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CHAPTER III—SUMS DEPOSITED WITH LAFFITTE
On the other hand, he remained as simple as on the first day. He had gray
hair, a serious eye, the sunburned complexion of a laborer, the thoughtful
visage of a philosopher. He habitually wore a hat with a wide brim, and a
long coat of coarse cloth, buttoned to the chin. He fulfilled his duties
as mayor; but, with that exception, he lived in solitude. He spoke to but
few people. He avoided polite attentions; he escaped quickly; he smiled to
relieve himself of the necessity of talking; he gave, in order to get rid
of the necessity for smiling, The women said of him, "What a good-natured
bear!" His pleasure consisted in strolling in the fields.
He always took his meals alone, with an open book before him, which he
read. He had a well-selected little library. He loved books; books are
cold but safe friends. In proportion as leisure came to him with fortune,
he seemed to take advantage of it to cultivate his mind. It had been
observed that, ever since his arrival at M. sur M.. his language had grown
more polished, more choice, and more gentle with every passing year. He
liked to carry a gun with him on his strolls, but he rarely made use of
it. When he did happen to do so, his shooting was something so infallible
as to inspire terror. He never killed an inoffensive animal. He never shot
at a little bird.
Although he was no longer young, it was thought that he was still
prodigiously strong. He offered his assistance to any one who was in need
of it, lifted a horse, released a wheel clogged in the mud, or stopped a
runaway bull by the horns. He always had his pockets full of money when he
went out; but they were empty on his return. When he passed through a
village, the ragged brats ran joyously after him, and surrounded him like
a swarm of gnats.
It was thought that he must, in the past, have lived a country life, since
he knew all sorts of useful secrets, which he taught to the peasants. He
taught them how to destroy scurf on wheat, by sprinkling it and the
granary and inundating the cracks in the floor with a solution of common
salt; and how to chase away weevils by hanging up orviot in bloom
everywhere, on the walls and the ceilings, among the grass and in the
He had "recipes" for exterminating from a field, blight, tares, foxtail,
and all parasitic growths which destroy the wheat. He defended a rabbit
warren against rats, simply by the odor of a guinea-pig which he placed in
One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles;
he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said:
"They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make
use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent
vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and
flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good
for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the
nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root,
mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it
is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the
nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is
ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of
a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it
becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!" He
added, after a pause: "Remember this, my friends: there are no such things
as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators."
The children loved him because he knew how to make charming little trifles
of straw and cocoanuts.
When he saw the door of a church hung in black, he entered: he sought out
funerals as other men seek christenings. Widowhood and the grief of others
attracted him, because of his great gentleness; he mingled with the
friends clad in mourning, with families dressed in black, with the priests
groaning around a coffin. He seemed to like to give to his thoughts for
text these funereal psalmodies filled with the vision of the other world.
With his eyes fixed on heaven, he listened with a sort of aspiration
towards all the mysteries of the infinite, those sad voices which sing on
the verge of the obscure abyss of death.
He performed a multitude of good actions, concealing his agency in them as
a man conceals himself because of evil actions. He penetrated houses
privately, at night; he ascended staircases furtively. A poor wretch on
returning to his attic would find that his door had been opened, sometimes
even forced, during his absence. The poor man made a clamor over it: some
malefactor had been there! He entered, and the first thing he beheld was a
piece of gold lying forgotten on some piece of furniture. The "malefactor"
who had been there was Father Madeleine.
He was affable and sad. The people said: "There is a rich man who has not
a haughty air. There is a happy man who has not a contented air."
Some people maintained that he was a mysterious person, and that no one
ever entered his chamber, which was a regular anchorite's cell, furnished
with winged hour-glasses and enlivened by cross-bones and skulls of dead
men! This was much talked of, so that one of the elegant and malicious
young women of M. sur M. came to him one day, and asked: "Monsieur le
Maire, pray show us your chamber. It is said to be a grotto." He smiled,
and introduced them instantly into this "grotto." They were well punished
for their curiosity. The room was very simply furnished in mahogany, which
was rather ugly, like all furniture of that sort, and hung with paper
worth twelve sous. They could see nothing remarkable about it, except two
candlesticks of antique pattern which stood on the chimney-piece and
appeared to be silver, "for they were hall-marked," an observation full of
the type of wit of petty towns.
Nevertheless, people continued to say that no one ever got into the room,
and that it was a hermit's cave, a mysterious retreat, a hole, a tomb.
It was also whisp�red about that he had "immense" sums deposited with
Laffitte, with this peculiar feature, that they were always at his
immediate disposal, so that, it was added, M. Madeleine could make his
appearance at Laffitte's any morning, sign a receipt, and carry off his
two or three millions in ten minutes. In reality, "these two or three
millions" were reducible, as we have said, to six hundred and thirty or
forty thousand francs.