The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XIV. The Torrent of the Gabou
Veronique remained for some minutes under the chestnut trees, apparently looking at the landscape. Thence she could see that portion of the forest which clothes the side of the valley down which flows the torrent of the Gabou, now dry, a mass of stones, looking like a huge ditch cut between the wooded mountains of Montegnac and another chain of parallel hills beyond,--the latter being much steeper and without vegetation, except for heath and juniper and a few sparse trees toward their summit.
These hills, desolate of aspect, belong to the neighboring domain and are in the department of the Correze. A country road, following the undulations of the valley, serves to mark the line between the arrondissement of Montegnac and the two estates. This barren slope supports, like a wall, a fine piece of woodland which stretches away in the distance from its rocky summit. Its barrenness forms a complete contrast to the other slope, on which is the cottage of Farrabesche. On the one side, harsh, disfigured angularities, on the other, graceful forms and curving outlines; there, the cold, dumb stillness of unfruitful earth held up by horizontal blocks of stone and naked rock, here, trees of various greens, now stripped for the most part of foliage, but showing their fine straight many-colored trunks on every slope and terrace of the land; their interlacing branches swaying to the breeze. A few more persistent trees, oaks, elms, beeches, and chestnuts, still retained their yellow, bronzed, or crimsoned foliage.
Toward Montegnac, where the valley widened immensely, the two slopes form a horse-shoe; and from the spot where Veronique now stood leaning against a tree she could see the descending valleys lying like the gradations of an ampitheatre, the tree-tops rising from each tier like persons in the audience. This fine landscape was then on the other side of her park, though it afterwards formed part of it. On the side toward the cottage near which she stood the valley narrows more and more until it becomes a gorge, about a hundred feet wide.
The beauty of this view, over which Madame Graslin's eyes now roved mechanically, recalled her presently to herself. She returned to the cottage where the father and son were standing, silently awaiting her and not seeking to explain her singular absence.
She examined the house, which was built with more care than its thatched roof seemed to warrant. It had, no doubt, been abandoned ever since the Navarreins ceased to care for this domain. No more hunts, no more game-keepers. Though the house had been built for over a hundred years, the walls were still good, notwithstanding the ivy and other sorts of climbing-plants which clung to them. When Farrabesche obtained permission to live there he tiled the room on the lower floor and put in furniture. Veronique saw, as she entered, two beds, a large walnut wardrobe, a bread-box, dresser, table, three chairs, and on the dresser a few brown earthenware dishes and other utensils necessary to life. Above the fireplace were two guns and two gamebags. A number of little things evidently made by the father for the child touched Veronique's heart--the model of a man-of-war, of a sloop, a carved wooden cup, a wooden box of exquisite workmanship, a coffer inlaid in diaper pattern, a crucifix, and a splendid rosary. The chaplet was made of plum-stones, on each of which was carved a head of marvellous delicacy,--of Jesus Christ, of the apostles, the Madonna, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Joseph, Saint Anne, the two Magdalens, etc.
"I do that to amuse the little one in the long winter evenings," he said, as if excusing himself.
The front of the house was covered with jessamine and roses, trained to the wall and wreathing the windows of the upper floor, where Farrabesche stored his provisions. He bought little except bread, salt, sugar, and a few such articles, for he kept chickens, ducks, and two pigs. Neither he nor the boy drank wine.
"All that I have heard of you and all that I now see," said Madame Graslin at last, "make me feel an interest in your welfare which will not, I hope, be a barren one."
"I recognize Monsieur Bonnet's kindness in what you say," cried Farrabesche, in a tone of feeling.
"You are mistaken; the rector has not yet spoken of you to me; chance --or God--has done it."
"Yes, madame, God! God alone can do miracles for a miserable man like me."
"If you have been a miserable man," said Madame Graslin, lowering her voice that the child might not hear her (an act of womanly delicacy which touched his heart), "your repentance, your conduct, and the rector's esteem have now fitted you to become a happier man. I have given orders to finish the building of the large farmhouse which Monsieur Graslin intended to establish near the chateau. I shall make you my farmer, and you will have an opportunity to use all your faculties, and also to employ your son. The procureur-general in Limoges shall be informed about you, and the humiliating police- inspection you are now subjected to shall be removed. I promise you."
At these words Farrabesche fell on his knees, as if struck down by the realization of a hope he had long considered vain. He kissed the hem of Madame Graslin's habit, then her feet. Seeing the tears in his father's eyes, the boy wept too, without knowing why.
"Rise, Farrabesche," said Madame Graslin, "you do not know how natural it is that I should do for you what I have promised. You planted those fine trees, did you not?" she went on, pointing to the groups of Northern pine, firs, and larches at the foot of the dry and rocky hill directly opposite.
"Is the earth better there?"
"The water in washing down among the rocks brings a certain amount of soil, which it deposits. I have profited by this; for the whole of the level of the valley belongs to you,--the road is your boundary."
"Is there much water at the bottom of that long valley?"
"Oh, madame," cried Farrabesche, "before long, when the rains begin, you will hear the torrent roar even at the chateau; but even that is nothing to what happens in spring when the snows melt. The water then rushes down from all parts of the forest behind Montegnac, from those great slopes which are back of the hills on which you have your park. All the water of these mountains pours into this valley and makes a deluge. Luckily for you, the trees hold the earth; otherwise the land would slide into the valley."
"Where are the springs?" asked Madame Graslin, giving her full attention to what he said.
Farrabesche pointed to a narrow gorge which seemed to end the valley just below his house. "They are mostly on a clay plateau lying between the Limousin and the Correze; they are mere green pools during the summer, and lose themselves in the soil. No one lives in that unhealthy region. The cattle will not eat the grass or reeds that grow near the brackish water. That vast tract, which has more than three thousand acres in it, is an open common for three districts; but, like the plains of Montegnac, no use can be made of it. This side on your property, as I showed you, there is a little earth among the stones, but over there is nothing but sandy rock."
"Send your boy for the horses; I will ride over and see it for myself."
Benjamin departed, after Madame Graslin had shown him the direction in which he would find Maurice and the horses.
"You who know, so they tell me, every peculiarity of the country thoroughly," continued Madame Graslin, "explain to me how it is that the streams of my forest which are on the side of the mountain toward Montegnac, and ought therefore to send their waters down there, do not do so, neither in regular water-courses nor in sudden torrents after rains and the melting of the snows."
"Ah, madame," said Farrabesche, "the rector, who thinks all the time about the welfare of Montegnac, has guessed the reason, but he can't find any proof of it. Since your arrival, he has made me trace the path of the water from point to point through each ravine and valley. I was returning yesterday, when I had the honor of meeting you, from the base of the Roche-Vive, where I carefully examined the lay of the land. Hearing the horses' feet, I came up to see who was there. Monsieur Bonnet is not only a saint, madame; he is a man of great knowledge. 'Farrabesche,' he said to me (I was then working on the road the village has just built to the chateau, and the rector came to me and pointed to that chain of hills from Montegnac to Roche-Vive),-- 'Farrabesche,' he said, 'there must be some reason why that water-shed does not send any of its water to the plain; Nature must have made some sluiceway which carries it elsewhere.' Well, madame, that idea is so simple you would suppose any child might have thought it; yet no one since Montegnac existed, neither the great lords, nor their bailiffs, nor their foresters, nor the poor, nor the rich, none of those who saw that plain barren for want of water, ever asked themselves why the streams which now feed the Gabou do not come there. The three districts above, which have constantly been afflicted with fevers in consequence of stagnant water, never looked for the remedy; I myself, who live in the wilds, never dreamed of it; it needed a man of God."
The tears filled his eyes as he said the word.
"All that men of genius discover," said Madame Graslin, "seems so simple that every one thinks they might have discovered it themselves. But," she added, as if to herself, "genius has this fine thing about it,--it resembles all the world, but no one resembles it."
"I understood Monsieur Bonnet at once," continued Farrabesche; "it did not take him many words to tell me what I had to do. Madame, this fact I tell you of is all the more singular because there are, toward the plain, great rents and fissures in the mountain, gorges and ravines down which the water flows; but, strange to say, these clefts and ravines and gorges all send their streams into a little valley which is several feet below the level of your plain. To-day I have discovered the reason of this phenomenon: from the Roche-Vive to Montegnac, at the foot of the mountains, runs a shelf or barricade of rock, varying in height from twenty to thirty feet; there is not a break in it from end to end; and it is formed of a species of rock which Monsieur Bonnet calls schist. The soil above it, which is of course softer than rock, has been hollowed out by the action of the water, which is turned at right angles by the barricade of rock, and thus flows naturally into the Gabou. The trees and underbrush of the forest conceal this formation and the hollowing out of the soil. But after following the course of the water, as I have done by the traces left of its passage, it is easy to convince any one of the fact. The Gabou thus receives the water-shed of both mountains,--that which ought to go down the mountain face on which your park and garden are to the plain, and that which comes down the rocky slopes before us. According to Monsieur Bonnet the present state of things will crease when the water-shed toward the plain gains a natural outlet, and is dammed toward the Gabou by the earth and rocks which the mountain torrents bring down with them. It will take a hundred years to do that, however; and besides, it isn't desirable. If your soil will not take up more water than the great common you are now going to see, Montegnac would be full of stagnant pools, breeding fever in the community."
"I suppose that the places Monsieur Bonnet showed me the other day where the foliage of the trees is still green mark the present conduits by which the water falls into the Gabou?"
"Yes, madame. Between Roche-Vive and Montegnac there are three distinct mountains with three hollows between them, down which the waters, stopped by the schist barrier, turn off into the Gabou. The belt of trees still green at the foot of the hill above the barrier, which looks, at a distance, like a part of the plain, is really the water-sluice the rector supposed, very justly, that Nature had made for herself."
"Well, what has been to the injury of Montegnac shall soon be its prosperity," said Madame Graslin, in a tone of deep intention. "And inasmuch as you have been the first instrument employed on the work, you shall share in it; you shall find me faithful, industrious workmen; lack of money can always be made up by devotion and good work."
Benjamin and Maurice came up as Veronique ended these words; she mounted her horse and signed to Farrabesche to mount the other.
"Guide me," she said, "to the place where the waters spread out in pools over that waste land."
"There is all the more reason why madame should go there," said Farrabesche, "because the late Monsieur Graslin, under the rector's advice, bought three hundred acres at the opening of that gorge, on which the waters have left sediment enough to make good soil over quite a piece of ground. Madame will also see the opposite side of the Roche-Vive, where there are fine woods, among which Monsieur Graslin would no doubt have put a farm had he lived; there's an excellent place for one, where the spring which rises just by my house loses itself below."
Farrabesche rode first to show the way, taking Veronique through a path which led to the spot where the two slopes drew closely together and then flew apart, one to the east the other to the west, as if repulsed by a shock. This narrow passage, filled with large rocks and coarse, tall grasses, was only about sixty feet in width.
The Roche-Vive, cut perpendicularly on this side looked like a wall of granite in which there was no foothold; but above this inflexible wall was a crown of trees, the roots of which hung down it, mostly pines clinging to the rock with their forked feet like birds on a bough.
The opposite hill, hollowed by time, had a frowning front, sandy, rocky, and yellow; here were shallow caverns, dips without depth; the soft and pulverizing rock had ochre tones. A few plants with prickly leaves above, and burdocks, reeds, and aquatic growths below, were indication enough of the northern exposure and the poverty of the soil. The bed of the torrent was of stone, quite hard, but yellow. Evidently the two chains, though parallel and ripped asunder by one of the great catastrophes which have changed the face of the globe, were, either from some inexplicable caprice or for some unknown reason, the discovery of which awaited genius, composed of elements that were wholly dissimilar. The contrast of their two natures showed more clearly here than elsewhere.
Veronique now saw before her an immense dry plateau, without any vegetation, chalky (this explained the absorption of the water) and strewn with pools of stagnant water and rocky places stripped of soil. To the right were the mountains of the Correze; to left the Roche-Vive barred the view covered with its noble trees; on its further slope was a meadow of some two hundred acres, the verdure of which contrasted with the hideous aspect of the desolate plateau.
"My son and I cut that ditch you see down there marked by the tall grasses," said Farrabesche; "it joins the one which bounds your forest. On this side the estate is bounded by a desert, for the nearest village is three miles distant."
Veronique turned rapidly to the dismal plain, followed by her guide. She leaped her horse across the ditch and rode at full gallop across the drear expanse, seeming to take a savage pleasure in contemplating that vast image of desolation. Farrabesche was right. No power, no will could put to any use whatever that soil which resounded under the horses' feet as though it were hollow. This effect was produced by the natural porousness of the clay; but there were fissures also through which the water flowed away, no doubt to some distant source.
"There are many souls like this," thought Veronique, stopping her horse after she had ridden at full speed for fifteen or twenty minutes. She remained motionless and thoughtful in the midst of this desert, where there was neither animal nor insect life and where the birds never flew. The plain of Montegnac was at least pebbly or sandy; on it were places where a few inches of soil did give a foothold for the roots of certain plains; but here the ungrateful chalk, neither stone nor earth, repelled even the eye, which was forced to turn for relief to the blue of the ether.
After examining the bounds of her forest and the meadows purchased by her husband, Veronique returned toward the outlet of the Gabou, but slowly. She then saw Farrabesche gazing into a sort of ditch which looked like one a speculator might have dug into this desolate corner of the earth expecting Nature to give up some hidden treasure.
"What is the matter?" asked Veronique, noticing on that manly face an expression of deep sadness.
"Madame, I owe my life to that ditch; or rather, to speak more correctly, I owe to it time for repentance, time to redeem my sins in the eyes of men."
This method of explaining life so affected Madame Graslin that she stopped her horse on the brink of the ditch.
"I was hiding there, madame. The ground is so resonant that when my ear was against it I could hear the horses of the gendarmerie, or even the footsteps of the soldiers, which are always peculiar. That gave me time to escape up the Gabou to a place where I had a horse, and I always managed to put several miles between myself and my pursuers. Catherine used to bring me food during the night; if she did not find me I always found the bread and wine in a hole covered with a rock."
This recollection of his wandering and criminal life, which might have injured Farrabesche with some persons, met with the most indulgent pity from Madame Graslin. She rode hastily on toward the Gabou, followed by her guide. While she measured with her eye this opening, through which could be seen the long valley, so smiling on one side, so ruined on the other, and at its lower end, a league away, the terraced hill-sides back of Montegnac, Farrabesche said:--
"There'll be a famous rush of water in a few days."
"And next year, on this day, not a drop shall flow there. Both sides belong to me, and I will build a dam solid enough and high enough to stop the freshet. Instead of a valley yielding nothing, I will have a lake twenty, thirty, forty feet deep over an extent of three or four miles,--an immense reservoir, which shall supply the flow of irrigation with which I will fertilize the plain of Montegnac."
"Ah, madame! the rector was right, when he said to us as we finished our road, 'You are working for a mother.' May God shed his blessing on such an undertaking."
"Say nothing about it, Farrabesche," said Madame Graslin. "The idea was Monsieur Bonnet's."
They returned to the cottage, where Veronique picked up Maurice, with whom she rode hastily back to the chateau. When Madame Sauviat and Aline saw her they were struck with the change in her countenance; the hope of doing good in the region she now owned gave her already an appearance of happiness. She wrote at once to Monsieur Grossetete, begging him to ask Monsieur de Grandville for the complete release of the returned convict, on whose conduct she gave him assurances which were confirmed by a certificate from the mayor of Montegnac and by a letter from Monsieur Bonnet. To this request she added information about Catherine Curieux, begging Grossetete to interest the procureur-general in the good work she wished to do, and persuade him to write to the prefecture of police in Paris to recover traces of the girl. The circumstance of Catherine's having sent money to Farrabesche at the galleys ought to be clew enough to furnish information. Veronique was determined to know why it was that the young woman had not returned to her child and to Farrabesche, now that he was free. She also told her old friend of her discovery about the torrent of the Gabou, and urged him to select an able engineer, such as she had already asked him to procure for her.
The next day was Sunday, and for the first time since her installation at Montegnac Veronique felt able to hear mass in church; she accordingly went there and took possession of the bench that belonged to her in the chapel of the Virgin. Seeing how denuded the poor church was, she resolved to devote a certain sum yearly to the needs of the building and the decoration of the altars. She listened to the sweet, impressive, angelic voice of the rector, whose sermon, though couched in simple language suited to the rustic intellects before him, was sublime in character. Sublimity comes from the heart, intellect has little to do with it; religion is a quenchless source of this sublimity which has no dross; for Catholicism entering and changing all hearts, is itself all heart. Monsieur Bonnet took his text from the epistle for the day, which signified that, sooner or later, God accomplishes all promises, assisting His faithful ones, encouraging the righteous. He made plain to every mind the great things which might be accomplished by wealth judiciously used for the good of others,--explaining that the duties of the poor to the rich were as widely extended as those of the rich to the poor, and that the aid and assistance given should be mutual.
Farrabesche had made known to a few of those who treated him in a friendly manner (the result of the Christian charity which Monsieur Bonnet had put in practice among his parishioners) the benevolent acts Madame Graslin had done for him. Her conduct in this matter had been talked over by all the little groups of persons assembled round the church door before the service, as is the custom in country places. Nothing could have been better calculated to win the friendship and good-will of these eminently susceptible minds; so that when Veronique left the church after service she found nearly all the inhabitants of the parish formed in two hedges through which she was expected to pass. One and all they bowed respectfully in profound silence. She was deeply touched by this reception, without knowing the actual cause of it. Seeing Farrabesche humbly stationed among the last, she stopped and said to him:--
"You are a good hunter; do not forget to supply me with game."
A few days later Veronique went to walk with the rector through the part of the forest that was nearest the chateau, wishing to descend with him the terraced slopes she had seen from the house of Farrabesche. In doing this she obtained complete certainty as to the nature of the upper affluents of the Gabou. The rector saw for himself that the streams which watered certain parts of upper Montegnac came from the mountains of the Correze. This chain of hills joined the barren slopes we have already described, parallel with the chain of the Roche-Vive.
On returning from this walk the rector was joyful as a child; he foresaw, with the naivete of a poet, the prosperity of his dear village--for a poet is a man, is he not? who realizes hopes before they ripen. Monsieur Bonnet garnered his hay as he stood overlooking that barren plain from Madame Graslin's upper terrace.