The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
X. Third Phase of Veronique's Life
When Madame Graslin recovered from the long illness that followed the birth of her child, which was not till the close of 1829, an illness which forced her to keep her bed and remain in absolute retirement, she heard her husband talking of an important piece of business he was anxious to concede. The ducal house of Navarreins had offered for sale the forest of Montegnac and the uncultivated lands around it.
Graslin had never yet executed the clause in his marriage contract with his wife which obliged him to invest his wife's fortune in lands; up to this time he had preferred to employ the money in his bank, where he had fully doubled it. He now began to speak of this investment. Hearing him discuss it Veronique appeared to remember the name of Montegnac, and asked her husband to fulfil his engagement about her property by purchasing these lands. Monsieur Graslin then proposed to see the rector, Monsieur Bonnet, and inquire of him about the estate, which the Duc de Navarreins was desirous of selling because he foresaw the struggle which the Prince de Polignac was forcing on between liberalism and the house of Bourbon, and he augured ill of it; in fact, the duke was one of the boldest opposers of the coup-d'Etat.
The duke had sent his agent to Limoges to negotiate the matter; telling him to accept any good sum of money, for he remembered the Revolution of 1789 too well not to profit by the lessons it had taught the aristocracy. This agent had now been a month laying siege to Graslin, the shrewdest and wariest business head in the Limousin,--the only man, he was told by practical persons, who was able to purchase so large a property and pay for it on the spot. The Abbe Dutheil wrote a line to Monsieur Bonnet, who came to Limoges at once, and was taken to the hotel Graslin.
Veronique determined to ask the rector to dinner; but the banker would not let him go up to his wife's apartment until he had talked to him in his office for over an hour and obtained such information as fully satisfied him, and made him resolve to buy the forest and domains of Montegnac at once for the sum of five hundred thousand francs. He acquiesced readily in his wife's wish that this purchase and all others connected with it should be in fulfilment of the clause of the marriage contract relative to the investment of her dowry. Graslin was all the more ready to do so because this act of justice cost him nothing, he having doubled the original sum.
At this time, when Graslin was negotiating the purchase, the Navarreins domains comprised the forest of Montegnac which contained about thirty thousand acres of unused land, the ruins of the castle, the gardens, park, and about five thousand acres of uncultivated land on the plain beyond Montegnac. Graslin immediately bought other lands in order to make himself master of the first peak in the chain of the Correzan mountains on which the vast forest of Montegnac ended. Since the imposition of taxes the Duc de Navarreins had never received more than fifteen thousand francs per annum from this manor, once among the richest tenures of the kingdom, the lands of which had escaped the sale of "public domain" ordered by the Convention, on account probably of their barrenness and the known difficulty of reclaiming them.
When the rector went at last to Madame Graslin's apartment, and saw the woman noted for her piety and for her intellect of whom he had heard speak, he could not restrain a gesture of amazement. Veronique had now reached the third phase of her life, that in which she was to rise into grandeur by the exercise of the highest virtues,--a phase in which she became another woman. To the Little Virgin of Titian, hidden at eleven years of age beneath a spotted mantle of small-pox, had succeeded a beautiful woman, noble and passionate; and from that woman, now wrung by inward sorrows, came forth a saint.
Her skin bore the yellow tinge which colors the austere faces of abbesses who have been famous for their macerations. The attenuated temples were almost golden. The lips had paled, the red of an opened pomegranate was no longer on them, their color had changed to the pale pink of a Bengal rose. At the corners of the eyes, close to the nose, sorrows had made two shining tracks like mother-of-pearl, where tears had flowed; tears which effaced the marks of small-pox and glazed the skin. Curiosity was invincibly attracted to that pearly spot, where the blue threads of the little veins throbbed precipitately, as though they were swelled by an influx of blood brought there, as it were, to feed the tears. The circle round the eyes was now a dark-brown that was almost black above the eyelids, which were horribly wrinkled. The cheeks were hollow; in their folds lay the sign of solemn thoughts. The chin, which in youth was full and round, the flesh covering the muscles, was now shrunken, to the injury of its expression, which told of an implacable religious severity exercised by this woman upon herself.
At twenty-nine years of age Veronique's hair was scanty and already whitening. Her thinness was alarming. In spite of her doctor's advice she insisted on suckling her son. The doctor triumphed in the result; and as he watched the changes he had foretold in Veronique's appearance, he often said:--
"See the effects of childbirth on a woman! She adores that child; I have often noticed that mothers are fondest of the children who cost them most."
Veronique's faded eyes were all that retained even a memory of her youth. The dark blue of the iris still cast its passionate fires, to which the woman's life seemed to have retreated, deserting the cold, impassible face, and glowing with an expression of devotion when the welfare of a fellow-being was concerned.
Thus the surprise, the dread of the rector ceased by degrees as he went on explaining to Madame Graslin all the good that a large owner of property could do at Montegnac provided he lived there. Veronique's beauty came back to her for a moment as her eyes glowed with the light of an unhoped-for future.
"I will live there," she said. "It shall be my work. I will ask Monsieur Graslin for money, and I will gladly share in your religious enterprise. Montegnac shall be fertilized; we will find some means to water those arid plains. Like Moses, you have struck a rock from which the waters will gush."
The rector of Montegnac, when questioned by his friends in Limoges about Madame Graslin, spoke of her as a saint.
The day after the purchase was concluded Monsieur Graslin sent an architect to Montegnac. The banker intended to restore the chateau, gardens, terrace, and park, and also to connect the castle grounds with the forest by a plantation. He set himself to make these improvements with vainglorious activity.
A few months later Madame Graslin met with a great misfortune. In August, 1830, Graslin, overtaken by the commercial and banking disasters of that period, became involved by no fault of his own. He could not endure the thought of bankruptcy, nor that of losing a fortune of three millions acquired by forty years of incessant toil. The moral malady which resulted from this anguish of mind aggravated the inflammatory disease always ready to break forth in his blood. He took to his bed. Since her confinement Veronique's regard for her husband had developed, and had overthrown all the hopes of her admirer, Monsieur de Grandville. She strove to save her husband's life by unremitting care, with no result but that of prolonging for a few months the poor man's tortures; but the respite was very useful to Grossetete, who, foreseeing the end of his former clerk and partner, obtained from him all the information necessary for the prompt liquidation of the assets.
Graslin died in April, 1831, and the widow's grief yielded only to Christian resignation. Veronique's first words, when the condition of Monsieur Graslin's affairs were made known to her, were that she abandoned her own fortune to pay the creditors; but it was found that Graslin's own property was more than sufficient. Two months later, the liquidation, of which Grossetete took charge, left to Madame Graslin the estate of Montegnac and six hundred thousand francs, her whole personal fortune. The son's name remained untainted, for Graslin had injured no one's property, not even that of his wife. Francis Graslin, the son, received about one hundred thousand francs.
Monsieur de Grandville, to whom Veronique's grandeur of soul and noble qualities were well known, made her an offer of marriage; but, to the surprise of all Limoges, Madame Graslin declined, under pretext that the Church discouraged second marriages. Grossetete, a man of strong common-sense and sure grasp of a situation, advised Veronique to invest her property and what remained of Monsieur Graslin's in the Funds; and he made the investment himself in one of the government securities which offered special advantages at that time, namely, the Three-per-cents, which were then quoted at fifty. The child Francis received, therefore, six thousand francs a year, and his mother forty thousand. Veronique's fortune was still the largest in the department.
When these affairs were all settled, Madame Graslin announced her intention of leaving Limoges and taking up her residence at Montegnac, to be near Monsieur Bonnet. She sent for the rector to consult about the enterprise he was so anxious to carry on at Montegnac, in which she desired to take part. But he endeavored unselfishly to dissuade her, telling her that her place was in the world and in society.
"I was born of the people and I wish to return to the people," she replied. On which the rector, full of love for his village, said no more against Madame Graslin's apparent vocation; and the less because she had actually put it out of her power to continue in Limoges, having sold the hotel Graslin to Grossetete, who, to cover a sum that was due to him, took it at its proper valuation.
The day of her departure, toward the end of August, 1831, Madame Graslin's numerous friends accompanied her some distance out of the town. A few went as far as the first relay. Veronique was in an open carriage with her mother. The Abbe Dutheil (just appointed to a bishopric) occupied the front seat of the carriage with old Grossetete. As they passed through the place d'Aine, Veronique showed signs of a sudden shock; her face contracted so that the play of the muscles could be seen; she clasped her infant to her breast with a convulsive motion, which old Madame Sauviat concealed by instantly taking the child, for she seemed to be on the watch for her daughter's agitation. Chance willed that Madame Graslin should pass through the square in which stood the house she had formerly occupied with her father and mother in her girlish days; she grasped her mother's hand while great tears fell from her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
After leaving Limoges she turned and looked back, seeming to feel an emotion of happiness which was noticed by all her friends. When Monsieur de Grandville, then a young man of twenty-five, whom she declined to take as a husband, kissed her hand with an earnest expression of regret, the new bishop noticed the strange manner in which the black pupil of Veronique's eyes suddenly spread over the blue of the iris, reducing it to a narrow circle. The eye betrayed unmistakably some violent inward emotion.
"I shall never see him again," she whispered to her mother, who received this confidence without betraying the slightest feeling in her old face.
Madame Graslin was at that instant under the observation of Grossetete, who was directly in front of her; but, in spite of his shrewdness, the old banker did not detect the hatred which Veronique felt for the magistrate, whom she nevertheless received at her house. But churchmen have far more perception than other men, and Monsieur Dutheil suddenly startled Veronique with a priestly glance.
"Do you regret nothing in Limoges?" he asked her.
"Nothing, now that you are leaving it; and monsieur," she added, smiling at Grossetete, who was bidding her adieu, "will seldom be there."
The bishop accompanied Madame Graslin as far as Montegnac.
"I ought to walk this road in sackcloth and ashes," she said in her mother's ear as they went on foot up the steep slope of Saint-Leonard.
The old woman put her finger on her lips and glanced at the bishop, who was looking at the child with terrible attention. This gesture, and the luminous look in the prelate's eyes, sent a shudder through Veronique's body. At the aspect of the vast plains stretching their gray expanse before Montegnac the fire died out of her eyes, and an infinite sadness overcame her. Presently she saw the village rector coming to meet her, and together they returned to the carriage.
"There is your domain, madame," said Monsieur Bonnet, extending his hand toward the barren plain.
A few moments more, and the village of Montegnac, with its hill, on which the newly erected buildings struck the eye, came in sight, gilded by the setting sun, and full of the poesy born of the contrast between the beautiful spot and the surrounding barrenness, in which it lay like an oasis in the desert. Madame Graslin's eyes filled suddenly with tears. The rector called her attention to a broad white line like a gash on the mountain side.
"See what my parishioners have done to testify their gratitude to the lady of the manor," he said, pointing to the line, which was really a road; "we can now drive up to the chateau. This piece of road has been made by them without costing you a penny, and two months hence we shall plant it with trees. Monseigneur will understand what trouble and care and devotion were needed to accomplish such a change."
"Is it possible they have done that?" said the bishop.
"Without accepting any payment for their work, Monseigneur. The poorest put their hands into it, knowing that it would bring a mother among them."
At the foot of the hill the travellers saw the whole population of the neighborhood, who were lighting fire-boxes and discharging a few guns; then two of the prettiest of the village girls, dressed in white, came forward to offer Madame Graslin flowers and fruit.
"To be thus received in this village!" she exclaimed, grasping the rector's hand as if she stood on the brink of a precipice.
The crowd accompanied the carriage to the iron gates of the avenue. From there Madame Graslin could see her chateau, of which as yet she had only caught glimpses, and she was thunderstruck at the magnificence of the building. Stone is rare in those parts, the granite of the mountains being difficult to quarry. The architect employed by Graslin to restore the house had used brick as the chief substance of this vast construction. This was rendered less costly by the fact that the forest of Montegnac furnished all the necessary wood and clay for its fabrication. The framework of wood and the stone for the foundations also came from the forest; otherwise the cost of the restorations would have been ruinous. The chief expenses had been those of transportation, labor, and salaries. Thus the money laid out was kept in the village, and greatly benefited it.
At first sight, and from a distance, the chateau presents an enormous red mass, threaded by black lines produced by the pointing, and edged with gray; for the window and door casings, the entablatures, corner stones, and courses between the stories, are of granite, cut in facets like a diamond. The courtyard, which forms a sloping oval like that of the Chateau de Versailles, is surrounded by brick walls divided into panels by projecting buttresses. At the foot of these walls are groups of rare shrubs, remarkable for the varied color of their greens. Two fine iron gates placed opposite to each other lead on one side to a terrace which overlooks Montegnac, on the other to the offices and a farm-house.
The grand entrance-gate, to which the road just constructed led, is flanked by two pretty lodges in the style of the sixteenth century. The facade on the courtyard looking east has three towers,--one in the centre, separated from the two others by the main building of the house. The facade on the gardens, which is absolutely the same as the others, looks westward. The towers have but one window on the facade; the main building has three on either side of the middle tower. The latter, which is square like a campanile, the corners being vermiculated, is noticeable for the elegance of a few carvings sparsely distributed. Art is timid in the provinces, and though, since 1829, ornamentation has made some progress at the instigation of certain writers, landowners were at that period afraid of expenses which the lack of competition and skilled workmen rendered serious.
The corner towers, which have three stories with a single window in each, looking to the side, are covered with very high-pitched roofs surrounded by granite balustrades, and on each pyramidal slope of these roofs crowned at the top with the sharp ridge of a platform surrounded with a wrought iron railing, is another window carved like the rest. On each floor the corbels of the doors and windows are adorned with carvings copied from those of the Genoese mansions. The corner tower with three windows to the south looks down on Montegnac; the other, to the north, faces the forest. From the garden front the eye takes in that part of Montegnac which is still called Les Tascherons, and follows the high-road leading through the village to the chief town of the department. The facade on the courtyard has a view of the vast plains semicircled by the mountains of the Correze, on the side toward Montegnac, but ending in the far distance on a low horizon. The main building has only one floor above the ground-floor, covered with a mansarde roof in the olden style. The towers at each end are three stories in height. The middle tower has a stunted dome something like that on the Pavillon de l'Horloge of the palace of the Tuileries, and in it is a single room forming a belvedere and containing the clock. As a matter of economy the roofs had all been made of gutter-tiles, the enormous weight of which was easily supported by the stout beams and uprights of the framework cut in the forest.
Before his death Graslin had laid out the road which the peasantry had just built out of gratitude; for these restorations (which Graslin called his folly) had distributed several hundred thousand francs among the people; in consequence of which Montegnac had considerably increased. Graslin had also begun, before his death, behind the offices on the slope of the hill leading down to the plain, a number of farm buildings, proving his intention to draw some profit from the hitherto uncultivated soil of the plains. Six journeyman-gardeners, who were lodged in the offices, were now at work under orders of a head gardener, planting and completing certain works which Monsieur Bonnet had considered indispensable.
The ground-floor apartments of the chateau, intended only for reception-rooms, had been sumptuously furnished; the upper floor was rather bare, Monsieur Graslin having stopped for a time the work of furnishing it.
"Ah, Monseigneur!" said Madame Graslin to the bishop, after going the rounds of the house, "I who expected to live in a cottage! Poor Monsieur Graslin was extravagant indeed!"
"And you," said the bishop, adding after a pause, as he noticed the shudder than ran through her frame at his first words, "you will be extravagant in charity?"
She took the arm of her mother, who was leading Francis by the hand, and went to the long terrace at the foot of which are the church and the parsonage, and from which the houses of the village can be seen in tiers. The rector carried off Monseigneur Dutheil to show him the different sides of the landscape. Before long the two priests came round to the farther end of the terrace, where they found Madame Graslin and her mother motionless as statues. The old woman was wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, and her daughter stood with both hands stretched beyond the balustrade as though she were pointing to the church below.
"What is the matter, madame?" said the rector to Madame Sauviat.
"Nothing," replied Madame Graslin, turning round and advancing a few steps to meet the priests; "I did not know that I should have the cemetery under my eyes."
"You can put it elsewhere; the law gives you that right."
"The law!" she exclaimed with almost a cry.
Again the bishop looked fixedly at Veronique. Disturbed by the dark glance with which the priest had penetrated the veil of flesh that covered her soul, dragging thence a secret hidden in the grave of that cemetery, she said to him suddenly:--
The priest laid his hand over his eyes and was silent for a moment as if stunned.
"Help my daughter," cried the old mother; "she is fainting."
"The air is so keen, it overcomes me," said Madame Graslin, as she fell unconscious into the arms of the two priests, who carried her into one of the lower rooms of the chateau.
When she recovered consciousness she saw the priests on their knees praying for her.
"May the angel you visited you never leave you!" said the bishop, blessing her. "Farewell, my daughter."
Overcome by those words Madame Graslin burst into tears.
"Tears will save her!" cried her mother.
"In this world and in the next," said the bishop, turning round as he left the room.
The room to which they had carried Madame Graslin was on the first floor above the ground-floor of the corner tower, from which the church and cemetery and southern side of Montegnac could be seen. She determined to remain there, and did so, more or less uncomfortably, with Aline her maid and little Francis. Madame Sauviat, naturally, took another room near hers.
It was several days before Madame Graslin recovered from the violent emotion which overcame her on that first evening, and her mother induced her to stay in bed at least during the mornings. At night, Veronique would come out and sit on a bench of the terrace from which her eyes could rest on the church and cemetery. In spite of Madame Sauviat's mute but persistent opposition, Madame Graslin formed an almost monomaniacal habit of sitting in the same place, where she seemed to give way to the blackest melancholy.
"Madame will die," said Aline to the old mother.
Appealed to by Madame Sauviat, the rector, who had wished not to seem intrusive, came henceforth very frequently to visit Madame Graslin; he needed only to be warned that her soul was sick. This true pastor took care to pay his visits at the hour when Veronique came out to sit at the corner of the terrace with her child, both in deep mourning.