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A Beleaguered City (orig. ed. 1879, this ed. 1900)

by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant


I, MARTIN DUPIN (de la Clairière), had the honour of holding the office of Maire in the town of Semur, in the Haute Bourgogne, at the time when the following events occurred. It will be perceived, therefore, that no one could have more complete knowledge of the facts -- at once from my official position, and from the place of eminence in the affairs of the district generally which my family has held for many generations -- by what citizen-like virtues and unblemished integrity I will not be vain enough to specify. Nor is it necessary; for no one who knows Semur can be ignorant of the position held by the Dupins, from father to son. The estate La Clairière has been so long in the family that we might very well, were we disposed, add its name to our own, as so many families in France do; and, indeed, I do not prevent my wife (whose prejudices I respect) from making this use of it upon her cards. But, for myself, bourgeois I was born and bourgeois I mean to die. My residence, like that of my father and grandfather, is at No. 29 in the Grande Rue, opposite the Cathedral, and not far from the Hospital of St. Jean. We inhabit the first floor, along with the rez-de-chaussée, which has been turned into domestic offices suitable for the needs of the family. My mother, holding a respected place in my household, lives with us in the most perfect family union. My wife (née de Champfleurie) is everything that is calculated to render a household happy; but, alas! one only of our two children survives to bless us. I have thought these details of my private circumstances necessary, to explain the following narrative; to which I will also add, by way of introduction, a simple sketch of the town itself and its general conditions before these remarkable events occurred.

  It was on a summer evening about sunset, the middle of the month of June, that my attention was attracted by an incident of no importance which occurred in the street, when I was making my way home, after an inspection of the young vines in my new vineyard to the left of La Clairière. All were in perfectly good condition, and none of the many signs which point to the arrival of the insect were apparent. I had come back in good spirits, thinking of the prosperity which I was happy to believe I had merited by a conscientious performance of all my duties. I had little with which to blame myself: not only my wife and relations, but my dependants and neighbours, approved my conduct as a man; and even my fellow-citizens, exacting as they are, had confirmed in my favour the good opinion which my family had been fortunate enough to secure from father to son. These thoughts were in my mind as I turned the corner of the Grande Rue and approached my own house. At this moment the tinkle of a little bell warned all the bystanders of the procession which was about to pass, carrying the rites of the Church to some dying person. Some of the women, always devout, fell on their knees. I did not go so far as this, for I do not pretend, in these days of progress, to have retained the same attitude of mind as that which it is no doubt becoming to behold in the more devout sex; but I stood respectfully out of the way, and took off my hat, as good breeding alone, if nothing else, demanded of me. just in front of me, however, was Jacques Richard, always a troublesome individual, standing doggedly, with his hat upon his head and his hands in his pockets, straight in the path of M. le Curé. There is not in all France a more obstinate fellow. He stood there, notwithstanding the efforts of a good woman to draw him away, and though I myself called to him. M. le Curé is not the man to flinch; and as he passed, walking as usual very quickly and straight, his soutane brushed against the blouse of Jacques. He gave one quick glance from beneath his eyebrows at the profane interruption, but he would not distract himself from his sacred errand at such a moment. It is a sacred errand when any one, be he priest or layman, carries the best he can give to the bedside of the dying. I said this to Jacques when M. le Curé had passed and the bell went tinkling on along the street. "Jacques," said I, "I do not call it impious, like this good woman, but I call it inhuman. What! a man goes to carry help to the dying, and you show him no respect?"

  This brought the colour to his face; and I think, perhaps, that he might have become ashamed of the part he had played; but the women pushed in again, as they are so fond of doing. "Oh, M. le Maire, he does not deserve that you should lose your words upon him!" they cried; (and, besides, is it likely he will pay any attention to you when he tries to stop even the bon Dieu?"

  "The bon Dieu!" cried Jacques. "Why doesn't He clear the way for himself? Look here. I do not care one farthing for your bon Dieu. Here is mine; I carry him about with me." And he took a piece of a hundred sous out of his pocket (how had it got there?) "Vive l'argent!" he said. "You know it yourself, though you will not say so. There is no bon Dieu but money. With money you can do anything. L'argent c'est le bon Dieu."

  "Be silent," I cried, "thou profane one!" And the women were still more indignant than I. "We shall see, we shall see; when he is ill and would give his soul for something to wet his lips, his bon Dieu will not do much for him," cried one; and another said, clasping her hands with a shrill cry, "It is enough to make the dead rise out of their graves!"

  "The dead rise out of their graves!" These words, though one has heard them before, took possession of my imagination. I saw the rude fellow go along the street as I went on, tossing the coin in his hand. One time it fell to the ground and rang upon the pavement, and he laughed more loudly as he picked it up. He was walking towards the sunset, and I too, at a distance after. The sky was full of rose-tinted clouds floating across the blue, floating high over the grey pinnacles of the Cathedral, and filling the long open line of the Rue St. Etienne down which he was going. As I crossed to my own house I caught him full against the light, in his blue blouse, tossing the big silver piece in the air, and heard him laugh and shout "Vive l'argent! This is the only bon Dieu." Though there are many people who live as if this were their sentiment, there are few who give it such brutal expression; but some of the people at the corner of the street laughed too. "Bravo, Jacques!" they cried; and one said, "You are right, mon ami, the only god to trust in nowadays." "It is a short credo, M. le Maire," said another, who caught my eye. He saw I was displeased, this one, and his countenance changed at once.

  "Yes, Jean Pierre," I said, "it is worse than short -- it is brutal. I hope, no man who respects himself will ever countenance it. It is against the dignity of human nature, if nothing more."

  "Ah, M. le Maire!" cried a poor woman, one of the good ladies of the market, with entrenchments of baskets all round her, who had been walking my way; "ah, M. le Maire! did not I say true? it is enough to bring the dead out of their graves."

  "That would be something to see," said Jean Pierre, with a laugh; "and I hope, ma bonne femme, that if you have any interest with them, you will entreat these gentlemen to appear before I go away."

  "I do not like such jesting," said I. "The dead are very dead and will not disturb anybody, but even the prejudices of respectable persons ought to be respected. A ribald like Jacques counts for nothing, but I did not expect this from you."

  "What would you, M. le Maire?" he said, with a shrug of his shoulders. "We are made like that. I respect prejudices as you say. My wife is a good woman, she prays for two -- but me! How can I tell that Jacques is not right after all? A grosse pièce of a hundred sous, one sees that, one knows what it can do-but for the other!" He thrust up one shoulder to his ear, and turned up the palms of his hands.

  "It is our duty at all times to respect the convictions of others," I said, severely; and passed on to my own house, having no desire to encourage discussions at the street corner. A man in my position is obliged to be always mindful of the example he ought to set. But I had not yet done with this phrase, which had, as I have said, caught my ear and my imagination. My mother was in the great salle of the rez-de-chausée, as I passed, in altercation with a peasant who had just brought us in some loads of wood. There is often, it seems to me, a sort of refrain in conversation, which one catches everywhere as one comes and goes. Figure my astonishment when I heard from the lips of my good mother the same words with which that good-for-nothing Jacques Richard had made the profession of his brutal faith. "Go!" she cried, in anger; "you are all the same. Money is your god. De grosses pièces, that is all you think of in these days."

  "Eh, bien, madame," said the peasant; "and if so, what then? Don't you others, gentlemen and ladies, do just the same? What is there in the world but money to think of? If it is a question of marriage, you demand what is the dot; if it is a question of office, you ask, Monsieur Untel, is he rich? And it is perfectly just. We know what money can do; but as for le bou Dieu, whom our grandmothers used to talk about ----"

  And lo! our gros Paysan made exactly the same gesture as Jean Pierre. He put up his shoulders to his cars, and spread out the palms of his hands, as who should say, There is nothing further to be said. Then there occurred a still more remarkable repetition. My mother, as may be supposed, being a very respectable person, and more or less dévote, grew red with indignation and horror.

  "Oh, these poor grandmothers!" she cried; "God give them rest! It is enough to make the dead rise out of their graves."

  "Oh, I will answer for les morts! they will give nobody any trouble," he said with a laugh. I went in and reproved the man severely, finding that, as I supposed, he had attempted to cheat my good mother in the price of the wood. Fortunately she had been quite as clever as he was. She went upstairs shaking her head, while I gave the man to understand that no one should speak to her but with the profoundest respect in my house. "She has her opinions, like all respectable ladies," I said, "but under this roof these opinions shall always be sacred." And, to do him justice, I will add that when it was put to him in this way Gros-Jean was ashamed of himself.

  When I talked over these incidents with my wife, as we gave each other the narrative of our day's experiences, she was greatly distressed, as may be supposed. "I try to hope they are not so bad as Bonne Maman thinks. But oh, mon ami!" she said, "what will the world come to if this is what they really believe?"

  "Take courage," I said; "the world will never come to anything much different from what it is. So long as there are des anges like thee to pray for us, the scale will not go down to the wrong side."

  I said this, of course, to please my Agnès, who is the best of wives; but on thinking it over after, I could not but be struck with the extreme justice (not to speak of the beauty of the sentiment) of this thought. The bon Dieu -- if, indeed, that great Being is as represented to us by the Church -- must naturally care as much for one-half of His creatures as for the other, though they have not the same weight in the world; and consequently the faith of the women must hold the balance straight, especially if, as is said, they exceed us in point of numbers. This leaves a little margin for those of them who profess the same freedom of thought as is generally accorded to men -- a class, I must add, which I abominate from the bottom of my heart.

  I need not dwell upon other little scenes which impressed the same idea still more upon my mind. Semur, I need not say, is not the centre of the world, and might, therefore, be supposed likely to escape the full current of worldliness. We amuse ourselves little, and we have not any opportunity of rising to the heights of ambition; for our town is not even the chef-lieu of the department, -- though this is a subject upon which I cannot trust myself to speak. Figure to yourself that La Rochette -- a place of yesterday, without either the beauty or the antiquity of Semur -- has been chosen as the centre of affairs, the residence of M. le Préfet! But I will not enter upon this question. What I was saying was, that, notwithstanding the fact that we amuse ourselves but little, that there is no theatre to speak of, little society, few distractions, and none of those inducements to strive for gain and to indulge the senses, which exist, for instance, in Paris -- that capital of the world -- yet, nevertheless, the thirst for money and for pleasure has increased among us to an extent which I cannot but consider alarming. Gros-Jean, our peasant, toils for money, and hoards; Jacques, who is a cooper and maker of wine casks, gains and drinks; Jean Pierre snatches at every sous that comes in his way, and spends it in yet worse dissipations. He is one who quails when he meets my eye; he sins en cachette; but Jacques is bold, and defies opinion; and Gros-Jean is firm in the belief that to hoard money is the highest of mortal occupations. These three are types of what the population is at Semur. The men would all sell their souls for a grosse pièce of fifty sous -- indeed, they would laugh, and express their delight that any one should believe them to have souls, if they could but have a chance of selling them; and the devil, who was once supposed to deal in that commodity, would be very welcome among us. And as for the bon Dieu -- pouff! that was an affair of the grandmothers -- le bon Dieu c'est l'argent. This is their creed. I was very near the beginning of my official year as Maire when my attention was called to these matters as I have described above. A man may go on for years keeping quiet himself -- keeping out of tumult, religious or political -- and make no discovery of the general current of feeling; but when you are forced to serve your country in any official capacity, and when your eyes are opened to the state of affairs around you, then I allow that an inexperienced observer might well cry out, as my wife did, "What will become of the world?" I am not prejudiced myself -- unnecessary to say that the foolish scruples of the women do not move me. But the devotion of the community at large to this pursuit of gain -- money without any grandeur, and pleasure without any refinement -- that is a thing which cannot fail to wound all who believe in human nature. To be a millionaire -- that, I grant, would be pleasant. A man as rich as Monte Christo, able to do whatever he would, with the equipage of an English duke, the palace of an Italian prince, the retinue of a Russian noble -- he, indeed, might be excused if his money seemed to him a kind of god. But Gros-Jean, who lays up two sous at a time, and lives on black bread and an onion; and Jacques, whose grosse pièce but secures him the headache of a drunkard next morning -- what to them could be this miserable deity? As for myself, however, it was my business, as Maire of the commune, to take as little notice as possible of the follies these people might say, and to hold the middle course between the prejudices of the respectable and the levities of the foolish. With this, without more, to think of, I had enough to keep all my faculties employed.

(End of chapter 1.)

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