Bouvard et Pécuchet
EXPERIMENTS IN AGRICULTURE
“Very well,” said Bouvard, “we have time before us.” He intended to get a tenant; then they would see. “We shall not be more unlucky than before; only now we are forced to practise economy!”
Pécuchet was disgusted with gardening, and a few days later he remarked:
“We ought to give ourselves up exclusively to tree culture—not for pleasure, but as a speculation. A pear which is the product of three soils is sometimes sold in the capital for five or six francs. Gardeners make out of apricots twenty-five thousand livres in the year! At St. Petersburg, during the winter, grapes are sold at a napoleon per grape. It is a beautiful industry, you must admit! And what does it cost? Attention, manuring, and a fresh touch of the pruning-knife.”
It excited Bouvard’s imagination so much that they sought immediately in their books for a nomenclature for purchasable plants, and, having selected names which appeared to them wonderful, they applied to a nurseryman from Falaise, who busied himself in supplying them with three hundred stalks for which he had not found a sale. They got a lock-smith for the props, an iron-worker for the fasteners, and a carpenter for the rests. The forms of the trees were designed beforehand. Pieces of lath on the wall represented candelabra. Two posts at the ends of the plat-bands supported steel threads in a horizontal position; and in the orchard, hoops indicated the structure of vases, cone-shaped switches that of pyramids, so well that, in arriving in the midst of them, you imagined you saw pieces of some unknown machinery or the framework of a pyrotechnic apparatus.
The holes having been dug, they cut the ends of all the roots, good or bad, and buried them in a compost. Six months later the plants were dead. Fresh orders to the nurseryman, and fresh plantings in still deeper holes. But the rain softening the soil, the grafts buried themselves in the ground of their own accord, and the trees sprouted out.
When spring had come, Pécuchet set about the pruning of pear trees. He did not cut down the shoots, spared the superfluous side branches, and, persisting in trying to lay the “duchesses” out in a square when they ought to go in a string on one side, he broke them or tore them down invariably. As for the peach trees, he got mixed up with over-mother branches, under-mother branches, and second-under-mother branches. The empty and the full always presented themselves when they were not wanted, and it was impossible to obtain on an espalier a perfect rectangle, with six branches to the right and six to the left, not including the two principal ones, the whole forming a fine bit of herringbone work.
Bouvard tried to manage the apricot trees, but they rebelled. He lowered their stems nearly to a level with the ground; none of them shot up again. The cherry trees, in which he had made notches, produced gum.
At first, they cut very long, which destroyed the principal buds, and then very short, which led to excessive branching; and they often hesitated, not knowing how to distinguish between buds of trees and buds of flowers. They were delighted to have flowers, but when they recognised their mistake, they tore off three fourths of them to strengthen the remainder.
Incessantly they kept talking about “sap” and “cambium,” “paling up,” “breaking down,” and “blinding of an eye.” In the middle of their dining-room they had in a frame the list of their young growths, as if they were pupils, with a number which was repeated in the garden on a little piece of wood, at the foot of the tree. Out of bed at dawn, they kept working till nightfall with their twigs carried in their belts. In the cold mornings of spring, Bouvard wore his knitted vest under his blouse, and Pécuchet his old frock-coat under his packcloth wrapper; and the people passing by the open fence heard them coughing in the damp atmosphere.
Sometimes Pécuchet drew forth his manual from his pocket, and he studied a paragraph of it standing up with his grafting-tool near him in the attitude of the gardener who decorated the frontispiece of the book. This resemblance flattered him exceedingly, and made him entertain more esteem for the author.
Bouvard was continually perched on a high ladder before the pyramids. One day he was seized with dizziness, and, not daring to come down farther, he called on Pécuchet to come to his aid.
At length pears made their appearance, and there were plums in the orchard. Then they made use of all the devices which had been recommended to them against the birds. But the bits of glass made dazzling reflections, the clapper of the wind-mill woke them during the night, and the sparrows perched on the lay figure. They made a second, and even a third, varying the dress, but without any useful result.
However, they could hope for some fruit. Pécuchet had just given an intimation of the fact to Bouvard, when suddenly the thunder resounded and the rain fell—a heavy and violent downpour. The wind at intervals shook the entire surface of the espalier. The props gave way one after the other, and the unfortunate distaff-shaped trees, while swaying under the storm, dashed their pears against one another.
Pécuchet, surprised by the shower, had taken refuge in the hut. Bouvard stuck to the kitchen. They saw splinters of wood, branches, and slates whirling in front of them; and the sailors’ wives who, on the sea-shore ten leagues away, were gazing out at the sea, had not eyes more wistful or hearts more anxious. Then, suddenly, the supports and wooden bars of espaliers facing one another, together with the rail-work, toppled down into the garden beds.
What a picture when they went to inspect the scene! The cherries and plums covered the grass, amid the dissolving hailstones. The Passe Colmars were destroyed, as well as the Besi des Vétérans and the Triomphes de Jordoigne. There was barely left amongst the apples even a few Bon Papas; and a dozen Tetons de Venus, the entire crop of peaches, rolled into the pools of water by the side of the box trees, which had been torn up by the roots.
After dinner, at which they ate very little, Pécuchet said softly:
“We should do well to see after the farm, lest anything has happened to it.”
“Bah! only to find fresh causes of sadness.”
“Perhaps so; for we are not exactly lucky.”
And they made complaints against Providence and against nature.
Bouvard, with his elbows on the table, spoke in little whispers; and as all their troubles began to subside, their former agricultural projects came back to their recollection, especially the starch manufacture and the invention of a new sort of cheese.
Pécuchet drew a loud breath; and while he crammed several pinches of snuff into his nostrils, he reflected that, if fate had so willed it, he might now be a member of an agricultural society, might be delivering brilliant lectures, and might be referred to as an authority in the newspapers.
Bouvard cast a gloomy look around him.
“Faith! I’m anxious to get rid of all this, in order that we may settle down somewhere else!”
“Just as you like,” said Pécuchet; and the next moment: “The authors recommend us to suppress every direct passage. In this way the sap is counteracted, and the tree necessarily suffers thereby. In order to be in good health, it would be necessary for it to have no fruit! However, those which we prune and which we never manure produce them not so big, it is true, but more luscious. I require them to give me a reason for this! And not only each kind demands its particular attentions, but still more each individual tree, according to climate, temperature, and a heap of things! Where, then, is the rule? And what hope have we of any success or profit?”
Bouvard replied to him, “You will see in Gasparin that the profit cannot exceed the tenth of the capital. Therefore, we should be doing better by investing this capital in a banking-house. At the end of fifteen years, by the accumulation of interest, we’d have it doubled, without having our constitutions ground down.”
Pécuchet hung down his head.
“Arboriculture may be a humbug!”
“Like agriculture!” replied Bouvard.
Then they blamed themselves for having been too ambitious, and they resolved to husband thenceforth their labour and their money. An occasional pruning would suffice for the orchard. The counter-espaliers were forbidden, and dead or fallen trees should not be replaced; but he was going to do a nasty job—nothing less than to destroy all the others which remained standing. How was he to set about the work?
Pécuchet made several diagrams, while using his mathematical case. Bouvard gave him advice. They arrived at no satisfactory result. Fortunately, they discovered amongst their collection of books Boitard’s work entitled L’Architecte des Jardins.
The author divides them into a great number of styles. First there is the melancholy and romantic style, which is distinguished by immortelles, ruins, tombs, and “a votive offering to the Virgin, indicating the place where a lord has fallen under the blade of an assassin.” The terrible style is composed of overhanging rocks, shattered trees, burning huts; the exotic style, by planting Peruvian torch-thistles, “in order to arouse memories in a colonist or a traveller.” The grave style should, like Ermenonville, offer a temple to philosophy. The majestic style is characterised by obelisks and triumphal arches; the mysterious style by moss and by grottoes; while a lake is appropriate to the dreamy style. There is even the fantastic style, of which the most beautiful specimen might have been lately seen in a garden at Würtemberg—for there might have been met successively a wild boar, a hermit, several sepulchres, and a barque detaching itself from the shore of its own accord, in order to lead you into a boudoir where water-spouts lave you when you are settling yourself down upon a sofa.
Before this horizon of marvels, Bouvard and Pécuchet experienced a kind of bedazzlement. The fantastic style appeared to them reserved for princes. The temple to philosophy would be cumbersome. The votive offering of the Madonna would have no signification, having regard to the lack of assassins, and—so much the worse for the colonists and the travellers—the American plants would cost too much. But the rocks were possible, as well as the shattered trees, the immortelles, and the moss; and in their enthusiasm for new ideas, after many experiments, with the assistance of a single man-servant, and for a trifling sum, they made for themselves a residence which had no analogy to it in the entire department.
The elm hedge, open here and there, allowed the light of day to fall on the thicket, which was full of winding paths in the fashion of a labyrinth. They had conceived the idea of making in the espalier wall an archway, through which the prospect could be seen. As the arch could not remain suspended, the result was an enormous breach and a fall of wreckage to the ground.
They had sacrificed the asparagus in order to build on the spot an Etruscan tomb, that is to say, a quadrilateral figure in dark plaster, six feet in height, and looking like a dog-hole. Four little pine trees at the corners flanked the monument, which was to be surmounted by an urn and enriched by an inscription.
In the other part of the kitchen garden, a kind of Rialto projected over a basin, presenting on its margin encrusted shells of mussels. The soil drank up the water—no matter! they would contrive a glass bottom which would keep it back.
The hut had been transformed into a rustic summer-house with the aid of coloured glass.
At the top of the hillock, six trees, cut square, supported a tin head-piece with the edges turned up, and the whole was meant to signify a Chinese pagoda.
They had gone to the banks of the Orne to select granite, and had broken it, marked the pieces with numbers, and carried them back themselves in a cart, then had joined the fragments together with cement, placing them one above the other in a mass; and in the middle of the grass arose a rock resembling a gigantic potato.
Something further was needed to complete the harmony. They pulled down the largest linden tree they had (however, it was three quarters dead), and laid it down the entire length of the garden, in such a way that one would imagine it had been carried thither by a torrent or levelled to the ground by a thunderstorm.
The task finished, Bouvard, who was on the steps, cried from a distance:
“Here! you can see best!”—“See best!” was repeated in the air.
“I am going there!”—“Going there!”
“Hold on! ‘Tis an echo!”—“Echo!”
The linden tree had hitherto prevented it from being produced, and it was assisted by the pagoda, as it faced the barn, whose gables rose above the row of trees.
In order to try the effect of the echo, they amused themselves by giving vent to comical phrases: Bouvard yelled out language of a blackguard description.
He had been several times at Falaise, under the pretence of going there to receive money, and he always came back with little parcels, which he locked up in the chest of drawers. Pécuchet started one morning to repair to Bretteville, and returned very late with a basket, which he hid under his bed. Next day, when he awoke, Bouvard was surprised. The first two yew trees of the principal walk, which the day before were still spherical, had the appearance of peacocks, and a horn with two porcelain knobs represented the beak and the eyes. Pécuchet had risen at dawn, and trembling lest he should be discovered, he had cut the two trees according to the measurement given in the written instructions sent him by Dumouchel.
For six months the others behind the two above mentioned assumed the forms of pyramids, cubes, cylinders, stags, or armchairs; but there was nothing equal to the peacocks. Bouvard acknowledged it with many eulogies.
Under pretext of having forgotten his spade, he drew his comrade into the labyrinth, for he had profited by Pécuchet’s absence to do, himself too, something sublime.
The gate leading into the fields was covered over with a coating of plaster, under which were ranged in beautiful order five or six bowls of pipes, representing Abd-el-Kader, negroes, naked women, horses’ feet, and death’s-heads.
“Do you understand my impatience?”
“I rather think so!”
And in their emotion they embraced each other.
Like all artists, they felt the need of being applauded, and Bouvard thought of giving a great dinner.