Translated by Horace B. Samuel
Put thousands together less bad, But the cage less gay.
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.
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."