The Village Rector
Honore de Balzac
Part 2 out of 5
effaced and covered up, the searchers had found in several places the
imprint of shoes, which they carefully measured and described, and
which were afterwards found to correspond with the soles of
Tascheron's shoes taken from his lodgings. This fatal proof confirmed
the statement of the landlady. The authorities now attributed the
crime to some foreign influence, and not to the man's personal
intention; they believed he had accomplices, basing this idea on the
impossibility of one man carrying away the buried money; for however
strong he might be, no man could carry twenty-five thousand francs in
gold to any distance. If each pot contained, as it was supposed to
have done, about that sum, this would have required four trips to and
from the clover-patch. Now, a singular circumstance went far to prove
the hour at which the crime was committed. In the terror Jeanne
Malassis must have felt on hearing her master's cries, she knocked
over, as she rose, the table at her bedside, on which lay her watch,
the only present the miser had given her in five years. The mainspring
was broken by the shock, and the hands had stopped at two in the
morning. By the middle of March (the date of the murder) daylight
dawns between five and six o'clock. To whatever distance the gold had
been carried, Tascheron could not possibly, under any apparent
hypothesis, have transported it alone.
The care with which some of the footsteps were effaced, while others,
to which Tascheron's shoes fitted, remained, certainly pointed to some
mysterious assistant. Forced into hypotheses, the authorities once
more attributed the crime to a desperate passion; not finding any
trace of the object of such a passion in the lower classes, they began
to look higher. Perhaps some bourgeoise, sure of the discretion of a
man who had the face and bearing of a hero, had been drawn into a
romance the outcome of which was crime.
This supposition was to some extent justified by the facts of the
murder. The old man had been killed by blows with a spade; evidently,
therefore, the murder was sudden, unpremeditated, fortuitous. The
lovers might have planned the robbery, but not the murder. The lover
and the miser, Tascheron and Pingret, each under the influence of his
master passion, must have met by the buried hoards, both drawn thither
by the gleaming of gold on the utter darkness of that fatal night.
In order to obtain, if possible, some light on this latter
supposition, the authorities arrested and kept in solitary confinement
a sister of Jean-Francois, to whom he was much attached, hoping to
obtain through her some clue to the mystery of her brother's private
life. Denise Tascheron took refuge in total denial of any knowledge
whatever, which gave rise to a suspicion that she did know something
of the causes of the crime, although in fact she knew nothing.
The accused himself showed points of character that were rare amongst
the peasantry. He baffled the cleverest police-spies employed against
him, without knowing their real character. To the leading minds of the
magistracy his guilt seemed caused by the influence of passion, and
not by necessity or greed, as in the case of ordinary murderers, who
usually pass through stages of crime and punishment before they commit
the supreme deed. Active and careful search was made in following up
this idea; but the uniform discretion of the prisoner gave no clue
whatever to his prosecutors. The plausible theory of his attachment to
a woman of the upper classes having once been admitted, Jean-Francois
was subjected to the most insidious examination upon it; but his
caution triumphed over all the moral tortures the examining judge
applied to him. When, making a final effort, that official told him
that the person for whom he had committed the crime was discovered and
arrested, his face did not change, and he replied ironically:--
"I should very much like to see him."
When the public were informed of these circumstances, many persons
adopted the suspicions of the magistrates, which seemed to be
confirmed by Tascheron's savage obstinacy in giving no account of
himself. Increased interest was felt in a young man who was now a
problem. It is easy to see how these elements kept public curiosity on
the /qui vive/, and with what eager interest the trial would be
followed. But in spite of every effort on the part of the police, the
prosecution stopped short on the threshold of hypothesis; it did not
venture to go farther into the mystery where all was obscurity and
danger. In certain judicial cases half-certainties are not sufficient
for the judges to proceed upon. Nevertheless the case was ordered for
trial, in hopes that the truth would come to the surface when the case
was brought into court, an ordeal under which many criminals
Monsieur Graslin was one of the jury; so that either through her
husband or through Monsieur de Grandville, the public prosecutor,
Veronique knew all the details of the criminal trial which, for a
fortnight, kept the department, and we may say all France, in a state
of excitement. The attitude maintained by the accused seemed to
justify the theory of the prosecution. More than once when the court
opened, his eyes turned upon the brilliant assemblage of women who
came to find emotions in a real drama, as though he sought for some
one. Each time that the man's glance, clear, but impenetrable, swept
along those elegant ranks, a movement was perceptible, a sort of
shock, as though each woman feared she might appear his accomplice
under the inquisitorial eyes of judge and prosecutor.
The hitherto useless efforts of the prosecution were now made public,
also the precautions taken by the criminal to ensure the success of
his crime. It was shown that Jean-Francois Tascheron had obtained a
passport for North America some months before the crime was committed.
Thus the plan of leaving France was fully formed; the object of his
passion must therefore be a married woman; for he would have no reason
to flee the country with a young girl. Possibly the crime had this one
object in view, namely, to obtain sufficient means to support this
unknown woman in comfort.
The prosecution had found no passport issued to a woman for North
America. In case she had obtained one in Paris, the registers of that
city were searched, also those of the towns contingent to Limoges, but
without result. All the shrewdest minds in the community followed the
case with deep attention. While the more virtuous dames of the
department attributed the wearing of pumps on a muddy road (an
inexplicable circumstance in the ordinary lives of such shoes) to the
necessity of noiselessly watching old Pingret, the men pointed out
that pumps were very useful in silently passing through a house--up
stairways and along corridors--without discovery.
So Jean-Francois Tascheron and his mistress (by this time she was
young, beautiful, romantic, for every one made a portrait of her) had
evidently intended to escape with only one passport, to which they
would forge the additional words, "and wife." The card tables were
deserted at night in the various social salons, and malicious tongues
discussed what women were known in March, 1829, to have gone to Paris,
and what others could be making, openly or secretly, preparations for
a journey. Limoges might be said to be enjoying its Fualdes trial,
with an unknown and mysterious Madame Manson for an additional
excitement. Never was any provincial town so stirred to its depths as
Limoges after each day's session. Nothing was talked of but the trial,
all the incidents of which increased the interest felt for the
accused, whose able answers, learnedly taken up, turned and twisted
and commented upon, gave rise to ample discussions. When one of the
jurors asked Tascheron why he had taken a passport for America, the
man replied that he had intended to establish a porcelain manufactory
in that country. Thus, without committing himself to any line of
defence, he covered his accomplice, leaving it to be supposed that the
crime was committed, if at all, to obtain funds for this business
In the midst of such excitement it was impossible for Veronique's
friends to refrain from discussing in her presence the progress of the
case and the reticence of the criminal. Her health was extremely
feeble; but the doctor having advised her going out into the fresh
air, she had on one occasion taken her mother's arm and walked as far
as Madame Sauviat's house in the country, where she rested. On her
return she endeavored to keep about until her husband came to his
dinner, which she always served him herself. On this occasion Graslin,
being detained in the court-room, did not come in till eight o'clock.
She went into the dining-room as usual, and was present at a
discussion which took place among a number of her friends who had
"If my poor father were still living," she remarked to them, "we
should know more about the matter; possibly this man might never have
become a criminal. I think you have all taken a singular idea about
the matter. You insist that love is at the bottom of the crime, and I
agree with you there; but why do you think this unknown person is a
married woman? He may have loved some young girl whose father and
mother would not let her marry him."
"A young girl could, sooner or later, have married him legitimately,"
replied Monsieur de Grandville. "Tascheron has no lack of patience; he
had time to make sufficient means to support her while awaiting the
time when all girls are at liberty to marry against the wishes of
their parents; he need not have committed a crime to obtain her."
"I did not know that a girl could marry in that way," said Madame
Graslin; "but how is it that in a town like this, where all things are
known, and where everybody sees everything that happens to his
neighbor, not the slightest clue to this woman has been obtained? In
order to love, persons must see each other and consequently be seen.
What do you really think, you magistrates?" she added, plunging a
fixed look into the eyes of the /procureur-general/.
"We think that the woman belongs to the bourgeois or the commercial
"I don't agree with you," said Madame Graslin. "A woman of that class
does not have elevated sentiments."
This reply drew all eyes on Veronique, and the whole company waited
for an explanation of so paradoxical a speech.
"During the hours I lie awake at night I have not been able to keep my
mind from dwelling on this mysterious affair," she said slowly, "and I
think I have fathomed Tascheron's motive. I believe the person he
loves is a young girl, because a married woman has interests, if not
feelings, which partly fill her heart and prevent her from yielding so
completely to a great passion as to leave her home. There is such a
thing as a love proceeding from passion which is half maternal, and to
me it is evident that this man was loved by a woman who wished to be
his prop, his Providence. She must have put into her passion something
of the genius that inspires the work of artists and poets, the
creative force which exists in woman under another form; for it is her
mission to create men, not things. Our works are our children; our
children are the pictures, books, and statues of our lives. Are we not
artists in their earliest education? I say that this unknown woman, if
she is not a young girl, has never been a mother but is filled with
the maternal instinct; she has loved this man to form him, to develop
him. It needs a feminine element in you men of law to detect these
shades of motive, which too often escape you. If I had been your
deputy," she said, looking straight at the /procureur-general/, "I
should have found the guilty woman, if indeed there is any guilt about
it. I agree with the Abbe Dutheil that these lovers meant to fly to
America with the money of old Pingret. The theft led to the murder by
the fatal logic which the punishment of death inspires. And so," she
added with an appealing look at Monsieur de Grandville, "I think it
would be merciful in you to abandon the theory of premeditation, for
in so doing you would save the man's life. He is evidently a fine man
in spite of his crime; he might, perhaps, repair that crime by a great
repentance if you gave him time. The works of repentance ought to
count for something in the judgment of the law. In these days is there
nothing better for a human being to do than to give his life, or
build, as in former times, a cathedral of Milan, to expiate his
"Your ideas are noble, madame," said Monsieur de Grandville, "but,
premeditation apart, Tascheron would still be liable to the penalty of
death on account of the other serious and proved circumstances
attending the crime,--such as forcible entrance and burglary at
"Then you think that he will certainly be found guilty?" she said,
lowering her eyelids.
"I am certain of it," he said; "the prosecution has a strong case."
A slight tremor rustled Madame Graslin's dress.
"I feel cold," she said. Taking her mother's arm she went to bed.
"She seemed quite herself this evening," said her friends.
The next day Veronique was much worse and kept her bed. When her
physician expressed surprise at her condition she said, smiling:--
"I told you that that walk would do me no good."
Ever since the opening of the trial Tascheron's demeanor had been
equally devoid of hypocrisy or bravado. Veronique's physician,
intending to divert his patient's mind, tried to explain this
demeanor, which the man's defenders were making the most of. The
prisoner was misled, said the doctor, by the talents of his lawyer,
and was sure of acquittal; at times his face expressed a hope that was
greater than that of merely escaping death. The antecedents of the man
(who was only twenty-three years old) were so at variance with the
crime now charged to him that his legal defenders claimed his present
bearing to be a proof of innocence; besides, the overwhelming
circumstantial proofs of the theory of the prosecution were made to
appear so weak by his advocate that the man was buoyed up by the
lawyer's arguments. To save his client's life the lawyer made the most
of the evident want of premeditation; hypothetically he admitted the
premeditation of the robbery but not of the murders, which were
evidently (no matter who was the guilty party) the result of two
unexpected struggles. Success, the doctor said, was really as doubtful
for one side as for the other.
After this visit of her physician Veronique received that of the
/procureur-general/, who was in the habit of coming in every morning
on his way to the court-room.
"I have read the arguments of yesterday," she said to him, "and
to-day, as I suppose, the evidence for the defence begins. I am so
interested in that man that I should like to have him saved. Couldn't
you for once in your life forego a triumph? Let his lawyer beat you.
Come, make me a present of the man's life, and perhaps you shall have
mine some day. The able presentation of the defence by Tascheron's
lawyer really raises a strong doubt, and--"
"Why, you are quite agitated," said the viscount somewhat surprised.
"Do you know why?" she answered. "My husband has just remarked a most
horrible coincidence, which is really enough in the present state of
my nerves, to cause my death. If you condemn this man to death it will
be on the very day when I shall give birth to my child."
"But I can't change the laws," said the lawyer.
"Ah! you don't know how to love," she retorted, closing her eyes; then
she turned her head on the pillow and made him an imperative sign to
leave the room.
Monsieur Graslin pleaded strongly but in vain with his fellow-jurymen
for acquittal, giving a reason which some of them adopted; a reason
suggested by his wife:--
"If we do not condemn this man to death, but allow him to live, the
des Vanneaulx will in the end recover their property."
This weighty argument made a division of the jury, into five for
condemnation against seven for acquittal, which necessitated an appeal
to the court; but the judge sided with the minority. According to the
legal system of that day this action led to a verdict of guilty. When
sentence was passed upon him Tascheron flew into a fury which was
natural enough in a man full of life and strength, but which the court
and jury and lawyers and spectators had rarely witnessed in persons
who were thought to be unjustly condemned.
DISCUSSIONS AND CHRISTIAN SOLICITUDES
In spite of the verdict, the drama of this crime did not seem over so
far as the community was concerned. So complicated a case gave rise,
as usually happens under such circumstances, to two sets of
diametrically opposite opinions as to the guilt of the hero, whom some
declared to be an innocent and ill-used victim, and others the worst
The liberals held for Tascheron's innocence, less from conviction than
for the satisfaction of opposing the government.
"What an outrage," they said, "to condemn a man because his footprint
is the size of another man's footprint; or because he will not tell
you where he spent the night, as if all young men would not rather die
than compromise a woman. They prove he borrowed tools and bought iron,
but have they proved he made that key? They find a bit of blue linen
hanging to the branch of a tree, possibly put there by old Pingret
himself to scare the crows, though it happens to match a tear in
Tascheron's blouse. Is a man's life to depend on such things as these?
Jean-Francois denies everything, and the prosecution has not produced
a single witness who saw the crime or anything relating to it."
They talked over, enlarged upon, and paraphrased the arguments of the
defence. "Old Pingret! what was he?--a cracked money box!" said the
strong-minded. A few of the more determined progressists, denying the
sacred laws of property, which the Saint-Simonians were already
attacking under their abstract theories of political economy, went
"Pere Pingret," they said, "was the real author of the crime. By
hoarding his gold that man robbed the nation. What enterprises might
have been made fruitful by his useless money! He had barred the way of
industry, and was justly punished."
They pitied the poor murdered servant-woman, but Denise, Tascheron's
sister, who resisted the wiles of lawyers and did not give a single
answer at the trial without long consideration of what she ought to
say, excited the deepest interest. She became in their minds a figure
to be compared (though in another sense) with Jeannie Deans, whose
piety, grace, modesty and beauty she possessed.
Francois Tascheron continued, therefore, to excite the curiosity of
not only all the town but all the department, and a few romantic women
openly testified their admiration for him.
"If there is really in all this a love for some woman high above him,"
they said, "then he is surely no ordinary man, and you will see that
he will die well."
The question, "Will he speak out,--will he not speak?" gave rise to
many a bet.
Since the burst of rage with which Tascheron received his sentence,
and which was so violent that it might have been fatal to persons
about him in the court-room if the gendarmes had not been there to
master him, the condemned man threatened all who came near him with
the fury of a wild beast; so that the jailers were obliged to put him
into a straight-jacket, as much to protect his life as their own from
the effects of his anger. Prevented by that controlling power from
doing violence, Tascheron gave vent to his despair by convulsive jerks
which horrified his guardians, and by words and looks which the
middle-ages would have attributed to demoniacal possession. He was so
young that many women thought pitifully of a life so full of passion
about to be cut off forever. "The Last Day of a Condemned Man," that
mournful elegy, that useless plea against the penalty of death (the
mainstay of society!), which had lately been published, as if
expressly to meet this case, was the topic of all conversations.
But, above all, in the mind of every one, stood that invisible unknown
woman, her feet in blood, raised aloft by the trial as it were on a
pedestal,--torn, no doubt, by horrible inward anguish and condemned to
absolute silence within her home. Who was this Medea whom the public
well-nigh admired,--the woman with that impenetrable brow, that white
breast covering a heart of steel? Perhaps she was the sister or the
cousin or the daughter or the wife of this one or of that one among
them! Alarm seemed to creep into the bosom of families. As Napoleon
finely said, it is especially in the domain of the imagination that
the power of the Unknown is immeasurable.
As for the hundred thousand francs stolen from Monsieur and Madame des
Vanneaulx no efforts of the police could find them; and the obstinate
silence of the criminal gave no clue. Monsieur de Grandville tried the
common means of holding out hopes of commutation of the sentence in
case of confession; but when he went to see the prisoner and suggest
it the latter received him with such furious cries and epileptic
contortions, such rage at being powerless to take him by the throat,
that he could do nothing.
The law could only look to the influence of the Church at the last
moment. The des Vanneaulx had frequently consulted with the Abbe
Pascal, chaplain of the prison. This priest was not without the
faculty of making prisoners listen to him, and he religiously braved
Tascheron's violence, trying to get in a few words amid the storms of
that powerful nature in convulsion. But this struggle of spiritual
fatherhood against the hurricane of unchained passions, overcame the
poor abbe completely.
"The man has had his paradise here below," said the old man, in his
Little Madame des Vanneaulx consulted her friends as to whether she
ought to try a visit herself to the criminal. Monsieur des Vanneaulx
talked of offering terms. In his anxiety to recover the money he
actually went to Monsieur de Grandville and asked for the pardon of
his uncle's murderer if the latter would make restitution of the
hundred thousand francs. The /procureur-general/ replied that the
majesty of the crown did not stoop to such compromises.
The des Vanneaulx then had recourse to the lawyer who had defended
Tascheron, and to him they offered ten per cent of whatever sum he
could recover. This lawyer was the only person before whom Tascheron
was not violent. The heirs authorized him to offer the prisoner an
additional ten per cent to be paid to his family. In spite of all
these inducements and his own eloquence, the lawyer could obtain
nothing whatever from his client. The des Vanneaulx were furious; they
anathematized the unhappy man.
"He is not only a murderer, but he has no sense of decency," cried
Madame des Vanneaulx (ignorant of Fualdes' famous complaint), when she
received word of the failure of the Abbe Pascal's efforts, and was
told there was no hope of a reversal of the sentence by the court of
"What good will our money do him in the place he is going to?" said
her husband. "Murder can be conceived of, but useless theft is
inconceivable. What days we live in, to be sure! To think that people
in good society actually take an interest in such a wretch!"
"He has no honor," said Madame des Vanneaulx.
"But perhaps the restitution would compromise the woman he loves,"
said an old maid.
"We would keep his secret," returned Monsieur des Vanneaulx.
"Then you would be compounding a felony," remarked a lawyer.
"Oh, the villain!" was Monsieur des Vanneaulx's usual conclusion.
One of Madame Graslin's female friends related to her with much
amusement these discussions of the des Vanneaulx. This lady, who was
very intelligent, and one of those persons who form ideals and desire
that all things should attain perfection, regretted the violence and
savage temper of the condemned; she would rather he had been cold and
calm and dignified, she said.
"Do you not see," replied Veronique, "that he is thus avoiding their
temptations and foiling their efforts? He is making himself a wild
beast for a purpose."
"At any rate," said the lady, "he is not a well-bred man; he is only a
"If he had been a well-bred man," said Madame Graslin, "he would soon
have sacrificed that unknown woman."
These events, discussed and turned and twisted in every salon, every
household, commented on in a score of ways, stripped bare by the
cleverest tongues in the community, gave, of course, a cruel interest
to the execution of the criminal, whose appeal was rejected after two
months' delay by the upper court. What would probably be his demeanor
in his last moments? Would he speak out? Would he contradict himself?
How would the bets be decided? Who would go to see him executed, and
who would not go, and how could it be done? The position of the
localities, which in Limoges spares a criminal the anguish of a long
distance to the scaffold, lessens the number of spectators. The law
courts which adjoin the prison stand at the corner of the rue du
Palais and the rue du Pont-Herisson. The rue du Palais is continued in
a straight line by the short rue de Monte-a-Regret, which leads to the
place des Arenes, where the executions take place, and which probably
owes its name to that circumstances. There is therefore but little
distance to go, few houses to pass, and few windows to look from. No
person in good society would be willing to mingle in the crowd which
would fill the streets.
But the expected execution was, to the great astonishment of the whole
town, put off from day to day for the following reason:--
The repentance and resignation of great criminals on their way to
death is one of the triumphs which the Church reserves for itself,--a
triumph which seldom misses its effect on the popular mind. Repentance
is so strong a proof of the power of religious ideas--taken apart from
all Christian interest, though that, of course, is the chief object of
the Church--that the clergy are always distressed by a failure on such
occasions. In July, 1829, such a failure was aggravated by the spirit
of party which envenomed every detail in the life of the body politic.
The liberal party rejoiced in the expectation that the priest-party (a
term invented by Montlosier, a royalist who went over to the
constitutionals, and was dragged by them far beyond his wishes),--that
the priests would fail on so public an occasion before the eyes of the
people. Parties /en masse/ commit infamous actions which would cover a
single man with shame and opprobrium; therefore when one man alone
stands in his guilt before the eyes of the masses, he becomes a
Robespierre, a Jeffries, a Laubardemont, a species of expiatory altar
on which all secret guilts hang their /ex-votos/.
The authorities, sympathizing with the Church, delayed the execution,
partly in the hope of gaining some conclusive information for
themselves, and partly to allow religion an opportunity to prevail.
Nevertheless, their power was not unlimited, and the sentence must
sooner or later be carried out. The same liberals who, out of mere
opposition, had declared Tascheron innocent, and who had done their
best to break down the verdict, now clamored because the sentence was
not executed. When the opposition is consistent it invariably falls
into such unreasonableness, because its object is not to have right on
its own side, but to harass the authorities and put them in the wrong.
Accordingly, about the beginning of August, the government officials
felt their hand forced by that clamor, so often stupid, called "public
opinion." The day for the execution was named. In this extremity the
Abbe Dutheil took upon himself to propose to the bishop a last
resource, the adoption of which caused the introduction into this
judicial drama of a remarkable personage, who serves as a bond between
all the figures brought upon the scene of it, and who, by ways
familiar to Providence, was destined to lead Madame Graslin along a
path where her virtues were to shine with greater brilliancy as a
noble benefactress and an angelic Christian woman.
The episcopal palace at Limoges stands on a hill which slopes to the
banks of the Vienne; and its gardens, supported by strong walls topped
with a balustrade, descend to the river by terrace after terrace,
according to the natural lay of the land. The rise of this hill is
such that the suburb of Saint-Etienne on the opposite bank seems to
lie at the foot of the lower terrace. From there, according to the
direction in which a person walks, the Vienne can be seen either in a
long stretch or directly across it, in the midst of a fertile
panorama. On the west, after the river leaves the embankment of the
episcopal gardens, it turns toward the town in a graceful curve which
winds around the suburb of Saint-Martial. At a short distance beyond
that suburb is a pretty country house called Le Cluseau, the walls of
which can be seen from the lower terrace of the bishop's palace,
appearing, by an effect of distance, to blend with the steeples of the
suburb. Opposite to Le Cluseau is the sloping island, covered with
poplar and other trees, which Veronique in her girlish youth had named
the Ile de France. To the east the distance is closed by an
ampitheatre of hills.
The magic charm of the site and the rich simplicity of the building
make this episcopal palace one of the most interesting objects in a
town where the other edifices do not shine, either through choice of
material or architecture.
Long familiarized with the aspects which commend these gardens to all
lovers of the picturesque, the Abbe Dutheil, who had induced the Abbe
de Grancour to accompany him, descended from terrace to terrace,
paying no attention to the ruddy colors, the orange tones, the violet
tints, which the setting sun was casting on the old walls and
balustrades of the gardens, on the river beneath them, and, in the
distance, on the houses of the town. He was in search of the bishop,
who was sitting on the lower terrace under a grape-vine arbor, where
he often came to take his dessert and enjoy the charm of a tranquil
evening. The poplars on the island seemed at this moment to divide the
waters with the lengthening shadow of their yellowing heads, to which
the sun was lending the appearance of a golden foliage. The setting
rays, diversely reflected on masses of different greens, produced a
magnificent harmony of melancholy tones. At the farther end of the
valley a sheet of sparkling water ruffled by the breeze brought out
the brown stretch of roofs in the suburb of Saint-Etienne. The
steeples and roofs of Saint-Martial, bathed in light, showed through
the tracery of the grape-vine arbor. The soft murmur of the provincial
town, half hidden by the bend of the river, the sweetness of the balmy
air, all contributed to plunge the prelate into the condition of
quietude prescribed by medical writers on digestion; seemingly his
eyes were resting mechanically on the right bank of the river, just
where the long shadows of the island poplars touched it on the side
toward Saint-Etienne, near the field where the twofold murder of old
Pingret and his servant had been committed. But when his momentary
felicity was interrupted by the arrival of the two grand vicars, and
the difficulties they brought to him to solve, it was seen his eyes
were filled with impenetrable thoughts. The two priests attributed
this abstraction to the fact of being bored, whereas, on the contrary,
the prelate was absorbed in seeing in the sands of the Vienne the
solution of the enigma then so anxiously sought for by the officers of
justice, the des Vanneaulx, and the community at large.
"Monsieur," said the Abbe de Grancour, approaching the bishop, "it is
all useless; we shall certainly have the distress of seeing that
unhappy Tascheron die an unbeliever. He vociferates the most horrible
imprecations against religion; he insults that poor Abbe Pascal; he
spits upon the crucifix; and means to die denying all, even hell."
"He will shock the populace on the scaffold," said the Abbe Dutheil.
"The great scandal and horror his conduct will excite may hide our
defeat and powerlessness. In fact, as I have just been saying to
Monsieur de Grancour, this very spectacle may drive other sinners into
the arms of the Church."
Troubled by these words, the bishop laid down upon a rustic wooden
table the bunch of grapes at which he was picking, and wiped his
fingers as he made a sign to the two grand vicars to be seated.
"The Abbe Pascal did not take a wise course," he said.
"He is actually ill in his bed from the effects of his last scene with
the man," said the Abbe de Grancour. "If it were not for that we might
get him to explain more clearly the difficulties that have defeated
all the various efforts monseigneur ordered him to make."
"The condemned man sings obscene songs at the highest pitch of his
voice as soon as he sees any one of us, so as to drown out every word
we try to say to him," said a young priest who was sitting beside the
This young man, who was gifted with a charming personality, had his
right arm resting on the table, while his white hand dropped
negligently on the bunches of grapes, seeking the ripest, with the
ease and assurance of an habitual guest or favorite. He was both to
the prelate, being the younger brother of Baron Eugene de Rastignac,
to whom ties of family and also of affection had long bound the Bishop
of Limoges. Aware of the want of fortune which devoted this young man
to the Church, the bishop took him as his private secretary to give
him time to wait for eventual preferment. The Abbe Gabriel bore a name
which would lead him sooner or later to the highest dignities of the
"Did you go to see him, my son?" asked the bishop.
"Yes, Monseigneur. As soon as I entered his cell the wretched man
hurled the most disgusting epithets at you and at me. He behaved in
such a manner that it was impossible for any priest to remain in his
presence. Might I give Monseigneur a word of advice?"
"Let us listen to the words of wisdom which God Almighty sometimes
puts into the mouths of children," said the bishop, smiling.
"Well, you know he made Balaam's ass speak out," said the young abbe
"But according to some commentators she did not know what she was
saying," replied the bishop, laughing.
The two grand vicars smiled. In the first place, the joke came from
Monseigneur; next, it bore gently on the young abbe, of whom the
dignitaries and other ambitious priests grouped around the bishop were
"My advice would be," resumed the young man, "to ask Monsieur de
Grandville to reprieve the man for the present. When Tascheron knows
that he owes an extension of his life to our intercession, he may
pretend to listen to us, and if he listens--"
"He will persist in his present conduct, finding that it has won him
that advantage," said the bishop, interrupting his favorite.
"Messieurs," he said, after a moment's silence, "does the whole town
know of these details?"
"There is not a household in which they are not talked over," said the
Abbe de Grancour. "The state in which our good Abbe Pascal was put by
his last efforts is the present topic of conversation throughout the
"When is Tascheron to be executed?" asked the bishop.
"To-morrow, which is market-day"; replied Monsieur de Grancour.
"Messieurs," exclaimed the bishop, "religion must not be overset in
this way. The more public attention is attracted to the matter, the
more I am determined to obtain a notable triumph. The Church is now in
presence of a great difficulty. We are called upon to do miracles in
this manufacturing town, where the spirit of sedition against
religious and monarchical principles has such deep root, where the
system of inquiry born of protestantism (which in these days calls
itself liberalism, prepared at any moment to take another name)
extends into everything. Go at once to Monsieur de Grandville; he is
wholly on our side, and say to him from me that we beg for a few days'
reprieve. I will go myself and see that unhappy man."
"You, Monseigneur!" said the Abbe de Rastignac. "If you should fail,
wouldn't that complicate matters? You ought not to go unless you are
certain of success."
"If Monseigneur will permit me to express my opinion," said the Abbe
Dutheil, "I think I can suggest a means which may bring victory to
religion in this sad case."
The prelate answered with a sign of assent, so coldly given as to show
how little credit he gave to his vicar-general.
"If any one can influence that rebellious soul and bring it back to
God," continued the Abbe Dutheil, "it is the rector of the village in
which he was born, Monsieur Bonnet."
"One of your proteges," remarked the bishop.
"Monseigneur, Monsieur Bonnet is one of those men who protect
themselves, both by their active virtues and their gospel work."
This simple and modest reply was received in a silence which would
have embarrassed any other man than the Abbe Dutheil. The three
priests chose to see in it one of those hidden and unanswerable
sarcasms which are characteristic of ecclesiastics, who contrive to
express what they want to say while observing the strictest decorum.
In this case there was nothing of the kind. The Abbe Dutheil never
thought of himself and had no double meaning.
"I have heard of Saint Aristides for some time," said the bishop,
smiling. "If I have left his light under a bushel I may have been
unjust or prejudiced. Your liberals are always crying up Monsieur
Bonnet as though he belonged to their party. I should like to judge
for myself of this rural apostle. Go at once, messieurs, to Monsieur
de Grandville, and ask for the reprieve; I will await his answer
before sending our dear Abbe Gabriel to Montegnac to fetch the saintly
man. We will give his Blessedness a chance to do miracles."
As he listened to these words of the prelate the Abbe Dutheil
reddened; but he would not allow himself to take notice of the
incivilities of the speech. The two grand vicars bowed in silence and
withdrew, leaving the prelate alone with his secretary.
"The secrets of the confession we are so anxious to obtain from the
unhappy man himself are no doubt buried there," said the bishop to his
young abbe, pointing to the shadow of the poplars where it fell on a
lonely house between the island and Saint-Etienne.
"I have always thought so," replied Gabriel. "I am not a judge and I
will not be an informer; but if I were a magistrate I should have
known the name of that woman who trembles at every sound, at every
word, while forced to keep her features calm and serene under pain of
going to the scaffold with her lover. She has nothing to fear,
however. I have seen the man; he will carry the secret of that
passionate love to the grave with him."
"Ah! you sly fellow!" said the bishop, twisting the ear of his
secretary as he motioned to the space between the island and the
suburb of Saint-Etienne which the last gleams of the setting sun were
illuminating, and on which the young abbe's eyes were fixed. "That is
the place where justice should have searched; don't you think so?"
"I went to see the criminal to try the effect of my suspicions upon
him," replied the young man. "I could not speak them out, for fear of
compromising the woman for whose sake he dies."
"Yes," said the bishop, "we will hold our tongues; we are not the
servants of human justice. One head is enough. Besides, sooner or
later, the secret will be given to the Church."
The perspicacity which the habit of meditation gives to priests is far
superior to that of lawyers or the police. By dint of contemplating
from those terraces the scene of the crime, the prelate and his
secretary had ended by perceiving circumstances unseen by others, in
spite of all the investigations before and during the trial of the
Monsieur de Grandville was playing whist at Madame Graslin's house; it
was necessary to await his return; the bishop did not therefore
receive his answer till nearly midnight. The Abbe Gabriel, to whom the
prelate lent his carriage, started at two in the morning for
Montegnac. This region, which begins about twenty-five miles from the
town, is situated in that part of the Limousin which lies at the base
of the mountains of the Correze and follows the line of the Creuze.
The young abbe left Limoges all heaving with expectation of the
spectacle on the morrow, and still unaware that it would not take
Priests and religious devotees have a tendency in the matter of
payments to keep strictly to the letter of the law. Is this from
poverty, or from the selfishness to which their isolation condemns
them, thus encouraging the natural inclination of all men to avarice;
or is it from a conscientious parsimony which saves all it can for
deeds of charity? Each nature will give a different answer to this
question. The difficulty of putting the hand into the pocket,
sometimes concealed by a gracious kindliness, oftener unreservedly
exhibited, is more particularly noticeable in travelling. Gabriel de
Rastignac, the prettiest youth who had served before the altar for
many a long day, gave only a thirty-sous /pour-boire/ to the
postilion. Consequently he travelled slowly. Postilions drive bishops
and other clergy with the utmost care when they merely double the
legal wage, and they run no risk of damaging the episcopal carriage
for any such sum, fearing, they might say, to get themselves into
trouble. The Abbe Gabriel, who was travelling alone for the first
time, said, at each relay, in his dulcet voice:--
"Pray go faster, postilion."
"We ply the whip," replied an old postilion, "according to how the
traveller plies his finger and thumb."
The young abbe flung himself back into a corner of the carriage unable
to comprehend that answer. To occupy the time he began to study the
country through which he was passing, making several mental excursions
on foot among the hills through which the road winds between Bordeaux
About fifteen miles from Limoges the landscape, losing the graceful
flow of the Vienne through the undulating meadows of the Limousin,
which in certain places remind one of Switzerland, especially about
Saint-Leonard, takes on a harsh and melancholy aspect. Here we come
upon vast tracts of uncultivated land, sandy plains without herbage,
hemmed in on the horizon by the summits of the Correze. These
mountains have neither the abrupt rise of the Alpine ranges nor their
splendid ridges; neither the warm gorges and desolate peaks of the
Appenines, nor the picturesque grandeur of the Pyrenees. Their
undulating slopes, due to the action of water, prove the subsidence of
some great natural catastrophe in which the floods retired slowly.
This characteristic, common to most of the earth convulsions in
France, has perhaps contributed, together with the climate, to the
epitaph of /douce/ bestowed by all Europe on our sunny France.
Though this abrupt transition from the smiling landscapes of the
Limousin to the sterner aspects of La Marche and Auvergne may offer to
the thinker and the poet, as he passes them on his way, an image of
the Infinite, that terror of certain minds; though it incites to
revelry the woman of the world, bored as she travels luxuriously in
her carriage,--to the inhabitants of this region Nature is cruel,
savage, and without resources. The soil of these great gray plains is
thankless. The vicinity of a capital town could alone reproduce the
miracle worked in Brie during the last two centuries. Here, however,
not only is a town lacking, but also the great residences which
sometimes give life to these hopeless deserts, where civilization
languishes, where the agriculturist sees only barrenness, and the
traveller finds not a single inn, nor that which, perchance, he is
there to seek,--the picturesque.
Great minds, however, do not dislike these barren wastes, necessary
shadows in Nature's vast picture. Quite recently Fenimore Cooper has
magnificently developed with his melancholy genius the poesy of such
solitudes, in his "Prairie." These regions, unknown to botanists,
covered by mineral refuse, round pebbles, and a sterile soil, cast
defiance to civilization. France should adopt the only solution to
these difficulties, as the British have done in Scotland, where
patient, heroic agriculture has changed the arid wastes into fertile
farms. Left in their savage and primitive state these uncultivated
social and natural wastes give birth to discouragement, laziness,
weakness resulting from poor food, and crime when needs become
These few words present the past history of Montegnac. What could be
done in that great tract of barren land, neglected by the government,
abandoned by the nobility, useless to industry,--what but war against
society which disregarded its duty? Consequently, the inhabitants of
Montegnac lived to a recent period, as the Highlands of Scotland lived
in former times, by murder and rapine. From the mere aspect of this
region a thinking man would understand how, twenty years earlier, the
inhabitants were at war with society. The great upland plain, flanked
on one side by the valley of the Vienne, on the other by the charming
valleys of La Marche, then by Auvergne, and bounded by the mountains
of the Correze, is like (agriculture apart) the plateau of La Beauce,
which separates the basin of the Loire from that of the Seine, also
like those of Touraine and Berry, and many other of the great upland
plains which are cut like facets on the surface of France and are
numerous enough to claim the attention of the wisest administrators.
It is amazing that while complaint is made of the influx of population
to the social centres, the government does not employ the natural
remedy of redeeming a region where, as statistics show, there are many
million acres of waste land, certain parts of which, especially in
Berry, have a soil from seven to eight feet deep.
Many of these plains which might be covered by villages and made
splendidly productive belong to obstinate communes, the authorities of
which refuse to sell to those who would develop them, merely to keep
the right to pasture cows upon them! On all these useless,
unproductive lands is written the word "Incapacity." All soils have
some special fertility of their own. Arms and wills are ready; the
thing lacking is a sense of duty combined with talent on the part of
the government. In France, up to the present time, these upland plains
have been sacrificed to the valleys; the government has chosen to give
all its help to those regions of country which can take care of
Most of these luckless uplands are without water, the first essential
for production. The mists which ought to fertilize the gray, dead soil
by discharging oxygen upon it, sweep across it rapidly, driven by the
wind, for want of trees which might arrest them and so obtain their
nourishment. Merely to plant trees in such a region would be carrying
a gospel to it. Separated from the nearest town or city by a distance
as insurmountable to poor folk as though a desert lay between them,
with no means of reaching a market for their products (if they
produced anything), close to an unexplored forest which supplied them
with wood and the uncertain livelihood of poaching, the inhabitants
often suffered from hunger during the winters. The soil not being
suitable for wheat, and the unfortunate peasantry having neither
cattle of any kind nor farming implements, they lived for the most
part on chestnuts.
Any one who has studied zoological productions in a museum, or become
personally aware of the indescribable depression caused by the brown
tones of all European products, will understand how the constant sight
of these gray, arid plains must have affected the moral nature of the
inhabitants, through the desolate sense of utter barrenness which they
present to the eye. There, in those dismal regions, is neither
coolness nor brightness, nor shade nor contrast,--none of all those
ideas and spectacles of Nature which awaken and rejoice the heart;
even a stunted apple-tree would be hailed as a friend.
A country road, recently made, runs through the centre of this great
plain, and meets the high-road. Upon it, at a distance of some fifteen
miles from the high-road, stands Montegnac, at the foot of a hill, as
its name designates, the chief town of a canton or district in the
Haute-Vienne. The hill is part of Montegnac, which thus unites a
mountainous scenery with that of the plains. This district is a
miniature Scotland, with its lowlands and highlands. Behind the hill,
at the foot of which lies the village, rises, at a distance of about
three miles, the first peak of the Correze mountains. The space
between is covered by the great forest of Montegnac, which clothes the
hill, extends over the valley, and along the slopes of the mountain
(though these are bare in some places), continuing as far as the
highway to Aubusson, where it diminishes to a point near a steep
embankment on that road. This embankment commands a ravine through
which the post-road between Bordeaux and Lyon passes. Travellers,
either afoot or in carriages, were often stopped in the depths of this
dangerous gorge by highwaymen, whose deeds of violence went
unpunished, for the site favored them; they could instantly disappear,
by ways known to them alone, into the inaccessible parts of the
Such a region was naturally out of reach of law. No one now travelled
through it. Without circulation, neither commerce, industry, exchange
of ideas, nor any of the means to wealth, can exist; the material
triumphs of civilization are always the result of the application of
primitive ideas. Thought is invariably the point of departure and the
goal of all social existence. The history of Montegnac is a proof of
that axiom of social science. When at last the administration was able
to concern itself with the needs and the material prosperity of this
region of country, it cut down this strip of forest, and stationed a
detachment of gendarmerie near the ravine, which escorted the mail-
coaches between the two relays; but, to the shame of the gendarmerie
be it said, it was the gospel, and not the sword, the rector Monsieur
Bonnet, and not Corporal Chervin, who won a civil victory by changing
the morals of a population. This priest, filled with Christian
tenderness for the poor, hapless region, attempted to regenerate it,
and succeeded in the attempt.
After travelling for about an hour over these plains, alternately
stony and dusty, where the partridges flocked in tranquil coveys,
their wings whirring with a dull, heavy sound as the carriage came
toward them, the Abbe Gabriel, like all other travellers on the same
road, saw with satisfaction the roofs of Montegnac in the distance. At
the entrance of the village was one of those curious post-relays which
are seen only in the remote parts of France. Its sign was an oak board
on which some pretentious postilion had carved the words, /Pauste o
chevos/, blackening the letters with ink, and then nailing the board
by its four corners above the door of a wretched stable in which there
were no horses. The door, which was nearly always open, had a plank
laid on the soil for its threshold, to protect the stable floor, which
was lower than the road, from inundation when it rained. The
discouraged traveller could see within worn-out, mildewed, and mended
harnesses, certain to break at a plunge of the horses. The horses
themselves were hard at work in the fields, or anywhere but in the
stable. If by any chance they happen to be in their stalls, they are
eating; if they have finished eating, the postilion has gone to see
his aunt or his cousin, or is getting in the hay, or else he is
asleep; no one can say where he is; the traveller has to wait till he
is found, and he never comes till he has finished what he is about.
When he does come he loses an immense amount of time looking for his
jacket and his whip, or putting the collars on his horses. Near by, at
the door of the post-house, a worthy woman is fuming even more than
the traveller, in order to prevent the latter from complaining loudly.
This is sure to be the wife of the post-master, whose husband is away
in the fields.
The bishop's secretary left his carriage before a post-house of this
kind, the walls of which resembled a geographical map, while the
thatched roof, blooming like a flower-garden, seemed to be giving way
beneath the weight of stone-crop. After begging the post-mistress to
have everything in readiness for his departure in an hour's time, the
abbe asked the way to the parsonage. The good woman showed him a lane
which led to the church, telling him the rectory was close beside it.
While the young abbe followed this lane, which was full of stones and
closed on either side by hedges, the post-mistress questioned the
postilion. Since starting from Limoges each postilion had informed his
successor of the conjectures of the Limoges postilion as to the
mission of the bishop's messenger. While the inhabitants of the town
were getting out of bed and talking of the coming execution, a rumor
spread among the country people that the bishop had obtained the
pardon of the innocent man; and much was said about the mistakes to
which human justice was liable. If Jean-Francois was executed later,
it was certain that he was regarded in the country regions as a
After taking a few steps along the lane, reddened by the autumn
leaves, and black with mulberries and damsons, the Abbe Gabriel turned
round with the instinctive impulse which leads us all to make
acquaintance with a region which we see for the first time,--a sort of
instinctive physical curiosity shared by dogs and horses.
The position of Montegnac was explained to him as his eyes rested on
various little streams flowing down the hillsides and on a little
river, along the bank of which runs the country road which connects
the chief town of the arrondissement with the prefecture. Like all the
villages of this upland plain, Montegnac is built of earth baked in
the sun and moulded into square blocks. After a fire a house looks as
if it had been built of brick. The roofs are of thatch. Poverty is
Before the village lay several fields of potatoes, radishes, and rye,
redeemed from the barren plain. On the slope of the hill were
irrigated meadows where the inhabitants raised horses, the famous
Limousin breed, which is said to be a legacy of the Arabs when they
descended by the Pyrenees into France and were cut to pieces by the
battle-axes of the Franks under Charles Martel. The heights are
barren. A hot, baked, reddish soil shows a region where chestnuts
flourish. The springs, carefully applied to irrigation, water the
meadows only, nourishing the sweet, crisp grass, so fine and choice,
which produces this race of delicate and high-strung horses,--not
over-strong to bear fatigue, but showy, excellent for the country of
their birth, though subject to changes if transplanted. A few mulberry
trees lately imported showed an intention of cultivating silk-worms.
Like most of the villages in this world Montegnac had but one street,
through which the high road passed. Nevertheless there was an upper
and a lower Montegnac, reached by lanes going up or going down from
the main street. A line of houses standing along the brow of the hill
presented the cheerful sight of terraced gardens, which were entered
by flights of steps from the main street. Some had their steps of
earth, others of pebbles; here and there old women were sitting on
them, knitting or watching children, and keeping up a conversation
from the upper to the lower town across the usually peaceful street of
the little village; thus rumors spread easily and rapidly in
Montegnac. All the gardens, which were full of fruit-trees, cabbages,
onions, and other vegetables, had bee-hives along their terraces.
Another line of houses, running down from the main street to the
river, the course of which was outlined by thriving little fields of
hemp and the sorts of fruit trees which like moisture, lay parallel
with the upper town; some of the houses, that of the post-house, for
instance, were in a hollow, and were well-situated for certain kinds
of work, such as weaving. Nearly all of them were shared by walnut-
trees, the tree /par excellence/ of strong soils.
On this side of the main street at the end farthest from the great
plain was a dwelling-house, very much larger and better cared for than
those in other parts of the village; around it were other houses
equally well kept. This little hamlet, separated from the village by
its gardens, was already called Les Tascherons, a name it keeps to the
The village itself mounted to very little, but thirty or more outlying
farms belonged to it. In the valley, leading down to the river,
irrigating channels like those of La Marche and Berry indicated the
flow of water around the village by the green fringe of verdure about
them; Montegnac seemed tossed in their midst like a vessel at sea.
When a house, an estate, a village, a region, passes from the wretched
condition to a prosperous one, without becoming either rich or
splendid, life seems so easy, so natural to living beings, that the
spectator may not at once suspect the enormous labor, infinite in
petty detail, grand in persistency like the toil buried in a
foundation wall, in short, the forgotten labor on which the whole
Consequently the scene that lay before him told nothing extraordinary
to the young Abbe Gabriel as his eye took in the charming landscape.
He knew nothing of the state of the region before the arrival of the
rector, Monsieur Bonnet. The young man now went on a few steps and
again saw, several hundred feet above the gardens of the upper
village, the church and the parsonage, which he had already seen from
a distance confusedly mingled with the imposing ruins clothed with
creepers of the old castle of Montegnac, one of the residences of the
Navarreins family in the twelfth century.
The parsonage, a house originally built no doubt for the bailiff or
game-keeper, was noticeable for a long raised terrace planted with
lindens from which a fine view extended over the country. The steps
leading to this terrace and the walls which supported it showed their
great age by the ravages of time. The flat moss which clings to stones
had laid its dragon-green carpet on each surface. The numerous
families of the pellitories, the chamomiles, the mesembryanthemums,
pushed their varied and abundant tufts through the loop-holes in the
walls, cracked and fissured in spite of their thickness. Botany had
lavished there its most elegant drapery of ferns of all kinds, snap-
dragons with their violet mouths and golden pistils, the blue anchusa,
the brown lichens, so that the old worn stones seemed mere accessories
peeping out at intervals from this fresh growth. Along the terrace a
box hedge, cut into geometric figures, enclosed a pleasure garden
surrounding the parsonage, above which the rock rose like a white wall
surmounted by slender trees that drooped and swayed above it like
The ruins of the castle looked down upon the house and church. The
house, built of pebbles and mortar, had but one story surmounted by an
enormous sloping roof with gable ends, in which were attics, no doubt
empty, considering the dilapidation of their windows. The ground-floor
had two rooms parted by a corridor, at the farther end of which was a
wooden staircase leading to the second floor, which also had two
rooms. A little kitchen was at the back of the building in a yard,
where were the stable and coach-house, both unused, deserted, and
worthless. The kitchen garden lay between the church and the house; a
ruined gallery led from the parsonage to the sacristy.
When the young abbe saw the four windows with their leaded panes, the
brown and mossy walls, the door in common pine slit like a bundle of
matches, far from being attracted by the adorable naivete of these
details, the grace of the vegetations which draped the roof and the
dilapidated wooden frames of the windows, the wealth of the clambering
plants escaping from every cranny, and the clasping tendrils of the
grape-vine which looked into every window as if to bring smiling ideas
to those within, he congratulated himself heartily on being a bishop
in perspective instead of a village rector.
This house, apparently always open, seemed to belong to everybody. The
Abbe Gabriel entered a room communicating with the kitchen, which was
poorly furnished with an oak table on four stout legs, a tapestried
armchair, a number of chairs all of wood, and an old chest by way of
buffet. No one was in the kitchen except a cat which revealed the
presence of a woman about the house. The other room served as a salon.
Casting a glance about it the young priest noticed armchairs in
natural wood covered with tapestry; the woodwork and the rafters of
the ceiling were of chestnut which had turned as black as ebony. A
tall clock in a green case painted with flowers, a table with a faded
green cloth, several chairs, two candlesticks on the chimney-piece,
between which was an Infant Jesus in wax under a glass case, completed
the furniture of the room. The chimney-piece of wood with common
mouldings was filled by a fire-board covered by a painting
representing the Good Shepherd with a lamb over his shoulder, which
was probably the gift of some young girl,--the mayor's daughter, or
the judge's daughter,--in return for the pastor's care of her
The forlorn condition of the house was distressing to behold; the
walls, once whitewashed, were now discolored, and stained to a man's
height by constant friction. The staircase with its heavy baluster and
wooden steps, though very clean, looked as if it might easily give way
under the feet. On the other side of the house, opposite to the
entrance door, another door opening upon the kitchen garden enabled
the Abbe de Rastignac to judge of the narrowness of that garden, which
was closed at the back by a wall cut in the white and friable stone
side of the mountain, against which espaliers were fastened, covered
with grape-vines and fruit-trees so ill taken care of that their
leaves were discolored with blight.
The abbe returned upon his steps and walked along the paths of the
first garden, from which he could see, in the distance beyond the
village, the magnificent stretch of valley, a true oasis at the edge
of the vast plains, which now, veiled by the light mists of morning,
lay along the horizon like a tranquil ocean. Behind him could be seen,
on one side, for a foil, the dark masses of the bronze-green forest;
on the other, the church and the ruins of the castle perched on the
rock and vividly detached upon the blue of the ether. The Abbe
Gabriel, his feet creaking on the gravelly paths cut in stars and
rounds and lozenges, looked down upon the village, where some of the
inhabitants were already gazing up at him, and then at the fresh, cool
valley, with its tangled paths, its river bordered with willows in
delightful contrast to the endless plain, and he was suddenly seized
with sensations which changed the nature of his thoughts; he admired
the sweet tranquillity of the place; he felt the influence of that
pure air; he was conscious of the peace inspired by the revelation of
a life brought back to Biblical simplicity; he saw, confusedly, the
beauties of this old parsonage, which he now re-entered to examine its
details with greater interest.
A little girl, employed, no doubt, to watch the house, though she was
picking and eating fruit in the garden, heard the steps of a man with
creaking shoes on the great square flags of the ground-floor rooms.
She ran in to see who it was. Confused at being caught by a priest
with a fruit in one hand and another in her mouth, she made no answer
to the questions of the handsome young abbe. She had never imagined
such an abbe,--dapper and spruce as hands could make him, in dazzling
linen and fine black cloth without spot or wrinkle.
"Monsieur Bonnet?" she said at last. "Monsieur Bonnet is saying mass,
and Mademoiselle Ursule is at church."
The Abbe Gabriel did not notice a covered way from the house to the
church; he went back to the road which led to the front portal, a
species of porch with a sloping roof that faced the village. It was
reached by a series of disjointed stone steps, at the side of which
lay a ravine washed out by the mountain torrents and covered with
noble elms planted by Sully the Protestant. This church, one of the
poorest in France where there are so many poor churches, was like one
of those enormous barns with projecting doors covered by roofs
supported on brick or wooden pillars. Built, like the parsonage, of
cobblestones and mortar, flanked by a face of solid rock, and roofed
by the commonest round tiles, this church was decorated on the outside
with the richest creations of sculpture, rich in light and shade and
lavishly massed and colored by Nature, who understands such art as
well as any Michael Angelo. Ivy clasped the walls with its nervous
tendrils, showing stems amid its foliage like the veins in a lay
figure. This mantle, flung by Time to cover the wounds he made, was
starred by autumn flowers drooping from the crevices, which also gave
shelter to numerous singing birds. The rose-window above the
projecting porch was adorned with blue campanula, like the first page
of an illuminated missal. The side which communicated with the
parsonage, toward the north, was not less decorated; the wall was gray
and red with moss and lichen; but the other side and the apse, around
which lay the cemetery, was covered with a wealth of varied blooms. A
few trees, among others an almond-tree--one of the emblems of hope--
had taken root in the broken wall; two enormous pines standing close
against the apsis served as lightning-rods. The cemetery, enclosed by
a low, half-ruined wall, had for ornament an iron cross, mounted on a
pedestal and hung with box, blessed at Easter,--one of those affecting
Christian thoughts forgotten in cities. The village rector is the only
priest who, in these days, thinks to go among his dead and say to them
each Easter morn, "Thou shalt live again!" Here and there a few rotten
wooden crosses stood up from the grassy mounds.
The interior of the church harmonized perfectly with the poetic tangle
of the humble exterior, the luxury and art of which was bestowed by
Time, for once in a way charitable. Within, the eye first went to the
roof, lined with chestnut, to which age had given the richest tints of
the oldest woods of Europe. This roof was supported at equal distances
by strong shafts resting on transversal beams. The four white-washed
walls had no ornament whatever. Poverty had made the parish
iconoclastic, whether it would or not. The church, paved and furnished
with benches, was lighted by four arched windows with leaded panes.
The altar, shaped like a tomb, was adorned by a large crucifix placed
above a tabernacle in walnut with a few gilt mouldings, kept clean and
shining, eight candlesticks economically made of wood painted white,
and two china vases filled with artificial flowers such as the drudge
of a money-changer would have despised, but with which God was
The sanctuary lamp was a night-wick placed in an old holy-water basin
of plated copper hanging by silken cords, the spoil of some demolished
chateau. The baptismal fonts were of wood; so were the pulpit and a
sort of cage provided for the church-wardens, the patricians of the
village. An altar to the Virgin presented to public admiration two
colored lithographs in small gilt frames. The altar was painted white,
adorned with artificial flowers in gilded wooden vases, and covered by
a cloth edged with shabby and discolored lace.
At the farther end of the church a long window entirely covered by a
red calico curtain produced a magical effect. This crimson mantle cast
a rosy tint upon the whitewashed walls; a thought divine seemed to
glow upon the altar and clasp the poor nave as if to warm it. The
passage which led to the sacristy exhibited on one of its walls the
patron saint of the village, a large Saint John the Baptist with his
sheep, carved in wood and horribly painted.
But in spite of all this poverty the church was not without some
tender harmonies delightful to choice souls, and set in charming
relief by their own colors. The rich dark tones of the wood relieved
the white of the walls and blended with the triumphal crimson cast on
the chancel. This trinity of color was a reminder of the grand
If surprise was the first emotion roused by this pitiful house of the
Lord, surprise was followed speedily by admiration mingled with pity.
Did it not truly express the poverty of that poor region? Was it not
in harmony with the naive simplicity of the parsonage? The building
was perfectly clean and well-kept. The fragrance of country virtues
exhaled within it; nothing showed neglect or abandonment. Though
rustic and poor and simple, prayer dwelt there; those precincts had a
soul,--a soul which was felt, though we might not fully explain to our
own souls how we felt it.
THE RECTOR OF MONTEGNAC
The Abbe Gabriel glided softly through the church so as not to disturb
the devotions of two groups of persons on the benches near the high
altar, which was separated from the nave at the place where the lamp
was hung by a rather common balustrade, also of chestnut wood, and
covered with a cloth intended for the communion. On either side of the
nave a score of peasants, men and women, absorbed in fervent prayer,
paid no attention to the stranger when he passed up the narrow passage
between the two rows of seats.
When the young abbe stood beneath the lamp, whence he could see the
two little transepts which formed a cross, one of which led to the
sacristy, the other to the cemetery, he noticed on the cemetery side a
family clothed in black kneeling on the pavement, the transepts having
no benches. The young priest knelt down on the step of the balustrade
which separated the choir from the nave and began to pray, casting
oblique glances at a scene which was soon explained to him. The gospel
had been read. The rector, having removed his chasuble, came down from
the altar and stood before the railing; the young abbe, who foresaw
this movement, leaned back against the wall, so that Monsieur Bonnet
did not see him. Ten o'clock was striking.
"Brethren," said the rector, in a voice of emotion, "at this very
moment a child of this parish is paying his debt to human justice by
enduring its last penalty, while we are offering the sacrifice of the
mass for the peace of his soul. Let us unite in prayer to God,
imploring Him not to turn His face from that child in these his last
moments, and to grant to his repentance the pardon in heaven which is
denied to him here below. The sin of this unhappy man, one of those on
whom we most relied for good examples, can only be explained by his
disregard of religious principles."
Here the rector was interrupted by sobs from the kneeling group in
mourning garments, whom the Abbe Gabriel recognized, by this show of
affection, as the Tascheron family, although he did not know them.
First among them was an old couple (septuagenarians) standing by the
wall, their faces seamed with deep-cut, rigid wrinkles, and bronzed
like a Florentine medal. These persons, stoically erect like statues,
in their old darned clothes, were doubtless the grandfather and the
grandmother of the criminal. Their glazed and reddened eyes seemed to
weep blood, their arms trembled so that the sticks on which they
leaned tapped lightly on the pavement. Next, the father and the
mother, their faces in their handkerchiefs, sobbed aloud. Around these
four heads of the family knelt the two married sisters accompanied by
their husbands, and three sons, stupefied with grief. Five little
children on their knees, the oldest not seven years old, unable, no
doubt, to understand what was happening, gazed and listened with the
torpid curiosity that characterizes the peasantry, and is really the
observation of physical things pushed to its highest limit. Lastly,
the poor unmarried sister, imprisoned in the interests of justice, now
released, a martyr to fraternal affection, Denise Tascheron, was
listening to the priest's words with a look that was partly bewildered
and partly incredulous. For her, her brother could not die. She well
represented that one of the Three Marys who did not believe in the
death of Christ, though she was present at the last agony. Pale, with
dry eyes, like all those who have gone without sleep, her fresh
complexion was already faded, less by toil and field labor than by
grief; nevertheless, she had many of the beauties of a country maiden,
--a plump, full figure, finely shaped arms, rounded cheeks, and clear,
pure eyes, lighted at this instant with flashes of despair. Below the
throat, a firm, fair skin, not tanned by the sun, betrayed the
presence of a white and rosy flesh where the form was hidden.
The married daughters wept; their husbands, patient farmers, were
grave and serious. The three brothers, profoundly sad, did not raise
their eyes from the ground. In the midst of this dreadful picture of
dumb despair and desolation, Denise and her mother alone showed
symptoms of revolt.
The other inhabitants of the village united in the affliction of this
respectable family with a sincere and Christian pity which gave the
same expression to the faces of all,--an expression amounting to
horror when the rector's words announced that the knife was then
falling on the neck of a young man whom they all knew well from his
very birth, and whom they had doubtless thought incapable of crime.
The sobs which interrupted the short and simple allocution which the
pastor made to his flock overcame him so much that he stopped and said
no more, except to invite all present to fervent prayer.
Though this scene was not of a nature to surprise a priest, Gabriel de
Rastignac was too young not to be profoundly touched by it. As yet he
had never exercised the priestly virtues; he knew himself called to
other functions; he was not forced to enter the social breaches where
the heart bleeds at the sight of woes: his mission was that of the
higher clergy, who maintain the spirit of devotion, represent the
highest intellect of the Church, and on eminent occasions display the
priestly virtues on a larger stage,--like the illustrious bishops of
Marseille and Meaux, and the archbishops of Arles and Cambrai.
This little assemblage of country people weeping and praying for him
who, as they supposed, was then being executed on a public square,
among a crowd of persons come from all parts to swell the shame of
such a death,--this feeble counterpoise of prayer and pity, opposed to
the ferocious curiosity and just maledictions of a multitude, was
enough to move any soul, especially when seen in that poor church. The
Abbe Gabriel was tempted to go up to the Tascherons and say,--
"Your son and brother is reprieved."
But he did not like to disturb the mass; and, moreover, he knew that a
reprieve was only a delay of execution. Instead of following the
service, he was irresistibly drawn to a study of the pastor from whom
the clergy in Limoges expected the conversion of the criminal.
Judging by the parsonage, Gabriel de Rastignac had made himself a
portrait of Monsieur Bonnet as a stout, short man with a strong and
red face, framed for toil, half a peasant, and tanned by the sun. So
far from that, the young abbe met his equal. Slight and delicate in
appearance, Monsieur Bonnet's face struck the eyes at once as the
typical face of passion given to the Apostles. It was almost
triangular, beginning with a broad brow furrowed by wrinkles, and
carried down from the temples to the chin in two sharp lines which
defined his hollow cheeks. In this face, sallowed by tones as yellow
as those of a church taper, shone two blue eyes that were luminous
with faith, burning with eager hope. It was divided into two equal
parts by a long nose, thin and straight, with well-cut nostrils,
beneath which spoke, even when closed and voiceless, a large mouth,
with strongly marked lips, from which issued, whenever he spoke aloud,
one of those voices which go straight to the heart. The chestnut hair,
which was thin and fine, and lay flat upon the head, showed a poor
constitution maintained by a frugal diet. WILL made the power of this
Such were his personal distinctions. His short hands might have
indicated in another man a tendency to coarse pleasures, and perhaps
he had, like Socrates, conquered his temptations. His thinness was
ungraceful, his shoulders were too prominent, his knees knocked
together. The body, too much developed for the extremities, gave him
the look of a hump-backed man without a hump. In short, his appearance
was not pleasing. None but those to whom the miracles of thought,
faith, art are known could adore that flaming gaze of the martyr, that
pallor of constancy, that voice of love,--distinctive characteristics
of this village rector.
This man, worthy of the primitive Church, which exists no longer
except in the pictures of the sixteenth century and in the pages of
Martyrology, was stamped with the die of the human greatness which
most nearly approaches the divine greatness through Conviction,--that
indefinable something which embellishes the commonest form, gilds with
glowing tints the faces of men vowed to any worship, no matter what,
and brings into the face of a woman glorified by a noble love a sort
of light. CONVICTION is human will attaining to its highest reach. At
once both cause and effect, it impresses the coldest natures; it is a
species of mute eloquence which holds the masses.
Coming down from the altar the rector caught the eye of the Abbe
Gabriel and recognized him; so that when the bishop's secretary
reached the sacristy Ursule, to whom her master had already given
orders, was waiting for him with a request that he would follow her.
"Monsieur," said Ursule, a woman of canonical age, conducting the Abbe
de Rastignac by the gallery through the garden, "Monsieur Bonnet told
me to ask if you had breakfasted. You must have left Limoges very
early to get here by ten o'clock. I will soon have breakfast ready for
you. Monsieur l'abbe will not find a table like that of Monseigneur
the bishop in this poor village, but we will do the best we can.
Monsieur Bonnet will soon be in; he has gone to comfort those poor
people, the Tascherons. Their son has met with a terrible end to-day."
"But," said the Abbe Gabriel, when he could get in a word, "where is
the house of those worthy persons? I must take Monsieur Bonnet at once
to Limoges by order of the bishop. That unfortunate man will not be
executed to-day; Monseigneur has obtained a reprieve for him."
"Ah!" exclaimed Ursule, whose tongue itched to spread the news about
the village, "monsieur has plenty of time to carry them that comfort
while I get breakfast ready. The Tascherons' house is beyond the
village; follow the path below that terrace and it will take you
As soon as Ursule lost sight of the abbe she went down into the
village to disseminate the news, and also to buy the things needed for
The rector had been informed, while in church, of a desperate
resolution taken by the Tascherons as soon as they heard that Jean-
Francois's appeal was rejected and that he had to die. These worthy
souls intended to leave the country, and their worldly goods were to
be sold that very morning. Delays and formalities unexpected by them
had hitherto postponed the sale. They had been forced to remain in
their home until the execution, and drink each day the cup of shame.
This determination had not been made public until the evening before
the day appointed for the execution. The Tascherons had expected to
leave before that fatal day; but the proposed purchaser of their
property was a stranger in those parts, and was prevented from
clinching the bargain by a delay in obtaining the money. Thus the
hapless family were forced to bear their trouble to its end. The
feeling which prompted this expatriation was so violent in these
simple souls, little accustomed to compromise with their consciences,
that the grandfather and grandmother, the father and the mother, the
daughters and their husbands and the sons, in short, all who bore and
had borne the name of Tascheron or were closely allied to it made
ready to leave the country.
This emigration grieved the whole community. The mayor entreated the
rector to do his best to retain these worthy people. According to the
new Code the father was not responsible for the son, and the crime of
the father was no disgrace to the children. Together with other
emancipations which have weakened paternal power, this system has led
to the triumph of individualism, which is now permeating the whole of
modern society. He who thinks on the things of the future sees the
spirit of family destroyed, where the makers of the new Code have
introduced freedom of will and equality. The Family must always be the
basis of society. Necessarily temporary, incessantly divided,
recomposed to dissolve again, without ties between the future and the
past, it cannot fulfil that mission; the Family of the olden time no
longer exists in France. Those who have proceeded to demolish the
ancient edifice have been logical in dividing equally the family
property, in diminishing the authority of the father, in suppressing
great responsibilities; but is the reconstructed social state as
solid, with its young laws still untried, as it was under a monarchy,
in spite of the old abuses? In losing the solidarity of families,
society has lost that fundamental force which Montesquieu discovered
and named HONOR. It has isolated interests in order to subjugate them;
it has sundered all to enfeeble all. Society reigns over units, over
single figures agglomerated like grains of corn in a heap. Can the
general interests of all take the place of Family? Time alone can
answer that question.
Nevertheless, the old law still exists; its roots have struck so deep
that you will find it still living, as we find perennials in polar
regions. Remote places are still to be found in the provinces where
what are now called prejudices exist, where the family suffers in the
crime of a child or a father.
This sentiment made the place uninhabitable any longer to the
Tascherons. Their deep religious feeling took them to church that
morning; for how could they let the mass be offered to God asking Him
to inspire their son with repentance that alone could restore to him
life eternal, and not share in it? Besides, they wished to bid
farewell to the village altar. But their minds were made up and their
plans already carried out. When the rector who followed them from
church reached the principal house he found their bags and bundles
ready for the journey. The purchaser of the property was there with
the money. The notary had drawn up the papers. In the yard behind the
house was a carriole ready harnessed to carry away the older couple
with the money, and the mother of Jean-Francois. The remainder of the
family were to go on foot by night.
At the moment when the young abbe entered the low room in which the
family were assembled the rector of Montegnac had exhausted all the
resources of his eloquence. The old pair, now insensible to the
violence of grief, were crouching in a corner on their bags and
looking round on their old hereditary home, its furniture, and the new
purchaser, and then upon each other as if to say:--
"Did we ever think this thing could happen?"
These old people, who had long resigned their authority to their son,
the father of the criminal, were, like kings on their abdication,
reduced to the passive role of subjects and children. Tascheron, the
father, was standing up; he listened to the pastor, and replied to him
in a low voice and by monosyllables. This man, who was about forty-
eight years of age, had the noble face which Titian has given to so
many of his Apostles,--a countenance full of faith, of grave and
reflective integrity, a stern profile, a nose cut in a straight and
projecting line, blue eyes, a noble brow, regular features, black,
crisp, wiry hair, planted on his head with that symmetry which gives a
charm to these brown faces, bronzed by toil in the open air. It was
easy to see that the rector's appeals were powerless against that
Denise was leaning against the bread-box, looking at the notary, who
was using that receptacle as a writing-table, seated before it in the
grandmother's armchair. The purchaser was sitting on a stool beside
him. The married sisters were laying a cloth upon the table, and
serving the last meal the family were to take in its own house before
expatriating itself to other lands and other skies. The sons were
half-seated on the green serge bed. The mother, busy beside the fire,
was beating an omelet. The grandchildren crowded the doorway, before
which stood the incoming family of the purchaser.
The old smoky room with its blackened rafters, through the window of
which was visible a well-kept garden planted by the two old people,
seemed in harmony with the pent-up anguish which could be read on all
their faces in diverse expressions. The meal was chiefly prepared for
the notary, the purchaser, the menkind, and the children. The father
and mother, Denise and her sisters, were too unhappy to eat. There was
a lofty, stern resignation in the accomplishment of these last duties
of rustic hospitality. The Tascherons, men of the olden time, ended
their days in that house as they had begun them, by doing its honors.
This scene, without pretension, though full of solemnity, met the eyes
of the bishop's secretary when he approached the village rector to
fulfil the prelate's errand.
"The son of these good people still lives," said Gabriel.
At these words, heard by all in the deep silence, the two old people
rose to their feet as if the last trump had sounded. The mother
dropped her pan upon the fire; Denise gave a cry of joy; all the
others stood by in petrified astonishment.
"Jean-Francois is pardoned!" cried the whole village, now rushing
toward the house, having heard the news from Ursule. "Monseigneur the
"I knew he was innocent!" cried the mother.
"Will it hinder the purchase?" said the purchaser to the notary, who
answered with a satisfying gesture.
The Abbe Gabriel was now the centre of all eyes; his sadness raised a
suspicion of mistake. To avoid correcting it himself, he left the
house, followed by the rector, and said to the crowd outside that the
execution was only postponed for some days. The uproar subsided
instantly into dreadful silence. When the Abbe Gabriel and the rector
returned, the expression on the faces of the family was full of
anguish; the silence of the crowd was understood.
"My friends, Jean-Francois is not pardoned," said the young abbe,
seeing that the blow had fallen; "but the state of his soul has so
distressed Monseigneur that he has obtained a delay in order to save
your son in eternity."
"But he lives!" cried Denise.
The young abbe took the rector aside to explain to him the injurious
situation in which the impenitence of his parishioner placed religion,
and the duty the bishop imposed upon him.
"Monseigneur exacts my death," replied the rector. "I have already
refused the entreaties of the family to visit their unhappy son. Such
a conference and the sight of his death would shatter me like glass.
Every man must work as he can. The weakness of my organs, or rather,
the too great excitability of my nervous organization, prevents me
from exercising these functions of our ministry. I have remained a
simple rector expressly to be useful to my kind in a sphere in which I
can really accomplish my Christian duty. I have carefully considered
how far I could satisfy this virtuous family and do my pastoral duty
to this poor son; but the very idea of mounting the scaffold with him,
the mere thought of assisting in those fatal preparations, sends a
shudder as of death through my veins. It would not be asked of a
mother; and remember, monsieur, he was born in the bosom of my poor
"So," said the Abbe Gabriel, "you refuse to obey Monseigneur?"
"Monseigneur is ignorant of the state of my health; he does not know
that in a constitution like mine nature refuses--" said Monsieur
Bonnet, looking at the younger priest.
"There are times when we ought, like Belzunce at Marseille, to risk
certain death," replied the Abbe Gabriel, interrupting him.
At this moment the rector felt a hand pulling at his cassock; he heard
sobs, and turning round he saw the whole family kneeling before him.
Young and old, small and great, all were stretching their supplicating
hands to him. One sole cry rose from their lips as he turned his face
"Save his soul, at least!"
The old grandmother it was who had pulled his cassock and was wetting
it with her tears.
"I shall obey, monsieur."
That said, the rector was forced to sit down, for his legs trembled
under him. The young secretary explained the frenzied state of the
"Do you think," he said, as he ended his account, "that the sight of
his young sister would shake his determination?"
"Yes, I do," replied the rector. "Denise, you must go with us."
"And I, too," said the mother.
"No!" cried the father; "that child no longer exists for us, and you
know it. None of us shall see him."
"Do not oppose what may be for his salvation," said the young abbe.
"You will be responsible for his soul if you refuse us the means of
softening it. His death may possibly do more injury than his life has
"She may go," said the father; "it shall be her punishment for
opposing all the discipline I ever wished to give her son."
The Abbe Gabriel and Monsieur Bonnet returned to the parsonage, where
Denise and her mother were requested to come in time to start for
Limoges with the two ecclesiastics.
As the younger man walked along the path which followed the outskirts
of upper Montegnac he was able to examine the village priest so warmly
commended by the vicar-general less superficially than he did in
church. He felt at once inclined in his favor, by the simple manners,
the voice full of magic power, and the words in harmony with the voice
of the village rector. The latter had only visited the bishop's palace
once since the prelate had taken Gabriel de Rastignac as secretary. He
had hardly seen this favorite, destined for the episcopate, though he
knew how great his influence was. Nevertheless, he behaved with a
dignified courtesy that plainly showed the sovereign independence
which the Church bestows on rectors in their parishes. But the
feelings of the young abbe, far from animating his face, gave it a
stern expression; it was more than cold, it was icy. A man capable of
changing the moral condition of a whole population must surely possess
some powers of observation, and be more or less of a physiognomist;
and even if the rector had no other science than that of goodness, he
had just given proof of rare sensibility. He was therefore struck by
the coldness with which the bishop's secretary met his courteous
advances. Compelled to attribute this manner to some secret annoyance,
the rector sought in his own mind to discover if he had wounded his
guest, or in what way his conduct could seem blameworthy in the eyes
of his superiors.
An awkward silence ensued, which the Abbe de Rastignac broke by a
speech that was full of aristocratic assumption.
"You have a very poor church, monsieur," he said.
"It is too small," replied Monsieur Bonnet. "On the great fete-days
the old men bring benches to the porch, and the young men stand
outside in a circle; but the silence is so great that all can hear my
Gabriel was silent for some moments.
"If the inhabitants are so religious how can you let the building
remain in such a state of nudity?" he said at last.
"Alas, monsieur, I have not the courage to spend the money which is
needed for the poor on decorating the church,--the poor are the
church. I assure I should not be ashamed of my church if Monseigneur
should visit it on the Fete-Dieu. The poor return on that day what
they have received. Did you notice the nails which are placed at
certain distances on the walls? They are used to hold a sort of
trellis of iron wire on which the women fasten bouquets; the church is
fairly clothed with flowers, and they keep fresh all day. My poor
church, which you think so bare, is decked like a bride; it is filled
with fragrance; even the floor is strewn with leaves, in the midst of
which they make a path of scattered roses for the passage of the holy
sacrament. That's a day on which I do not fear comparison with the
pomps of Saint-Peter at Rome; the Holy Father has his gold, and I my
flowers,--to each his own miracle. Ah! monsieur, the village of
Montegnac is poor, but it is Catholic. In former times the inhabitants
robbed travellers; now travellers may leave a sack full of money where
they please and they will find it in my house."
"That result is to your glory," said Gabriel.
"It is not a question of myself," replied the rector, coloring at this
labored compliment, "but of God's word, of the blessed bread--"
"Brown bread," remarked the abbe, smiling.
"White bread only suits the stomachs of the rich," replied the rector,
The young abbe took the hands of the older priest and pressed them
"Forgive me, monsieur," he said, suddenly making amends with a look in
his beautiful blue eyes which went to the depths of the rector's soul.
"Monseigneur told me to test your patience and your modesty, but I
can't go any further; I see already how much injustice the praises of
the liberals have done you."
Breakfast was ready; fresh eggs, butter, honey, fruits, cream, and
coffee were served by Ursule in the midst of flowers, on a white cloth
laid upon the antique table in that old dining-room. The window which
looked upon the terrace was open; clematis, with its white stars
relieved in the centre by the yellow bunch of their crisped stamens,
clasped the railing. A jasmine ran up one side, nasturtiums clambered
over the other. Above, the reddening foliage of a vine made a rich
border that no sculptor could have rendered, so exquisite was the
tracery of its lace-work against the light.
"Life is here reduced, you see, to its simplest expression," said the
rector, smiling, though his face did not lose the look which the
sadness of his heart conveyed to it. "If we had known of your arrival
(but who could have foreseen your errand?) Ursule would have had some
mountain trout for you; there's a brook in the forest where they are
excellent. I forget, however, that this is August and the Gabou is
dry. My head is confused with all these troubles."
"Then you like your life here?" said the young abbe.
"Yes, monsieur; if God wills, I shall die rector of Montegnac. I could
have wished that my example were followed by certain distinguished men
who have thought they did better things in becoming philanthropists.
But modern philanthropy is an evil to society; the principles of the
Catholic religion can alone cure the diseases which permeate social
bodies. Instead of describing those diseases and extending their
ravages by complaining elegies, they should put their hand to the work
and enter the Lord's vineyard as simple laborers. My task is far from
being accomplished here, monsieur. It is not enough to reform the
people, whom I found in a frightful condition of impiety and
wickedness; I wish to die in the midst of a generation of true
"You have only done your duty, monsieur," said the young man, still
coldly, for his heart was stirred with envy.
"Yes, monsieur," replied the rector, modestly, giving his companion a
glance which seemed to say: Is this a further test? "I pray that all
may do their duty throughout the kingdom."
This remark, full of deep meaning, was still further emphasized by a
tone of utterance, which proved that in 1829 this priest, as grand in
thought as he was noble in humility of conduct, and who subordinated
his thoughts to those of his superiors, saw clearly into the destinies
of both church and monarchy.
When the two afflicted women came the young abbe, very impatient to
get back to Limoges, left the parsonage to see if the horses were
harnessed. A few moments later he returned to say that all was ready.
All four then started under the eyes of the whole population of
Montegnac, which was gathered in the roadway before the post-house.
The mother and sister kept silence. The two priests, seeing rocks
ahead in many subjects, could neither talk indifferently nor allow
themselves to be cheerful. While seeking for some neutral subject the
carriage crossed the plain, the aspect of which dreary region seemed
to influence the duration of their melancholy silence.
"How came you to adopt the ecclesiastical profession?" asked the Abbe
Gabriel, suddenly, with an impulsive curiosity which seized him as
soon as the carriage turned into the high-road.
"I did not look upon the priesthood as a profession," replied the
rector, simply. "I cannot understand how a man can become a priest for
any other reason than the undefinable power of vocation. I know that
many men have served in the Lord's vineyard who have previously worn
out their hearts in the service of passion; some have loved
hopelessly, others have had their love betrayed; men have lost the
flower of their lives in burying a precious wife or an adored
mistress; some have been disgusted with social life at a period when
uncertainty hovers over everything, even over feelings, and doubt
mocks tender certainties by calling them beliefs; others abandon
politics at a period when power seems to be an expiation and when the
governed regard obedience as fatality. Many leave a society without
banners; where opposing forces only unite to overthrow good. I do not
think that any man would give himself to God from a covetous motive.
Some men have looked upon the priesthood as a means of regenerating
our country; but, according to my poor lights, a priest-patriot is a
meaningless thing. The priest can only belong to God. I did not wish
to offer our Father--who nevertheless accepts all--the wreck of my
heart and the fragments of my will; I gave myself to him whole. In one
of those touching theories of pagan religion, the victim sacrificed to
the false gods goes to the altar decked with flowers. The significance
of that custom has always deeply touched me. A sacrifice is nothing
without grace. My life is simple and without the very slightest
romance. My father, who has made his own way in the world, is a stern,
inflexible man; he treats his wife and his children as he treats
himself. I have never seen a smile upon his lips. His iron hand, his
stern face, his gloomy, rough activity, oppressed us all--wife,
children, clerks and servants--under an almost savage despotism. I
could--I speak for myself only--I could have accommodated myself to
this life if the power thus exercised had had an equal repression;
but, captious and vacillating, he treated us all with intolerable
alternations. We were always ignorant whether we were doing right or
whether he considered us to blame; and the horrible expectancy which
results from that is torture in domestic life. A street life seems
better than a home under such circumstances. Had I been alone in the
house I would have borne all from my father without murmuring; but my
heart was torn by the bitter, unceasing anguish of my dear mother,
whom I ardently loved and whose tears put me sometimes into a fury in
which I nearly lost my reason. My school days, when boys are usually
so full of misery and hard work, were to me a golden period. I dreaded
holidays. My mother herself preferred to come and see me. When I had
finished my philosophical course and was forced to return home and
become my father's clerk, I could not endure it more than a few
months; my mind, bewildered by the fever of adolescence, threatened to
give way. On a sad autumn evening as I was walking alone with my
mother along the Boulevard Bourdon, then one of the most melancholy
parts of Paris, I poured my heart into hers, and I told her that I saw
no possible life before me except in the Church. My tastes, my ideas,
all that I most loved would be continually thwarted so long as my
father lived. Under the cassock of a priest he would be forced to
respect me, and I might thus on certain occasions become the protector
of my family. My mother wept much. Just at this period my eldest
brother (since a general and killed at Leipzig) had entered the army
as a private soldier, driven from his home for the same reasons that
made me wish to be a priest. I showed my mother that her best means of
protection would be to marry my sister, as soon as she was old enough,
to some man of strong character, and to look for help to this new
family. Under pretence of avoiding the conscription without costing my
father a penny to buy me off, I entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice
at the age of nineteen. Within those celebrated old buildings I found
a peace and happiness that were troubled only by the thought of my
mother and my sister's sufferings. Their domestic misery, no doubt,
went on increasing; for whenever they saw me they sought to strengthen
my resolution. Perhaps I had been initiated into the secrets of
charity, such as our great Saint Paul defines it, by my own trials. At
any rate, I longed to stanch the wounds of the poor in some forgotten
corner of the earth, and to prove by my example, if God would deign to
bless my efforts, that the Catholic religion, judged by its actions
for humanity, is the only true, the only beneficent and noble
civilizing force. During the last days of my diaconate, grace, no
doubt, enlightened me. I have fully forgiven my father, regarding him
as the instrument of my destiny. My mother, though I wrote her a long
and tender letter, explaining all things and proving to her that the
finger of God was guiding me, my poor mother wept many tears as she
saw my hair cut off by the scissors of the Church. She knew herself
how many pleasures I renounced, but she did not know the secret
glories to which I aspired. Women are so tender! After I once belonged
to God I felt a boundless peace; I felt no needs, no vanities, none of
those cares which trouble men so much. I knew that Providence would
take care of me as a thing of its own. I entered a world from which
all fear is banished; where the future is certain; where all things
are divine, even the silence. This quietude is one of the benefactions
of grace. My mother could not conceive that a man could espouse a
church. Nevertheless, seeing me happy, with a cloudless brow, she grew
happier herself. After I was ordained I came to the Limousin to visit
one of my paternal relations, who chanced to speak to me of the then
condition of Montegnac. A thought darted into my mind with the
vividness of lightning, and I said to myself inwardly: 'Here is thy
vineyard!' I came here, and you see, monsieur, that my history is very
simple and uneventful."
At this instant Limoges came into sight, bathed in the last rays of
the setting sun. When the women saw it they could not restrain their
tears; they wept aloud.
The young man whom these two different loves were now on their way to
comfort, who excited so much artless curiosity, so much spurious
sympathy and true solicitude, was lying on his prison pallet in one of
the condemned cells. A spy watched beside the door to catch, if
possible, any words that might escape him, either in sleep or in one
of his violent furies; so anxious were the officers of justice to
exhaust all human means of discovering Jean-Francois Tascheron's
accomplice and recover the sums stolen.
The des Vanneaulx had promised a reward to the police, and the police
kept constant watch on the obstinate silence of the prisoner. When the
man on duty looked through a loophole made for the purpose he saw the
convict always in the same position, bound in the straight-jacket, his
head secured by a leather thong ever since he had attempted to tear
the stuff of the jacket with his teeth.
Jean-Francois gazed steadily at the ceiling with a fixed and
despairing eye, a burning eye, as if reddened by the terrible thoughts
behind it. He was a living image of the antique Prometheus; the memory
of some lost happiness gnawed at his heart. When the solicitor-general
himself went to see him that magistrate could not help testifying his
surprise at a character so obstinately persistent. No sooner did any
one enter his cell than Jean-Francois flew into a frenzy which
exceeded the limits known to physicians for such attacks. The moment
he heard the key turn in the lock or the bolts of the barred door
slide, a light foam whitened his lips.
Jean-Francois Tascheron, then twenty-five years of age, was small but
well-made. His wiry, crinkled hair, growing low on his forehead,
indicated energy. His eyes, of a clear and luminous yellow, were too
near the root of the nose,--a defect which gave him some resemblance
to birds of prey. The face was round, of the warm brown coloring which
marks the inhabitants of middle France. One feature of his physiognomy
confirmed an assertion of Lavater as to persons who are destined to
commit murder; his front teeth lapped each other. Nevertheless his
face bore all the characteristics of integrity and a sweet and artless
moral nature; there was nothing surprising in the fact that a woman
had loved him passionately. His fresh mouth with its dazzling teeth
was charming, but the vermilion of the lips was of the red-lead tint
which indicates repressed ferocity, and, in many human beings, a free
abandonment to pleasure. His demeanor showed none of the low habits of
a workman. In the eyes of the women who were present at the trial it
seemed evident that one of their sex had softened those muscles used
to toil, had ennobled the countenance of the rustic, and given grace
to his person. Women can always detect the traces of love in a man,
just as men can see in a woman whether, as the saying is, love has
passed that way.
Toward evening of the day we are now relating Jean-Francois heard the
sliding of bolts and the noise of the key in the lock. He turned his
head violently and gave vent to the horrible growl with which his
frenzies began; but he trembled all over when the beloved heads of his
sister and his mother stood out against the fading light, and behind
them the face of the rector of Montegnac.
"The wretches! is this why they keep me alive?" he said, closing his
Denise, who had lately been confined in a prison, was distrustful of
everything; the spy had no doubt hidden himself merely to return in a
few moments. The girl flung herself on her brother, bent her tearful
face to his and whispered:--
"They may be listening to us."
"Otherwise they would not have let you come here," he replied in a
loud voice. "I have long asked the favor that none of my family should
be admitted here."
"Oh! how they have bound him!" cried the mother. "My poor child! my
poor boy!" and she fell on her knees beside the pallet, hiding her
head in the cassock of the priest, who was standing by her.
"If Jean will promise me to be quiet," said the rector, "and not
attempt to injure himself, and to behave properly while we are with
him, I will ask to have him unbound; but the least violation of his
promise will reflect on me."
"I do so want to move as I please, dear Monsieur Bonnet," said the
criminal, his eyes moistening with tears, "that I give you my word to
do as you wish."
The rector went out, and returned with the jailer, and the jacket was
"You won't kill me to-night, will you?" said the turnkey.
Jean made no answer.
"Poor brother!" said Denise, opening a basket which had just passed
through a rigorous examination. "Here are some of the things you like;
I dare say they don't feed you for the love of God."
She showed him some fruit, gathered as soon as the rector had told her
she could go to the jail, and a /galette/ his mother had immediately
baked for him. This attention, which reminded him of his boyhood, the
voice and gestures of his sister, the presence of his mother and the
rector, brought on a reaction and he burst into tears.
"Ah! Denise," he said, "I have not had a good meal for six months. I
eat only when driven to it by hunger."
The mother and sister went out and then returned; with the natural
housekeeping spirit of such women, who want to give their men material
comfort, they soon had a supper for their poor child. In this the
officials helped them; for an order had been given to do all that
could with safety be done for the condemned man. The des Vanneaulx had
contributed, with melancholy hope, toward the comfort of the man from
whom they still expected to recover their inheritance. Thus poor Jean-
Francois had a last glimpse of family joys, if joys they could be
called under such circumstances.
"Is my appeal rejected?" he said to Monsieur Bonnet.
"Yes, my child; nothing is left for you to do but to make a Christian
end. This life is nothing in comparison to that which awaits you; you
must think now of your eternal happiness. You can pay your debt to man
with your life, but God is not content with such a little thing as
"Give up my life! Ah! you do not know all that I am leaving."
Denise looked at her brother as if to warn him that even in matters of
religion he must be cautious.
"Let us say no more about it," he resumed, eating the fruit with an
avidity which told of his inward fire. "When am I--"
"No, no! say nothing of that before me!" said the mother.
"But I should be easier in mind if I knew," he said, in a low voice to
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