The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
IV. The History of Many Married Women in the Provinces
So now, in her magnificent house and envied for her wealth by all the town, Madame Graslin recovered the solitude of her early years in her father's house, less the glow of hope and the youthful joys of ignorance. She lived among the ruins of her castles in the air, enlightened by sad experience, sustained by religious faith, occupied by the care of the poor, whom she loaded with benefits. She made clothes for the babies, gave mattresses and sheets to those who slept on straw; she went among the poor herself, followed by her maid, a girl from Auvergne whom her mother procured for her, and who attached herself body and soul to her mistress. Veronique made an honorable spy of her, sending her to discover the places where suffering could be stilled, poverty softened.
This active benevolence, carried on with strict attention to religious duties, was hidden in the deepest secrecy and directed by the various rectors in the town, with whom Veronique had a full understanding in all her charitable deeds, so as not to suffer the money so needed for unmerited misfortunes to fall into the hands of vice. It was during this period of her life that she won a friendship quite as strong and quite as precious as that of old Grossetete. She became the beloved lamb of a distinguished priest, who was persecuted for his true merits, which were wholly misunderstood, one of the two grand-vicars of the diocese, named the Abbe Dutheil.
This priest belonged to the portion of the French clergy who incline toward certain concessions, who would be glad to associate the Church with the people's interests, and so enable it to regain, through the application of true evangelical doctrine, its former influence over the masses, which it might then draw to closer relations with the monarchy. Whether it was that the Abbe Dutheil recognized the impossibility of enlightening the court of Rome and the higher clergy on this point, or that he had consented to sacrifice his own opinions to those of his superiors, it is certain that he remained within the limits of the strictest orthodoxy, being very well aware that any manifestation of his principles at the present time would deprive him of all chance of the episcopate.
This eminent priest united in himself great Christian modesty and a noble character. Without pride or ambition he remained at his post and did his duty in the midst of perils. The liberals of the town were ignorant of the motives of his conduct; they claimed him as being of their opinions and considered him a patriot,--a word which meant revolutionist in Catholic minds. Loved by his inferiors, who dared not, however, proclaim his merits, feared by his equals who kept watch upon him, he was a source of embarrassment to the bishop. His virtues and his knowledge, envied, no doubt, prevented persecution; it was impossible to complain of him, though he criticized frankly the political blunders by which both the throne and the clergy mutually compromised themselves. He often foretold results, but vainly,--like poor Cassandra, who was equally cursed before and after the disaster she predicted. Short of a revolution the Abbe Dutheil was likely to remain as he was, one of those stones hidden in the foundation wall on which the edifice rests. His utility was recognized and they left him in his place, like many other solid minds whose rise to power is the terror of mediocrities. If, like the Abbe de Lamennais, he had taken up his pen he would doubtless, like him, have been blasted by the court of Rome.
The Abbe Dutheil was imposing in appearance. His exterior revealed the underlying of a profound nature always calm and equable on the surface. His tall figure and its thinness did not detract from the general effect of his lines, which recalled those by which the genius of Spanish painters delights to represent the great monastic meditators, and those selected at a later period by Thorwaldsen for the Apostles. The long, almost rigid folds of the face, in harmony with those of his vestment, had the charm which the middle-ages bring into relief in the mystical statues placed beside the portals of their churches. Gravity of thought, word, and accent, harmonized in this man and became him well. Seeing his dark eyes hollowed by austerities and surrounded by a brown circle; seeing, too, his forehead, yellow as some old stone, his head and hands almost fleshless, men desired to hear the voice and the instructions which issued from his lips. This purely physical grandeur which accords with moral grandeur, gave this priest a somewhat haughty and disdainful air, which was instantly counteracted to an observer by his modesty and by his speech, though it did not predispose others in his favor. In some more elevated station these advantages would have obtained that necessary ascendancy over the masses which the people willingly allow to men who are thus endowed. But superiors will not forgive their inferiors for possessing the externals of greatness, nor for displaying that majesty so prized by the ancients but so often lacking to the administrators of modern power.
By one of those strange freaks of circumstance which are never accounted for, the other vicar-general, the Abbe de Grancour, a stout little man with a rosy complexion and blue eyes, whose opinions were diametrically opposed to those of the Abbe Dutheil, liked to be in the latter's company, although he never testified this liking enough to put himself out of the good graces of the bishop, to whom he would have sacrificed everything. The Abbe de Grancour believed in the merit of his colleague, recognized his talents, secretly accepted his doctrines, and condemned them openly; for the little priest was one of those men whom superiority attracts and intimidates,--who dislike it and yet cultivate it. "He would embrace me and condemn me," the Abbe Dutheil said of him. The Abbe de Grancour had neither friends nor enemies; he was therefore likely to live and die a vicar-general. He said he was drawn to visit Madame Graslin by the desire of counselling so religious and benevolent a person; and the bishop approved of his doing so,--Monsieur de Grancour's real object being to spend a few evenings with the Abbe Dutheil in Veronique's salon.
The two priests now came pretty regularly to see Madame Graslin, and make her a sort of report about her poor and discuss the best means of succoring and improving them. But Monsieur Graslin had now begun to tighten his purse-strings, having made the discovery, in spite of the innocent deceptions of his wife and her maid, that the money he paid did not go solely for household expenses and for dress. He was angry when he found out how much money his wife's charities cost him; he called the cook to account, inquired into all the details of the housekeeping, and showed what a grand administrator he was by practically proving that his house could be splendidly kept for three thousand francs a year. Then he put his wife on an allowance of a hundred francs a month, and boasted of his liberality in so doing. The office-boy, who liked flowers, was made to take care of the garden on Sundays. Having dismissed the gardener, Graslin used the greenhouse to store articles conveyed to him as security for loans. He let the birds in the aviary die for want of care, to avoid the cost of their food and attendance. And he even took advantage of a winter when there was no ice, to give up his icehouse and save the expense of filling it.
By 1828 there was not a single article of luxury in the house which he had not in some way got rid of. Parsimony reigned unchecked in the hotel Graslin. The master's face, greatly improved during the three years spent with his wife (who induced him to follow his physician's advice), now became redder, more fiery, more blotched than before. Business had taken such proportions that it was necessary to promote the boy-of-all-work to the position of cashier, and to find some stout Auvergnat for the rougher service of the hotel Graslin.
Thus, four years after her marriage, this very rich woman could not dispose of a single penny by her own will. The avarice of her husband succeeded the avarice of her parents. Madame Graslin had never understood the necessity of money until the time came when her benevolence was checked.
By the beginning of the year 1828 Veronique had entirely recovered the blooming health which had given such beauty to the innocent young girl sitting at her window in the old house in the rue de la Cite; but by this time she had acquired a fine literary education, and was fully able to think and to speak. An excellent judgment gave real depth to her words. Accustomed now to the little things of life, she wore the fashions of the period with infinite grace. When she chanced about this time to visit a salon she found herself--not without a certain inward surprise--received by all with respectful esteem. These changed feelings and this welcome were due to the two vicars-general and to old Grossetete. Informed by them of her noble hidden life, and the good deeds so constantly done in their midst, the bishop and a few influential persons spoke of Madame Graslin as a flower of true piety, a violet fragrant with virtues; in consequence of which, one of those strong reactions set in, unknown to Veronique, which are none the less solid and durable because they are long in coming. This change in public opinion gave additional influence to Veronique's salon, which was now visited by all the chief persons in the society of the town, in consequence of certain circumstances we shall now relate.
Toward the close of this year the young Vicomte de Grandville was sent as deputy solicitor to the courts of Limoges. He came preceded by a reputation always given to Parisians in the provinces. A few days after his arrival, during a soiree at the prefecture, he made answer to a rather foolish question, that the most able, intelligent, and distinguished woman he had met in the town was Madame Graslin.
"Perhaps you think her the handsomest also?" said the wife of the receiver-general.
"I cannot think so in your presence, madame," he replied, "and therefore I am in doubt. Madame Graslin possesses a beauty which need inspire no jealousy, for it seldom shows itself: she is only beautiful to those she loves; you are beautiful to all the world. When Madame Graslin's soul is moved by true enthusiasm, it sheds an expression upon her face which changes it completely. Her countenance is like a landscape,--dull in winter, glorious in summer; but the world will always see it in winter. When she talks with friends on some literary or philosophical topic, or on certain religious questions which interest her, she is roused into appearing suddenly an unknown woman of marvellous beauty."
This declaration, which was caused by observing the phenomenon that formerly made Veronique so beautiful on her return from the holy table, made a great noise in Limoges, where for a time the young deputy, to whom the place of the procureur-general was said to be promised, played a leading part. In all provincial towns a man who rises a trifle above others becomes, for a period more or less protracted, the object of a liking which resembles enthusiasm, and which usually deceives the object of this ephemeral worship. It is to this social caprice that we owe so many local geniuses, soon ignored and their false reputations mortified. The men whom women make the fashion in this way are oftener strangers than compatriots.
In this particular case the admirers of the Vicomte de Grandville were not mistaken; he was in truth a superior man. Madame Graslin was the only woman he found in Limoges with whom he could exchange ideas and keep up a varied conversation. A few months after his arrival, attracted by the increasing charm of Veronique's manners and conversation, he proposed to the Abbe Dutheil, and a few other of the remarkable men in Limoges, to meet in the evenings at Madame Graslin's house and play whist. At this time Madame Graslin was at home five evenings in the week to visitors, reserving two free days, as she said, for herself.
When Madame Graslin had thus gathered about her the distinguished men we have mentioned, others were not sorry to give themselves the reputation of cleverness by seeking to join the same society. Veronique also received three or four of the distinguished officers of the garrison and staff; but the freedom of mind displayed by her guests, and the tacit discretion enjoined by the manners of the best society, made her extremely cautious as to the admission of those who now vied with each other to obtain her invitations.
The other women in this provincial society were not without jealousy in seeing Madame Graslin surrounded by the most agreeable and distinguished men in the town; but by this time Veronique's social power was all the stronger because it was exclusive; she accepted the intimacy of four or five women only, and these were strangers in Limoges who had come from Paris with their husbands, and who held in horror the petty gossip of provincial life. If any one outside of this little clique of superior persons came in to make a visit, the conversation immediately changed, and the habitues of the house talked commonplace.
The hotel Graslin thus became an oasis where intelligent minds found relaxation and relief from the dulness of provincial life; where persons connected with the government could express themselves freely on politics without fear of having their words taken down and repeated; where all could satirize that which provoked satire, and where each individual abandoned his professional trammels and yielded himself up to his natural self.
So, after being the most obscure young girl in all Limoges, considered ugly, dull, and vacant, Madame Graslin, at the beginning of the year 1828, was regarded as one of the leading personages in the town, and the most noted woman in society. No one went to see her in the mornings, for all knew her habits of benevolence and the regularity of her religious observances. She always went to early mass so as not to delay her husband's breakfast, for which, however, there was no fixed hour, though she never failed to be present and to serve it herself. Graslin had trained his wife to this little ceremony. He continued to praise her on all occasions; he thought her perfect; she never asked him for anything; he could pile up louis upon louis, and spread his investments over a wide field of enterprise through his relations with the Brezacs; he sailed with a fair wind and well freighted over the ocean of commerce,--his intense business interest keeping him in the still, though half-intoxicated, frenzy of gamblers watching events on the green table of speculation.
During this happy period, and until the beginning of the year 1829, Madame Graslin attained, in the eyes of her friends, to a degree of beauty that was really extraordinary, the reasons of which they were unable to explain. The blue of the iris expanded like a flower, diminishing the dark circle of the pupil, and seeming to float in a liquid and languishing light that was full of love. Her forehead, illumined by thoughts and memories of happiness, was seen to whiten like the zenith before the dawn, and its lines were purified by an inward fire. Her face lost those heated brown tones which betoken a disturbance of the liver,--that malady of vigorous constitutions, or of persons whose soul is distressed and whose affections are thwarted. Her temples became adorably fresh and pure; gleams of the celestial face of a Raffaelle showed themselves now and then in hers,--a face hitherto obscured by the malady of grief, as the canvas of the great master is encrusted by time. Her hands seemed whiter; her shoulders took on an exquisite fulness; her graceful, animated movements gave to her supple figure its utmost charm.
The Limoges women accused her of being in love with Monsieur de Grandville, who certainly paid her assiduous attention, to which Veronique opposed all the barriers of a conscientious resistance. The viscount professed for her one of those respectful attachments which did not blind the habitual visitors of her salon. The priests and men of sense saw plainly that this affection, which was love on the part of the young man, did not go beyond the permissible line in Madame Graslin. Weary at last of a resistance based on religious principle, the Vicomte de Grandville consoled himself (to the knowledge of his intimates) with other and easier friendships; which did not, however, lessen his constant admiration and worship of the beautiful Madame Graslin,--such was the term by which she was designated in 1829.
The most clear-sighted among those who surrounded her attributed the change which rendered Veronique increasingly charming to her friends to the secret delight which all women, even the most religious, feel when they see themselves courted; and to the satisfaction of living at last in a circle congenial to her mind, where the pleasure of exchanging ideas and the happiness of being surrounded by intelligent and well-informed men and true friends, whose attachment deepened day by day, had dispersed forever the weary dulness of her life.
Perhaps, however, closer, more perceptive or sceptical observers were needed than those who frequented the hotel Graslin, to detect the barbaric grandeur, the plebeian force of the People which lay deep- hidden in her soul. If sometimes her friends surprised her in a torpor of meditation either gloomy or merely pensive, they knew she bore upon her heart the miseries of others, and had doubtless that morning been initiated in some fresh sorrow, or had penetrated to some haunt where vices terrify the soul with their candor.
The viscount, now promoted to be procureur-general, would occasionally blame her for certain unintelligent acts of charity by which, as he knew from his secret police-reports, she had given encouragement to criminal schemes.
"If you ever want money for any of your paupers, let me be a sharer in your good deeds," said old Grossetete, taking Veronique's hand.
"Ah!" she replied with a sigh, "it is impossible to make everybody rich."
At the beginning of this year an event occurred which was destined to change the whole interior life of this woman and to transform the splendid expression of her countenance into something far more interesting in the eyes of painters.
Becoming uneasy about his health, Graslin, to his wife's despair, no longer desired to live on the ground-floor. He returned to the conjugal chamber and allowed himself to be nursed. The news soon spread throughout Limoges that Madame Graslin was pregnant. Her sadness, mingled with joy, struck the minds of her friends, who then for the first time perceived that in spite of her virtues she had been happy in the fact of living separate from her husband. Perhaps she had hoped for some better fate ever since the time when, as it was known, the attorney-general had declined to marry the richest heiress in the place, in order to keep his loyalty to her.
From this suggestion there grew up in the minds of the profound politicians who played their whist at the hotel Graslin a belief that the viscount and the young wife had based certain hopes on the ill- health of the banker which were now frustrated. The great agitations which marked this period of Veronique's life, the anxieties which a first childbirth causes in every woman, and which, it is said, threatens special danger when she is past her first youth, made her friends more attentive than ever to her; they vied with each other in showing her those little kindnesses which proved how warm and solid their affection really was.