The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XV. Story of a Galley-Slave
The next day Farrabesche and his son came to the chateau with game. The keeper also brought, for Francis, a cocoanut cup, elaborately carved, a genuine work of art, representing a battle. Madame Graslin was walking at the time on the terrace, in the direction which overlooked Les Tascherons. She sat down on a bench, took the cup in her hand and looked earnestly at the deft piece of work. A few tears came into her eyes.
"You must have suffered very much," she said to Farrabesche, after a few moments' silence.
"How could I help it, madame?" he replied; "for I was there without the hope of escape, which supports the life of most convicts."
"An awful life!" she said in a tone of horror, inviting Farrabesche by word and gesture to say more.
Farrabesche took the convulsive trembling and other signs of emotion he saw in Madame Graslin for the powerful interest of compassionate curiosity in himself.
Just then Madame Sauviat appeared, coming down a path as if she meant to join them; but Veronique drew out her handkerchief and made a negative sign; saying, with an asperity she had never before shown to the old woman:--
"Leave me, leave me, mother."
"Madame," said Farrabesche, "for ten years I wore there (holding out his leg) a chain fastened to a great iron ring which bound me to another man. During my time I had to live thus with three different convicts. I slept on a wooden bench; I had to work extraordinarily hard to earn a little mattress called a serpentin. Each dormitory contains eight hundred men. Each bed, called a tolard, holds twenty- four men, chained in couples. Every night the chain of each couple is passed round another great chain which is called the filet de ramas. This chain holds all the couples by the feet, and runs along the bottom of the tolard. It took me over two years to get accustomed to that iron clanking, which called out incessantly, 'Thou art a galley- slave!' If I slept an instant some vile companion moved or quarrelled, reminding me of where I was. There is a terrible apprenticeship to make before a man can learn how to sleep. I myself could not sleep until I had come to the end of my strength and to utter exhaustion. When at last sleep came I had the nights in which to forget. Oh! to forget, madame, that was something! Once there, a man must learn to satisfy his needs, even in the smallest things, according to the ways laid down by pitiless regulations. Imagine, madame, the effect such a life produced on a lad like me, who had lived in the woods with the birds and the squirrels! If I had not already lived for six months within prison-walls, I should, in spite of Monsieur Bonnet's grand words--for he, I can truly say, is the father of my soul--I should, ah! I must have flung myself into the sea at the mere sight of my companions. Out-doors I still could live; but in the building, whether to sleep or to eat,--to eat out of buckets, and each bucket filled for three couples,--it was life no longer, it was death; the atrocious faces and language of my companions were always insufferable to me. Happily, from five o'clock in summer, and from half-past seven o'clock in winter we went, in spite of heat or cold and wind or rain, on 'fatigue,' that is, hard-labor. Thus half this life was spent in the open air; and the air was sweet after the close dormitory packed with eight hundred convicts. And that air, too, is sea-air! We could enjoy the breezes, we could be friends with the sun, we could watch the clouds as they passed above us, we could hope and pray for fine weather! As for me, I took an interest in my work--"
Farrabesche stopped; two heavy tears were rolling down his mistress's face.
"Oh! madame, I have only told you the best side of that life," he continued, taking the expression of her face as meant for him. "The terrible precautions taken by the government, the constant spying of the keepers, the blacksmith's inspection of the chains every day, night and morning, the coarse food, the hideous garments which humiliate a man at all hours, the comfortless sleep, the horrible rattling of eight hundred chains in that resounding hall, the prospect of being shot or blown to pieces by cannon if ten of those villains took a fancy to revolt, all those dreadful things are nothing,-- nothing, I tell you; that is the bright side only. There's another side, madame, and a decent man, a bourgeois, would die of horror in a week. A convict is forced to live with another man; obliged to endure the company of five other men at every meal, twenty-three in his bed at night, and to hear their language! The great society of galley- slaves, madame, has its secret laws; disobey them and you are tortured; obey them, and you become a torturer. You must be either victim or executioner. If they would kill you at once it would at least be the cure of life. But no, they are wiser than that in doing evil. It is impossible to hold out against the hatred of these men; their power is absolute over any prisoner who displeases them, and they can make his life a torment far worse than death. The man who repents and endeavors to behave well is their common enemy; above all, they suspect him of informing; and an informer is put to death, often on mere suspicion. Every hall and community of eight hundred convicts has its tribunal, in which are judged the crimes committed against that society. Not to obey the usages is criminal, and a man is liable to punishment. For instance, every man must co-operate in escapes; every convict has his time assigned him to escape, and all his fellow- convicts must protect and aid him. To reveal what a comrade is doing with a view to escape is criminal. I will not speak to you of the horrible customs and morals of the galleys. No man belongs to himself; the government, in order to neutralize the attempts at revolt or escape, takes pains to chain two contrary natures and interests together; and this makes the torture of the coupling unendurable; men are linked together who hate or distrust each other."
"How was it with you?" asked Madame Graslin.
"Ah! there," replied Farrabesche, "I had luck; I never drew a lot to kill a convict; I never had to vote the death of any one of them; I never was punished; no man took a dislike to me; and I got on well with the three different men I was chained to; they all feared me but liked me. One reason was, my name was known and famous at the galleys before I got there. A chauffeur! they thought me one of those brigands. I have seen chauffing," continued Farrabesche after a pause, in a low voice, "but I never either did it myself, or took any of the money obtained by it. I was a refractory, I evaded the conscription, that was all. I helped my comrades, I kept watch; I was sentinel and brought up the rear-guard; but I never shed any man's blood except in self-defence. Ah! I told all to Monsieur Bonnet and my lawyer, and the judges knew well enough that I was no murderer. But, all the same, I am a great criminal; nothing that I ever did was morally right. However, before I got there, as I was saying, two of my comrades told of me as a man able to do great things. At the galleys, madame, nothing is so valuable as that reputation, not even money. In that republic of misery murder is a passport to tranquillity. I did nothing to destroy that opinion of me. I was sad, resigned, and they mistook the appearance of it. My gloomy manner, my silence, passed for ferocity. All that world, convicts, keepers, young and old, respected me. I was treated as first in my hall. No one interfered with my sleep; I was never suspected of informing; I behaved honorably according to their ideas; I never refused to do service; I never testified the slightest repugnance; I howled with the wolves outside, I prayed to God within. My last companion in chains was a soldier, twenty-two years of age, who had committed a theft and deserted in consequence of it. We were chained together for four years, and we were friends; wherever I may be I am certain to meet him when his time is up. This poor devil, whose name is Guepin, is not a scoundrel, he is merely heedless; his punishment may reform him. If my comrades had discovered that religion led me to submit to my trials,--that I meant, when my time was up, to live humbly in a corner, letting no one know where I was, intending to forget their horrible community and never to cross the path of any of them,--they would probably have driven me mad."
"Then," said Madame Graslin, "if a poor young man, a tender soul, carried away by passion, having committed a murder, was spared from death and sent to the galleys--"
"Oh! madame," said Farrabesche, interrupting her, "there is no sparing in that. The sentence may be commuted to twenty years at the galleys, but for a decent young man, that is awful! I could not speak to you of the life that awaits him there; a thousand times better die. Yes, to die upon the scaffold is happiness in comparison."
"I dared not think it," murmured Madame Graslin.
She had turned as white as wax. To hide her face she laid her forehead on the balustrade, and kept it there several minutes. Farrabesche did not know whether he ought to go or remain.
Madame Graslin raised her head at last, looked at Farrabesche with an almost majestic air, and said, to his amazement, in a voice that stirred his heart:--
"Thank you, my friend. But," she added, after a pause, "where did you find courage to live and suffer?"
"Ah! madame, Monsieur Bonnet put a treasure within my soul! and for that I love him better than all else on earth."
"Better than Catherine?" said Madame Graslin, smiling with a sort of bitterness.
"Almost as well, madame."
"How did he do it?"
"Madame, the words and the voice of that man conquered me. Catherine brought him to that hole in the ground I showed you on the common; he had come fearlessly alone. He was, he said, the new rector of Montegnac; I was his parishioner, he loved me; he knew I was only misguided, not lost; he did not intend to betray me, but to save me; in short, he said many such things that stirred my soul to its depths. That man, madame, commands you to do right with as much force as those who tell you to do wrong. It was he who told me, poor dear man, that Catherine was a mother, and that I was dooming two beings to shame and desertion. 'Well,' I said to him, 'they are like me; I have no future.' He answered that I had a future, two bad futures, before me-- one in another world, one in this world--if I persisted in not changing my way of life. In this world, I should die on the scaffold. If I were captured my defence would be impossible. On the contrary, if I took advantage of the leniency of the new government toward all crimes traceable to the conscription, if I delivered myself up, he believed he could save my life; he would engage a good lawyer, who would get me off with ten years at the galleys. Then Monsieur Bonnet talked to me of the other life. Catherine wept like the Magdalen--See, madame," said Farrabesche, holding out his right arm, "her face was in that hand, and I felt it wet with tears. She implored me to live. Monsieur Bonnet promised to secure me, when I had served my sentence, a peaceful life here with my child, and to protect me against affront. He catechised me as he would a little child. After three such visits at night he made me as supple as a glove. Would you like to know how, madame?"
Farrabesche and Madame Graslin looked at each other, not explaining to themselves their mutual curiosity.
"Well," resumed the poor liberated convict, "when he left me the first time, and Catherine had gone with him to show the way, I was left alone. I then felt within my soul a freshness, a calmness, a sweetness, I had never known since childhood. It was like the happiness my poor Catherine had given me. The love of this dear man had come to seek me; that, and his thought for me, for my future, stirred my soul to its depths; it changed me. A light broke forth in my being. As long as he was there, speaking to me, I resisted. That's not surprising; he was a priest, and we bandits don't eat of their bread. But when I no longer heard his footsteps nor Catherine's, oh! I was--as he told me two days later--enlightened by divine grace. God gave me thenceforth strength to bear all,--prison, sentence, irons, parting; even the life of the galleys. I believed in his word as I do in the Gospel; I looked upon my sufferings as a debt I was bound to pay. When I seemed to suffer too much, I looked across ten years and saw my home in the woods, my little Benjamin, my Catherine. He kept his word, that good Monsieur Bonnet. But one thing was lacking. When at last I was released, Catherine was not at the gate of the galleys; she was not on the common. No doubt she has died of grief. That is why I am always sad. Now, thanks to you, I shall have useful work to do; I can employ both body and soul,--and my boy, too, for whom I live."
"I begin to understand how it is that the rector has changed the character of this whole community," said Madame Graslin.
"Nothing can resist him," said Farrabesche.
"Yes, yes, I know it!" replied Veronique, hastily, making a gesture of farewell to her keeper.
Farrabesche withdrew. Veronique remained alone on the terrace for a good part of the day, walking up and down in spite of a fine rain which fell till evening. When her face was thus convulsed, neither her mother nor Aline dared to interrupt her. She did not notice in the dusk that her mother was talking in the salon to Monsieur Bonnet; the old woman, anxious to put an end to this fresh attack of dreadful depression, sent little Francis to fetch her. The child took his mother's hand and led her in. When she saw the rector she gave a start of surprise in which there seemed to be some fear. Monsieur Bonnet took her back to the terrace, saying:--
"Well, madame, what were you talking about with Farrabesche?"
In order not to speak falsely, Veronique evaded a reply; she questioned Monsieur Bonnet.
"That man was your first victory here, was he not?" she said.
"Yes," he answered; "his conversion would, I thought, give me all Montegnac--and I was not mistaken."
Veronique pressed Monsieur Bonnet's hand and said, with tears in her voice, "I am your penitent from this day forth, monsieur; I shall go to-morrow to the confessional."
Her last words showed a great internal effort, a terrible victory won over herself. The rector brought her back to the house without saying another word. After that he remained till dinner-time, talking about the proposed improvements at Montegnac.
"Agriculture is a question of time," he said; "the little that I know of it makes me understand what a gain it would be to get some good out of the winter. The rains are now beginning, and the mountains will soon be covered with snow; your operations cannot then be begun. Had you not better hasten Monsieur Grossetete?"
Insensibly, Monsieur Bonnet, who at first did all the talking, led Madame Graslin to join in the conversation and so distract her thoughts; in fact, he left her almost recovered from the emotions of the day. Madame Sauviat, however, thought her daughter too violently agitated to be left alone, and she spent the night in her room.