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The man adjusted the sash absently and addressed Pierce with more insolence than he was used to. "Where is Montgolfier?"
"Monsieur Montgolfier has authorized me to transact business on behalf of the mill," said Pierce. "May I help you, Captain?" Pierce had no idea of the man's rank, but his experience told him men were more tractable when you allowed them honorifics. And "Captain" sounded like it might be exalted enough to turn the fellow's head.
The man swelled visibly at Pierce's use of the title, but the glint in his bloodshot eye bespoke a ruthlessness Pierce did not often encounter in human beings. "Are you interdicted for the abdication of this establishment to the People's Provincial Militia, Citizen?"
It took Pierce a moment to interpret the man's question and realize he meant to take over the mill. He looked over the four men behind the captain. One of them carried a rifle. The others were armed with cudgels. Pierce recognized one of the cudgel bearers as Jean Barjon, a journeyman he had dismissed from the mill a month before for drunkenness. Barjon looked at the ground when Pierce's gaze swept over him, and Pierce marveled at how quickly a human being's lot can change in a revolution, for that is what people generally agreed was happening and had been under way since 1789.
"My authorization does not extend that far, Captain." Pierce turned to the crowd of employees behind him and spoke to Henri, a young apprentice. "Go up to the house and ask Monsieur Montgolfier if he will please prepare himself to receive the People's Provincial Militia."
Henri turned and ran toward the side door.
The militia captain shouted after the boy. "Inform the probationer we are here on the People's business, Citizen." He turned back to face Pierce. "Lead us to him."
Pierce decided there was no sinister intent in the man's use of the word probationer, that he simply meant something else. "Allow me to fetch some of the account books," he said.
The captain nodded, apparently exhausted from the conversation. He turned and signaled to Barjon. The former journeyman separated himself from his fellows and followed Pierce into his office. Pierce did not actually believe Monsieur Montgolfier would need any of his books for the meeting, but he thought a short delay would give his master some moments to prepare himself for receiving these creatures.
Pierce felt Barjon's eyes on him as he retrieved the two small books from a cabinet behind his desk.
"I'm glad to see you've found yourself a position, Jean," said Pierce to the cabinet.
"No thanks to you, Citizen."
Pierce was not very attuned to current politics, but he knew the title "Citizen" was used as a mark of egalitarian respect. He was surprised at the amount of contempt with which Barjon was able to invest the word by the tone of his voice. He turned to look at the young man's face. There was hate in the eyes above the unshaven cheeks. Pierce could have leapt across the room and snapped the young brute's neck before he'd been able to blink, but he knew it would be a gesture of futility. Barjon could be replaced immediately by another sullen, unshaven, dangerously armed young man. Human beings were capable of replacing themselves more quickly than he could ever hope to kill them. He had always considered that one of their best qualities.
Pierce took the books and stepped past Barjon to lead the militia toward the great house. As they approached the gravel roundabout, Pierce took the left fork in the path toward the servants' entrance.
"Not that way, Citizen," said the captain from behind him. "The People's Provincial Militia embellishes its responsibilities from the front door."
Pierce shrugged and led them to the grand entrance in front, considerably refurbished since he'd arrived to help manage the mill. He had to ring the bell and wait for a servant to come from the back of the house to admit them. The Montgolfiers did not staff the front entryway during normal business hours.
When the servant let them in, Pierce led the men through the hall and up the carpeted stairway to the second floor. He caught a glimpse of the soldiers looking about themselves like heathens in a cathedral, ogling the papered walls, the hanging tapestries, the aging portraits.
At the door to the mill master's office, Pierce knocked lightly.
"Come," said Montgolfier from within.
Pierce opened the door and held it while the five soldiers jostled their way into the room. A cudgel banged the door frame and someone muttered an oath. The weapon left a small gouge in the wood, and Pierce wondered if Monsieur Montgolfier's house would survive this visit. He entered the room and stood behind the soldiers.
Montgolfier was seated at his desk.
"Citizen Montgolfier," said the captain, "the People's Provincial Militia hereby cedes control of this property in the name of the People of France."
Pierce thought the conversation would have been amusing if the men hadn't been armed.
Montgolfier stood up at his desk. "What is happening, André? I don't understand."
One of the other soldiers stepped forward and banged his cudgel on the top of the mill master's desk. "Address an officer of the militia by his rank, Citizen."
Montgolfier stared at the gash left in his desk by the weapon. "What is happening?" He looked back at Pierce. "Do you know what is happening, Monsieur Pierce?"
Pierce started to explain as much as he knew, but he felt a cudgel placed against his chest and looked along it to find Barjon holding the other end. "You stay out of this, Citizen," said Barjon.
Captain André took a step toward Montgolfier's desk. "The People's Provincial Militia relinquishes protection of goods inimical to the defense of the Republic."
Montgolfier blinked at the man. "Have you been drinking, André?"
To Pierce's surprise, the militia captain managed to draw his saber from its scabbard. He brought the blade down hard across the desk, splitting an ink blotter and making another gash in the desk's finish. Then he flipped the sword off the desk and stabbed the carpet on the floor. He appeared to gain control of himself as he stood holding the sword in a pose Pierce had previously only seen in paintings, with its point dug into the floor.
"Take him away," said the militia captain. "He will be confined until he learns respect for the people's business."
Two cudgel bearers separated themselves from the others and started around the desk toward Montgolfier.
"Confined?" Montgolfier blinked at the militia captain. "Confined?"
The two men seized him and began to hustle him out the door. He turned to look at Pierce. "Monsieur Pierce--"
But he was interrupted when one of the soldiers pushed him forcefully on the back, and he went sprawling into the hallway.
"Bring some workers up here from the mill to remove this desk," said the captain. "It's all marked up. I'll need a good desk to run this mill. Bring the one we immured from the Bishop's residence."
That was Pierce's last day at Vidalon-le-haut.
Pierce didn't understand half of what the militia captain said, but he understood the man's intent to keep him on to run the mill. But Pierce did not fancy working for brigands, even brigands who called themselves the People's Provincial Militia. He did not need an extended acquaintance with these louts to realize there was not an idea among them. As soon as the members of the militia were sufficiently drunk that evening, he slipped down to the mill and took a quiet tour in the dark. He walked silently about and examined the machinery.
Henri had forgotten to secure the blades of the Hollander beater. Pierce picked up the rope left there for the purpose and tied off the mechanism. He surveyed his handiwork, then looked over the fermentation vats.
In Vidalon-le-haut, Monsieur Montgolfier had conceived an entity that consumed linen rags at one end and excreted several grades of fine writing paper at the other. This place was more than a mill; it was a man's idea brought into the physical plane. The so-called People's Provincial Militia did not appreciate the idea that stood here. They just saw the regular income and the promise of keeping paper out of the hands of royalists and reactionaries.
Pierce was perfectly capable of stealing back up to the house in the dark and taking Barjon--bleeding the little bully white and then staking him through the heart so he wouldn't rise again. But he did not think he could tolerate the alcohol in the man's blood. Nor did Pierce think it worth the effort. Were there ideas to be gained, he could exert himself, but he doubted Barjon's mind had ever entertained so much as a notion.
It was so symbolic of the human condition that the militia bullies had imprisoned the one man in the province capable of materially changing the world around them.
Pierce knew then that he would leave France. But he needed one more infusion of ideas.
He wondered where they had confined Monsieur Montgolfier.
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