Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 5
As I had nothing further to fear for myself, it would have been easy to take vengeance on my enemy. Everything was favourable. The words he had uttered against my family would have been sufficient without any mention of the outrage done to my own person, which, in truth, I hardly cared to make known. I had only to say a word, and in a quarter of an hour seven Mauprats would have been in the saddle, delighted at the opportunity of making an example of a man who paid them no dues. Such a man would have seemed to them good for nothing but hanging as a warning to others.
But, even if things had not been likely to reach this pitch, I somehow felt an unconquerable aversion to asking eight men to avenge me on a single one. Just as I was about to ask them (for, in my anger, I had firmly resolved to do so), I was held back by some instinct for fair dealing to which I had hitherto been a stranger, and whose presence in myself I could hardly explain. Perhaps, too, the words of Patience had, unknown to myself, aroused in me a healthy sense of shame. Perhaps his righteous maledictions on the nobles had given me glimpses of the idea of justice. Perhaps, in short, what I had hitherto despised in myself as impulses of weakness and compassion, henceforth began dimly to take a more solemn and less contemptible shape.
Be this as it may, I kept silent. I contented myself with thrashing Sylvain as a punishment for having deserted me, and to impress upon him that he was not to breathe a word about my unfortunate adventure. The bitterness of the recollection was intensified by an incident which happened toward the end of autumn when I was out with him beating the woods for game. The poor boy was genuinely attached to me; for, my brutality notwithstanding, he always used to be at my heels the instant I was outside the castle. When any of his companions spoke ill of me, he would take up my cause, and declare that I was merely somewhat hasty and not really bad at heart. Ah, it is the gentle, resigned souls of the humble that keep up the pride and roughness of the great. Well, we were trying to trap larks when my sabot-shod page, who always hunted about ahead of me, came back, saying in his rude dialect:
"I can see the wolf-driver with the mole-catcher."
This announcement sent a shudder through all my limbs. However, the longing for revenge produced a reaction, and I marched straight on to meet the sorcerer. Perhaps, too, I felt somewhat reassured by the presence of his companion, who was a frequenter of Roche-Mauprat, and would be likely to show me respect and afford me assistance.
Marcasse, the mole-catcher, as he was called, professed to rid the dwellings and fields of the district of polecats, weasels, rats, and other vermin. Nor did he confine his good offices to Berry; every year he went the round of La Marche, Nivernais, Limousin, and Saintonge, visiting, alone and on foot, all the places that had the good sense to appreciate his talents. He was well received everywhere, in the castle no less than in the cottage; for his was a trade that had been carried on successfully and honestly in his family for generations (indeed, his descendants still carry it on). Thus he had work and a home awaiting him for every day in the year. As regular in his round as the earth in her rotation, he would reappear on a given day at the very place where he had appeared the year before, and always with the same dog and with the same long sword.
This personage was as curious as the sorcerer Patience; perhaps more comic in his way than the sorcerer. He was a bilious, melancholy man, tall, lean, angular, full of languor, dignity, and deliberation in speech and action. So little did he like talking that he answered all questions in monosyllables; and yet he never failed to obey the laws of the most scrupulous politeness, and rarely said a word without raising his hand to the corner of his hat as a sign of respect and civility. Was he thus by nature, or, in his itinerant trade, had this wise reserve arisen from a fear of alienating some of his numerous clients by incautious chatter? No one knew. In all houses he was allowed a free hand; during the day he had the key of every granary; in the evening, a place at the fireside of every kitchen. He knew everything that happened; for his dreamy, absorbed air led people to talk freely in his presence; yet he had never been known to inform any household of the doings of another.
If you wish to know how I had become struck by this strange character, I may tell you that I had been a witness of my uncle's and grandfather's efforts to make him talk. They hoped to draw from him some information about the château of Sainte-Sévère, the home of a man they hated and envied, M. Hubert de Mauprat. Although Don Marcasse (they called him Don because he seemed to have the bearing and pride of a ruined hidalgo), although Don Marcasse, I say, had shown himself as incompressible here as elsewhere, the Coupe-Jarret Mauprats never failed to squeeze him a little more in the hope of extracting some details about the Casse-Téte Mauprats.
Nobody, then, could discover Marcasse's opinions about anything; it would have been simplest to suppose that he did not take the trouble to have any. Yet the attraction which Patience seemed to feel towards him—so great that he would accompany him on his travels for several weeks together—led one to believe that there was some witchery in the man's mysterious air, and that it was not solely the length of his sword and the skill of his dog which played such wonderful havoc with the moles and weasels. There were whispered rumours of the enchanted herbs that he employed to lure these suspicious animals from their holes into his nets. However, as people found themselves better off for his magic, no one dreamt of denouncing it as criminal.
I do not know if you have ever seen one of the rat-hunts. It is a curious sight, especially in a fodder-loft. The man and dog climbing up ladders and running along beams with marvellous assurance and agility, the dog sniffing every hole in the wall, playing the cat, crouching down and lying in wait until the game comes out for his master's rapier; the man thrusting through bundles of straw and putting the enemy to the sword—all this, when arranged and carried out with gravity and dignity by Don Marcasse, was, I assure you, a most singular and interesting performance.
When I saw this trusty fellow I felt equal to braving the sorcerer, and advanced boldly. Sylvain stared at me in admiration, and I noticed that Patience himself was not prepared for such audacity. I pretended to go up to Marcasse and speak to him, as though quite unconcerned about the presence of my enemy. Seeing this he gently thrust aside the mole-catcher, and, laying his heavy hand on my head, said very quietly:
"You have grown of late, my fine gentleman!"
The blood rushed to my face, and, drawing back scornfully, I answered:
"Take care what you are doing, clodhopper; you should remember that if you still have your two ears, it is to my kindness that you owe them."
"My two ears!" said Patience, with a bitter laugh.
Then making an allusion to the nickname of my family, he added:
"Perhaps you mean my two hamstrings? Patience, patience! The time, maybe, is not far distant when clodhoppers will rid the nobles of neither ears nor hamstrings, but of their heads and their purses."
"Silence, Master Patience!" said the mole-catcher solemnly; "these are not the words of a philosopher."
"You are right, quite right," replied the sorcerer; "and in truth, I don't know why I allow myself to argue with this lad. He might have had me made into pap by his uncles. I whipped him in the summer for playing me a stupid trick; and I don't know what happened to the family, but the Mauprats lost a fine chance of injuring a neighbour."
"Learn, peasant," I said, "that a nobleman always takes vengeance nobly. I did not want my wrongs avenged by people more powerful than yourself; but wait a couple of years; I promise I will hang you with my own hand on a certain tree that I shall easily recognise, not very far from the door of Gazeau Tower. If I don't I will renounce my birthright; if I spare you I will take the title of wolf-driver."
Patience smiled; then, suddenly becoming serious, he fixed on me that searching look which rendered his physiognomy so striking. Then turning to the weasel-hunter:
"It is strange," he said; "there must be something in blood. Take the vilest noble, and you will find that in certain things he has more spirit than the bravest of us. Ah! it is simple enough," he added, speaking to himself; "they are brought up like that, whilst we we, they tell us, are born to obey. Patience!"
He was silent for an instant; then, rousing himself from his reverie, he said to me in a kindly though somewhat mocking tone:
"And so you want to hang me, Monseigneur Straw-Stalk? You will have to eat a lot of beef, then, for you are not yet tall enough to reach the branch which is to bear me; and before then . . . perhaps many things will happen that are not dreamt of in your little philosophy."
"Nonsense! Why talk nonsense?" said the mole-catcher, with a serious air; " come, make peace. Monseigneur Bernard, I ask pardon for Patience; he is an old man, a fool."
"No, no," said Patience; " I want him to hang me; he is right; this is merely my due; and, in fact, it may come more quickly than all the rest. You must not make too much haste to grow, monsieur; for I well, I am making more haste to grow old than I would wish; and you who are so brave, you would not attack a man no longer able to defend himself."
"You didn't hesitate to use your strength against me!" I cried. "Confess, now; didn't you treat me brutally? Wasn't it a coward's work, that?"
He made a movement of surprise.
"Oh, children, children!" he said. "See how the thing reasons! Out of the mouths of children cometh truth."
And he moved away dreamily, and muttering to himself as was his wont. Marcasse took off his hat to me, and said in an impassive tone:
"He is wrong . . . live at peace . . . pardon . . . peace . . . farewell!"
They disappeared; and there ended my relations with Patience. I did not come in contact with him again until long afterward.