Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
First Part-Sieur Clubin
Book III. Durande and Deruchette.
XII. An Anomaly in the Character of Lethierry.
MESS LETHIERRY had a failing, and a serious one. He detested a priest; though not as an individual, but as an institution. Reading one day-for he used to read-in a work of Voltaire-for he would even read Voltaire-the remark that priests "have something cat-like in their nature", he laid down the book, and was heard to mutter, "Then I suppose I have something dog-like in mine."
It must be remembered that the priests-Lutheran and Calvinist, as well as Catholic-had vigorously combated the new "Devil Boat," and had persecuted its inventor. To be a sort of revolutionist in the art of navigation, to introduce a spirit of progress in the Norman Archipelago, to disturb the peace of the poor little island of Guernsey with a new invention, was in their eyes, as we have not concealed from the reader, an abominable and most condemnable rashness. Nor had they omitted to condemn it pretty loudly. It must not be forgotten that we are now speaking of the Guernsey clergy of a bygone generation, very different from that of the present time, who in almost all the local places of worship display a laudable sympathy with progress. They had embarrassed Lethierry in a hundred ways; every sort of resisting force which can be found in sermons and discourses had been employed against him. Detested by the churchmen, he naturally came to detest them in his turn. Their hatred was the extenuating circumstance to be taken into account in judging of his.
But it must be confessed that his dislike for priests was, in some degree, in his very nature. It was hardly necessary for them to hate him in order to inspire him with aversion. As he said, he moved among them like the dog among cats. He had an antipathy to them, not only in idea, but in what is more difficult to analyze, his instincts. He felt their secret claws, and showed his teeth; sometimes, it must be confessed a little at random and out of season. It is a mistake to make no distinctions: a dislike in the mass is a prejudice. The good Savoyard curé would have found no favour in his eyes. It is not certain that a worthy priest was even a possible thing in Lethierry's mind. His philosophy was carried so far that his good sense sometimes abandoned him. There is such a thing as the intolerance of tolerants, as well as the violence of moderates. But Lethierry was at bottom too good-natured to be a thorough hater. He did not attack so much as avoid. He kept the church people at a distance. He suffered evil at their hands; but he confined himself to not wishing them any good. The shade of difference, in fact, between his aversion and theirs lay in the fact that they bore animosity, while he had only a strong antipathy. Small as is the island of Guernsey, it has, unfortunately, plenty of room for differences of religion: there, to take the broad distinction, is the Catholic faith and the Protestant faith; every form of worship has its temple or chapel. In Germany, at Heidelberg, for example, people are not so particular: they divide a church in two-one half for St. Peter, the other half for Calvin; and between the two is a partition to prevent religious variances terminating in fisticuffs. The shares are equal: the Catholics have three altars, the Huguenots three altars. As the services are at the same hours, one hell summons both denominations to prayers; it rings, in fact, both for God and for Satan, according as each pleases to regard it. Nothing can be more simple.
The phlegmatic character of the Germans favours, I suppose, this peculiar arrangement; but in Guernsey every religion has its own domicile: there are the orthodox parish and the heretic parish; the individual may choose. "Neither one nor the other" was the choice of Mess Lethierry.
This sailor, workman, philosopher, and parvenu trader, though a simple man in appearance, was by no means simple at bottom. He had his opinions and his prejudices. On the subject of the priests he was immovable; he would have entered the lists with Montlosier.
Occasionally he indulged in rather disrespectful jokes upon this subject. He had certain odd expressions thereupon peculiar to himself, but significant enough. Going to confession he called "combing one's conscience." The little learning that he had-a certain amount of reading picked up here and there between the squalls at sea-did not prevent his making blunders in spelling. He made also mistakes in pronunciation, some of which, however, gave a double sense to his words, which might have been suspected of a sly intention.
Though he was a strong anti-papist, that circumstance was far from conciliating the Anglicans. He was no more liked by the Protestant rectors than by the Catholic curès. The enunciation of the greatest dogmas did not prevent his anti-theological temper bursting forth. Accident, for example, having once-brought him to hear a sermon on eternal punishment by the Reverend Jaquemin Herode-a magnificent discourse, filled from one end to the other with sacred texts, proving the everlasting pains, the tortures, the torments, the perditions, the inexorable chastisements, the burnings without end, the inextinguishable maledictions, the wrath of the Almighty, the celestial fury, the divine vengeance, and other incontestable realities-he was heard to say as he was going out in the midst of the faithful flock, "You see, I have an odd notion of my own on this matter: I imagine God as a merciful being."
This leaven of atheism was doubtless due to his sojourn in France.
Although a Guernsey man of pure extraction, he was called in the island "the frenchman;" but chiefly on account of his "improper" manner of speaking. He did not indeed conceal the truth from himself. He was impregnated with ideas subversive of established institutions. His obstinacy in constructing the "Devil Boat" had proved that. He used to say, "I have a little of '89 in my head" -a doubtful sort of avowal. These were not his only indiscretions. In France "to preserve appearances," in England "to be respectable," is the chief condition of a quiet life. To be respectable implies a multitude of little observances, from the strict keeping of Sunday down to the careful tying of a cravat "To act so that nobody may point at you"-this is the terrible social law. To be pointed at with the finger is almost the same thing as an anathematisation. Little towns, always hotbeds of gossip, are remarkable for that isolating malignancy, which is like the tremendous malediction of the Church seen through the wrong end of the telescope. The bravest are afraid of this ordeal. They are ready to confront the storm, the fire of cannon, but they shrink at the glance of "Mrs. Grundy". Mess Lethierry was more obstinate than logical; but under pressure even his obstinacy would bend. He put-to use another of his phrases, eminently suggestive of latent compromises, not always pleasant to avow-"a little water in his wine". He kept aloof from the clergy, but he did not absolutely close his door against them. On official occasions, and at the customary epochs of pastoral visits, he received with sufficiently good grace both the Lutheran rector and the Papist chaplain. He had even, though at distant intervals, accompanied Deruchette to the Anglican parish church, to which Deruchette herself, as we have said, only went on the four great festivals of the year.
On the whole, these little concessions, which always cost him a pang, irritated him; and far from inclining him towards the Church people, only increased his inward disinclination to them. He compensated himself by more raillery. His nature, in general so devoid of bitterness, had no uncharitable side except this. To alter him, however, was impossible.
In fact, this was in his very temperament, and was beyond his own power to control.
Every sort of priest or clergyman was distasteful to him. He had a little of the old revolutionary want of reverence. He did not distinguish between one form of worship and another. He did not do justice to that great step in the progress of ideas, the denial of the real presence His short-sightedness in these matters even prevented his perceiving any essential difference between a minister and an abbe. A reverend doctor and a reverend father were pretty nearly the same to him. He used to say, "Wesley is not more to my taste than Loyola." When he saw a reverend pastor walking with his wife, he would turn to look at them, and mutter, "A married priest," in a tone which brought out all the absurdity which those words had in the ears of Frenchmen at that time. He used to relate how, on his last voyage to England, he had seen the "Bishopess" of London. His dislike for marriages of that sort amounted almost to disgust "Gown and gown do not mate well," he would say. The sacerdotal function was to him in the nature of a distinct sex. It would have been natural to him to have said, "Neither a man nor a woman, only a priest;" and he had the bad taste to apply to the Anglican and.the Roman Catholic clergy the same disdainful epithets. He confounded the two cassocks in the same phraseology. He did not take the trouble to vary in favour of Catholics or Lutherans, or whatever they might be, the figures of speech common among military men of that period. He would say to Deruchette, "Marry whom you please, provided you do not marry a parson."