The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
On the return of old Sauviat Graslin paid his first evening visit at half-past nine o'clock. Veronique was expecting him, dressed in her blue silk gown and muslin guimpe, over which fell a collaret made of lawn with a deep hem. Her hair was simply worn in two smooth bandeaus, gathered into a Grecian knot at the back of her head. She was seated on a tapestried chair beside her mother, who occupied a fine armchair with a carved back, covered with red velvet (evidently the relic of some old chateau), which stood beside the fireplace. A bright fire blazed on the hearth. On the chimney-piece, at either side of an antique clock, the value of which was wholly unknown to the Sauviats, six wax candles in two brass sconces twisted like vine-shoots, lighted the dark room and Veronique in all her budding prime. The old mother was wearing her best gown.
From the silent street, at that tranquil hour, through the soft shadows of the ancient stairway, Graslin appeared to the modest, artless Veronique, her mind still dwelling on the sweet ideas which Bernadin de Saint-Pierre had given her of love.
Graslin, who was short and thin, had thick black hair like the bristles of a brush, which brought into vigorous relief a face as red as that of a drunkard emeritus, and covered with suppurating pimples, either bleeding or about to burst. Without being caused by eczema or scrofula, these signs of a blood overheated by continual toil, anxiety, and the lust of business, by wakeful nights, poor food, and a sober life, seemed to partake of both these diseases. In spite of the advice of his partners, his clerks, and his physician, the banker would never compel himself to take the healthful precautions which might have prevented, or would at least modify, this malady, which was slight at first, but had greatly increased from year to year. He wanted to cure it, and would sometimes take baths or drink some prescribed potion; but, hurried along on the current of his business, he soon neglected the care of his person. Sometimes he thought of suspending work for a time, travelling about, and visiting the noted baths for such diseases; but where is the hunter after millions who is willing to stop short?
In that blazing furnace shone two gray eyes rayed with green lines starting from the pupils, and speckled with brown spots,--two implacable eyes, full of resolution, rectitude, and shrewd calculation. Graslin's nose was short and turned up; he had a mouth with thick lips, a prominent forehead, and high cheek-bones, coarse ears with large edges discolored by the condition of his blood,--in short, he was an ancient satyr in a black satin waistcoat, brown frock-coat, and white cravat. His strong and vigorous shoulders, which began life by bearing heavy burdens, were now rather bent; and beneath this torso, unduly developed, came a pair of weak legs, rather badly affixed to the short thighs. His thin and hairy hands had the crooked fingers of those whose business it is to handle money. The habit of quick decision could be seen in the way the eyebrows rose into a point over each arch of the eye. Though the mouth was grave and pinched, its expression was that of inward kindliness; it told of an excellent nature, sunk in business, smothered possibly, though it might revive by contact with a woman.
At this apparition Veronique's heart was violently agitated; blackness came before her eyes; she thought she cried aloud; but she really sat there mute, with fixed and staring gaze.
"Veronique, this is Monsieur Graslin," said old Sauviat.
Veronique rose, curtsied, dropped back into her chair, and looked at her mother, who was smiling at the millionaire, seeming, as her father did, so happy,--so happy that the poor girl found strength to hide her surprise and her violent repulsion. During the conversation which then took place something was said of Graslin's health. The banker looked naively into the mirror, with bevelled edges in an ebony frame.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "I am not good-looking."
Thereupon he proceeded to explain the blotches on his face as the result of his overworked life. He related how he had constantly disobeyed his physician's advice; and remarked that he hoped to change his appearance altogether when he had a wife to rule his household, and take better care of him than he took of himself.
"Is a man married for his face, compatriot?" said Sauviat, giving the other a hearty slap on the thigh.
Graslin's speech went straight to those natural feelings which, more or less, fill the heart of every woman. The thought came into Veronique's mind that her face, too, had been destroyed by a horrible disease, and her Christian modesty rebuked her first impression.
Hearing a whistle in the street, Graslin went downstairs, followed by Sauviat. They speedily returned. The office-boy had brought the first bouquet, which was a little late in coming. When the banker exhibited this mound of exotic flowers, the fragrance of which completely filled the room, and offered it to his future wife, Veronique felt a rush of conflicting emotions; she was suddenly plunged into the ideal and fantastic world of tropical nature. Never before had she seen white camelias, never had she smelt the fragrance of the Alpine cistus, the Cape jessamine, the cedronella, the volcameria, the moss-rose, or any of the divine perfumes which woo to love, and sing to the heart their hymns of fragrance. Graslin left Veronique that night in the grasp of such emotions.
From this time forth, as soon as all Limoges was sleeping, the banker would slip along the walls to the Sauviats' house. There he would tap gently on the window-shutter; the dog did not bark; old Sauviat came down and let him in, and Graslin would then spend an hour or two with Veronique in the brown room, where Madame Sauviat always served him a true Auvergnat supper. Never did this singular lover arrive without a bouquet made of the rarest flowers from the greenhouse of his old partner, Monsieur Grossetete, the only person who as yet knew of the approaching marriage. The man-of-all-work went every evening to fetch the bunch, which Monsieur Grossetete made himself.
Graslin made about fifty such visits in two months; each time, besides the flowers, he brought with him some rich present,--rings, a watch, a gold chain, a work-box, etc. These inconceivable extravagances must be explained, and a word suffices. Veronique's dowry, promised by her father, consisted of nearly the whole of old Sauviat's property, namely, seven hundred and fifty thousand francs. The old man retained an income of eight thousand francs derived from the Funds, bought for him originally for sixty thousand francs in assignats by his correspondent Brezac, to whom, at the time of his imprisonment, he had confided that sum, and who kept it for him safely. These sixty thousand francs in assignats were the half of Sauviat's fortune at the time he came so near being guillotined. Brezac was also, at the same time, the faithful repository of the rest, namely, seven hundred louis d'or (an enormous sum at that time in gold), with which old Sauviat began his business once more as soon as he recovered his liberty. In thirty years each of those louis d'or had been transformed into a bank-note for a thousand francs, by means of the income from the Funds, of Madame Sauviat's inheritance from her father, old Champagnac, and of the profits accruing from the business and the accumulated interest thereon in the hands of the Brezac firm. Brezac himself had a loyal and honest friendship for Sauviat,--such as all Auvergnats are apt to feel for one another.
So, whenever Sauviat passed the front of the Graslin mansion he had said to himself, "Veronique shall live in that fine palace." He knew very well that no girl in all the department would have seven hundred and fifty thousand francs as a marriage portion, besides the expectation of two hundred and fifty thousand more. Graslin, his chosen son-in-law, would therefore infallibly marry Veronique; and so, as we have seen, it came about.
Every evening Veronique had her fresh bunch of flowers, which on the morrow decked her little salon and was carefully concealed from the neighbors. She admired the beautiful jewels, the pearls and diamonds, the bracelets, the rubies, gifts which assuredly gratify all the daughters of Eve. She thought herself less plain when she wore them. She saw her mother happy in the marriage, and she had no other point of view from which to make comparisons. She was, moreover, totally ignorant of the duties or the purpose of marriage. She heard the solemn voice of the vicar of Saint-Etienne praising Graslin to her as a man of honor, with whom she would lead an honorable life. Thus it was that Veronique consented to receive Monsieur Graslin as her future husband.
When it happens that in a life so withdrawn from the world, so solitary as that of Veronique, a single person enters it every day, that person cannot long remain indifferent; either he is hated, and the aversion, justified by a deepening knowledge of his character, renders him intolerable, or the habit of seeing bodily defects dims the eye to them. The mind looks about for compensations; his countenance awakens curiosity; its features brighten; fleeting beauties appear in it. At last the inner, hidden beneath the outer, shows itself. Then, when the first impressions are fairly overcome, the attachment felt is all the stronger, because the soul clings to it as its own creation. That is love. And here lies the reason of those passions conceived by beautiful things for other beings apparently ugly. The outward aspect, forgotten by affection, is no longer seen in a creature whose soul is deeply valued. Besides this, beauty, so necessary to a woman, takes many strange aspects in man; and there is as much diversity of feeling among women about the beauty of men as there is among men about the beauty of women. So, after deep reflection and much debating with herself, Veronique gave her consent to the publication of the banns.
From that moment all Limoges rang with this inexplicable affair,-- inexplicable because no one knew the secret of it, namely, the immensity of the dowry. Had that dowry been known Veronique could have chosen a husband where she pleased; but even so, she might have made a mistake.
Graslin was thought to be much in love. Upholsterers came from Paris to fit up the house. Nothing was talked of in Limoges but the profuse expenditures of the banker. The value of the chandeliers was calculated; the gilding of the walls, the figures on the clocks, all were discussed; the jardinieres, the caloriferes, the objects of luxury and novelty, nothing was left unnoticed. In the garden of the hotel Graslin, above the icehouse, was an aviary, and all the inhabitants of the town were presently surprised by the sight of rare birds,--Chinese pheasants, mysterious breeds of ducks. Every one flocked to see them. Monsieur and Madame Grossetete, an old couple who were highly respected in Limoges, made several visits to the Sauviats, accompanied by Graslin. Madame Grossetete, a most excellent woman, congratulated Veronique on her happy marriage. Thus the Church, the family, society, and all material things down to the most trivial, made themselves accomplices to bring about this marriage.
In the month of April the formal invitations to the wedding were issued to all Graslin's friends and acquaintance. On a fine spring morning a caleche and a coupe, drawn by Limousin horses chosen by Monsieur Grossetete, drew up at eleven o'clock before the shop of the iron-dealer, bringing, to the great excitement of the neighborhood, the former partners of the bridegroom and the latter's two clerks. The street was lined with spectators, all anxious to see the Sauviats' daughter, on whose beautiful hair the most renowned hairdresser in Limoges had placed the bridal wreath and a costly veil of English lace. Veronique wore a gown of simple white muslin. A rather imposing assemblage of the most distinguished women in the society of the town attended the wedding in the cathedral, where the bishop, knowing the religious fervor of the Sauviats, deigned to marry Veronique himself. The bride was very generally voted plain.
She entered her new house, and went from one surprise to another. A grand dinner was to precede the ball, to which Graslin had invited nearly all Limoges. The dinner, given to the bishop, the prefect, the judge of the court, the attorney-general, the mayor, the general, and Graslin's former partners with their wives, was a triumph for the bride, who, like all other persons who are simple and natural, showed charms that were not expected in her. Neither of the bridal pair could dance; Veronique continued therefore to do the honors to her guests, and to win the esteem and good graces of nearly all the persons who were presented to her, asking Grossetete, who took an honest liking to her, for information about the company. She made no mistakes and committed no blunders. It was during this evening that the two former partners of the banker announced the amount of the dowry (immense for Limousin) given by the Sauviats to their daughter. At nine o'clock the old iron-dealer returned home and went to bed, leaving his wife to preside over the bride's retiring. It was said by everyone throughout the town that Madame Graslin was very plain, though well made.
Old Sauviat now wound up his business and sold his house in town. He bought a little country-place on the left bank of the Vienne between Limoges and Cluzeau, ten minutes' walk from the suburb of Saint- Martial, where he intended to finish his days tranquilly with his wife. The old couple had an apartment in the hotel Graslin and always dined once or twice a week with their daughter, who, as often, made their house in the country the object of her walks.
This enforced rest almost killed old Sauviat. Happily, Graslin found a means of occupying his father-in-law. In 1823 the banker was forced to take possession of a porcelain manufactory, to the proprietors of which he had advanced large sums, which they found themselves unable to repay except by the sale of their factory, which they made to him. By the help of his business connections and by investing a large amount of property in the concern, Graslin made it one of the finest manufactories of Limoges ware in the town. Afterwards he resold it at a fine profit; meantime he placed it under the superintendence of his father-in-law, who, in spite of his seventy-two years, counted for much in the return of prosperity to the establishment, who himself renewed his youth in the employment. Graslin was then able to attend to his legitimate business of banking without anxiety as to the manufactory.
Sauviat died in 1827 from an accident. While taking account of stock he fell into a charasse,--a sort of crate with an open grating in which the china was packed; his leg was slightly injured, so slightly that he paid no attention to it; gangrene set in; he would not consent to amputation, and therefore died. The widow gave up about two hundred and fifty thousand francs which came to her from Sauviat's estate, reserving only a stipend of two hundred francs a month, which amply sufficed for her wants. Graslin bound himself to pay her that sum duly. She kept her little house in the country, and lived there alone without a servant and against the remonstrances of her daughter, who could not induce her to alter this determination, to which she clung with the obstinacy peculiar to old persons. Madame Sauviat came nearly every day into Limoges to see her daughter, and the latter still continued to make her mother's house, from which was a charming view of the river, the object of her walks. From the road leading to it could be seen that island long loved by Veronique and called by her the Ile de France.
In order not to complicate our history of the Graslin household with the foregoing incidents, we have thought it best to end that of the Sauviats by anticipating events, which are moreover useful as explaining the private and hidden life which Madame Graslin now led. The old mother, noticing that Graslin's miserliness, which returned upon him, might hamper her daughter, was for some time unwilling to resign the property left to her by her husband. But Veronique, unable to imagine a case in which a woman might desire the use of her own property, urged it upon her mother with reasons of great generosity, and out of gratitude to Graslin for restoring to her the liberty and freedom of a young girl. But this is anticipating.
The unusual splendor which accompanied Graslin's marriage had disturbed all his habits and constantly annoyed him. The mind of the great financier was a very small one. Veronique had had no means of judging the man with whom she was to pass her life. During his fifty- five visits he had let her see nothing but the business man, the indefatigable worker, who conceived and sustained great enterprises, and analyzed public affairs, bringing them always to the crucial test of the Bank. Fascinated by the million offered to him by Sauviat, he showed himself generous by calculation. Carried away by the interests of his marriage and by what he called his "folly," namely, the house which still goes by the name of the hotel Graslin, he did things on a large scale. Having bought horses, a caleche, and a coupe, he naturally used them to return the wedding visits and go to those dinners and balls, called the "retours de noces," which the heads of the administration and the rich families of Limoges gave to the newly married pair. Under this impulsion, which carried him entirely out of his natural sphere, Graslin sent to Paris for a man-cook and took a reception day. For a year he kept the pace of a man who possesses a fortune of sixteen hundred thousand francs, and he became of course the most noted personage in Limoges. During this year he generously put into his wife's purse every month twenty-five gold pieces of twenty francs each.
Society concerned itself much about Veronique from the day of her marriage, for she was a boon to its curiosity, which has little to feed on in the provinces. Veronique was all the more studied because she had appeared in the social world like a phenomenon; but once there, she remained always simple and modest, in the attitude of a person who is observing habits, customs, manners, things unknown to her, and endeavoring to conform to them. Already voted ugly but well- shaped, she was now declared kindly but stupid. She was learning so many things, she had so much to hear and to see that her looks and speech did certainly give some reason for this judgment. She showed a sort of torpor which resembled lack of mind. Marriage, that hard calling, as she said, for which the Church, the Code, and her mother exhorted her to resignation and obedience, under pain of transgressing all human laws and causing irreparable evil, threw her into a dazed and dizzy condition, which amounted sometimes to a species of inward delirium.
Silent and self-contained, she listened as much to herself as she did to others. Feeling within her the most violent "difficulty of existing," to use an expression of Fontenelle's, which was constantly increasing, she became terrified at herself. Nature resisted the commands of the mind, the body denied the will. The poor creature, caught in the net, wept on the breast of that great Mother of the poor and the afflicted,--she went for comfort to the Church; her piety redoubled, she confided the assaults of the demon to her confessor; she prayed to heaven for succor. Never, at any period of her life, did she fulfil her religious duties with such fervor. The despair of not loving her husband flung her violently at the foot of the altar, where divine and consolatory voices urged her to patience. She was patient, she was gentle, and she continued to live on, hoping always for the happiness of maternity.
"Did you notice Madame Graslin this morning?" the women would say to each other. "Marriage doesn't agree with her; she is actually green."
"Yes," some of them would reply; "but would you give your daughter to a man like Graslin? No woman could marry him with impunity."
Now that Graslin was married, all the mothers who had courted him for ten years past pursued him with sarcasms.
Veronique grew visibly thinner and really ugly; her eyes looked weary, her features coarsened, her manner was shy and awkward; she acquired that air of cold and melancholy rigidity for which the ultra-pious are so often blamed. Her skin took on a grayish tone; she dragged herself languidly about during this first year of married life, ordinarily so brilliant for a young wife. She tried to divert her mind by reading, profiting by the liberty of married women to read what they please. She read the novels of Walter Scott, the poems of Lord Byron, the works of Schiller and of Goethe, and much else of modern and also ancient literature. She learned to ride a horse, and to dance and to draw. She painted water-colors and made sepia sketches, turning ardently to all those resources which women employ to bear the weariness of their solitude. She gave herself that second education which most women derive from a man, but which she derived from herself only.
The natural superiority of a free, sincere spirit, brought up, as it were in a desert and strengthened by religion, had given her a sort of untrammelled grandeur and certain needs, to which the provincial world she lived in offered no sustenance. All books pictured Love to her, and she sought for the evidence of its existence, but nowhere could she see the passion of which she read. Love was in her heart, like seeds in the earth, awaiting the action of the sun. Her deep melancholy, caused by constant meditation on herself, brought her back by hidden by-ways to the brilliant dreams of her girlish days. Many a time she must have lived again that old romantic poem, making herself both the actor and the subject of it. Again she saw that island bathed in light, flowery, fragrant, caressing to her soul. Often her pallid eyes wandered around a salon with piercing curiosity. The men were all like Graslin. She studied them, and then she seemed to question their wives; but nothing on the faces of those women revealed an inward anguish like to hers, and she returned home sad and gloomy and distressed about herself. The authors she had read in the morning answered to the feelings in her soul; their thoughts pleased her; but at night she heard only empty words, not even presented in a lively way,--dull, empty, foolish conversations in petty local matters, or personalities of no interest to her. She was often surprised at the heat displayed in discussions which concerned no feeling or sentiment --to her the essence of existence, the soul of life.
Often she was seen with fixed eyes, mentally absorbed, thinking no doubt of the days of her youthful ignorance spent in that chamber full of harmonies now forever passed away. She felt a horrible repugnance against dropping into the gulf of pettiness in which the women among whom she lived were floundering. This repugnance, stamped on her forehead, on her lips, and ill-disguised, was taken for the insolence of a parvenue. Madame Graslin began to observe on all faces a certain coldness; she felt in all remarks an acrimony, the causes of which were unknown to her, for she had no intimate friend to enlighten or advise her. Injustice, which angers little minds, brings loftier souls to question themselves, and communicates a species of humility to them. Veronique condemned herself, endeavoring to see her own faults. She tried to be affable; they called her false. She grew more gentle still; they said she was a hypocrite, and her pious devotion helped on the calumny. She spent money, gave dinners and balls, and they taxed her with pride.
Unsuccessful in all these attempts, unjustly judged, rebuffed by the petty and tormenting pride which characterizes provincial society, where each individual is armed with pretensions and their attendant uneasiness, Madame Graslin fell back into utter solitude. She returned with eagerness to the arms of the Church. Her great soul, clothed with so weak a flesh, showed her the multiplied commandments of Catholicism as so many stones placed for protection along the precipices of life, so many props brought by charitable hands to sustain human weakness on its weary way; and she followed, with greater rigor than ever, even the smallest religious practices.
On this the liberals of the town classed Madame Graslin among the devotes, the ultras. To the different animosities Veronique had innocently acquired, the virulence of party feeling now added its periodical exasperation. But as this ostracism took nothing really from her, she quietly left society and lived in books which offered her such infinite resources. She meditated on what she read, she compared systems, she widened immeasurably the horizons of her intellect and the extent of her education; in this way she opened the gates of her soul to curiosity.
During this period of resolute study, in which religion supported and maintained her mind, she obtained the friendship of Monsieur Grossetete, one of those old men whose mental superiority grows rusty in provincial life, but who, when they come in contact with an eager mind, recover something of their former brilliancy. The good man took an earnest interest in Veronique, who, to reward him for the flattering warmth of heart which old men show to those they like, displayed before him, and for the first time in her life, the treasures of her soul and the acquirements of her mind, cultivated so secretly, and now full of blossom. An extract from a letter written by her about this time to Monsieur Grossetete will show the condition of the mind of a woman who was later to give signal proofs of a firm and lofty nature:--
At the end of the third year of his married life, Graslin, observing that his wife no longer used her horses, and finding a good market for them, sold them. He also sold the carriages, sent away the coachman, let the bishop have his man-cook, and contented himself with a woman. He no longer gave the monthly sum to his wife, telling her that he would pay all bills. He thought himself the most fortunate of husbands in meeting no opposition whatever to these proceedings from the woman who had brought him a million of francs as a dowry. Madame Graslin, brought up from childhood without ever seeing money, or being made to feel that it was an indispensable element in life, deserved no praise whatever for this apparent generosity. Graslin even noticed in a corner of the secretary all the sums he had ever given her, less the money she had bestowed in charity or spent upon her dress, the cost of which was much lessened by the profusion of her wedding trousseau.
Graslin boasted of Veronique to all Limoges as being a model wife. He next regretted the money spent on the house, and he ordered the furniture to be all packed away or covered up. His wife's bedroom, dressing-room, and boudoir were alone spared from these protective measures; which protect nothing, for furniture is injured just as much by being covered up as by being left uncovered. Graslin himself lived almost entirely on the ground-floor of the house, where he had his office, and resumed his old business habits with avidity. He thought himself an excellent husband because he went upstairs to breakfast and dined with his wife; but his unpunctuality was so great that it was not more than ten times a month that he began a meal with he; he had exacted, out of courtesy, that she should never wait for him. Veronique did, however, always remain in the room while her husband took his meals, serving him herself, that she might at least perform voluntarily some of the visible obligations of a wife.
The banker, to whom the things of marriage were very indifferent, and who had seen nothing in his wife but seven hundred and fifty thousand francs, had never once perceived Veronique's repugnance to him. Little by little he now abandoned Madame Graslin for his business. When he wished to put a bed in the room adjoining his office on the ground- floor, Veronique hastened to comply with the request. So that three years after their marriage these two ill-assorted beings returned to their original estate, each equally pleased and happy to do so. The moneyed man, possessing eighteen hundred thousand francs, returned with all the more eagerness to his old avaricious habits because he had momentarily quitted them. His two clerks and the office-boy were better lodged and rather better fed, and that was the only difference between the present and the past. His wife had a cook and maid (two indispensable servants); but except for the actual necessities of life, not a penny left his coffers for his household.
Happy in the turn which things were now taking, Veronique saw in the evident satisfaction of the banker the absolution for this separation which she would never have asked for herself. She had no conception that she was as disagreeable to Graslin as Graslin was repulsive to her. This secret divorce made her both sad and joyful. She had always looked to motherhood for an interest in life; but up to this time (1828) the couple had had no prospect of a family.