The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
Veronique hastened to mount her horse and rejoin the servants, who were beginning to be uneasy about her; for the strange unhealthiness of the Roche-Vive was well known throughout the neighborhood. Colorat begged his mistress to go down into the little valley which led to the plain. It would be dangerous, he said, to return by the hills, or by the tangled paths they had followed in the morning, where, even with his knowledge of the country, they were likely to be lost in the dusk.
Once on the plain Veronique rode slowly.
"Who is this Farrabesche whom you employ?" she asked her forester.
"Has madame met him?" cried Colorat.
"Yes, but he ran away from me."
"Poor man! perhaps he does not know how kind madame is."
"But what has he done?"
"Ah! madame, Farrabesche is a murderer," replied Champion, simply.
"Then they pardoned him!" said Veronique, in a trembling voice.
"No, madame," replied Colorat, "Farrabesche was tried and condemned to ten years at the galleys; he served half his time, and then he was released on parole and came here in 1827. He owes his life to the rector, who persuaded him to give himself up to justice. He had been condemned to death by default, and sooner or later he must have been taken and executed. Monsieur Bonnet went to find him in the woods, all alone, at the risk of being killed. No one knows what he said to Farrabesche. They were alone together two days; on the third day the rector brought Farrabesche to Tulle, where he gave himself up. Monsieur Bonnet went to see a good lawyer and begged him to do his best for the man. Farrabesche escaped with ten years in irons. The rector went to visit him in prison, and that dangerous fellow, who used to be the terror of the whole country, became as gentle as a girl; he even let them take him to the galleys without a struggle. On his return he settled here by the rector's advice; no one says a word against him; he goes to mass every Sunday and all the feast-days. Though his place is among us he slips in beside the wall and sits alone. He goes to the altar sometimes and prays, but when he takes the holy sacrament he always kneels apart."
"And you say that man killed another man?"
"One!" exclaimed Colorat; "he killed several! But he is a good man all the same."
"Is that possible?" exclaimed Veronique, letting the bridle fall on the neck of her horse.
"Well, you see, madame," said the forester, who asked no better than to tell the tale, "Farrabesche may have had good reason for what he did. He was the last of the Farrabesches,--an old family of the Correze, don't you know! His elder brother, Captain Farrabesche, died ten years earlier in Italy, at Montenotte, a captain when he was only twenty-two years old. Wasn't that ill-luck? and such a lad, too! knew how to read and write, and bid fair to be a general. The family grieved terribly, and good reason, too. As for me, I heard all about his death, for I was serving at that time under l'autre. Oh! he made a fine death, did Captain Farrabesche; he saved the army and the Little Corporal. I was then in the division of General Steingel, a German,-- that is, an Alsacian,--a famous good general but rather short-sighted, and that was the reason why he was killed soon after Captain Farrabesche. The younger brother--that's this one--was only six years old when he heard of his brother's death. The second brother served too; but only as a private soldier; he died a sergeant in the first regiment of the Guard, at the battle of Austerlitz, where, d'ye see, madame, they manoeuvred just as quietly as they might in the Carrousel. I was there! oh! I had the luck of it! went through it all without a scratch! Now this Farrabesche of ours, though he's a brave fellow, took it into his head he wouldn't go to the wars; in fact, the army wasn't a healthy place for one of his family. So when the conscription caught him in 1811 he ran away,--a refractory, that's what they called them. And then it was he went and joined a party of chauffeurs, or maybe he was forced to; at any rate he chauffed! Nobody but the rector knows what he really did with those brigands--all due respect to them! Many a fight he had with the gendarmes and the soldiers too; I'm told he was in seven regular battles--"
"They say he killed two soldiers and three gendarmes," put in Champion.
"Who knows how many?--he never told," went on Colorat. "At last, madame, they caught nearly all his comrades, but they never could catch him; hang him! he was so young and active, and knew the country so well, he always escaped. The chauffeurs he consorted with kept themselves mostly in the neighborhood of Brives and Tulle; sometimes they came down this way, because Farrabesche knew such good hiding- places about here. In 1814 the conscription took no further notice of him, because it was abolished; but for all that, he was obliged to live in the woods in 1815; because, don't you see? as he hadn't enough to live on, he helped to stop a mail-coach over there, down that gorge; and then it was they condemned him. But, as I told you just now, the rector persuaded him to give himself up. It wasn't easy to convict him, for nobody dared testify against him; and his lawyer and Monsieur Bonnet worked so hard they got him sentenced for ten years only; which was pretty good luck after being a chauffeur--for he did chauffe."
"Will you tell me what chauffeur means?"
"If you wish it, madame, I will tell you what they did, as far as I know about it from others, for I never was chauffed myself. It wasn't a good thing to do, but necessity knows no law. Well, this is how it was: seven or eight would go to some farmer or land-owner who was thought to have money; the farmer would build a good fire and give them a supper, lasting half through the night, and then, when the feast was over, if the master of the house wouldn't give them the sum demanded, they just fastened his feet to the spit, and didn't unfasten them till they got it. That's how it was. They always went masked. Among all their expeditions they sometimes made unlucky ones. Hang it, there'll always be obstinate, miserly old fellows in the world! One of them, a farmer, old Cochegrue, so mean he'd shave an egg, held out; he let them roast his feet. Well, he died of it. The wife of Monsieur David, near Brives, died of terror at merely seeing those fellows tie her husband's feet. She died saying to David: 'Give them all you have.' He wouldn't, and so she just pointed out the hiding-place. The chauffeurs (that's why they call them chauffeurs,--warmers) were the terror of the whole country for over five years. But you must get it well into your head,--oh, excuse me, madame, but you must know that more than one young man of good family belonged to them, though somehow they were never the ones to be caught."
Madame Graslin listened without interrupting or replying. There was silence for a few moments, and then little Champion, jealous of the right to amuse his mistress, wanted to tell her what he knew of the late galley-slave.
"Madame ought to know more about Farrabesche; he hasn't his equal at running, or at riding a horse. He can kill an ox with a blow of his fist; nobody can shoot like him; he can carry seven hundred feet as straight as a die,--there! One day they surprised him with three of his comrades; two were wounded, one was killed,--good! Farrabesche was all but taken. Bah! he just sprang on the horse of one of the gendarmes behind the man, pricked the horse with his knife, made it run with all its might, and so disappeared, holding the gendarme tight round the body. But he held him so tight that after a time he threw the body on the ground and rode away alone on the horse and master of the horse; and he had the cheek to go and sell it not thirty miles from Limoges! After that affair he hid himself for three months and was never seen. The authorities offered a hundred golden louis to whoever would deliver him up."
"Another time," added Colorat, "when the prefect of Tulle offered a hundred louis for him, he made one of his own cousins, Giriex of Vizay, earn them. His cousin denounced him, and appeared to deliver him up. Oh, yes, he delivered him sure enough! The gendarmes were delighted, and took him to Tulle; there they put him in the prison of Lubersac, from which he escaped that very night, profiting by a hole already begun by one of his accomplices who had been executed. All these adventures gave Farrabesche a fine reputation. The chauffeurs had lots of outside friends; people really loved them. They were not skinflints like those of to-day; they spent their money royally, those fellows! Just fancy, madame, one evening Farrabesche was chased by gendarmes; well, he escaped them by staying twenty minutes under water in the pond of a farm-yard. He breathed air through a straw which he kept above the surface of the pool, which was half muck. But, goodness! what was that little disagreeableness to a man who spends his nights in the tree-tops, where the sparrows can hardly hold themselves, watching the soldiers going to and fro in search of him below? Farrabesche was one of the half-dozen chauffeurs whom the officers of justice could never lay hands on. But as he belonged to the region and was brought up with them, and had, as they said, only fled the conscription, all the women were on his side,--and that's a great deal, you know."
"Is it really certain that Farrabesche did kill several persons?" asked Madame Graslin.
"Yes, certain," replied Colorat; "it is even said that it was he who killed the traveller by the mail-coach in 1812; but the courier and the postilion, the only witnesses who could have identified him, were dead before he was tried."
"Tried for the robbery?" asked Madame Graslin.
"Yes, they took everything; amongst it twenty-five thousand francs belonging to the government."
Madame Graslin rode silently after that for two or three miles. The sun had now set, the moon was lighting the gray plain, which looked like an open sea. Champion and Colorat began to wonder at Madame Graslin, whose silence seemed strange to them, and they were greatly astonished to see the shining track of tears upon her cheeks; her eyes were red and full of tears, which were falling drop by drop as she rode along.
"Oh, madame," said Colorat, "don't pity him! The lad has had his day. He had pretty girls in love with him; and now, though to be sure he is closely watched by the police, he is protected by the respect and good-will of the rector; for he has really repented. His conduct at the galleys was exemplary. Everybody knows he is as honest as the most honest man among us. Only he is proud; he doesn't choose to expose himself to rebuff; so he lives quietly by himself and does good in his own way. He has made a nursery of about ten acres for you on the other side of the Roche-Vive; he plants in the forests wherever he thinks there's a chance of making a tree grow; he trims the tree and cuts out the dead wood, and ties it up into bundles for the poor. All the poor people know they can get their wood from him all cut and ready to burn; so they go and ask him for it, instead of taking it themselves and injuring your forest. He is another kind of chauffeur now, and warms his poor neighbors to their comfort and not to their harm. Oh, Farrabesche loves your forest! He takes care of it as if it were his own property."
"And he lives--all alone?" exclaimed Madame Graslin, adding the two last words hastily.
"Excuse me, not quite alone, madame; he takes care of a boy about fifteen years old," said Maurice Champion.
"Yes, that's so," said Colorat; "La Curieux gave birth to the child some little time before Farrabesche was condemned."
"Is it his child?" asked Madame Graslin.
"People think so."
"Why didn't he marry her?"
"How could he? They would certainly have arrested him. As it was, when La Curieux heard he was sentenced to the galleys the poor girl left this part of the country."
"Was she a pretty girl?"
"Oh!" said Maurice, "my mother says she was very like another girl who has also left Montegnac for something the same reason,--Denise Tascheron."
"She loved him?" said Madame Graslin.
"Ha, yes! because he chauffed; women do like things that are out of the way. However, nothing ever did surprise the community more than that love affair. Catherine Curieux lived as virtuous a life as a holy virgin; she passed for a pearl of purity in her village of Vizay, which is really a small town in the Correze on the line between the two departments. Her father and mother are farmers to the Messieurs Brezac. Catherine Curieux was about seventeen when Farrabesche was sent to the galleys. The Farrabesches were an old family from the same region, who settled in the commune of Montegnac; they hired their farm from the village. The father and mother Farrabesche are dead, but Catherine's three sisters are married, one in Aubusson, another in Limoges, and a third in Saint-Leonard."
"Do you think Farrabesche knows where Catherine Curieux is?" asked Madame Graslin.
"If he did know he'd break his parole. Oh! he'd go to her. As soon as he came back from the galleys he got Monsieur Bonnet to ask for the little boy whom the grandfather and grandmother were taking care of; and Monsieur Bonnet obtained the child."
"Does no one know what became of the mother?"
"No one," said Colorat. "The girl felt that she was ruined; she was afraid to stay in her own village. She went to Paris. What is she doing there? Well, that's the question; but you might as well hunt for a marble among the stones on that plain as look for her there."
They were now riding up the ascent to the chateau as Colorat pointed to the plain below. Madame Sauviat, evidently uneasy, Aline and the other servants were waiting at the gate, not knowing what to think of this long absence.
"My dear," said Madame Sauviat, helping her daughter to dismount, "you must be very tired."
"No, mother," replied Madame Graslin, in so changed a voice that Madame Sauviat looked closely at her and then saw the mark of tears.
Madame Graslin went to her own rooms with Aline, who took her orders for all that concerned her personal life. She now shut herself up and would not even admit her mother; when Madame Sauviat asked to enter, Aline stopped her, saying, "Madame has gone to sleep."
The next day Veronique rode out attended by Maurice only. In order to reach the Roche-Vive as quickly as possible she took the road by which she had returned the night before. As they rode up the gorge which lies between the mountain peak and the last hill of the forest (for, seen from the plain, the Roche-Vive looks isolated) Veronique requested Maurice to show her the house in which Farrabesche lived and then to hold the horses and wait for her; she wished to go alone. Maurice took her to a path which led down on the other side of the Roche-Vive and showed her the thatched roof of a dwelling half buried in the mountain, below which lay the nursery grounds. It was then about mid-day. A light smoke issued from the chimney. Veronique reached the cottage in a few moments, but she did not make her presence known at once. She stood a few moments lost in thoughts known only to herself as she gazed on the modest dwelling which stood in the middle of a garden enclosed with a hedge of thorns.
Beyond the lower end of the garden lay several cares of meadow land surrounded by an evergreen hedge; the eye looked down on the flattened tops of fruit trees, apple, pear, and plum trees scattered here and there among these fields. Above the house, toward the crest of the mountain where the soil became sandy, rose the yellow crowns of a splendid grove of chestnuts. Opening the railed gate made of half- rotten boards which enclosed the premises, Madame Graslin saw a stable, a small poultry-yard and all the picturesque and living accessories of poor homes, which have so much of rural poesy about them. Who could see without emotion the linen fluttering on the hedges, the bunches of onions hanging from the eaves, the iron saucepans drying in the sun, the wooden bench overhung with honeysuckle, the stone-crop clinging to the thatch, as it does on the roofs of nearly all the cottages in France, revealing a humble life that is almost vegetative?
It was impossible for Veronique to come upon her keeper without his receiving due notice; two fine hunting dogs began to bark as soon as the rustling of her habit was heard on the dried leaves. She took the end of it over her arm and advanced toward the house. Farrabesche and his boy, who were sitting on a wooden bench outside the door, rose and uncovered their heads, standing in a respectful attitude, but without the least appearance of servility.
"I have heard," said Veronique, looking attentively at the boy, "that you take much care of my interests; I wished to see your house and the nurseries, and ask you a few questions relating to the improvements I intend to make."
"I am at madame's orders," replied Farrabesche.
Veronique admired the boy, who had a charming face of a perfect oval, rather sunburned and brown but very regular in features, the forehead finely modelled, orange-colored eyes of extreme vivacity, black hair cut straight across the brow and allowed to hang down on either side of the face. Taller than most boys of his age, the little fellow was nearly five feet high. His trousers, like his shirt, were of coarse gray linen, his waistcoat, of rough blue cloth with horn buttons much worn and a jacket of the cloth so oddly called Maurienne velvet, with which the Savoyards like to clothe themselves, stout hob-nailed shoes, and no stockings. This costume was exactly like that of his father, except that Farrabesche had on his head the broad-brimmed felt hat of the peasantry, while the boy had only a brown woollen cap.
Though intelligent and animated, the child's face was instinct with the gravity peculiar to all human beings of any age who live in solitude; he seemed to put himself in harmony with the life and the silence of the woods. Both Farrabesche and his son were specially developed on their physical side, possessing many of the characteristics of savages,--piercing sight, constant observation, absolute self-control, a keen ear, wonderful agility, and an intelligent manner of speaking. At the first glance the boy gave his father Madame Graslin recognized one of those unbounded affections in which instinct blends with thought, and a most active happiness strengthens both the will of the instinct and the reasoning of thought.
"This must be the child I have heard of," said Veronique, motioning to the boy.
"Have you made no attempt to find his mother?" asked Veronique, making a sign to Farrabesche to follow her a little distance.
"Madame may not be aware that I am not allowed to go beyond the district in which I reside."
"Have you never received any news of her?"
"At the expiration of my term," he answered, "I received from the Commissioner a thousand francs, sent to him quarterly for me in little sums which police regulations did not allow me to receive till the day I left the galleys. I think that Catherine alone would have thought of me, as it was not Monsieur Bonnet who sent this money; therefore I have kept it safely for Benjamin."
"And Catherine's parents?"
"They have never inquired for her since she left. Besides they did enough in taking charge of the little one."
"Well, Farrabesche," said Veronique, returning toward the house. "I will make it my business to know if Catherine still lives; and if so, what is her present mode of life."
"Oh! madame, whatever that may be," said the man gently, "it would be happiness for me if I could have her for my wife. It is for her to object, not me. Our marriage would legitimatize this poor boy, who as yet knows nothing of his position."
The look the father threw upon the lad explained the life of these two beings, abandoned, or voluntarily isolated; they were all in all to each other, like two compatriots adrift upon a desert.
"Then you love Catherine?" said Veronique.
"Even if I did not love her, madame," he replied, "she is to me, in my situation, the only woman there is in the world."
Madame Graslin turned hurriedly and walked away under the chestnut trees, as if attacked by some sharp pain; the keeper, thinking she was moved by a sudden caprice, did not venture to follow her.