The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
XXI. Confession at the Gates of the Tomb
At ten o'clock in the morning the archbishop, wearing his pontifical robes, came into Madame Graslin's chamber. The prelate, as well as the rector, had such confidence in this woman that they gave her no advice or instructions as to the limits within which she ought to make her confession.
Veronique now saw an assemblage of clergy from all the neighboring districts. Monseigneur was assisted by four vicars. The magnificent vessels she had bestowed upon her dear parish church were brought to the house and gave splendor to the ceremony. Eight choristers in their white and red surplices stood in two rows from the bed to the door of the salon, each holding one of the large bronze-gilt candelabra which Veronique had ordered from Paris. The cross and the church banner were held on either side of the bed by white-haired sacristans. Thanks to the devotion of her servants, a wooden altar brought from the sacristy had been erected close to the door of the salon, and so prepared and decorated that Monseigneur could say mass upon it.
Madame Graslin was deeply touched by these attentions, which the Church, as a general thing, grants only to royal personages. The folding doors between the salon and the dining-room were open, and she could see a vista of the ground-floor rooms filled with the village population. Her friends had thought of everything; the salon was occupied exclusively by themselves and the servants of the household. In the front rank and grouped before the door of the bedroom were her nearest friends, those on whose discretion reliance could be placed. MM. Grossetete, de Grandville, Roubaud, Gerard, Clousier, Ruffin, took the first places. They had arranged among themselves that they should rise and stand in a group, thus preventing the words of the repentant woman from being heard in the farther rooms; but their tears and sobs would, in any case, have drowned her voice.
At this moment and before all else in that audience, two persons presented, to an observer, a powerfully affecting sight. One was Denise Tascheron. Her foreign garments, of Quaker simplicity, made her unrecognizable by her former village acquaintance. The other was quite another personage, an acquaintance not to be forgotten, and his apparition there was like a streak of lurid light. The procureur- general came suddenly to a perception of the truth; the part that he had played to Madame Graslin unrolled itself before him; he divined it to its fullest extent. Less influenced, as a son of the nineteenth century, by the religious aspect of the matter, Monsieur de Grandville's heart was filled with an awful dread; for he saw before him, he contemplated the drama of that woman's hidden self at the hotel Graslin during the trial of Jean-Francois Tascheron. That tragic period came back distinctly to his memory,--lighted even now by the mother's eyes, shining with hatred, which fell upon him where he stood, like drops of molten lead. That old woman, standing ten feet from him, forgave nothing. That man, representing human justice, trembled. Pale, struck to the heart, he dared not cast his eyes upon the bed where lay the woman he had loved so well, now livid beneath the hand of death, gathering strength to conquer agony from the greatness of her sin and its repentance. The mere sight of Veronique's thin profile, sharply defined in white upon the crimson damask, caused him a vertigo.
At eleven o'clock the mass began. After the epistle had been read by the rector of Vizay the archbishop removed his dalmatic and advanced to the threshold of the bedroom door.
"Christians, gather here to assist in the ceremony of extreme unction which we are about to administer to the mistress of this house," he said, "you who join your prayers to those of the Church and intercede with God to obtain from Him her eternal salvation, you are now to learn that she does not feel herself worthy, in this, her last hour, to receive the holy viaticum without having made, for the edification of her fellows, a public confession of the greatest of her sins. We have resisted her pious wish, although this act of contrition was long in use during the early ages of Christianity. But, as this poor woman tells us that her confession may serve to rehabilitate an unfortunate son of this parish, we leave her free to follow the inspirations of her repentance."
After these words, said with pastoral unction and dignity, the archbishop turned aside to give place to Veronique. The dying woman came forward, supported by her old mother and the rector,--the mother from whom she derived her body, the Church, the spiritual mother of her soul. She knelt down on a cushion, clasped her hands, and seemed to collect herself for a few moments, as if to gather from some source descending from heaven the power to speak. At this moment the silence was almost terrifying. None dared look at their neighbor. All eyes were lowered. And yet the eyes of Veronique, when she raised them, encountered those of the procureur-general, and the expression on that blanched face brought the color to hers.
"I could not die in peace," said Veronique, in a voice of deep emotion, "if I suffered the false impression you all have of me to remain. You see in me a guilty woman, who asks your prayers, and who seeks to make herself worthy of pardon by this public confession of her sin. That sin was so great, its consequences were so fatal, that perhaps no penance can atone for it. But the more humiliation I submit to here on earth, the less I may have to dread the wrath of God in the heavenly kingdom to which I am going. My father, who had great confidence in me, commended to my care (now twenty years ago) a son of this parish, in whom he had seen a great desire to improve himself, an aptitude for study, and fine characteristics. I mean the unfortunate Jean-Francois Tascheron, who thenceforth attached himself to me as his benefactress. How did the affection I felt for him become a guilty one? I think myself excused from explaining this. Perhaps it could be shown that the purest sentiments by which we act in this world were insensibly diverted from their course by untold sacrifices, by reasons arising from our human frailty, by many causes which might appear to dismiss the evil of my sin. But even if the noblest affections moved me, was I less guilty? Rather let me confess that I, who by education, by position in the world, might consider myself superior to the youth my father confided to me, and from whom I was separated by the natural delicacy of our sex,--I listened, fatally, to the promptings of the devil. I soon found myself too much the mother of that young man to be insensible to his mute and delicate admiration. He alone, he first, recognized my true value. But perhaps a horrible calculation entered my mind. I thought how discreet a youth would be who owed his all to me, and whom the chances of life had put so far away from me, though we were born equals. I made even my reputation for benevolence, my pious occupations, a cloak to screen my conduct. Alas!--and this is doubtless one of my greatest sins--I hid my passion under cover of the altar. The most virtuous of my actions--the love I bore my mother, the acts of devotion which were sincere and true in the midst of my wrong- doing--all, all were made to serve the ends of a desperate passion, and were links in the chain that held me. My poor beloved mother, who hears me now, was for a long time, ignorantly, an accomplice in my sin. When her eyes were opened, too many dangerous facts existed not to give her mother's heart the strength to be silent. Silence with her has been the highest virtue. Her love for her daughter has gone beyond her love to God. Ah! I here discharge her solemnly from the heavy burden of secrecy which she has borne. She shall end her days without compelling either eyes or brow to lie. Let her motherhood stand clear of blame; let that noble, sacred old age, crowned with virtue, shine with its natural lustre, freed of that link which bound her indirectly to infamy!"
Tears checked the dying woman's voice for an instant; Aline gave her salts to inhale.
"There is no one who has not been better to me than I deserve," she went on,--"even the devoted servant who does this last service; she has feigned ignorance of what she knew, but at least she was in the secret of the penances by which I have destroyed the flesh that sinned. I here beg pardon of the world for the long deception to which I have been led by the terrible logic of society. Jean-Francois Tascheron was not as guilty as he seemed. Ah! you who hear me, I implore you to remember his youth, and the madness excited in him partly by the remorse that seized upon me, partly by involuntary seductions. More than that! it was a sense of honor, though a mistaken honor, which caused the most awful of these evils. Neither of us could endure our perpetual deceit. He appealed, unhappy man, to my own right feeling; he sought to make our fatal love as little wounding to others as it could be. We meant to hide ourselves away forever. Thus I was the cause, the sole cause, of his crime. Driven by necessity, the unhappy man, guilty of too much devotion to an idol, chose from all evil acts the one which might be hereafter reparable. I knew nothing of it till the moment of execution. At that moment the hand of God threw down that scaffolding of false contrivances--I heard the cries; they echo in my ears! I divined the struggle, which I could not stop, --I, the cause of it! Tascheron was maddened; I swear it."
Here Veronique turned her eyes upon Monsieur de Grandville, and a sob was heard to issue from Denise Tascheron's breast.
"He lost his mind when he saw what he thought his happiness destroyed by unforeseen circumstances. The unhappy man, misled by his love, went headlong from a delinquent act to crime--from robbery to a double murder. He left my mother's house an innocent man, he returned a guilty one. I alone knew that there was neither premeditation nor any of the aggravating circumstances on which he was sentenced to death. A hundred times I thought of betraying myself to save him; a hundred times a horrible and necessary restraint stopped the words upon my lips. Undoubtedly, my presence near the scene had contributed to give him the odious, infamous, ignoble courage of a murderer. Were it not for me, he would have fled. I had formed that soul, trained that mind, enlarged that heart; I knew it; he was incapable of cowardice or meanness. Do justice to that involuntarily guilty arm, do justice to him, whom God, in his mercy, has allowed to sleep in his quiet grave, where you have wept for him, suspecting, it may be, the extenuating truth. Punish, curse the guilty creature before you! Horrified by the crime when once committed, I did my best to hide my share in it. Trusted by my father--I, who was childless--to lead a child to God, I led him to the scaffold! Ah! punish me, curse me, the hour has come!"
Saying these words, her eyes shone with the stoic pride of a savage. The archbishop, standing behind her, and as if protecting her with the pastoral cross, abandoned his impassible demeanor and covered his eyes with his right hand. A muffled cry was heard, as though some one were dying. Two persons, Gerard and Roubaud, received and carried away in their arms, Denise Tascheron, unconscious. That sight seemed for an instant to quench the fire in Veronique's eyes; she was evidently uneasy; but soon her self-control and serenity of martyrdom resumed their sway.
"You now know," she continued, "that I deserve neither praise or blessing for my conduct here. I have led in sight of Heaven, a secret life of bitter penance which Heaven will estimate. My life before men has been an immense reparation for the evils I have caused; I have marked my repentance ineffaceably on the earth; it will last almost eternally here below. It is written on those fertile fields, in the prosperous village, in the rivulets brought from the mountains to water the plain once barren and fruitless, now green and fertile. Not a tree will be cut for a hundred years to come but the people of this region will know of the remorse that made it grow. My repentant soul will still live here among you. What you will owe to its efforts, to a fortune honorably acquired, is the heritage of its repentance,--the repentance of her who caused the crime. All has been repaired so far as society is concerned; but I am still responsible for that life, crushed in its bud,--a life confided to me and for which I am now required to render an account."
The flame of her eyes was veiled in tears.
"There is here, before me, a man," she continued, "who, because he did his duty strictly, has been to me an object of hatred which I thought eternal. He was the first inflictor of my punishment. My feet were still too deep in blood, I was too near the deed, not to hate justice. So long as that root of anger lay in my heart, I knew there was still a lingering remnant of condemnable passion. I had nothing to forgive that man, I have only had to purify that corner of my heart where Evil lurked. However hard it may have been to win that victory, it is won."
Monsieur de Grandville turned a face to Veronique that was bathed in tears. Human justice seemed at that moment to feel remorse. When the confessing woman raised her head as if to continue, she met the agonizing look of old man Grossetete, who stretched his supplicating hands to her as if to say, "Enough, enough!" At the same instant a sound of tears and sobs was heard. Moved by such sympathy, unable to bear the balm of this general pardon, she was seized with faintness. Seeing that her daughter's vital force was gone at last, the old mother summoned the vigor of her youth to carry her away.
"Christians," said the archbishop, "you have heard the confession of that penitent woman; it confirms the sentence of human justice. You ought to see in this fresh reason to join your prayers to those of the Church which offers to God the holy sacrifice of the mass, to implore his mercy in favor of so deep a repentance."
The services went on. Veronique, lying on the bed, followed them with a look of such inward contentment that she seemed, to every eye, no longer the same woman. On her face was the candid and virtuous expression of the pure young girl such as she had been in her parents' home. The dawn of eternal life was already whitening her brow and glorifying her face with its celestial tints. Doubtless she heard the mystic harmonies, and gathered strength to live from her desire to unite herself once more with God in the last communion. The rector came beside the bed and gave her absolution. The archbishop administered the sacred oils with a fatherly tenderness that showed to all there present how dear the lost but now recovered lamb had been to him. Then, with the sacred anointing, he closed to the things of earth those eyes which had done such evil, and laid the seal of the Church upon the lips that were once too eloquent. The ears, by which so many evil inspirations had penetrated her mind, were closed forever. All the senses, deadened by repentance, were thus sanctified, and the spirit of evil could have no further power within her soul.
Never did assistants of this ceremony more fully understand the grandeur and profundity of the sacrament than those who now saw the acts of the Church justly following the confession of that dying woman.
Thus prepared, Veronique received the body of Jesus Christ with an expression of hope and joy which melted the ice of unbelief against which the rector had so often bruised himself. Roubaud, confounded in all his opinions, became a Catholic on the spot. The scene was touching and yet awesome; the solemnity of its every feature was so great that painters might have found there the subject of a masterpiece.
When this funeral part was over, and the dying woman heard the priests begin the reading of the gospel of Saint John, she signed to her mother to bring her son, who had been taken from the room by his tutor. When she saw Francis kneeling by the bedside the pardoned mother felt she had the right to lay her hand upon his head and bless him. Doing so, she died.
Old Madame Sauviat was there, at her post, erect as she had been for twenty years. This woman, heroic after her fashion, closed her daughter's eyes--those eyes that had wept so much--and kissed them. All the priests, followed by the choristers, surrounded the bed. By the flaming light of the torches they chanted the terrible De Profundis, the echoes of which told the population kneeling before the chateau, the friends praying in the salon, the servants in the adjoining rooms, that the mother of the canton was dead. The hymn was accompanied with moans and tears. The confession of that grand woman had not been audible beyond the threshold of the salon, and none but loving ears had heard it.
When the peasants of the neighborhood, joining with those of Montegnac, came, one by one, to lay upon their benefactress the customary palm, together with their last farewell mingled with prayers and tears, they saw the man of justice, crushed by grief, holding the hand of the woman whom, without intending it, he had so cruelly but so justly stricken.
Two days later the procureur-general, Grossetete, the archbishop, and the mayor, holding the corners of the black pall, conducted the body of Madame Graslin to its last resting-place. It was laid in the grave in deep silence; not a word was said; no one had strength to speak; all eyes were full of tears. "She is now a saint!" was said by the peasants as they went away along the roads of the canton to which she had given prosperity,--saying the words to her creations as though they were animate beings.
No one thought it strange that Madame Graslin was buried beside the body of Jean-Francois Tascheron. She had not asked it; but the old mother, as the last act of her tender pity, had requested the sexton to make the grave there,--putting together those whom earth had so violently parted, and whose souls were now reunited through repentance in purgatory.
Madame Graslin's will was found to be all that was expected of it. She founded scholarships and hospital beds at Limoges solely for working- men; she assigned a considerable sum--three hundred thousand francs in six years--for the purchase of that part of the village called Les Tascherons, where she directed that a hospital should be built. This hospital, intended for the indigent old persons of the canton, for the sick, for lying-in women if paupers, and for foundlings, was to be called the Tascheron Hospital. Veronique ordered it to be placed in charge of the Gray Sisters, and fixed the salaries of the surgeon and the physician at four thousand francs for each. She requested Roubaud to be the first physician of this hospital, placing upon him the choice of the surgeon, and requesting him to superintend the erection of the building with reference to sanitary arrangements, conjointly with Gerard, who was to be the architect. She also gave to the village of Montegnac an extent of pasture land sufficient to pay all its taxes. The church, she endowed with a fund to be used for a special purpose, namely: watch was to be kept over young workmen, and cases discovered in which some village youth might show a disposition for art, or science, or manufactures; the interest of the fund was then to be used in fostering it. The intelligent benevolence of the testatrix named the sum that should be taken for each of these encouragements.
The news of Madame Graslin's death, received throughout the department as a calamity, was not accompanied by any rumor injurious to the memory of this woman. This discretion was a homage rendered to so many virtues by the hard-working Catholic population, which renewed in this little corner of France the miracles of the "Lettres Edifiantes."
Gerard, appointed guardian of Francis Graslin, and obliged, by terms of the will, to reside at the chateau, moved there. But he did not marry Denise Tascheron until three months after Veronique's death. In her, Francis found a second mother.