The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
There are, no doubt, many young girls in the world as pure as Veronique, but none purer or more modest. Her confessions might have surprised the angels and rejoiced the Blessed Virgin.
At sixteen years of age she was fully developed, and appeared the woman she was eventually to become. She was of medium height, neither her father nor her mother being tall; but her figure was charming in its graceful suppleness, and in the serpentine curves laboriously sought by painters and sculptors,--curves which Nature herself draws so delicately with her lissom outlines, revealed to the eye of artists in spite of swathing linen and thick clothes, which mould themselves, inevitably, upon the nude. Sincere, simple, and natural, Veronique set these beauties of her form into relief by movements that were wholly free from affectation. She brought out her "full and complete effect," if we may borrow that strong term from legal phraseology. She had the plump arms of the Auvergnat women, the red and dimpled hand of a barmaid, and her strong but well-shaped feet were in keeping with the rest of her figure.
At times there seemed to pass within her a marvellous and delightful phenomenon which promised to Love a woman concealed thus far from every eye. This phenomenon was perhaps one cause of the admiration her father and mother felt for her beauty, which they often declared to be divine,--to the great astonishment of their neighbors. The first to remark it were the priests of the cathedral and the worshippers with her at the same altar. When a strong emotion took possession of Veronique,--and the religious exaltation to which she yielded herself on receiving the communion must be counted among the strongest emotions of so pure and candid a young creature,--an inward light seemed to efface for the moment all traces of the small-pox. The pure and radiant face of her childhood reappeared in its pristine beauty. Though slightly veiled by the thickened surface disease had laid there, it shone with the mysterious brilliancy of a flower blooming beneath the water of the sea when the sun is penetrating it. Veronique was changed for a few moments; the Little Virgin reappeared and then disappeared again, like a celestial vision. The pupils of her eyes, gifted with the power of great expansion, widened until they covered the whole surface of the blue iris except for a tiny circle. Thus the metamorphose of the eye, which became as keen and vivid as that of an eagle, completed the extraordinary change in the face. Was it the storm of restrained passions; was it some power coming from the depths of the soul, which enlarged the pupils in full daylight as they sometimes in other eyes enlarge by night, darkening the azure of those celestial orbs?
However that may be, it was impossible to look indifferently at Veronique as she returned to her seat from the altar where she had united herself with God,--a moment when she appeared to all the parish in her primitive splendor. At such moments her beauty eclipsed that of the most beautiful of women. What a charm was there for the man who loved her, guarding jealously that veil of flesh which hid the woman's soul from every eye,--a veil which the hand of love might lift for an instant and then let drop over conjugal delights! Veronique's lips were faultlessly curved and painted in the clear vermilion of her pure warm blood. Her chin and the lower part of her face were a little heavy, in the acceptation given by painters to that term,--a heaviness which is, according to the relentless laws of physiognomy, the indication of an almost morbid vehemence in passion. She had above her brow, which was finely modelled and almost imperious, a magnificent diadem of hair, voluminous, redundant, and now of a chestnut color.
From the age of sixteen to the day of her marriage Veronique's bearing was always thoughtful, and sometimes melancholy. Living in such deep solitude, she was forced, like other solitary persons, to examine and consider the spectacle of that which went on within her,--the progress of her thought, the variety of the images in her mind, and the scope of feelings warmed and nurtured in a life so pure.
Those who looked up from their lower level as they passed along the rue de la Cite might have seen, on all fine days, the daughter of the Sauviats sitting at her open window, sewing, embroidering, or pricking the needle through the canvas of her worsted-work, with a look that was often dreamy. Her head was vividly defined among the flowers which poetized the brown and crumbling sills of her casement windows with their leaded panes. Sometimes the reflection of the red damask window- curtains added to the effect of that head, already so highly colored; like a crimson flower she glowed in the aerial garden so carefully trained upon her window-sill.
The quaint old house possessed therefore something more quaint than itself,--the portrait of a young girl worthy of Mieris, or Van Ostade, or Terburg, or Gerard Douw, framed in one of those old, defaced, half ruined windows the brushes of the old Dutch painters loved so well. When some stranger, surprised or interested by the building, stopped before it and gazed at the second story, old Sauviat would poke his head beyond the overhanging projection, certain that he should see his daughter at her window. Then he would retreat into the shop rubbing his hands and saying to his wife in the Auvergne vernacular:--
"Hey! old woman; they're admiring your daughter!"
In 1820 an incident occurred in the simple uneventful life the girl was leading, which might have had no importance in the life of any other young woman, but which, in point of fact, did no doubt exercise over Veronique's future a terrible influence.
On one of the suppressed church fete-days, when many persons went about their daily labor, though the Sauviats scrupulously closed their shop, attended mass, and took a walk, Veronique passed, on their way to the fields, a bookseller's stall on which lay a copy of "Paul and Virginia." She had a fancy to buy it for the sake of the engraving, and her father paid a hundred sous for the fatal volume, which he put into the pocket of his coat.
"Wouldn't it be well to show that book to Monsieur le vicaire before you read it?" said her mother, to whom all printed books were a sealed mystery.
"I thought of it," answered Veronique.
The girl passed the whole night reading the story,--one of the most touching bits of writing in the French language. The picture of mutual love, half Biblical and worthy of the earlier ages of the world, ravaged her heart. A hand--was it divine or devilish?--raised the veil which, till then, had hidden nature from her. The Little Virgin still existing in the beautiful young girl thought on the morrow that her flowers had never been so beautiful; she heard their symbolic language, she looked into the depths of the azure sky with a fixedness that was almost ecstasy, and tears without a cause rolled down her cheeks.
In the life of all women there comes a moment when they comprehend their destiny,--when their hitherto mute organization speaks peremptorily. It is not always a man, chosen by some furtive involuntary glance, who awakens their slumbering sixth sense; oftener it is some unexpected sight, the aspect of scenery, the coup d'oeil of religious pomp, the harmony of nature's perfumes, a rosy dawn veiled in slight mists, the winning notes of some divinest music, or indeed any unexpected motion within the soul or within the body. To this lonely girl, buried in that old house, brought up by simple, half rustic parents, who had never heard an unfit word, whose pure unsullied mind had never known the slightest evil thought,--to the angelic pupil of Soeur Marthe and the vicar of Saint-Etienne the revelation of love, the life of womanhood, came from the hand of genius through one sweet book. To any other mind the book would have offered no danger; to her it was worse in its effects than an obscene tale. Corruption is relative. There are chaste and virgin natures which a single thought corrupts, doing all the more harm because no thought of the duty of resistance has occurred.
The next day Veronique showed the book to the good priest, who approved the purchase; for what could be more childlike and innocent and pure than the history of Paul and Virginia? But the warmth of the tropics, the beauty of the scenery, the almost puerile innocence of a love that seemed so sacred had done their work on Veronique. She was led by the sweet and noble achievement of its author to the worship of the Ideal, that fatal human religion! She dreamed of a lover like Paul. Her thoughts caressed the voluptuous image of that balmy isle. Childlike, she named an island in the Vienne, below Limoges and nearly opposite to the Faubourg Saint-Martial, the Ile de France. Her mind lived there in the world of fancy all young girls construct,--a world they enrich with their own perfections. She spent long hours at her window, looking at the artisans or the mechanics who passed it, the only men whom the modest position of her parents allowed her to think of. Accustomed, of course, to the idea of eventually marrying a man of the people, she now became aware of instincts within herself which revolved from all coarseness.
In such a situation she naturally made many a romance such as young girls are fond of weaving. She clasped the idea--perhaps with the natural ardor of a noble and virgin imagination--of ennobling one of those men, and of raising him to the height where her own dreams led her. She may have made a Paul of some young man who caught her eye, merely to fasten her wild ideas on an actual being, as the mists of a damp atmosphere, touched by frost, crystallize on the branches of a tree by the wayside. She must have flung herself deep into the abysses of her dream, for though she often returned bearing on her brow, as if from vast heights, some luminous reflections, oftener she seemed to carry in her hand the flowers that grew beside a torrent she had followed down a precipice.
On the warm summer evenings she would ask her father to take her on his arm to the banks of the Vienne, where she went into ecstasies over the beauties of the sky and fields, the glories of the setting sun, or the infinite sweetness of the dewy evening. Her soul exhaled itself thenceforth in a fragrance of natural poesy. Her hair, until then simply wound about her head, she now curled and braided. Her dress showed some research. The vine which was running wild and naturally among the branches of the old elm, was transplanted, cut and trained over a green and pretty trellis.
After the return of old Sauviat (then seventy years of age) from a trip to Paris in December, 1822, the vicar came to see him one evening, and after a few insignificant remarks he said suddenly:--
"You had better think of marrying your daughter, Sauviat. At your age you ought not to put off the accomplishment of so important a duty."
"But is Veronique willing to be married?" asked the old man, startled.
"As you please, father," she said, lowering her eyes.
"Yes, we'll marry her!" cried stout Madame Sauviat, smiling.
"Why didn't you speak to me about it before I went to Paris, mother?" said Sauviat. "I shall have to go back there."
Jerome-Baptiste Sauviat, a man in whose eyes money seemed to constitute the whole of happiness, who knew nothing of love, and had never seen in marriage anything but the means of transmitting property to another self, had long sworn to marry Veronique to some rich bourgeois,--so long, in fact, that the idea had assumed in his brain the characteristics of a hobby. His neighbor, the hat-maker, who possessed about two thousand francs a year, had already asked, on behalf of his son, to whom he proposed to give up his hat-making establishment, the hand of a girl so well known in the neighborhood for her exemplary conduct and Christian principles. Sauviat had politely refused, without saying anything to Veronique. The day after the vicar--a very important personage in the eyes of the Sauviat household--had mentioned the necessary of marrying Veronique, whose confessor he was, the old man shaved and dressed himself as for a fete-day, and went out without saying a word to his wife or daughter; both knew very well, however, that the father was in search of a son- in-law. Old Sauviat went to Monsieur Graslin.
Monsieur Graslin, a rich banker in Limoges, had, like Sauviat himself, started from Auvergne without a penny; he came to Limoges to be a porter, found a place as an office-boy in a financial house, and there, like many other financiers, he made his way by dint of economy, and also through fortunate circumstances. Cashier at twenty-five years of age, partner ten years later, in the firm of Perret and Grossetete, he ended by finding himself the head of the house, after buying out the senior partners, both of whom retired into the country, leaving him their funds to manage in the business at a low interest.
Pierre Graslin, then forty-seven years of age, was supposed to possess about six hundred thousand francs. The estimate of his fortune had lately increased throughout the department, in consequence of his outlay in having built, in a new quarter of the town called the place d'Arbres (thus assisting to give Limoges an improved aspect), a fine house, the front of it being on a line with a public building with the facade of which it corresponded. This house had now been finished six months, but Pierre Graslin delayed furnishing it; it had cost him so much that he shrank from the further expense of living in it. His vanity had led him to transgress the wise laws by which he governed his life. He felt, with the good sense of a business man, that the interior of the house ought to correspond with the character of the outside. The furniture, silver-ware, and other needful accessories to the life he would have to lead in his new mansion would, he estimated, cost him nearly as much as the original building. In spite, therefore, of the gossip of tongues and the charitable suppositions of his neighbors, he continued to live on in the damp, old, and dirty ground- floor apartment in the rue Montantmanigne where his fortune had been made. The public carped, but Graslin had the approval of his former partners, who praised a resolution that was somewhat uncommon.
A fortune and a position like those of Pierre Graslin naturally excited the greed of not a few in a small provincial city. During the last ten years more than one proposition of marriage had been intimated to Monsieur Graslin. But the bachelor state was so well suited to a man who was busy from morning till night, overrun with work, eager in the pursuit of money as a hunter for game, and always tired out with his day's labor, that Graslin fell into none of the traps laid for him by ambitious mothers who coveted so brilliant a position for their daughters.
Graslin, another Sauviat in an upper sphere, did not spend more than forty sous a day, and clothed himself no better than his under-clerk. Two clerks and an office-boy sufficed him to carry on his business, which was immense through the multiplicity of its details. One clerk attended to the correspondence; the other had charge of the accounts; but Pierre Graslin was himself the soul, and body too, of the whole concern. His clerks, chosen from his own relations, were safe men, intelligent and as well-trained in the work as himself. As for the office-boy, he led the life of a truck horse,--up at five in the morning at all seasons, and never getting to bed before eleven at night.
Graslin employed a charwoman by the day, an old peasant from Auvergne, who did his cooking. The brown earthenware off which he ate, and the stout coarse linen which he used, were in keeping with the character of his food. The old woman had strict orders never to spend more than three francs daily for the total expenses of the household. The office-boy was also man-of-all-work. The clerks took care of their own rooms. The tables of blackened wood, the straw chairs half unseated, the wretched beds, the counters and desks, in short, the whole furniture of house and office was not worth more than a thousand francs, including a colossal iron safe, built into the wall, before which slept the man-of-all-work with two dogs at his feet.
Graslin did not often go into society, which, however, discussed him constantly. Two or three times a year he dined with the receiver- general, with whom his business brought him into occasional intercourse. He also occasionally took a meal at the prefecture; for he had been appointed, much to his regret, a member of the Council- general of the department--"a waste of time," he remarked. Sometimes his brother bankers with whom he had dealings kept him to breakfast or dinner; and he was forced also to visit his former partners, who spent their winters in Limoges. He cared so little to keep up his relations to society that in twenty-five years Graslin had not offered so much as a glass of water to any one. When he passed along the street persons would nudge each other and say: "That's Monsieur Graslin"; meaning, "There's a man who came to Limoges without a penny and has now acquired an enormous fortune." The Auvergnat banker was a model which more than one father pointed out to his son, and wives had been known to fling him in the faces of their husbands.
We can now understand the reasons that led a man who had become the pivot of the financial machine of Limoges to repulse the various propositions of marriage which parents never ceased to make to him. The daughters of his partners, Messrs. Perret and Grossetete, were married before Graslin was in a position to take a wife; but as each of these ladies had young daughters, the wiseheads of the community finally concluded that old Perret or old Grossetete had made an arrangement with Graslin to wait for one of his granddaughters, and thenceforth they left him alone.
Sauviat had watched the ascending career of his compatriot more attentively and seriously than any one else. He had known him from the time he first came to Limoges; but their respective positions had changed so much, at least apparently, that their friendship, now become merely superficial, was seldom freshened. Still, in his relation as compatriot, Graslin never disdained to talk with Sauviat when they chanced to meet. Both continued to keep up their early tutoiement, but only in their native dialect. When the receiver- general of Bourges, the youngest of the brothers Grossetete, married his daughter in 1823 to the youngest son of Comte Fontaine, Sauviat felt sure that the Grossetetes would never allow Graslin to enter their family.
After his conference with the banker, Pere Sauviat returned home joyously. He dined that night in his daughter's room, and after dinner he said to his womenkind:--
"Veronique will be Madame Graslin."
"Madame Graslin!" exclaimed Mere Sauviat, astounded.
"Is it possible?" said Veronique, to whom Graslin was personally unknown, and whose imagination regarded him very much as a Parisian grisette would regard a Rothschild.
"Yes, it is settled," said old Sauviat solemnly. "Graslin will furnish his house magnificently; he is to give our daughter a fine Parisian carriage and the best horses to be found in the Limousin; he will buy an estate worth five hundred thousand francs, and settle that and his town-house upon her. Veronique will be the first lady in Limoges, the richest in the department, and she can do what she pleases with Graslin."
Veronique's education, her religious ideas, and her boundless affection for her parents, prevented her from making a single objection; it did not even cross her mind to think that she had been disposed of without reference to her own will. On the morrow Sauviat went to Paris, and was absent for nearly a week.
Pierre Graslin was, as can readily be imagined, not much of a talker; he went straight and rapidly to deeds. A thing decided on was a thing done. In February, 1822, a strange piece of news burst like a thunderbolt on the town of Limoges. The hotel Graslin was being handsomely furnished; carriers' carts came day after day from Paris, and their contents were unpacked in the courtyard. Rumors flew about the town as to the beauty and good taste of the modern or the antique furniture as it was seen to arrive. The great firm of Odiot and Company sent down a magnificent service of plate by the mail-coach. Three carriages, a caleche, a coupe, and a cabriolet arrived, wrapped in straw with as much care as if they were jewels.
"Monsieur Graslin is going to be married!"
These words were said by every pair of lips in Limoges in the course of a single evening,--in the salons of the upper classes, in the kitchens, in the shops, in the streets, in the suburbs, and before long throughout the whole surrounding country. But to whom? No one could answer. Limoges had a mystery.