The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XI. The Rector at Work
It was now the beginning of October, and Nature was growing dull and sad. Monsieur Bonnet, perceiving in Veronique from the moment of her arrival at Montegnac the existence of an inward wound, thought it wisest to wait for the voluntary and complete confidence of a woman who would sooner or later become his penitent.
One evening Madame Graslin looked at the rector with eyes almost glazed with that fatal indecision often observable in persons who are cherishing the thought of death. From that moment Monsieur Bonnet hesitated no longer; he set before him the duty of arresting the progress of this cruel moral malady.
At first there was a brief struggle of empty words between the priest and Veronique, in which they both sought to veil their real thoughts. In spite of the cold, Veronique was sitting on the granite bench holding Francis on her knee. Madame Sauviat was standing at the corner of the terrace, purposely so placed as to hide the cemetery. Aline was waiting to take the child away.
"I had supposed, madame," said the rector, who was now paying his seventh visit, "that you were only melancholy; but I see," sinking his voice to a whisper, "that your soul is in despair. That feeling is neither Christian nor Catholic."
"But," she replied, looking to heaven with piercing eyes and letting a bitter smile flicker on her lips, "what other feeling does the Church leave to a lost soul unless it be despair?"
As he heard these words the rector realized the vast extent of the ravages in her soul.
"Ah!" he said, "you are making this terrace your hell, when it ought to be your Calvary from which to rise to heaven."
"I have no pride left to place me on such a pedestal," she answered, in a tone which revealed the self-contempt that lay within her.
Here the priest, by one of those inspirations which are both natural and frequent in noble souls, the man of God lifted the child in his arms and kissed its forehead, saying, in a fatherly voice, "Poor little one!" Then he gave it himself to the nurse, who carried it away.
Madame Sauviat looked at her daughter, and saw the efficacy of the rector's words; for Veronique's eyes, long dry, were moist with tears. The old woman made a sign to the priest and disappeared.
"Let us walk," said the rector to Veronique leading her along the terrace to the other end, from which Les Tascherons could be seen. "You belong to me; I must render account to God for your sick soul."
"Give me time to recover from my depression," she said to him.
"Your depression comes from injurious meditation," he replied, quickly.
"Yes," she said, with the simplicity of a grief which has reached the point of making no attempt at concealment.
"I see plainly that you have fallen into the gulf of apathy," he cried. "If there is a degree of physical suffering at which all sense of modesty expires, there is also a degree of moral suffering in which all vigor of soul is lost; I know that."
She was surprised to hear that subtle observation and to find such tender pity from this village rector; but, as we have seen already, the exquisite delicacy which no passion had ever touched gave him the true maternal spirit for his flock. This mens devinior, this apostolic tenderness, places the priest above all other men and makes him, in a sense, divine. Madame Graslin had not as yet had enough experience of Monsieur Bonnet to know this beauty hidden in his soul like a spring, from which flowed grace and purity and true life.
"Ah! monsieur," she cried, giving herself wholly up to him by a gesture, a look, such as the dying give.
"I understand you," he said. "What is to be done? What will you become?"
They walked in silence the whole length of the balustrade, facing toward the plain. The solemn moment seemed propitious to the bearer of good tidings, the gospel messenger, and he took it.
"Suppose yourself now in the presence of God," he said, in a low voice, mysteriously; "what would you say to Him?"
Madame Graslin stopped as though struck by a thunderbolt; she shuddered; then she said simply, in tones that brought tears to the rector's eyes:--
"I should say, as Jesus Christ said: 'Father, why hast thou forsaken me?'"
"Ah! Magdalen, that is the saying I expected of you," cried Monsieur Bonnet, who could not help admiring her. "You see you are forced to appeal to God's justice; you invoke it! Listen to me, madame. Religion is, by anticipation, divine justice. The Church claims for herself the right to judge the actions of the soul. Human justice is a feeble image of divine justice; it is but a pale imitation of it applied to the needs of society."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You are not the judge of your own case, you are dependent upon God," said the priest; "you have neither the right to condemn yourself nor the right to absolve yourself. God, my child, is a great reverser of judgments."
"Ah!" she exclaimed.
"He sees the origin of things, where we see only the things themselves."
Veronique stopped again, struck by these ideas, that were new to her.
"To you," said the brave priest, "to you whose soul is a great one, I owe other words than those I ought to give to my humble parishioners. You, whose mind and spirit are so cultivated, you can rise to the sense divine of the Catholic religion, expressed by images and words to the poor and childlike. Listen to me attentively, for what I am about to say concerns you; no matter how extensive is the point of view at which I place myself for a moment, the case is yours. Law, invented to protect society, is based on equality. Society, which is nothing but an assemblage of acts, is based on inequality. There is therefore lack of harmony between act and law. Ought society to march on favored or repressed by law? In other words, ought law to be in opposition to the interior social movement for the maintenance of society, or should it be based on that movement in order to guide it? All legislators have contented themselves with analyzing acts, indicating those that seemed to them blamable or criminal, and attaching punishments to such or rewards to others. That is human law; it has neither the means to prevent sin, nor the means to prevent the return to sinfulness of those it punishes. Philanthropy is a sublime error; it tortures the body uselessly, it produces no balm to heal the soul. Philanthropy gives birth to projects, emits ideas, confides the execution of them to man, to silence, to labor, to rules, to things mute and powerless. Religion is above these imperfections, for it extends man's life beyond this world. Regarding us all as degraded from our high estate, religion has opened to us an inexhaustible treasure of indulgence. We are all more or less advanced toward our complete regeneration; no one is sinless; the Church expects wrong- doing, even crime. Where society sees a criminal to be expelled from its bosom, the Church sees a soul to save. More, far more than that! Inspired by God, whom she studies and contemplates, the Church admits the inequalities of strength, she allows for the disproportion of burdens. If she finds us unequal in heart, in body, in mind, in aptitude, and value, she makes us all equal by repentance. Hence equality is no longer a vain word, for we can be, we are, all equal through feeling. From the formless fetichism of savages to the graceful inventions of Greece, or the profound and metaphysical doctrines of Egypt and India, whether taught in cheerful or in terrifying worship, there is a conviction in the soul of man--that of his fall, that of his sin--from which comes everywhere the idea of sacrifice and redemption. The death of the Redeemer of the human race is an image of what we have to do for ourselves,--redeem our faults, redeem our errors, redeem our crimes! All is redeemable; Catholicism itself is in that word; hence its adorable sacraments, which help the triumph of grace and sustain the sinner. To weep, to moan like Magdalen in the desert, is but the beginning; the end is Action. Monasteries wept and prayed; they prayed and civilized; they were the active agents of our divine religion. They built, planted, cultivated Europe; all the while saving the treasures of learning, knowledge, human justice, politics, and art. We shall ever recognize in Europe the places where those radiant centres once were. Nearly all our modern towns are the children of monasteries. If you believe that God will judge you, the Church tells you by my voice that sin can be redeemed by works of repentance. The mighty hand of God weighs both the evil done and the value of benefits accomplished. Be yourself like those monasteries; work here the same miracles. Your prayers must be labors. From your labors must come the good of those above whom you are placed by fortune, by superiority of mind; even this natural position of your dwelling is the image of your social situation."
As he said the last words, the priest and Madame Graslin turned to walk back toward the plains, and the rector pointed both to the village at the foot of the hill, and to the chateau commanding the whole landscape. It was then half-past four o'clock; a glow of yellow sunlight enveloped the balustrade and the gardens, illuminated the chateau, sparkled on the gilded railings of the roof, lighted the long plain cut in two by the high-road,--a sad, gray ribbon, not bordered there by the fringe of trees which waved above it elsewhere on either side.
When Veronique and Monsieur Bonnet had passed the main body of the chateau, they could see--beyond the courtyard, the stables, and the offices--the great forest of Montegnac, along which the yellow glow was gliding like a soft caress. Though this last gleam of the setting sun touched the tree-tops only, it enabled the eye to see distinctly the caprices of that marvellous tapestry which nature makes of a forest in autumn. The oaks were a mass of Florentine bronze, the walnuts and the chestnuts displayed their blue-green tones, the early trees were putting on their golden foliage, and all these varied colors were shaded with the gray of barren spots. The trunks of trees already stripped of leafage showed their light-gray colonnades; the russet, tawny, grayish colors, artistically blended by the pale reflections of an October sun, harmonized with the vast uncultivated plain, green as stagnant water.
A thought came into the rector's mind as he looked at this fine spectacle, mute in other ways,--for not a tree rustled, not a bird chirped, death was on the plain, silence in the forest; here and there a little smoke from the village chimneys, that was all. The chateau seemed as gloomy as its mistress. By some strange law all things about a dwelling imitate the one who rules there; the owner's spirit hovers over it. Madame Graslin--her mind grasped by the rector's words, her soul struck by conviction, her heart affected in its tenderest emotions by the angelic quality of that pure voice--stopped short. The rector raised his arm and pointed to the forest. Veronique looked there.
"Do you not think it has a vague resemblance to social life?" he said. "To each its destiny. How many inequalities in that mass of trees! Those placed the highest lack earth and moisture; they die first."
"Some there are whom the shears of the woman gathering fagots cut short in their prime," she said bitterly.
"Do not fall back into those thoughts," said the rector sternly, though with indulgence still. "The misfortune of this forest is that it has never been cut. Do you see the phenomenon these masses present?"
Veronique, to whose mind the singularities of the forest nature suggested little, looked obediently at the forest and then let her eyes drop gently back upon the rector.
"You do not notice," he said, perceiving from that look her total ignorance, "the lines where the trees of all species still hold their greenness?"
"Ah! true," she said. "I see them now. Why is it?"
"In that," replied the rector, "lies the future of Montegnac, and your own fortune, an immense fortune, as I once explained to Monsieur Graslin. You see the furrows of those three dells, the mountain streams of which flow into the torrent of the Gabou. That torrent separates the forest of Montegnac from the district which on this side adjoins ours. In September and October it goes dry, but in November it is full of water, the volume of which would be greatly increased by a partial clearing of the forest, so as to send all the lesser streams to join it. As it is, its waters do no good; but if one or two dams were made between the two hills on either side of it, as they have done at Riquet, and at Saint-Ferreol--where they have made immense reservoirs to feed the Languedoc canal--this barren plain could be fertilized by judicious irrigation through trenches and culverts managed by watergates; sending the water when needed over these lands, and diverting it at other times to our little river. You could plant fine poplars along these water-courses and raise the finest cattle on such pasturage as you would then obtain. What is grass, but sun and water? There is quite soil enough on the plains to hold the roots; the streams will furnish dew and moisture; the poplars will hold and feed upon the mists, returning their elements to the herbage; these are the secrets of the fine vegetation of valleys. If you undertook this work you would soon see life and joy and movement where silence now reigns, where the eye is saddened by barren fruitlessness. Would not that be a noble prayer to God? Such work would be a better occupation of your leisure than the indulgence of melancholy thoughts."
Veronique pressed the rector's hand, answering with four brief words, but they were grand ones:--
"It shall be done."
"You conceive the possibility of this great work," he went on; "but you cannot execute it. Neither you nor I have the necessary knowledge to accomplish an idea which might have come to all, but the execution of which presents immense difficulties; for simple as it may seem, the matter requires the most accurate science with all its resources. Seek, therefore, at once for the proper human instruments who will enable you within the next dozen years to get an income of six or seven thousand louis out of the six thousand acres you irrigate and fertilize. Such an enterprise will make Montegnac at some future day the most prosperous district in the department. The forest, as yet, yields you no return, but sooner or later commerce will come here in search of its fine woods--those treasures amassed by time; the only ones the production of which cannot be hastened or improved upon by man. The State may some day provide a way of transport from this forest, for many of the trees would make fine masts for the navy; but it will wait until the increasing population of Montegnac makes a demand upon its protection; for the State is like fortune, it comes only to the rich. This estate, well managed, will become, in the course of time, one of the finest in France; it will be the pride of your grandson, who may then find the chateau paltry, comparing it with its revenues."
"Here," said Veronique, "is a future for my life."
"A beneficent work such as that will redeem wrongdoing," said the rector.
Seeing that she understood him, he attempted to strike another blow on this woman's intellect, judging rightly that in her the intellect led the heart, whereas in other women the heart is their road to intelligence.
"Do you know," he said after a pause, "the error in which you are living?"
She looked at him timidly.
"Your repentance is as yet only a sense of defeat endured,--which is horrible, for it is nothing else than the despair of Satan; such, perhaps, was the repentance of mankind before the coming of Jesus Christ. But our repentance, the repentance of Christians, is the horror of a soul struck down on an evil path, to whom, by this very shock, God has revealed Himself. You are like the pagan Orestes; make yourself another Paul."
"Your words have changed me utterly," she cried. "Now--oh! now I want to live."
"The spirit conquers," thought the modest rector, as he joyfully took his leave. He had cast nourishment before a soul hunted into secret despair by giving to its repentance the form of a good and noble action.