The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XVIII. Catherine Curieux
Before taking his departure the next day, Monsieur Grossetete promised Veronique to associate himself in all her plans, as soon as the realization of them was a practicable thing. Madame Graslin and Gerard accompanied his carriage on horseback, and did not leave him till they reached the junction of the high-road of Montegnac with that from Bordeaux to Lyon. The engineer was so impatient to see the land he was to reclaim, and Veronique was so impatient to show it to him, that they had planned this expedition the evening before.
After bidding adieu to the kind old man, they turned off the road across the vast plain, and skirted the mountain chain from the foot of the rise which led to the chateau to the steep face of the Roche-Vive. The engineer then saw plainly the shelf or barricade of rock mentioned by Farrabesche; which forms, as it were, the lowest foundation of the hills. By so directing the water that it should not overflow the indestructible canal which Nature had built, and by clearing out the accumulation of earth which choked it up, irrigation would be helped rather than hindered by this natural sluice-way, which was raised, on an average, ten feet above the plain. The first important point was to estimate the amount of water flowing through the Gabou, and to make sure whether or not the slopes of the valley allowed any to escape in other directions.
Veronique gave Farrabesche a horse, and directed him to accompany the engineer and to explain to him everything he had himself noticed. After several days' careful exploration, Gerard found that the base of the two parallel slopes was sufficiently solid, though different in composition, to hold the water, allowing none to escape. During the month of January, which was rainy, he estimated the quantity of water flowing through the Gabou. This quantity, added to that of three streams which could easily be led into it, would supply water enough to irrigate a tract of land three times as extensive as the plain of Montegnac. The damming of the Gabou and the works necessary to direct the water of the three valleys to the plain, ought not to cost more than sixty thousand francs; for the engineer discovered on the commons a quantity of calcareous soil which would furnish the lime cheaply, the forest was close at hand, the wood and stone cost nothing, and the transportation was trifling. While awaiting the season when the Gabou would be dry (the only time suitable for the work) all the necessary preparations could be made so as to push the enterprise through rapidly when it was once begun.
But the preparation of the plain was another thing; that according to Gerard, would cost not less than two hundred thousand francs, without including the sowing and planting. The plain was to be divided into square compartments of two hundred and fifty acres each, where the ground had to be cleared, not only of its stunted growths, but of rocks. Laborers would have to dig innumerable trenches, and stone them up so as to let no water run to waste, also to direct its flow at will. This part of the enterprise needed the active and faithful arms of conscientious workers. Chance provided them with a tract of land without natural obstacles, a long even stretch of plain, where the waters, having a fall of ten feet, could be distributed at will. Nothing hindered the finest agricultural results, while at the same time, the eye would be gratified by one of those magnificent sheets of verdure which are the pride and the wealth of Lombardy. Gerard sent for an old and experienced foreman, who had already been employed by him elsewhere in this capacity, named Fresquin.
Madame Graslin wrote to Grossetete, requesting him to negotiate for her a loan of two hundred and fifty thousand francs, secured on her income from the Funds, which, if relinquished for six years, would be enough to pay both capital and interest. This loan was obtained in March. By this time the preliminary preparations carried on by Gerard and his foreman, Fresquin, were fully completed; also, the surveying, estimating, levelling, and sounding. The news of this great enterprise spreading about the country, stimulated the laboring population. The indefatigable Farrabesche, Colorat, Clousier, the mayor of Montegnac, Roubaud, and others, interested either in the welfare of the neighborhood or in Madame Graslin, selected such of these laborers as seemed the poorest, or were most deserving of employment. Gerard bought for himself and for Monsieur Grossetete a thousand acres on the other side of the high-road to Montegnac. Fresquin, the foreman, bought five hundred, and sent for his wife and children.
Early in April, 1832, Monsieur Grossetete came to see the land bought for him by Gerard, though his journey was chiefly occasioned by the advent of Catherine Curieux, who had come from Paris to Limoges by the diligence. Grossetete now brought her with him to Montegnac. He found Madame Graslin just starting for church. Monsieur Bonnet was to say a mass to implore the blessing of heaven on the works that were then beginning. All the laborers with their wives and children were present.
"Here is your protegee," said the old gentleman, presenting to Veronique a feeble, suffering woman, apparently about thirty years of age.
"Are you Catherine Curieux?" asked Madame Graslin.
Veronique looked at Catherine for a moment. She was rather tall, well- made, and fair; her features wore an expression of extreme gentleness which the beautiful gray tones of the eyes did not contradict. The outline of the face, the shape of the brow had a nobility both simple and august, such as we sometimes meet with in country regions among very young girls,--a sort of flower of beauty, which field labors, the constant cares of the household, the burning of the sun, and want of personal care, remove with terrible rapidity. Her movements had that ease of motion characteristic of country girls, to which certain habits unconsciously contracted in Paris gave additional grace. If Catherine had remained in the Correze she would by this time have looked like an old woman, wrinkled and withered; her complexion, once rosy, would have coarsened; but Paris, though it paled her, had preserved her beauty. Illness, toil, and grief had endowed her with the mysterious gifts of melancholy, the inward vitalizing thought, which is lacking to poor country-folk whose lives are almost animal. Her dress, full of that Parisian taste which all women, even the least coquettish, contract so readily, distinguished her still further from an ordinary peasant-woman. In her ignorance as to what was before her, and having no means of judging Madame Graslin, she appeared very shy and shame-faced.
"Do you still love Farrabesche?" asked Veronique, when Grossetete left them for a moment.
"Yes, madame," she replied coloring.
"Why, then, having sent him a thousand francs during his imprisonment, did you not join him after his release? Have you any repugnance to him? Speak to me as though I were your mother. Are you afraid he has become altogether corrupt; or did you fear he no longer wanted you?"
"Neither, madame; but I do not know how to read or write, and I was serving a very exacting old lady; she fell ill and I had to nurse her. Though I knew the time when Jacques would be released, I could not get away from Paris until after the lady's death. She did not leave me anything, notwithstanding my devotion to her interests and to her personally. After that I wanted to be cured of an ailment caused by night-watching and hard work, and as I had used up my savings, I resolved to go to the hospital of Saint-Louis, which I have just left, cured."
"Very good, my child," said Madame Graslin, touched by this simple explanation. "But tell me now why you abandoned your parents so abruptly, why you left your child behind you, and why you did not send any news of yourself, or get some one to write for you."
For all answer Catherine wept.
"Madame," she said at last, reassured by the pressure of Madame Graslin's hand, "I may have done wrong, but I hadn't the strength to stay here. I did not fear myself, but others; I feared gossip, scandal. So long as Jacques was in danger, I was necessary to him and I stayed; but after he had gone I had no strength left,--a girl with a child and no husband! The worst of creatures was better than I. I don't know what would have become of me had I stayed to hear a word against my boy or his father; I should have gone mad; I might have killed myself. My father or my mother in a moment of anger might have reproached me. I am too sensitive to bear a quarrel or an insult, gentle as I am. I have had my punishment in not seeing my child, I who have never passed a day without thinking of him in all these years! I wished to be forgotten, and I have been. No one thought of me,--they believed me dead; and yet, many a time, I thought of leaving all just to come here for a day and see my child."
"Your child--see, here he is."
Catherine then saw Benjamin, and began to tremble violently.
"Benjamin," said Madame Graslin, "come and kiss your mother."
"My mother!" cried Benjamin, surprised. He jumped into Catherine's arms and she pressed him to her breast with almost savage force. But the boy escaped her and ran off crying out: "I'll go and fetch him."
Madame Graslin made Catherine, who was almost fainting, sit down. At this moment she saw Monsieur Bonnet and could not help blushing as she met a piercing look from her confessor, which read her heart.
"I hope," she said, trembling, "that you will consent to marry Farrabesche and Catherine at once. Don't you recognize Monsieur Bonnet, my dear? He will tell you that Farrabesche, since his liberation has behaved as an honest man; the whole neighborhood thinks well of him, and if there is a place in the world where you may live happy and respected it is at Montegnac. You can make, by God's help, a good living as my farmers; for Farrabesche has recovered citizenship."
"That is all true, my dear child," said the rector.
Just then Farrabesche appeared, pulled along by his son. He was pale and speechless in presence of Catherine and Madame Graslin. His heart told him actively benevolent the one had been, and how deeply the other had suffered in his absence. Veronique led away the rector, who, on his side, was anxious to talk with her alone.
As soon as they were far enough away not to be overheard, Monsieur Bonnet looked fixedly at Veronique; she colored and dropped her eyes like a guilty person.
"You degrade well-doing," he said, sternly.
"How?" she asked, raising her head.
"Well-doing," he replied, "is a passion as superior to that of love as humanity is superior to the individual creature. Now, you have not done this thing from the sole impulse and simplicity of virtue. You have fallen from the heights of humanity to the indulgence of the individual creature. Your benevolence to Farrabesche and Catherine carries with it so many memories and forbidden thoughts that it has lost all merit in the eyes of God. Tear from your heart the remains of the javelin evil planted there. Do not take from your actions their true value. Come at last to that saintly ignorance of the good you do which is the grace supreme of human actions."
Madame Graslin had turned away to wipe the tears that told the rector his words had touched the bleeding wound that was still unhealed in her heart.
Farrabesche, Catherine, and Benjamin now came up to thank their benefactress, but she made them a sign to go away and leave her alone with the rector.
"See how that grieves them," she said to him as they sadly walked away. The rector, whose heart was tender, recalled them by a sign.
"You shall be completely happy," she then said, giving to Farrabesche a paper which she was holding in her hand. "Here is the ordinance which gives you back your rights of citizenship and exempts you from humiliating inspection."
Farrabesche respectfully kissed the hand held toward him and looked at Veronique with an eye both tender and submissive, calm and devoted, the expression of a devotion which nothing could ever change, the look of a dog to his master.
"If Jacques has suffered, madame," said Catherine, her fine eyes lighting with pleasure, "I hope I can give him enough happiness to make up for his pain, for, no matter what he has done, he is not bad."
Madame Graslin turned away her head; she seemed overcome by the sight of that happy family. The rector now left her to enter the church, whither she dragged herself presently on the arm of Monsieur Grossetete.
After breakfast every one, even the aged people of the village, assembled to see the beginning of the great work. From the slope leading up to the chateau, Monsieur Grossetete and Monsieur Bonnet, between whom was Veronique, could see the direction of the four first cuttings marked out by piles of gathered stones. At each cutting five laborers were digging out and piling up the good loam along the edges; clearing a space about eighteen feet wide, the width of each road. On either side, four other men were digging the ditches and also piling up the loam at the sides to make a bank. Behind them, as the banks were made, two men were digging holes in which others planted trees. In each of these divisions, thirty old paupers, a score of women, and forty or more girls and children were picking up stones, which special laborers piled in heaps along the roadside so as to keep a record of the quantity gathered by each group. Thus the work went on rapidly, with picked workmen full of ardor. Grossetete promised Madame Graslin to send her some trees and to ask her other friends to do the same; for the nurseries of the chateau would evidently not suffice to supply such an extensive plantation. Toward the close of the day, which was to end in a grand dinner at the chateau, Farrabesche requested Madame Graslin to grant him an audience for a few moments.
"Madame," he said, presenting himself with Catherine, "you were so good as to offer me the farm at the chateau. By granting me so great a favor I know you intended to put me in the way of making my fortune. But Catherine has ideas about our future which we desire to submit to you. If I were to succeed and make money there would certainly be persons envious of my good fortune; a word is soon said; I might have quarrels,--I fear them; besides, Catherine would always be uneasy. In short, too close intercourse with the world will not suit us. I have come therefore to ask you to give us only the land at the opening of the Gabou on the commons, with a small piece of the woodland behind the Roche-Vive. In July you will have a great many workmen here, and it would be very easy then to build a farmhouse in a good position on the slope of the hill. We should be happy there. I will send for Guepin. My poor comrade will work like a horse; perhaps I could marry him here. My son is not a do-nothing either. No one would put us out of countenance; we could colonize this corner of the estate, and I should make it my ambition to turn it into a fine farm for you. Moreover, I want to propose as farmer of your great farm near the chateau a cousin of Catherine, who has money and would therefore be more capable than I could be of managing such a large affair as that farm. If it please God to bless your enterprise, in five years from now you will have five or six thousand horned beasts or horses on that plain below, and it wants a better head than mine to manage them."
Madame Graslin agreed to his request, doing justice to the good sense of it.
From the time the work on the plain began, Veronique's life assumed the regularity of country existence. In the morning she heard mass, took care of her son, whom she idolized, and went to see her laborers. After dinner she received her friends from Montegnac in the little salon to the right of the clock-tower. She taught Roubaud, Clousier, and the rector to play whist, which Gerard knew already. The rubbers usually ended at nine o'clock, after which the company withdrew. This peaceful life had no other events to mark it than the success of the various parts of the great enterprise.
In June the torrent of the Gabou went dry, and Gerard established his headquarters in the keeper's house. Farrabesche had already built his farmhouse, which he called Le Gabou. Fifty masons, brought from Paris, joined the two mountains by a wall twenty feet thick, with a foundation twelve feet deep and heavily cemented. The wall, or dam, rose nearly sixty feet and tapered in until it was not more than ten feet thick at the summit. Gerard backed this wall on the valley side with a cemented slope, about twelve feet wide at its base. On the side toward the commons a similar slope, covered with several feet of arable earth, still further supported this great work, which no rush of water could possibly damage. The engineer provided in case of unusual rains an overflow at a proper height. The masonry was inserted into the flank of each mountain until the granite or the hard-pan was reached, so that the water had absolutely no outlet at the sides.
This dam was finished by the middle of August. At the same time Gerard was preparing three canals in the principal valleys, and none of these works came up to his estimated costs. The chateau farm could now be finished. The irrigation channels through the plain, superintended by Fresquin, started from the canal made by nature along the base of the mountains on the plain side, through which culverts were cut to the irrigating channels. Water-gates were fitted into those channels, the sides of which the abundance of rock had enabled them to stone up, so as to keep the flow of water at an even height along the plain.
Every Sunday after mass, Veronique, the engineer, the rector, the doctor, and the mayor walked down through the park to see the course of the waters. The winter of 1832 and 1833 was extremely rainy. The water of the three streams which had been directed to the torrent, swollen by the water of the rains, now formed three ponds in the valley of the Gabou, carefully placed at different levels so as to create a steady reserve in case of a severe drought. At certain places where the valley widened Gerard had taken advantage of a few hillocks to make islands and plant them with trees of varied foliage. These vast operations completely changed the face of the country; but five or six years were of course needed to bring out their full character. "The country was naked," said Farrabesche, "and madame has clothed it."
Since these great undertakings were begun, Veronique had been called "Madame" throughout the whole neighborhood. When the rains ceased in June, 1833, they tried the irrigating channels through the planted fields, and the young verdure thus nourished soon showed the superior qualities of the marciti of Italy and the meadows of Switzerland. The system of irrigation, modelled on that of the farms in Lombardy, watered the earth evenly, and kept the surface as smooth as a carpet. The nitre of the snow dissolving in these channels no doubt added much to the quality of the herbage. The engineer hoped to find in the products of succeeding years some analogy with those of Switzerland, to which this nitrous substance is, as we know, a source of perpetual riches.
The plantations along the roads, sufficiently moistened by the water allowed to run through the ditches, made rapid growth. So that in 1838, six years after Madame Graslin had begun her enterprise, the stony plain, regarded as hopelessly barren by twenty generations, was verdant, productive, and well planted throughout. Gerard had built five farmhouses with their dependencies upon it, with a thousand acres to each. Gerard's own farm and those of Grossetete and Fresquin, which received the overflow from Madame's domains, were built on the same plan and managed by the same methods. The engineer also built a charming little house for himself on his own property. When all was completely finished, the inhabitants of Montegnac, instigated by the present mayor, who was anxious to retire, elected Gerard to the mayoralty of the district.
In 1840 the departure of the first herd of cattle sent from Montegnac to the Paris markets was made the occasion of a rural fete. The farms of the plain raised fine beasts and horses; for it was found, after the land was cleaned up, that there were seven inches of good soil which the annual fall of leaves, the manure left by the pasturage of animals, and, above all, the melting of the snows contained in the valley of the Gabou, increased in fertility.
It was in this year that Madame Graslin found it necessary to obtain a tutor for her son, who was now eleven years of age. She did not wish to part with him, and yet she was anxious to make him a thoroughly well-educated man. Monsieur Bonnet wrote to the Seminary. Madame Graslin, on her side, said a few words as to her wishes and the difficulty of obtaining the right person to Monsieur Dutheil, recently appointed arch-bishop. The choice of such a man, who would live nine years familiarly in the chateau, was a serious matter. Gerard had already offered to teach mathematics to his friend Francis; but he could not, of course, take the place of a regular tutor. This question agitated Madame Graslin's mind, and all the more because she knew that her health was beginning to fail.
The more prosperous grew her dear Montegnac, the more she increased the secret austerities of her life. Monseigneur Dutheil, with whom she corresponded regularly, found at last the man she wanted. He sent her from his late diocese a young professor, twenty-five years of age, named Ruffin, whose mind had a special vocation for the art of teaching. This young man's knowledge was great, and his nature was one of deep feeling, which, however, did not preclude the sternness necessary in the management of youth. In him religion did not in any way hamper knowledge; he was also patient, and extremely agreeable in appearance and manner. "I make you a fine present, my dear daughter," wrote the prelate; "this young man is fit to educate a prince; therefore I think you will be glad to arrange the future with him, for he can undoubtedly be a spiritual father to your son."
Monsieur Ruffin proved so satisfactory to Madame Graslin's faithful friends that his arrival made no change in the various intimacies that grouped themselves around this beloved idol, whose hours and moments were claimed by each with jealous eagerness.
By the year 1843 the prosperity of Montegnac had increased beyond all expectation. The farm of the Gabou rivalled the farms of the plain, and that of the chateau set an example of constant improvement to all. The five other farms, increasing in value, obtained higher rent, reaching the sum of thirty thousand francs for each at the end of twelve years. The farmers, who were beginning to gather in the fruits of their sacrifices and those of Madame Graslin, now began to improve the grass of the plains, sowing seed of better quality, there being no longer any occasion to fear drought.
During this year a man from Montegnac started a diligence between the chief town of the arrondissement and Limoges, leaving both places each day. Monsieur Clousier's nephew sold his office and obtained a license as notary in Montegnac. The government appointed Fresquin collector of the district. The new notary built himself a pretty house in the upper part of Montegnac, planted mulberries in the grounds, and became after a time assistant-mayor to his friend Gerard.
The engineer, encouraged by so much success, now conceived a scheme of a nature to render Madame Graslin's fortune colossal,--she herself having by this time recovered possession of the income which had been mortgaged for the repayment of the loan. Gerard's new scheme was to make a canal of the little river, and turn into it the superabundant waters of the Gabou. This canal, which he intended to carry into the Vienne, would form a waterway by which to send down timber from the twenty thousand acres of forest land belonging to Madame Graslin in Montegnac, now admirably managed by Colorat, but which, for want of transportation, returned no profit. A thousand acres could be cut over each year without detriment to the forest, and if sent in this way to Limoges, would find a ready market for building purposes.
This was the original plan of Monsieur Graslin himself, who had paid very little attention to the rector's scheme relating to the plain, being much more attracted by that of turning the little river into a canal.