eBooks Cube
 
CHAPTER I

THE REPUBLICAN


He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was
mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was
obscure, although the village of Gavrillac had long since dispelled
the cloud of mystery that hung about it. Those simple Brittany folk
were not so simple as to be deceived by a pretended relationship
which did not even possess the virtue of originality. When a
nobleman, for no apparent reason, announces himself the godfather of
an infant fetched no man knew whence, and thereafter cares for the
lad's rearing and education, the most unsophisticated of country
folk perfectly understand the situation. And so the good people of
Gavrillac permitted themselves no illusions on the score of the real
relationship between Andre-Louis Moreau - as the lad had been named
- and Quintin de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac, who dwelt in the
big grey house that dominated from its eminence the village
clustering below.

Andre-Louis had learnt his letters at the village school, lodged
the while with old Rabouillet, the attorney, who in the capacity of
fiscal intendant, looked after the affairs of M. de Kercadiou.
Thereafter, at the age of fifteen, he had been packed off to Paris,
to the Lycee of Louis Le Grand, to study the law which he was now
returned to practise in conjunction with Rabouillet. All this at
the charges of his godfather, M. de Kercadiou, who by placing him
once more under the tutelage of Rabouillet would seem thereby quite
clearly to be making provision for his future.

Andre-Louis, on his side, had made the most of his opportunities.
You behold him at the age of four-and-twenty stuffed with learning
enough to produce an intellectual indigestion in an ordinary mind.
Out of his zestful study of Man, from Thucydides to the
Encyclopaedists, from Seneca to Rousseau, he had confirmed into an
unassailable conviction his earliest conscious impressions of the
general insanity of his own species. Nor can I discover that
anything in his eventful life ever afterwards caused him to waver
in that opinion.

In body he was a slight wisp of a fellow, scarcely above middle
height, with a lean, astute countenance, prominent of nose and
cheek-bones, and with lank, black hair that reached almost to his
shoulders. His mouth was long, thin-lipped, and humorous. He was
only just redeemed from ugliness by the splendour of a pair of
ever-questing, luminous eyes, so dark as to be almost black. Of
the whimsical quality of his mind and his rare gift of graceful
expression, his writings - unfortunately but too scanty - and
particularly his Confessions, afford us very ample evidence. Of
his gift of oratory he was hardly conscious yet, although he had
already achieved a certain fame for it in the Literary Chamber of
Rennes - one of those clubs by now ubiquitous in the land, in
which the intellectual youth of France foregathered to study and
discuss the new philosophies that were permeating social life.
But the fame he had acquired there was hardly enviable. He was
too impish, too caustic, too much disposed - so thought his
colleagues - to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration
of mankind. himself he protested that he merely held them up to the
mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected
there they looked ridiculous.

All that he achieved by this was to exasperate; and his expulsion
from a society grown mistrustful of him must already have followed
but for his friend, Philippe de Vilmorin, a divinity student of
Rennes, who, himself, was one of the most popular members of the
Literary Chamber.

Coming to Gavrillac on a November morning, laden with news of the
political storms which were then gathering over France, Philippe
found in that sleepy Breton village matter to quicken his already
lively indignation. A peasant of Gavrillac, named Mabey, had been
shot dead that morning in the woods of Meupont, across the river,
by a gamekeeper of the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr. The unfortunate
fellow had been caught in the act of taking a pheasant from a snare,
and the gamekeeper had acted under explicit orders from his master.

Infuriated by an act of tyranny so absolute and merciless, M. de
Vilmorin proposed to lay the matter before M. de Kercadiou. Mabey
was a vassal of Gavrillac, and Vilmorin hoped to move the Lord of
Gavrillac to demand at least some measure of reparation for the
widow and the three orphans which that brutal deed had made.

But because Andre-Louis was Philippe's dearest friend - indeed, his
almost brother - the young seminarist sought him out in the first
instance. He found him at breakfast alone in the long, low-ceilinged,
white-panelled dining-room at Rabouillet's - the only home that
Andre-Louis had ever known - and after embracing him, deafened him
with his denunciation of M. de La Tour d'Azyr.

"I have heard of it already," said Andre-Louis.

"You speak as if the thing had not surprised you," his friend
reproached him.

"Nothing beastly can surprise me when done by a beast. And La Tour
d'Azyr is a beast, as all the world knows. The more fool Mabey for
stealing his pheasants. He should have stolen somebody else's."

"Is that all you have to say about it?"

"What more is there to say? I've a practical mind, I hope."

"What more there is to say I propose to say to your godfather, M.
de Kercadiou. I shall appeal to him for justice."

"Against M. de La Tour d'azyr?" Andre-Louis raised his eyebrows.

"Why not?"

"My dear ingenuous Philippe, dog doesn't eat dog."

"You are unjust to your godfather. He is a humane man."

"Oh, as humane as you please. But this isn't a question
of humanity. It's a question of game-laws."

M. de Vilmorin tossed his long arms to Heaven in disgust. He was
a tall, slender young gentleman, a year or two younger than
Andre-Louis. He was very soberly dressed in black, as became a
seminarist, with white bands at wrists and throat and silver
buckles to his shoes. His neatly clubbed brown hair was innocent
of powder.

"You talk like a lawyer," he exploded.

"Naturally. But don't waste anger on me on that account. Tell me
what you want me to do."

"I want you to come to M. de Kercadiou with me, and to use your
influence to obtain justice. I suppose I am asking too much."

"My dear Philippe, I exist to serve you. I warn you that it is a
futile quest; but give me leave to finish my breakfast, and I am
at your orders."

M. de Vilmorin dropped into a winged armchair by the well-swept
hearth, on which a piled-up fire of pine logs was burning cheerily.
And whilst he waited now he gave his friend the latest news of the
events in Rennes. Young, ardent, enthusiastic, and inspired by
Utopian ideals, he passionately denounced the rebellious attitude
of the privileged.

Andre-Louis, already fully aware of the trend of feeling in the
ranks of an order in whose deliberations he took part as the
representative of a nobleman, was not at all surprised by what he
heard. M. de Vilmorin found it exasperating that his friend should
apparently decline to share his own indignation.

"Don't you see what it means?" he cried. "The nobles, by disobeying
the King, are striking at the very foundations of the throne. Don't
they perceive that their very existence depends upon it; that if the
throne falls over, it is they who stand nearest to it who will be
crushed? Don't they see that?"

"Evidently not. They are just governing classes, and I never heard
of governing classes that had eyes for anything but their own profit."

"That is our grievance. That is what we are going to change."

"You are going to abolish governing classes? An interesting
experiment. I believe it was the original plan of creation, and it
might have succeeded but for Cain."

"What we are going to do," said M. de Vilmorin, curbing his
exasperation, "is to transfer the government to other hands."

"And you think that will make a difference?"

"I know it will."

"Ah! I take it that being now in minor orders, you already possess
the confidence of the Almighty. He will have confided to you His
intention of changing the pattern of mankind."

M. de Vilmorin's fine ascetic face grew overcast. "You are profane,
Andre," he reproved his friend.

"I assure you that I am quite serious. To do what you imply would
require nothing short of divine intervention. You must change man,
not systems. Can you and our vapouring friends of the Literary
Chamber of Rennes, or any other learned society of France, devise a
system of government that has never yet been tried? Surely not.
And can they say of any system tried that it proved other than a
failure in the end? My dear Philippe, the future is to be read
with certainty only in the past. Ab actu ad posse valet consecutio.
Man never changes. He is always greedy, always acquisitive, always
vile. I am speaking of Man in the bulk."

"Do you pretend that it is impossible to ameliorate the lot of the
people?" M. de Vilmorin challenged him.

"When you say the people you mean, of course, the populace. Will
you abolish it? That is the only way to ameliorate its lot, for as
long as it remains populace its lot will be damnation."

"You argue, of course, for the side that employs you. That is
natural, I suppose." M. de Vilmorin spoke between sorrow and
indignation.

"On the contrary, I seek to argue with absolute detachment. Let us
test these ideas of yours. To what form of government do you aspire?
A republic, it is to be inferred from what you have said. Well, you
have it already. France in reality is a republic to-day."

Philippe stared at him. "You are being paradoxical, I think. What
of the King?"

"The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France
since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who
wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little
he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high
places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who
are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic;
she is a republic built on the best pattern - the Roman pattern.
Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury,
preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is
accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and
groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman
kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen."

Philippe strove with his impatience. "At least you will admit - you
have, in fact, admitted it - that we could not be worse governed
than we are?"

"That is not the point. The point is should we be better governed
if we replaced the present ruling class by another? Without some
guarantee of that I should be the last to lift a finger to effect a
change. And what guarantees can you give? What is the class that
aims at government? I will tell you. The bourgeoisie."

"What?"

"That startles you, eh? Truth is so often disconcerting. You hadn't
thought of it? Well, think of it now. Look well into this Nantes
manifesto. Who are the authors of it?"

"I can tell you who it was constrained the municipality of Nantes
to send it to the King. Some ten thousand workmen - shipwrights,
weavers, labourers, and artisans of every kind."

"Stimulated to it, driven to it, by their employers, the wealthy
traders and shipowners of that city," Andre-Louis replied. "I have
a habit of observing things at close quarters, which is why our
colleagues of the Literary Chamber dislike me so cordially in debate.
Where I delve they but skim. Behind those labourers and artisans of
Nantes, counselling them, urging on these poor, stupid, ignorant
toilers to shed their blood in pursuit of the will o' the wisp of
freedom, are the sail-makers, the spinners, the ship-owners and the
slave-traders. The slave-traders! The men who live and grow rich
by a traffic in human flesh and blood in the colonies, are conducting
at home a campaign in the sacred name of liberty! Don't you see that
the whole movement is a movement of hucksters and traders and
peddling vassals swollen by wealth into envy of the power that lies
in birth alone? The money-changers in Paris who hold the bonds in
the national debt, seeing the parlous financial condition of the
State, tremble at the thought that it may lie in the power of a
single man to cancel the debt by bankruptcy. To secure themselves
they are burrowing underground to overthrow a state and build upon
its ruins a new one in which they shall be the masters. And to
accomplish this they inflame the people. Already in Dauphiny we
have seen blood run like water - the blood of the populace, always
the blood of the populace. Now in Brittany we may see the like.
And if in the end the new ideas prevail? if the seigneurial rule
is overthrown, what then? You will have exchanged an aristocracy
for a plutocracy. Is that worth while? Do you 'think that under
money-changers and slave-traders and men who have waxed rich in
other ways by the ignoble arts of buying and selling, the lot of
the people will be any better than under their priests and nobles?
Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the
rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness
is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness
in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness? Oh, I am
ready to admit that the present government is execrable, unjust,
tyrannical - what you will; but I beg you to look ahead, and to see
that the government for which it is aimed at exchanging it may be
infinitely worse."

Philippe sat thoughtful a moment. Then he returned to the attack.

"You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses
of power under which we labour at present."

"Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it."

"Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable
administration."

"The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold
it."

"The people can - the people in its might."

"Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace?
You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It
can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield,
because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess,
or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of
civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by
equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not
to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses,
and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States
General are to assemble."

"And a promising beginning we have made in Brittany, as Heaven hears
me!" cried Philippe.

"Pooh! That is nothing. Naturally the nobles will not yield without
a struggle. It is a futile and ridiculous struggle - but then... it
is human nature, I suppose, to be futile and ridiculous."

M. de Vilmorin became witheringly sarcastic. "Probably you will
also qualify the shooting of Mabey as futile and ridiculous. I
should even be prepared to hear you argue in defence of the Marquis
de La Tour d' Azyr that his gamekeeper was merciful in shooting
Mabey, since the alternative would have been a life-sentence to
the galleys."

Andre-Louis drank the remainder of his chocolate; set down his cup,
and pushed back his chair, his breakfast done.

"I confess that I have not your big charity, my dear Philippe. I
am touched by Mabey's fate. But, having conquered the shock of
this news to my emotions, I do not forget that, after all, Mabey
was thieving when he met his death."

M. de Vilmorin heaved himself up in his indignation.

"That is the point of view to be expected in one who is the assistant
fiscal intendant of a nobleman, and the delegate of a nobleman to
the States of Brittany."

"Philippe, is that just? You are angry with me!" he cried, in real
solicitude.

"I am hurt," Vilmorin admitted. "I am deeply hurt by your attitude.
And I am not alone in resenting your reactionary tendencies. Do
you know that the Literary Chamber is seriously considering your
expulsion?"

Andre-Louis shrugged. "That neither surprises nor troubles me."

M. de Vilmorin swept on, passionately: "Sometimes I think that you
have no heart. With you it is always the law, never equity. It
occurs to me, Andre, that I was mistaken in coming to you. You are
not likely to be of assistance to me in my interview with M. de
Kercadiou." He took up his hat, clearly with the intention of
departing.

Andre-Louis sprang up and caught him by the arm.

"I vow," said he, "that this is the last time ever I shall consent
to talk law or politics with you, Philippe. I love you too well
to quarrel with you over other men's affairs."

"But I make them my own," Philippe insisted vehemently.

"Of course you do, and I love you for it. It is right that you
should. You are to be a priest; and everybody's business is a
priest's business. Whereas I am a lawyer - the fiscal intendant
of a nobleman, as you say - and a lawyer's business is the business
of his client. That is the difference between us. Nevertheless,
you are not going to shake me off."

"But I tell you frankly, now that I come to think of it, that I
should prefer you did not see M. de Kercadiou with me. Your duty
to your client cannot be a help to me."

His wrath had passed; but his determination remained firm, based
upon the reason he gave.

"Very well," said Andre-Louis. "It shall be as you please. But
nothing shall prevent me at least from walking with you as far as
the chateau, and waiting for you while you make your appeal to M.
de Kercadiou."

And so they left the house good friends, for the sweetness of M.
de Vilmorin's nature did not admit of rancour, and together they
took their way up the steep main street of Gavrillac.





Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
Category:
General Fiction

Romance Literature
Nabou.com: the big site