Three distinct volleys of cracking whips rent the air like a discharge
of musketry; the red waistcoats of the postilions dawned in sight, ten
horses neighed. The master pulled off his cap and waved it; he was
seen. The best mounted postilion, who was returning with two gray
carriage-horses, set spurs to his beast and came on in advance of the
five diligence horses and the three other carriage-horses, and soon
reached his master.
"Have you seen the 'Ducler'?"
On the great mail routes names, often fantastic, are given to the
different coaches; such, for instance, as the "Caillard," the "Ducler"
(the coach between Nemours and Paris), the "Grand Bureau." Every new
enterprise is called the "Competition." In the days of the Lecompte
company their coaches were called the "Countess."--"'Caillard' could
not overtake the 'Countess'; but 'Grand Bureau' caught up with her
finely," you will hear the men say. If you see a postilion pressing
his horses and refusing a glass of wine, question the conductor and he
will tell you, snuffing the air while his eye gazes far into space,
"The 'Competition' is ahead."--"We can't get in sight of her," cries
the postilion; "the vixen! she wouldn't stop to let her passengers
dine."--"The question is, has she got any?" responds the conductor.
"Give it to Polignac!" All lazy and bad horses are called Polignac.
Such are the jokes and the basis of conversation between postilions
and conductors on the roofs of the coaches. Each profession, each
calling in France has its slang.
"Have you seen the 'Ducler'?" asked Minoret.
"Monsieur Desire?" said the postilion, interrupting his master. "Hay!
you must have heard us, didn't our whips tell you? we felt you were
somewhere along the road."
Just then a woman dressed in her Sunday clothes,--for the bells were
pealing from the clock tower and calling the inhabitants to mass,--a
woman about thirty-six years of age came up to the post master.
"Well, cousin," she said, "you wouldn't believe me-- Uncle is with
Ursula in the Grand'Rue, and they are going to mass."
In spite of the modern poetic canons as to local color, it is quite
impossible to push realism so far as to repeat the horrible blasphemy
mingled with oaths which this news, apparently so unexciting, brought
from the huge mouth of Minoret-Levrault; his shrill voice grew
sibilant, and his face took on the appearance of what people oddly
enough call a sunstroke.
"Is that true?" he asked, after the first explosion of his wrath was
The postilions bowed to their master as they and their horses passed
him, but he seemed to neither see nor hear them. Instead of waiting
for his son, Minoret-Levrault hurried up to the Grand'Rue with his
"Didn't I always tell you so?" she resumed. "When Doctor Minoret goes
out of his head that demure little hypocrite will drag him into
religion; whoever lays hold of the mind gets hold of the purse, and
she'll have our inheritance."
"But, Madame Massin--" said the post master, dumbfounded.
"There now!" exclaimed Madame Massin, interrupting her cousin. "You
are going to say, just as Massin does, that a little girl of fifteen
can't invent such plans and carry them out, or make an old man of
eighty-three, who has never set foot in a church except to be married,
change his opinions,--now don't tell me he has such a horror of
priests that he wouldn't even go with the girl to the parish church
when she made her first communion. I'd like to know why, if Doctor
Minoret hates priests, he has spent nearly every evening for the last
fifteen years of his life with the Abbe Chaperon. The old hypocrite
never fails to give Ursula twenty francs for wax tapers every time she
takes the sacrament. Have you forgotten the gift Ursula made to the
church in gratitude to the cure for preparing her for her first
communion? She spent all her money on it, and her godfather returned
it to her doubled. You men! you don't pay attention to things. When I
heard that, I said to myself, 'Farewell baskets, the vintage is done!'
A rich uncle doesn't behave that way to a little brat picked up in the
streets without some good reason."
"Pooh, cousin; I dare say the good man is only taking her to the door
of the church," replied the post master. "It is a fine day, and he is
out for a walk."
"I tell you he is holding a prayer-book, and looks sanctimonious--
you'll see him."
"They hide their game pretty well," said Minoret, "La Bougival told me
there was never any talk of religion between the doctor and the abbe.
Besides, the abbe is one of the most honest men on the face of the
globe; he'd give the shirt off his back to a poor man; he is incapable
of a base action, and to cheat a family out of their inheritance is--"
"Theft," said Madame Massin.
"Worse!" cried Minoret-Levrault, exasperated by the tongue of his
"Of course I know," said Madame Massin, "that the Abbe Chaperon is an
honest man; but he is capable of anything for the sake of his poor. He
must have mined and undermined uncle, and the old man has just tumbled
into piety. We did nothing, and here he is perverted! A man who never
believed in anything, and had principles of his own! Well! we're done
for. My husband is absolutely beside himself."
Madame Massin, whose sentences were so many arrows stinging her fat
cousin, made him walk as fast as herself, in spite of his obesity and
to the great astonishment of the church-goers, who were on their way
to mass. She was determined to overtake this uncle and show him to the
Nemours is commanded on the Gatinais side by a hill, at the foot of
which runs the road to Montargis and the Loing. The church, on the
stones of which time has cast a rich discolored mantle (it was rebuilt
in the fourteenth century by the Guises, for whom Nemours was raised
to a peerage-duchy), stands at the end of the little town close to a
great arch which frames it. For buildings, as for men, position does
everything. Shaded by a few trees, and thrown into relief by a neatly
kept square, this solitary church produces a really grandiose effect.
As the post master of Nemours entered the open space, he beheld his
uncle with the young girl called Ursula on his arm, both carrying
prayer-books and just entering the church. The old man took off his
hat in the porch, and his head, which was white as a hill-top covered
with snow, shone among the shadows of the portal.
"Well, Minoret, what do you say to the conversion of your uncle?"
cried the tax-collector of Nemours, named Cremiere.
"What do you expect me to say?" replied the post master, offering him
a pinch of snuff.
"Well answered, Pere Levrault. You can't say what you think, if it is
true, as an illustrious author says it is, that a man must think his
words before he speaks his thoughts," cried a young man, standing
near, who played the part of Mephistopheles in the little town.
This ill-conditioned youth, named Goupil, was head clerk to Monsieur
Cremiere-Dionis, the Nemours notary. Notwithstanding a past conduct
that was almost debauched, Dionis had taken Goupil into his office
when a career in Paris--where the clerk had wasted all the money he
inherited from his father, a well-to-do farmer, who educated him for a
notary--was brought to a close by his absolute pauperism. The mere
sight of Goupil told an observer that he had made haste to enjoy life,
and had paid dear for his enjoyments. Though very short, his chest and
shoulders were developed at twenty-seven years of age like those of a
man of forty. Legs small and weak, and a broad face, with a cloudy
complexion like the sky before a storm, surmounted by a bald forehead,
brought out still further the oddity of his conformation. His face
seemed as though it belonged to a hunchback whose hunch was inside of
him. One singularity of that pale and sour visage confirmed the
impression of an invisible gobbosity; the nose, crooked and out of
shape like those of many deformed persons, turned from right to left
of the face instead of dividing it down the middle. The mouth,
contracted at the corners, like that of a Sardinian, was always on the
qui vive of irony. His hair, thin and reddish, fell straight, and
showed the skull in many places. His hands, coarse and ill-joined at
the wrists to arms that were far too long, were quick-fingered and
seldom clean. Goupil wore boots only fit for the dust-heap, and raw
silk stockings now of a russet black; his coat and trousers, all
black, and threadbare and greasy with dirt, his pitiful waistcoat with
half the button-moulds gone, an old silk handkerchief which served as
a cravat--in short, all his clothing revealed the cynical poverty to
which his passions had reduced him. This combination of disreputable
signs was guarded by a pair of eyes with yellow circles round the
pupils, like those of a goat, both lascivious and cowardly. No one in
Nemours was more feared nor, in a way, more deferred to than Goupil.
Strong in the claims made for him by his very ugliness, he had the
odious style of wit peculiar to men who allow themselves all license,
and he used it to gratify the bitterness of his life-long envy. He
wrote the satirical couplets sung during the carnival, organized
charivaris, and was himself a "little journal" of the gossip of the
town. Dionis, who was clever and insincere, and for that reason timid,
kept Goupil as much through fear as for his keen mind and thorough
knowledge of all the interests of the town. But the master so
distrusted his clerk that he himself kept the accounts, refused to let
him live in his house, held him at arm's length, and never confided
any secret or delicate affair to his keeping. In return the clerk
fawned upon the notary, hiding his resentment at this conduct, and
watching Madame Dionis in the hope that he might get his revenge
there. Gifted with a ready mind and quick comprehension he found work