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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 50/66 -
first threw the inhabitants into consternation. They were stupefied at having been able to sleep through the night and get up as usual, in the absence of any settled government. Their first stupor over, they threw themselves recklessly into the arms of their liberators. The few Republicans shrugged their shoulders, but the petty shopkeepers, the small householders, the Conservatives of all shades, invoked blessings on those modest heroes whose achievements had been shrouded by the night. When it was known that Rougon had arrested his own brother, the popular admiration knew no bounds. People talked of Brutus, and thus the indiscretion which had made Pierre rather anxious, really redounded to his glory. At this moment when terror still hovered over them, the townsfolk were virtually unanimous in their gratitude. Rougon was accepted as their saviour without the slightest show of opposition.
"Just think of it!" the poltroons exclaimed, "there were only forty- one of them!"
That number of forty-one amazed the whole town, and this was the origin of the Plassans legend of how forty-one bourgeois had made three thousand insurgents bite the dust. There were only a few envious spirits of the new town, lawyers without work and retired military men ashamed of having slept ingloriously through that memorable night, who raised any doubts. The insurgents, these sceptics hinted, had no doubt left the town of their own accord. There were no indications of a combat, no corpses, no blood-stains. So the deliverers had certainly had a very easy task.
"But the mirror, the mirror!" repeated the enthusiasts. "You can't deny that the mayor's mirror has been smashed; go and see it for yourselves."
And, in fact, until night-time, quite a stream of town's-people flowed, under one pretext or another, into the mayor's private office, the door of which Rougon left wide open. The visitors planted themselves in front of the mirror, which the bullet had pierced and starred, and they all gave vent to the same exclamation: "By Jove; that ball must have had terrible force!"
Then they departed quite convinced.
Felicite, at her window, listened with delight to all the rumours and laudatory and grateful remarks which arose from the town. At that moment all Plassans was talking of her husband. She felt that the two districts below her were quivering, wafting her the hope of approaching triumph. Ah! how she would crush that town which she had been so long in getting beneath her feet! All her grievances crowded back to her memory, and her past disappointments redoubled her appetite for immediate enjoyment.
At last she left the window, and walked slowly round the drawing-room. It was there that, a little while previously, everybody had held out their hands to her husband and herself. He and she had conquered; the citizens were at their feet. The yellow drawing-room seemed to her a holy place. The dilapidated furniture, the frayed velvet, the chandelier soiled with fly-marks, all those poor wrecks now seemed to her like the glorious bullet-riddled debris of a battle-field. The plain of Austerlitz would not have stirred her to deeper emotion.
When she returned to the window, she perceived Aristide wandering about the place of the Sub-Prefecture, with his nose in the air. She beckoned to him to come up, which he immediately did. It seemed as if he had only been waiting for this invitation.
"Come in," his mother said to him on the landing, seeing that he hesitated. "Your father is not here."
Aristide evinced all the shyness of a prodigal son returning home. He had not been inside the yellow drawing-room for nearly four years. He still carried his arm in a sling.
"Does your hand still pain you?" his mother asked him, ironically.
He blushed as he answered with some embarrassment: "Oh! it's getting better; it's nearly well again now."
Then he lingered there, loitering about and not knowing what to say. Felicite came to the rescue. "I suppose you've heard them talking about your father's noble conduct?" she resumed.
He replied that the whole town was talking of it. And then, as he regained his self-possession, he paid his mother back for her raillery in her own coin. Looking her full in the face he added: "I came to see if father was wounded."
"Come, don't play the fool!" cried Felicite, petulantly. "If I were you I would act boldly and decisively. Confess now that you made a false move in joining those good-for-nothing Republicans. You would be very glad, I'm sure, to be well rid of them, and to return to us, who are the stronger party. Well, the house is open to you!"
But Aristide protested. The Republic was a grand idea. Moreover, the insurgents might still carry the day.
"Don't talk nonsense to me!" retorted the old woman, with some irritation. "You're afraid that your father won't have a very warm welcome for you. But I'll see to that. Listen to me: go back to your newspaper, and, between now and to-morrow, prepare a number strongly favouring the Coup d'Etat. To-morrow evening, when this number has appeared, come back here and you will be received with open arms."
Then seeing that the young man remained silent: "Do you hear?" she added, in a lower and more eager tone; "it is necessary for our sake, and for your own, too, that it should be done. Don't let us have any more nonsense and folly. You've already compromised yourself enough in that way."
The young man made a gesture--the gesture of a Caesar crossing the Rubicon--and by doing so escaped entering into any verbal engagement. As he was about to withdraw, his mother, looking for the knot in his sling, remarked: "First of all, you must let me take off this rag. It's getting a little ridiculous, you know!"
Aristide let her remove it. When the silk handkerchief was untied, he folded it neatly and placed it in his pocket. And as he kissed his mother he exclaimed: "Till to-morrow then!"
In the meanwhile, Rougon was taking official possession of the mayor's offices. There were only eight municipal councillors left; the others were in the hands of the insurgents, as well as the mayor and his two assessors. The eight remaining gentlemen, who were all on a par with Granoux, perspired with fright when the latter explained to them the critical situation of the town. It requires an intimate knowledge of the kind of men who compose the municipal councils of some of the smaller towns, in order to form an idea of the terror with which these timid folk threw themselves into Rougon's arms. At Plassans, the mayor had the most incredible blockheads under him, men without any ideas of their own, and accustomed to passive obedience. Consequently, as Monsieur Garconnet was no longer there, the municipal machine was bound to get out of order, and fall completely under the control of the man who might know how to set it working. Moreover, as the sub- prefect had left the district, Rougon naturally became sole and absolute master of the town; and thus, strange to relate, the chief administrative authority fell into the hands of a man of indifferent repute, to whom, on the previous evening, not one of his fellow- citizens would have lent a hundred francs.
Pierre's first act was to declare the Provisional Commission "en permanence." Then he gave his attention to the organisation of the national guard, and succeeded in raising three hundred men. The hundred and nine muskets left in the cart-shed were also distributed to volunteers, thereby bringing up the number of men armed by the reactionary party to one hundred and fifty; the remaining one hundred and fifty guards consisted of well-affected citizens and some of Sicardot's soldiers. When Commander Roudier reviewed the little army in front of the town-hall, he was annoyed to see the market-people smiling in their sleeves. The fact is that several of his men had no uniforms, and some of them looked very droll with their black hats, frock-coats, and muskets. But, at any rate, they meant well. A guard was left at the town-hall and the rest of the forces were sent in detachments to the various town gates. Roudier reserved to himself the command of the guard stationed at the Grand'-Porte, which seemed to be more liable to attack than the others.
Rougon, who now felt very conscious of his power, repaired to the Rue Canquoin to beg the gendarmes to remain in their barracks and interfere with nothing. He certainly had the doors of the gendarmerie opened--the keys having been carried off by the insurgents--but he wanted to triumph alone, and had no intention of letting the gendarmes rob him of any part of his glory. If he should really have need of them he could always send for them. So he explained to them that their presence might tend to irritate the working-men and thus aggravate the situation. The sergeant in command thereupon complimented him on his prudence. When Rougon was informed that there was a wounded man in the barracks, he asked to see him, by way of rendering himself popular. He found Rengade in bed, with his eye bandaged, and his big moustaches just peeping out from under the linen. With some high-sounding words about duty, Rougon endeavoured to comfort the unfortunate fellow who, having lost an eye, was swearing with exasperation at the thought that his injury would compel him to quit the service. At last Rougon promised to send the doctor to him.
"I'm much obliged to you, sir," Rengade replied; "but, you know, what would do me more good than any quantity of doctor's stuff would be to wring the neck of the villain who put my eye out. Oh! I shall know him again; he's a little thin, palish fellow, quite young."
Thereupon Pierre bethought himself of the blood he had seen on Silvere's hand. He stepped back a little, as though he was afraid that Rengade would fly at his throat, and cry: "It was your nephew who blinded me; and you will have to pay for it." And whilst he was mentally cursing his disreputable family, he solemnly declared that if the guilty person were found he should be punished with all the rigour of the law.
"No, no, it isn't worth all that trouble," the one-eyed man replied; "I'll just wring his neck for him when I catch him."
Rougon hastened back to the town-hall. The afternoon was employed in taking various measures. The proclamation posted up about one o'clock produced an excellent impression. It ended by an appeal to the good sense of the citizens, and gave a firm assurance that order would not again be disturbed. Until dusk, in fact, the streets presented a picture of general relief and perfect confidence. On the pavements, the groups who were reading the proclamation exclaimed:
"It's all finished now; we shall soon see the troops who have been sent in pursuit of the insurgents."
This belief that some soldiers were approaching was so general that
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