayor brought out the youthfulness of the notary. Society seemed to be represented by these various types. The expression of each one indicated contentment with himself and with the present, and a faith in the future. M. Tonnelet and M. Janvier, who were still young, loved to make forecasts of coming events, for they felt that the future was theirs; while the other guests were fain rather to turn their talk upon the past. All of them faced the things of life seriously, and their opinions seemed to reflect a double tinge of soberness, on the one hand, from the twilight hues of well-nigh forgotten joys that could never more be revived for them; and, on the other, from the gray dawn which gave promise of a glorious day.

"You must have had a very tiring day, sir?" said M. Cambon, addressing the cure.

"Yes, sir," answered M. Janvier, "the poor cretin and Pere Pelletier were buried at different hours."

"Now we can pull down all the hovels of the old village," Benassis remarked to his deputy. "When the space on which the houses stand has been grubbed up, it will mean at least another acre of meadow land for us; and furthermore, there will be a clear saving to the Commune of the hundred francs that it used to cost to keep Chautard the cretin."

"For the next three years we ought to lay out the hundred francs in making a single-span bridge to carry the lower road over the main stream," said M. Cambon. "The townsfolk and the people down the valley have fallen into the way of taking a short cut across that patch of land of Jean Francois Pastoureau's; before they have done they will cut it up in a way that will do a lot of harm to that poor fellow."

"I am sure that the money could not be put to a better use," said the justice of peace. "In my opinion the abuse of the right of way is one of the worst nuisances in a country district. One-tenth of the cases that come before the court are caused by unfair easement. The rights of property are infringed in this way almost with impunity in many and many a commune. A respect for the law and a respect for property are ideas too often disregarded in France, and it is most important that they should be inculcated. Many people think that there is something dishonorable in assisting the law to take its course. 'Go and be hanged somewhere else,' is a saying which seems to be dictated by an unpraiseworthy generosity of feeling; but at the bottom it is nothing but a hypocritical formula--a sort of veil which we throw over our own selfishness. Let us own to it, we lack patriotism! The true patriot is the citizen who is so deeply impressed with a sense of the importance of the laws that he will see them carried out even at his own cost and inconvenience. If you let the criminal go in peace, are you not making yourself answerable for the crimes he will commit?"

"It is all of a piece," said Benassis. "If the mayors kept their roads in better order, there would not be so many footpaths. And if the members of Municipal Councils knew a little better, they would uphold the small landowner and the mayor when the two combine to oppose the establishment of unfair easements. The fact that chateau, cottage, field, and tree are all equally sacred would then be brought home in every way to the ignorant; they would be made to understand that Right is just the same in all cases, whether the value of the property in question be large or small. But such salutary changes cannot be brought about all at once. They depend almost entirely on the moral condition of the population, which we can never completely reform without the potent aid of the cures. This remark does not apply to you in any way, M. Janvier."

"Nor do I take it to myself," laughed the cure. "Is not my heart set on bringing the teaching of the Catholic religion to co-operate with your plans of administration? For instance, I have often tried, in my pulpit discourses on theft, to imbue the folk of this parish with the very ideas of Right to which you have just given utterance. For truly, God does not estimate theft by the value of the thing stolen, He looks at the thief. That has been the gist of the parables which I have tried to adapt to the comprehension of my parishioners."

"You have succeeded, sir," said Cambon. "I know the change you have brought about in people's ways of looking at things, for I can compare the Commune as it is now with the Commune as it used to be. There are certainly very few places where the laborers are as careful as ours are about keeping the time in their working hours. The cattle are well looked after; any damage that they do is done by accident. There is no pilfering in the woods, and finally you have made our peasants clearly understand that the leisure of the rich is the reward of a thrifty and hard-working life."

"Well, then," said Genestas, "you ought to be pretty well pleased with your infantry, M. le Cure."

"We cannot expect to find angels anywhere here below, captain," answered the priest. "Wherever there is poverty, there is suffering too; and suffering and poverty are strong compelling forces which have their abuses, just as power has. When the peasants have a couple of leagues to walk to their work, and have to tramp back wearily in the evening, they perhaps see sportsmen taking short cuts over ploughed land and pasture so as to be back to dinner a little sooner, and is it to be supposed that they will hesitate to follow the example? And of those who in this way beat out a footpath such as these gentlemen have just been complaining about, which are the real offenders, the workers or the people who are simply amusing themselves? Both the rich and the poor give us a great deal of trouble these days. Faith, like power, ought always to descend from the heights above us, in heaven or on earth; and certainly in our times the upper classes have less faith in them than the mass of the people, who have God's promise of heaven hereafter as a reward for evils patiently endured. With due submission to ecclesiastical discipline, and deference to the views of my superiors, I think that for some time to come we should be less exacting as to questions of doctrine, and rather endeavor to revive the sentiment of religion in the hearts of the intermediary classes, who debate over the maxims of Christianity instead of putting them in practice. The philosophism of the rich has set a fatal example to the poor, and has brought about intervals of too long duration when men have faltered in their allegiance to God. Such ascendency as we have over our flocks to-day depends entirely on our personal influence with them; is it not deplorable that the existence of religious belief in a commune should be dependent on the esteem in which a single man is held? When the preservative force of Christianity permeating all classes of society shall have put life into the new order of things, there will be an end of sterile disputes about doctrine. The cult of a religion is its form; societies only exist by forms. You have your standard, we have the cross----"

"I should very much like to know, sir," said Genestas, breaking in upon M. Janvier, "why you forbid these poor folk to dance on Sunday?"

"We do not quarrel with dancing in itself, captain; it is forbidden because it leads to immorality, which troubles the peace of the countryside and corrupts its manners. Does not the attempt to purify the spirit of the family and to maintain the sanctity of family ties strike at the root of the evil?"

"Some irregularities are always to be found in every district, I know," said M. Tonnelet, "but they very seldom occur among us. Perhaps there are peasants who remove their neighbor's landmark without much scruple; or they may cut a few osiers that belong to some one else, if they happen to want some; but these are mere peccadilloes compared with the wrongdoing that goes on among a town population. Moreover, the people in this valley seem to me to be devoutly religious."

"Devout?" queried the cure with a smile; "there is no fear of fanaticism here."

"But," objected Cambon, "if the people all went to mass every morning, sir, and to confession every week, how would the fields be cultivated? And three priests would hardly be enough."

"Work is prayer," said the cure. "Doing one's duty brings a knowledge of the religious principles which are a vital necessity to society."

"How about patriotism?" asked Genestas.

"Patriotism can only inspire a short-lived enthusiasm," the curate answered gravely; "religion gives it permanence. Patriotism consists in a brief impulse of forgetfulness of self and self-interest, while Christianity is a complete system of opposition to the depraved tendencies of mankind."

"And yet, during the wars undertaken by the Revolution, patriotism----"

"Yes, we worked wonders at the time of the Revolution," said Benassis, interrupting Genestas; "but only twenty years later, in 1814, our patriotism was extinct; while, in former times, a religious impulse moved France and Europe to fling themselves upon Asia a dozen times in the course of a century."

"Maybe it is easier for two nations to come to terms when the strife has arisen out of some question of material interests," said the justice of the peace; "while wars undertaken with the idea of supporting dogmas are bound to be interminable, because the object can never be clearly defined."

"Well, sir, you are not helping any one to fish!" put in Jacquotte, who had removed the soup with Nicolle's assistance. Faithful to her custom, Jacquotte herself always brought in every dish one after another, a plan which had its drawbacks, for it compelled gluttonous folk to over-eat themselves, and the more abstemious, having satisfied their hunger at an early stage, were obliged to leave the best part of the dinner untouched.

"Gentlemen," said the cure, with a glance at the justice of the peace, "how can you allege that religious wars have had no definite aim? Religion in olden times was such a powerful binding force, that material interests and religious questions were inseparable. Every soldier, therefore, knew quite well what he was fighting for."

"If there has been so much fighting about religion," said Genestas, "God must have built up the system very perfunctorily. Should not a divine institution impress men at once by the truth that is in it?"

All the guests looked at the cure.

"Gentlemen," said M. Janvier, "religion is something that is felt and that cannot be defined. We cannot know the purpose of the Almighty; we are no judges of the means He employs."

"Then, according to you, we are to believe in all your rigmaroles," said Genestas, with the easy good-humor of a soldier who has never given a thought to these things.

"The Catholic religion, better than any other, resolves men's doubts and fears; but even were it otherwise, I might ask you if you run any risks by believing in its truths."

"None worth speaking of," answered Genestas.

"Good! and what risks do you not run by not believing? But let us talk of the worldly aspect of the matter, which most appeals to you. The finger of God is visible in human affairs; see how He directs them by the hand of His vicar on earth. How much men have lost by leaving the path traced out for them by Christianity! So few think of reading Church history, that erroneous notions deliberately sown among the people lead them to condemn the Church; yet the Church has been a pattern of perfect government such as men seek to establish to-day. The principle of election made it for a long while the great political power. Except the Catholic Church, there was no single religious institution which was founded upon liberty and equality. Everything was ordered to this end. The father-superior, the abbot, the bishop, the general of an order, and the pope were then chosen conscientiously for their fitness for the requirements of the Church. They were the expression of its intelligence, of the thinking power of the Church, and blind obedience was therefore their due. I will say nothing of the ways in which society has benefited by that power which has created modern nations and has inspired so many poems, so much music, so many cathedrals, statues, and pictures. I will simply call your attention to the fact that your modern systems of popular election, of two chambers, and of juries all had their origin in provincial and oecumenical councils, and in the episcopate and college of cardinals; but there is this difference,--the views of civilization held by our present-day philosophy seem to me to fade away before the sublime and divine conception of Catholic communion, the type of a universal social communion brought about by the word and the fact that are combined in religious dogma. It would be very difficult for any modern political system, however perfect people may think it, to work once more such miracles as were wrought in those ages when the Church as the stay and support of the human intellect."

"Why?" asked Genestas.

"Because, in the first place, if the principle of election is to be the basis of a system, absolute equality among the electors is a first requirement; they ought to be 'equal quantities,' things which modern politics will never bring about. Then, great social changes can only be effected by means of some common sentiment so powerful that it brings men into concerted action, while latter-day philosophism has discovered that law is based upon personal interest, which keeps men apart. Men full of the generous spirit that watches with tender care over the trampled rights of the suffering poor, were more often found among the nations of past ages than in our generation. The priesthood, also, which sprang from the middle classes, resisted material forces and stood between the people and their enemies. But the territorial possessions of the Church and her temporal power, which seemingly made her position yet stronger, ended by crippling and weakening her action. As a matter of fact, if the priest has possessions and privileges, he at once appears in the light of an oppressor. He is paid by the State, therefore he is an official: if he gives his time, his life, his whole heart, this is a matter of course, and nothing more than he ought to do; the citizens expect and demand his devotion; and the spontaneous kindliness of his nature is dried up. But, let the priest be vowed to poverty, let him turn to his calling of his own free will, let him stay himself on God alone, and have no resource on earth but the hearts of the faithful, and he becomes once more the missionary of America, he takes the rank of an apostle, he has all things under his feet. Indeed, the burden of wealth drags him down, and it is only by renouncing everything that he gains dominion over all men's hearts."

M. Janvier had compelled the attention of every one present. No one spoke; for all the guests were thoughtful. It was something new to hear such words as these in the mouth of a simple cure.

"There is one serious error, M. Janvier, among the truths to which you have given expression," said Benassis. "As you know, I do not like to raise discussions on points of general interest which modern authorities and modern writers have called in question. In my opinion, a man who has thought out a political system, and who is conscious that he has within him the power of applying it in practical politics, should keep his mind to himself, seize his opportunity and act; but if he dwells in peaceful obscurity as a simple citizen, is it not sheer lunacy to think to bring the great mass over to his opinion by means of individual discussions? For all that, I am about to argue with you, my dear pastor, for I am speaking before sensible men, each of whom is accustomed always to bring his individual light to a common search for the truth. My ideas may seem strange to you, but they are the outcome of much thought caused by the calamities of the last forty years. Universal suffrage, which finds such favor in the sight of those persons who belong to the constitutional opposition, as it is called, was a capital institution in the Church, because (as you yourself have just pointed out, dear pastor) the individuals of whom the Church was composed were all well educated, disciplined by religious feeling, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the same system, well aware of what they wanted and whither they were going. But modern Liberalism rashly made war upon the prosperous government of the Bourbons, by means of ideas which, should they triumph, would be the ruin of France and of the Liberals themselves. This is well known to the leaders of the Left, who are merely endeavoring to get the power into their own hands. If (which Heaven forbid) the middle classes ranged under the banner of the opposition should succeed in overthrowing those social superiorities which are so repugnant to their vanity, another struggle would follow hard upon their victory. It would not be very long before the middle classes in their turn would be looked upon by the people as a sort of noblesse; they would be a sorry kind of noblesse, it is true, but their wealth and privileges would seem so much the more hateful in the eyes of the people because they would have a closer vision of these things. I do not say that the nation would come to grief in the struggle, but society would perish anew; for the day of triumph of a suffering people is always brief, and involves disorders of the worst kind. There would be no truce in a desperate strife arising out of an inherent or acquired difference of opinion among the electors. The less enlightened and more numerous portion would sweep away social inequalities, thanks to a system in which votes are reckoned by count and not by weight. Hence it follows that a government is never more strongly organized, and as a consequence is never more perfect than when it has been established for the protection of Privilege of the most restricted kind. By Privilege I do not at this moment mean the old abuses by which certain rights were conceded to a few, to the prejudice of the many; no, I am using it to express the social circle of the governing class. But throughout creation Nature has confined the vital principle within a narrow space, in order to concentrate its power; and so it is with the body politic. I will illustrate this thought of mine by examples. Let us suppose that there are a hundred peers in France, there are only one hundred causes of offence. Abolish the peerage, and all the wealthy people will constitute the privileged class; instead of a hundred, you will have ten thousand, instead of removing class distinctions, you have merely widened the mischief. In fact, from the people's point of view, the right to live without working is in itself a privilege. The unproductive consumer is a robber in their eyes. The only work that they understand has palpable results; they set no value on intellectual labor--the kind of labor which is the principal source of wealth to them. So by multiplying causes of offence in this way, you extend the field of battle; the social war would be waged on all points instead of being confined within a limited circle; and when attack and resistance become general, the ruin of a country is imminent. Because the rich will always be fewer in number, the victory will be to the poor as soon as it comes to actual fighting. I will throw the burden of proof on history.

"The institution of Senatorial Privilege enabled the Roman Republic to conquer the world. The Senate preserved the tradition of authority. But when the equites and the novi homines had extended the governing classes by adding to the numbers of the Patricians, the State came to ruin. In spite of Sylla, and after the time of Julius Caesar, Tiberius raised it into the Roman Empire; the system was embodied in one man, and all authority was centered in him, a measure which prolonged the magnificent sway of the Roman for several centuries. The Emperor had ceased to dwell in Rome when the Eternal City fell into the hands of barbarians. When the conqueror invaded our country, the Franks who divided the land among themselves invented feudal privilege as a safeguard for property. The hundred or the thousand chiefs who owned the country, established their institutions with a view to defending the rights gained by conquest. The duration of the feudal system was co-existent with the restriction of Privilege. But when the leudes (an exact translation of the word GENTLEMEN) from five hundred became fifty thousand, there came a revolution. The governing power was too widely diffused; it lacked force and concentration; and they had not reckoned with the two powers, Money and Thought, that had set those free who had been beneath their rule. So the victory over the monarchical system, obtained by the middle classes with a view to extending the number of the privileged class, will produce its natural effect--the people will triumph in turn over the middle classes. If this trouble comes to pass, the indiscriminate right of suffrage bestowed upon the masses will be a dangerous weapon in their hands. The man who votes, criticises. An authority that is called in question is no longer an authority. Can you imagine a society without a governing authority? No, you cannot. Therefore, authority means force, and a basis of just judgement should underlie force. Such are the reasons which have led me to think that the principle of popular election is a most fatal one for modern governments. I think that my attachment to the poor and suffering classes has been sufficiently proved, and that no one will accuse me of bearing any ill-will towards them, but though I admire the sublime patience and resignation with which they tread the path of toil, I must pronounce them to be unfit to take part in the government. The proletariat seem to me to be the minors of a nation, and ought to remain in a condition of tutelage. Therefore, gentlemen, the word ELECTION, to my thinking, is in a fair way to cause as much mischief as the words CONSCIENCE and LIBERTY, which ill-defined and ill-understood, were flung broadcast among the people, to serve as watchwords of revolt and incitements to destruction. It seems to me to be a right and necessary thing that the masses should be kept in tutelage for the good of society."

"This system of yours runs so clean contrary to everybody's notions nowadays, that we have some right to ask your reasons for it," said Genestas, interrupting the doctor.

"By all means, captain."

"What is this the master is saying?" cried Jacquotte, as she went back to her kitchen. "There he is, the poor dear man, and what is he doing but advising them to crush the people! And they are listening to him----"

"I would never have believed it of M. Benassis," answered Nicolle.

"If I require that the ignorant masses should be governed by a strong hand," the doctor resumed, after a brief pause, "I should desire at the same time that the framework of the social system should be sufficiently yielding and elastic to allow those who have the will and are conscious of their ability to emerge from the crowd, to rise and take their place among the privileged classes. The aim of power of every kind is its own preservation. In order to live, a government, to-day as in the past, must press the strong men of the nation into its service, taking them from every quarter, so as to make them its defenders, and to remove from among the people the men of energy who incite the masses to insurrection. By opening out in this way to the public ambition paths that are at once difficult and easy, easy for strong wills, difficult for weak or imperfect ones, a State averts the perils of the revolutions caused by the struggles of men of superior powers to rise to their proper level. Our long agony of forty years should have made it clear to any man who has brains that social superiorities are a natural outcome of the order of things. They are of three kinds that cannot be questioned--the superiority of the thinker, the superiority of the politician, the superiority of wealth. Is not that as much as to say, genius, power, and money, or, in yet other words--the cause, the means, and the effect? But suppose a kind of social tabula rasa, every social unit perfectly equal, an increase of population everywhere in the same ratio, and give the same amount of land to each family; it would not be long before you would again have all the existing inequalities of fortune; it is glaringly evident, therefore, that there are such things as superiority of fortune, of thinking capacity, and of power, and we must make up our minds to this fact; but the masses will always regard rights that have been most honestly acquired as privileges, and as a wrong done to themselves.

"The SOCIAL CONTRACT founded upon this basis will be a perpetual pact between those who have and those who have not. And acting on these principles, those who benefit by the laws will be the lawmakers, for they necessarily have the instinct of self-preservation, and foresee their dangers. It is even more to their interest than to the interest of the masses themselves that the latter should be quiet and contented. The happiness of the people should be ready made for the people. If you look at society as a whole from this point of view, you will soon see, as I do, that the privilege of election ought only to be exercised by men who possess wealth, power, or intelligence, and you will likewise see that the action of the deputies they may choose to represent them should be considerably restricted.

"The maker of laws, gentlemen, should be in advance of his age. It is his business to ascertain the tendency of erroneous notions popularly held, to see the exact direction in which the ideas of a nation are tending; he labors for the future rather than for the present, and for the rising generation rather than for the one that is passing away. But if you call in the masses to make the laws, can they rise above their own level? Nay. The more faithfully an assembly represents the opinions held by the crowd, the less it will know about government, the less lofty its ideas will be, and the more vague and vacillating its policy, for the crowd is and always will be simply a crowd, and this especially with us in France. Law involves submission to regulations; man is naturally opposed to rules and regulations of all kinds, especially if they interfere with his interests; so is it likely that the masses will enact laws that are contrary to their own inclinations? No.

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