The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XX. The Last Struggle
Suddenly she stopped, a few feet from her mother, who looked at her as the mother of Christ must have looked at her son upon the cross. She raised her hand, and pointing to the spot where the road to Montegnac branched from the highway, she said, smiling:--
"See that carriage with the post-horses; Monsieur Roubaud is returning to us. We shall now know how many hours I have to live."
"Hours?" said Gerard.
"Did I not tell you I was taking my last walk?" she replied. "I have come here to see for the last time this glorious scene in all its splendor!" She pointed first to the village where the whole population seemed to be collected in the church square, and then to the beautiful meadows glowing in the last rays of the setting sun. "Ah!" she said, "let me see the benediction of God in the strange atmospheric condition to which we owe the safety of our harvest. Around us, on all sides, tempests, hail, lightning, have struck incessantly and pitilessly. The common people think thus, why not I? I do so need to see in this a happy augury for what awaits me after death!"
The child stood up and took his mother's hand and laid it on his head. Veronique, deeply affected by the action, so full of eloquence, took up her son with supernatural strength, seating him on her left arm as though he were still an infant at her breast, saying, as she kissed him:--
"Do you see that land, my son? When you are a man, continue there your mother's work."
"Madame," said the rector, in a grave voice, "a few strong and privileged beings are able to contemplate their coming death face to face, to fight, as it were, a duel with it, and to display a courage and an ability which challenge admiration. You show us this terrible spectacle; but perhaps you have too little pity for us; leave us at least the hope that you may be mistaken, and that God will allow you to finish that which you have begun."
"All I have done is through you, my friends," she said. "I have been useful, I can be so no longer. All is fruitful around us now; nothing is barren and desolated here except my heart. You well know, my dear rector, that I can only find peace and pardon there."
She stretched her hand toward the cemetery. Never had she said as much since the day of her arrival, when she was taken with sudden illness at the same spot. The rector looked attentively at his penitent, and the habit of penetration he had long acquired made him see that in those simple words he had won another triumph. Veronique must have made a mighty effort over herself to break her twelve years' silence with a speech that said so much. The rector clasped his hands with a fervent gesture that was natural to him as he looked with deep emotion at the members of this family whose secrets had passed into his heart.
Gerard, to whom the words "peace and pardon" must have seemed strange, was bewildered. Monsieur Ruffin, with his eyes fixed on Veronique, was stupefied. At this instant the carriage came rapidly up the avenue.
"There are five of them!" cried the rector, who could see and count the travellers.
"Five!" exclaimed Gerard. "Can five know more than two?"
"Ah," cried Madame Graslin suddenly, grasping the rector's arm, "the procureur-general is among them! What is he doing here?"
"And papa Grossetete, too!" cried Francis.
"Madame," said the rector, supporting Veronique, and leading her apart a few steps, "show courage; be worthy of yourself."
"But what can he want?" she replied, leaning on the balustrade. "Mother!" (the old woman ran to her daughter with an activity that belied her years.) "I shall see him again," she said.
"As he comes with Monsieur Grossetete," said the rector, "he can have none but good intentions."
"Ah! monsieur, my child will die!" cried Madame Sauviat, seeing the effect of the rector's words on her daughter's face. "How can her heart survive such emotions? Monsieur Grossetete has always hitherto prevented that man from seeing Veronique."
Madame Graslin's face was on fire.
"Do you hate him so much?" said the Abbe Bonnet.
"She left Limoges to escape the sight of him, and to escape letting the whole town into her secrets," said Madame Sauviat, terrified at the change she saw on Madame Graslin's features.
"Do you not see that he will poison my few remaining hours? When I ought to be thinking of heaven he will nail me to earth," cried Veronique.
The rector took her arm and constrained her to walk aside with him. When they were alone he stopped and gave her one of those angelic looks with which he was able to calm the violent convulsions of the soul.
"If it is really so," he said, "as your confessor, I order you to receive him, to be kind and affectionate to him, to quit that garment of wrath, and forgive him as God will forgive you. Can there still be the remains of passion of a soul I believed to be purified. Burn this last incense on the altar of your penitence, or else your repentance is a lie."
"There was still that effort to make--and it is made," she answered, wiping her eyes. "The devil lurked in that last fold of my heart, and God, no doubt, put into Monsieur de Grandville's mind the thought that brings him here. Ah! how many times must God strike me?" she cried.
She stopped, as if to say a mental prayer; then she returned to Madame Sauviat and said in a low voice:
"My dear mother, be kind and gentle to Monsieur de Grandville."
The old woman clasped her hands with a feverish shudder.
"There is no longer any hope," she said, seizing the rector's hand.
The carriage, announced by the postilion's whip, was now coming up the last slope; the gates were opened, it entered the courtyard, and the travellers came at once to the terrace. They were the illustrious Archbishop Dutheil, who was on his way to consecrate Monseigneur Gabriel de Rastignac, the procureur-general, Monsieur de Grandville, Monsieur Grossetete, Monsieur Roubaud, and one of the most celebrated physicians in Paris, Horace Bianchon.
"You are very welcome," said Veronique, advancing toward them,--"you particularly," she added, offering her hand to Monsieur de Grandville, who took it and pressed it.
"I counted on the intervention of Monseigneur and on that of my friend Monsieur Grossetete to obtain for me a favorable reception," said the procureur-general. "It would have been a life-long regret to me if I did not see you again."
"I thank those who brought you here," replied Veronique, looking at the Comte de Grandville for the first time in fifteen years. "I have felt averse to you for a very long time, but I now recognize the injustice of my feelings; and you shall know why, if you can stay till the day after to-morrow at Montegnac." Then turning to Horace Bianchon and bowing to him, she added: "Monsieur will no doubt confirm my apprehensions. God must have sent you, Monseigneur," she said, turning to the archbishop. "In memory of our old friendship you will not refuse to assist me in my last moments. By whose mercy is it that I have about me all the beings who have loved and supported me in life?"
As she said the word loved she turned with a gracious look to Monsieur de Grandville, who was touched to tears by this mark of feeling. Silence fell for a few moments on every one. The doctors wondered by what occult power this woman could still keep her feet, suffering as she must have suffered. The other three men were so shocked at the ravages disease had suddenly made in her that they communicated their thoughts by their eyes only.
"Allow me," she said, with her accustomed grace, "to leave you now with these gentlemen; the matter is urgent."
She bowed to her guests, gave an arm to each of the doctors, and walked toward the chateau feebly and slowly, with a difficulty which told only too plainly of the coming catastrophe.
"Monsieur Bonnet," said the archbishop, looking at the rector, "you have accomplished a miracle."
"Not I, but God, Monseigneur," he replied.
"They said she was dying," said Monsieur Grossetete, "but she is dead; there is nothing left of her but spirit."
"A soul," said Gerard.
"And yet she is still the same," cried the procureur-general.
"A stoic after the manner of the Porch philosophers," said the tutor.
They walked in silence the whole length of the balustrade, looking at the landscape still red with the declining light.
"To me who saw this scene thirteen years ago," said the archbishop, pointing to the fertile plain, the valley, and the mountains of Montegnac, "this miracle is as extraordinary as that we have just witnessed. But how comes it that you allow Madame Graslin to walk about? She ought to be in her bed."
"She was there," said Madame Sauviat; "for ten days she did not leave it; but to-day she insisted on getting up to take a last look at the landscape."
"I can understand that she wanted to bid farewell to her great creation," said Monsieur de Grandville; "but she risked expiring on this terrace."
"Monsieur Roubaud told us not to thwart her," said Madame Sauviat.
"What a stupendous work! what a miracle has been accomplished!" said the archbishop, whose eyes were roving over the scene before him. "She has literally sown the desert! But we know, monsieur," he added, turning to Gerard, "that your scientific knowledge and your labors have a large share in it."
"They have been only the workmen," replied the mayor. "Yes, the hands only; she has been the thought."
Madame Sauviat here left the group, to hear, if possible, the decision of the doctors.
"We need some heroism ourselves," said Monsieur de Grandville to the rector and the archbishop, "to enable us to witness this death."
"Yes," said Monsieur Grossetete, who overheard him, "but we ought to do much for such a friend."
After several turns up and down the terrace, these persons, full of solemn thoughts, saw two farmers approaching them, sent as a deputation from the village, where the inhabitants were in a state of painful anxiety to know the sentence pronounced by the physician from Paris.
"They are still consulting, and as yet we know nothing, my friends," said the archbishop.
As he spoke, Monsieur Roubaud appeared coming toward them, and they all hurried to meet him.
"Well?" said the mayor.
"She cannot live forty-eight hours longer," replied Monsieur Roubaud. "During my absence the disease has fully developed; Monsieur Bianchon does not understand how it was possible for her to have walked. Such phenomenal exhibitions of strength are always caused by great mental exaltation. So, gentlemen," said the doctor to the priests, "she belongs to you now; science is useless, and my illustrious fellow- physician thinks you have barely time enough for your last offices."
"Let us go now and say the prayers for the forty hours," said the rector to his parishioners, turning to leave the terrace. "His Grace will doubtless administer the last sacraments."
The archbishop bowed his head; he could not speak; his eyes were full of tears. Every one sat down, or leaned against the balustrade, absorbed in his own thought. The church bells presently sent forth a few sad calls, and then the whole population were seen hurrying toward the porch. The gleam of the lighted tapers shone through the trees in Monsieur Bonnet's garden; the chants resounded. No color was left in the landscape but the dull red hue of the dusk; even the birds had hushed their songs; the tree-frog alone sent forth its long, clear, melancholy note.
"I will go and do my duty," said the archbishop, turning away with a slow step like a man overcome with emotion.
The consultation had taken place in the great salon of the chateau. This vast room communicated with a state bedchamber, furnished in red damask, in which Graslin had displayed a certain opulent magnificence. Veronique had not entered it six times in fourteen years; the grand apartments were quite useless to her, and she never received her friends there. But now the effort she had made to accomplish her last obligation, and to overcome her last repugnance had exhausted her strength, and she was wholly unable to mount the stairs to her own rooms.
When the illustrious physician had taken the patient's hand and felt her pulse he looked at Monsieur Roubaud and made him a sign; then together they lifted her and carried her into the chamber. Aline hastily opened the doors. Like all state beds the one in this room had no sheets, and the two doctors laid Madame Graslin on the damask coverlet. Roubaud opened the windows, pushed back the outer blinds, and called. The servants and Madame Sauviat went in. The tapers in the candelabra were lighted.
"It is ordained," said the dying woman, smiling, "that my death shall be what that of a Christian should be--a festival!"
During the consultation she said:--
"The procureur-general has done his professional duty; I was going, and he has pushed me on."
The old mother looked at her and laid a finger on her lips.
"Mother, I shall speak," replied Veronique. "See! the hand of God is in all this; I am dying in a red room--"
Madame Sauviat went out, unable to bear those words.
"Aline," she said, "she will speak! she will speak!"
"Ah! madame is out of her mind," cried the faithful maid, who was bringing sheets. "Fetch the rector, madame."
"Your mistress must be undressed," said Bianchon to the maid.
"It will be very difficult to do it, monsieur; madame is wrapped in a hair-cloth garment."
"What! in the nineteenth-century can such horrors be revived?" said the great doctor.
"Madame Graslin has never allowed me to touch her stomach," said Roubaud. "I have been able to judge of the progress of the disease only from her face and her pulse, and the little information I could get from her mother and the maid."
Veronique was now placed on a sofa while the bed was being made. The doctors spoke together in a low voice. Madame Sauviat and Aline made the bed. The faces of the two women were full of anguish; their hearts were wrung by the thought, "We are making her bed for the last time-- she will die here!"
The consultation was not long. But Bianchon exacted at the outset that Aline should, in spite of the patient's resistance, cut off the hair shirt and put on a night-dress. The doctors returned to the salon while this was being done. When Aline passed them carrying the instrument of torture wrapped in a napkin, she said:--
"Madame's body is one great wound."
The doctors returned to the bedroom.
"Your will is stronger than that of Napoleon, madame," said Bianchon, after asking a few questions, to which Veronique replied very clearly. "You keep your mind and your faculties in the last stages of a disease which robbed the Emperor of his brilliant intellect. From what I know of you I think I ought to tell you the truth."
"I implore you to do so," she said. "You are able to estimate what strength remains to me; and I have need of all my vigor for a few hours."
"Think only of your salvation," replied Bianchon.
"If God has given me grace to die in possession of all my faculties," she said with a celestial smile, "be sure that this favor will be used to the glory of his Church. The possession of my mind and senses is necessary to fulfil a command of God, whereas Napoleon had accomplished all his destiny."
The doctors looked at each other in astonishment at hearing these words, said with as much ease as though Madame Graslin were still presiding in her salon.
"Ah! here is the doctor who is to cure me," she said presently, when the archbishop, summoned by Roubaud, entered the room.
She collected all her strength and rose to a sitting posture, in order to bow graciously to Monsieur Bianchon, and beg him to accept something else than money for the good news he gave her. She said a few words in her mother's ear, and Madame Sauviat immediately led away the doctors; then Veronique requested the archbishop to postpone their interview till the rector could come to her, expressing a wish to rest for a while. Aline watched beside her.
At midnight Madame Graslin awoke, and asked for the archbishop and rector, whom Aline silently showed her close at hand, praying for her. She made a sign dismissing her mother and the maid, and, at another sign, the two priests came to the bedside.
"Monseigneur, and you, my dear rector," she said, "will hear nothing you do not already know. You were the first, Monseigneur, to cast your eyes into my inner self; you read there nearly all my past; and what you read sufficed you. My confessor, that guardian angel whom heaven placed near me, knows more; I have told him all. You, whose minds are enlightened by the spirit of the Church, I wish to consult you as to the manner in which I ought as a true Christian to leave this life. You, austere and saintly spirits, think you that if God deigns to pardon one whose repentance is the deepest, the most absolute, that ever shook a human soul, think you that even then I have made my full expiation here below?"
"Yes," said the archbishop; "yes, my daughter."
"No, my father, no!" she said rising in her bed, the lightning flashing from her eyes. "Not far from here there is a grave, where an unhappy man is lying beneath the weight of a dreadful crime; here in this sumptuous home is a woman, crowned with the fame of benevolence and virtue. This woman is blessed; that poor young man is cursed. The criminal is covered with obloquy; I receive the respect of all. I had the largest share in the sin; he has a share, a large share in the good which has won for me such glory and such gratitude. Fraud that I am, I have the honor; he, the martyr to his loyalty, has the shame. I shall die in a few hours, and the canton will mourn me; the whole department will ring with my good deeds, my piety, my virtue; but he died covered with insults, in sight of a whole population rushing, with hatred to a murderer, to see him die. You, my judges, you are indulgent to me; yet I hear within myself an imperious voice which will not let me rest. Ah! the hand of God, less tender than yours, strikes me from day to day, as if to warn me that all is not expiated. My sins cannot be redeemed except by a public confession. He is happy! criminal, he gave his life with ignominy in face of earth and heaven; and I, I cheat the world as I cheated human justice. The homage I receive humiliates me; praise sears my heart. Do you not see, in the very coming of the procureur-general, a command from heaven echoing the voice in my own soul which cries to me: Confess!"
The two priests, the prince of the Church as well as the humble rector, these two great lights, each in his own way, stood with their eyes lowered and were silent. Deeply moved by the grandeur and the resignation of the guilty woman, the judges could not pronounce her sentence.
"My child," said the archbishop at last, raising his noble head, macerated by the customs of his austere life, "you are going beyond the commandments of the Church. The glory of the Church is to make her dogma conform to the habits and manners of each age; for the Church goes on from age to age in company with humanity. According to her present decision secret confession has taken the place of public confession. This substitution has made the new law. The sufferings you have endured suffice. Die in peace: God has heard you."
"But is not this desire of a guilty woman in conformity with the law of the first Church, which has enriched heaven with as many saints and martyrs and confessing souls as there are stars in the firmament?" persisted Veronique, vehemently. "Who said: Confess yourselves to one another? Was it not the disciples, who lived with the Saviour? Let me confess my shame publicly on my knees. It will redeem my sin to the world, to that family exiled and almost extinct through me. The world ought to know that my benefactions are not an offering, but the payment of a debt. Suppose that later, after my death, something tore from my memory the lying veil which covers me. Ah! that idea is more than I can bear, it is death indeed!"
"I see in this too much of calculation, my child," said the archbishop, gravely. "Passions are still too strong in you; the one I thought extinct is--"
"Oh! I swear to you, Monseigneur," she said, interrupting the prelate and fixing her eyes, full of horror, upon him, "my heart is as purified as that of a guilty and repentant woman can be; there is nothing now within me but the thought of God."
"Monseigneur," said the rector in a tender voice, "let us leave celestial justice to take its course. It is now four years since I have strongly opposed this wish; it is the only difference that has ever come between my penitent and myself. I have seen to the depths of that soul, and I know this earth has no longer any hold there. Though the tears, the remorse, the contrition of fifteen years relate to the mutual sin of those two persons, believe me there are no remains of earthly passion in this long and terrible bewailing. Memory no longer mingles its flames with those of an ardent penitence. Yes, tears have at last extinguished that great fire. I guarantee," he said, stretching his hand over Madame Graslin's head, and letting his moistened eyes be seen, "I guarantee the purity of that angelic soul. And also I see in this desire the thought of reparation to an absent family, a member of which God has brought back here by one of those events which reveal His providence."
Veronique took the trembling hand of the rector and kissed it.
"You have often been very stern to me, dear pastor, but at this moment I see where you keep your apostolic gentleness. You," she said, looking at the archbishop, "you, the supreme head of this corner of God's kingdom, be to me, in this moment of ignominy, a support. I must bow down as the lowest of women, but you will lift me up pardoned and --possibly--the equal of those who never sinned."
The archbishop was silent, weighing no doubt all the considerations his practised eye perceived.
"Monseigneur," said the rector, "religion has had some heavy blows. This return to ancient customs, brought about by the greatness of the sin and its repentance, may it not be a triumph we have no right to refuse?"
"But they will say we are fanatics! They will declare we have exacted this cruel scene!"
And again the archbishop was silent and thoughtful.
At this moment Horace Bianchon and Roubaud entered the room, after knocking. As the door opened Veronique saw her mother, her son, and all the servants of the household on their knees praying. The rectors of the two adjacent parishes had come to assist Monsieur Bonnet, and also, perhaps, to pay their respects to the great prelate, for whom the French clergy now desired the honors of the cardinalate, hoping that the clearness of his intellect, which was thoroughly Gallican, would enlighten the Sacred College.
Horace Bianchon returned to Paris; before departing, he came to bid farewell to the dying woman and thank her for her munificence. Slowly he approached, perceiving from the faces of the priests that the wounds of the soul had been the determining cause of those of the body. He took Madame Graslin's hand, laid it on the bed and felt the pulse. The deep silence, that of a summer night in a country solitude, gave additional solemnity to the scene. The great salon, seen through the double doors, was lighted up for the little company of persons who were praying there; all were on their knees except the two priests who were seated and reading their brevaries. On either side of the grand state bed were the prelate in his violet robes, the rector, and the two physicians.
"She is agitated almost unto death," said Horace Bianchon, who, like all men of great talent, sometimes used speech as grand as the occasion that called it forth.
The archbishop rose as if some inward impulse drove him; he called to Monsieur Bonnet, and together they crossed the room, passed through the salon, and went out upon the terrace, where they walked up and down for some moments. When they returned, after discussing this case of ecclesiastical discipline, Roubaud met them.