The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
VI. Discussions and Christian Solicitudes
In spite of the verdict, the drama of this crime did not seem over so far as the community was concerned. So complicated a case gave rise, as usually happens under such circumstances, to two sets of diametrically opposite opinions as to the guilt of the hero, whom some declared to be an innocent and ill-used victim, and others the worst of criminals.
The liberals held for Tascheron's innocence, less from conviction than for the satisfaction of opposing the government.
"What an outrage," they said, "to condemn a man because his footprint is the size of another man's footprint; or because he will not tell you where he spent the night, as if all young men would not rather die than compromise a woman. They prove he borrowed tools and bought iron, but have they proved he made that key? They find a bit of blue linen hanging to the branch of a tree, possibly put there by old Pingret himself to scare the crows, though it happens to match a tear in Tascheron's blouse. Is a man's life to depend on such things as these? Jean-Francois denies everything, and the prosecution has not produced a single witness who saw the crime or anything relating to it."
They talked over, enlarged upon, and paraphrased the arguments of the defence. "Old Pingret! what was he?--a cracked money box!" said the strong-minded. A few of the more determined progressists, denying the sacred laws of property, which the Saint-Simonians were already attacking under their abstract theories of political economy, went further.
"Pere Pingret," they said, "was the real author of the crime. By hoarding his gold that man robbed the nation. What enterprises might have been made fruitful by his useless money! He had barred the way of industry, and was justly punished."
They pitied the poor murdered servant-woman, but Denise, Tascheron's sister, who resisted the wiles of lawyers and did not give a single answer at the trial without long consideration of what she ought to say, excited the deepest interest. She became in their minds a figure to be compared (though in another sense) with Jeannie Deans, whose piety, grace, modesty and beauty she possessed.
Francois Tascheron continued, therefore, to excite the curiosity of not only all the town but all the department, and a few romantic women openly testified their admiration for him.
"If there is really in all this a love for some woman high above him," they said, "then he is surely no ordinary man, and you will see that he will die well."
The question, "Will he speak out,--will he not speak?" gave rise to many a bet.
Since the burst of rage with which Tascheron received his sentence, and which was so violent that it might have been fatal to persons about him in the court-room if the gendarmes had not been there to master him, the condemned man threatened all who came near him with the fury of a wild beast; so that the jailers were obliged to put him into a straight-jacket, as much to protect his life as their own from the effects of his anger. Prevented by that controlling power from doing violence, Tascheron gave vent to his despair by convulsive jerks which horrified his guardians, and by words and looks which the middle-ages would have attributed to demoniacal possession. He was so young that many women thought pitifully of a life so full of passion about to be cut off forever. "The Last Day of a Condemned Man," that mournful elegy, that useless plea against the penalty of death (the mainstay of society!), which had lately been published, as if expressly to meet this case, was the topic of all conversations.
But, above all, in the mind of every one, stood that invisible unknown woman, her feet in blood, raised aloft by the trial as it were on a pedestal,--torn, no doubt, by horrible inward anguish and condemned to absolute silence within her home. Who was this Medea whom the public well-nigh admired,--the woman with that impenetrable brow, that white breast covering a heart of steel? Perhaps she was the sister or the cousin or the daughter or the wife of this one or of that one among them! Alarm seemed to creep into the bosom of families. As Napoleon finely said, it is especially in the domain of the imagination that the power of the Unknown is immeasurable.
As for the hundred thousand francs stolen from Monsieur and Madame des Vanneaulx no efforts of the police could find them; and the obstinate silence of the criminal gave no clue. Monsieur de Grandville tried the common means of holding out hopes of commutation of the sentence in case of confession; but when he went to see the prisoner and suggest it the latter received him with such furious cries and epileptic contortions, such rage at being powerless to take him by the throat, that he could do nothing.
The law could only look to the influence of the Church at the last moment. The des Vanneaulx had frequently consulted with the Abbe Pascal, chaplain of the prison. This priest was not without the faculty of making prisoners listen to him, and he religiously braved Tascheron's violence, trying to get in a few words amid the storms of that powerful nature in convulsion. But this struggle of spiritual fatherhood against the hurricane of unchained passions, overcame the poor abbe completely.
"The man has had his paradise here below," said the old man, in his gentle voice.
Little Madame des Vanneaulx consulted her friends as to whether she ought to try a visit herself to the criminal. Monsieur des Vanneaulx talked of offering terms. In his anxiety to recover the money he actually went to Monsieur de Grandville and asked for the pardon of his uncle's murderer if the latter would make restitution of the hundred thousand francs. The procureur-general replied that the majesty of the crown did not stoop to such compromises.
The des Vanneaulx then had recourse to the lawyer who had defended Tascheron, and to him they offered ten per cent of whatever sum he could recover. This lawyer was the only person before whom Tascheron was not violent. The heirs authorized him to offer the prisoner an additional ten per cent to be paid to his family. In spite of all these inducements and his own eloquence, the lawyer could obtain nothing whatever from his client. The des Vanneaulx were furious; they anathematized the unhappy man.
"He is not only a murderer, but he has no sense of decency," cried Madame des Vanneaulx (ignorant of Fualdes' famous complaint), when she received word of the failure of the Abbe Pascal's efforts, and was told there was no hope of a reversal of the sentence by the court of appeals.
"What good will our money do him in the place he is going to?" said her husband. "Murder can be conceived of, but useless theft is inconceivable. What days we live in, to be sure! To think that people in good society actually take an interest in such a wretch!"
"He has no honor," said Madame des Vanneaulx.
"But perhaps the restitution would compromise the woman he loves," said an old maid.
"We would keep his secret," returned Monsieur des Vanneaulx.
"Then you would be compounding a felony," remarked a lawyer.
"Oh, the villain!" was Monsieur des Vanneaulx's usual conclusion.
One of Madame Graslin's female friends related to her with much amusement these discussions of the des Vanneaulx. This lady, who was very intelligent, and one of those persons who form ideals and desire that all things should attain perfection, regretted the violence and savage temper of the condemned; she would rather he had been cold and calm and dignified, she said.
"Do you not see," replied Veronique, "that he is thus avoiding their temptations and foiling their efforts? He is making himself a wild beast for a purpose."
"At any rate," said the lady, "he is not a well-bred man; he is only a workman."
"If he had been a well-bred man," said Madame Graslin, "he would soon have sacrificed that unknown woman."
These events, discussed and turned and twisted in every salon, every household, commented on in a score of ways, stripped bare by the cleverest tongues in the community, gave, of course, a cruel interest to the execution of the criminal, whose appeal was rejected after two months' delay by the upper court. What would probably be his demeanor in his last moments? Would he speak out? Would he contradict himself? How would the bets be decided? Who would go to see him executed, and who would not go, and how could it be done? The position of the localities, which in Limoges spares a criminal the anguish of a long distance to the scaffold, lessens the number of spectators. The law courts which adjoin the prison stand at the corner of the rue du Palais and the rue du Pont-Herisson. The rue du Palais is continued in a straight line by the short rue de Monte-a-Regret, which leads to the place des Arenes, where the executions take place, and which probably owes its name to that circumstances. There is therefore but little distance to go, few houses to pass, and few windows to look from. No person in good society would be willing to mingle in the crowd which would fill the streets.
But the expected execution was, to the great astonishment of the whole town, put off from day to day for the following reason:--
The repentance and resignation of great criminals on their way to death is one of the triumphs which the Church reserves for itself,--a triumph which seldom misses its effect on the popular mind. Repentance is so strong a proof of the power of religious ideas--taken apart from all Christian interest, though that, of course, is the chief object of the Church--that the clergy are always distressed by a failure on such occasions. In July, 1829, such a failure was aggravated by the spirit of party which envenomed every detail in the life of the body politic. The liberal party rejoiced in the expectation that the priest-party (a term invented by Montlosier, a royalist who went over to the constitutionals, and was dragged by them far beyond his wishes),--that the priests would fail on so public an occasion before the eyes of the people. Parties en masse commit infamous actions which would cover a single man with shame and opprobrium; therefore when one man alone stands in his guilt before the eyes of the masses, he becomes a Robespierre, a Jeffries, a Laubardemont, a species of expiatory altar on which all secret guilts hang their ex-votos.
The authorities, sympathizing with the Church, delayed the execution, partly in the hope of gaining some conclusive information for themselves, and partly to allow religion an opportunity to prevail.
Nevertheless, their power was not unlimited, and the sentence must sooner or later be carried out. The same liberals who, out of mere opposition, had declared Tascheron innocent, and who had done their best to break down the verdict, now clamored because the sentence was not executed. When the opposition is consistent it invariably falls into such unreasonableness, because its object is not to have right on its own side, but to harass the authorities and put them in the wrong.
Accordingly, about the beginning of August, the government officials felt their hand forced by that clamor, so often stupid, called "public opinion." The day for the execution was named. In this extremity the Abbe Dutheil took upon himself to propose to the bishop a last resource, the adoption of which caused the introduction into this judicial drama of a remarkable personage, who serves as a bond between all the figures brought upon the scene of it, and who, by ways familiar to Providence, was destined to lead Madame Graslin along a path where her virtues were to shine with greater brilliancy as a noble benefactress and an angelic Christian woman.
The episcopal palace at Limoges stands on a hill which slopes to the banks of the Vienne; and its gardens, supported by strong walls topped with a balustrade, descend to the river by terrace after terrace, according to the natural lay of the land. The rise of this hill is such that the suburb of Saint-Etienne on the opposite bank seems to lie at the foot of the lower terrace. From there, according to the direction in which a person walks, the Vienne can be seen either in a long stretch or directly across it, in the midst of a fertile panorama. On the west, after the river leaves the embankment of the episcopal gardens, it turns toward the town in a graceful curve which winds around the suburb of Saint-Martial. At a short distance beyond that suburb is a pretty country house called Le Cluseau, the walls of which can be seen from the lower terrace of the bishop's palace, appearing, by an effect of distance, to blend with the steeples of the suburb. Opposite to Le Cluseau is the sloping island, covered with poplar and other trees, which Veronique in her girlish youth had named the Ile de France. To the east the distance is closed by an ampitheatre of hills.
The magic charm of the site and the rich simplicity of the building make this episcopal palace one of the most interesting objects in a town where the other edifices do not shine, either through choice of material or architecture.
Long familiarized with the aspects which commend these gardens to all lovers of the picturesque, the Abbe Dutheil, who had induced the Abbe de Grancour to accompany him, descended from terrace to terrace, paying no attention to the ruddy colors, the orange tones, the violet tints, which the setting sun was casting on the old walls and balustrades of the gardens, on the river beneath them, and, in the distance, on the houses of the town. He was in search of the bishop, who was sitting on the lower terrace under a grape-vine arbor, where he often came to take his dessert and enjoy the charm of a tranquil evening. The poplars on the island seemed at this moment to divide the waters with the lengthening shadow of their yellowing heads, to which the sun was lending the appearance of a golden foliage. The setting rays, diversely reflected on masses of different greens, produced a magnificent harmony of melancholy tones. At the farther end of the valley a sheet of sparkling water ruffled by the breeze brought out the brown stretch of roofs in the suburb of Saint-Etienne. The steeples and roofs of Saint-Martial, bathed in light, showed through the tracery of the grape-vine arbor. The soft murmur of the provincial town, half hidden by the bend of the river, the sweetness of the balmy air, all contributed to plunge the prelate into the condition of quietude prescribed by medical writers on digestion; seemingly his eyes were resting mechanically on the right bank of the river, just where the long shadows of the island poplars touched it on the side toward Saint-Etienne, near the field where the twofold murder of old Pingret and his servant had been committed. But when his momentary felicity was interrupted by the arrival of the two grand vicars, and the difficulties they brought to him to solve, it was seen his eyes were filled with impenetrable thoughts. The two priests attributed this abstraction to the fact of being bored, whereas, on the contrary, the prelate was absorbed in seeing in the sands of the Vienne the solution of the enigma then so anxiously sought for by the officers of justice, the des Vanneaulx, and the community at large.
"Monsieur," said the Abbe de Grancour, approaching the bishop, "it is all useless; we shall certainly have the distress of seeing that unhappy Tascheron die an unbeliever. He vociferates the most horrible imprecations against religion; he insults that poor Abbe Pascal; he spits upon the crucifix; and means to die denying all, even hell."
"He will shock the populace on the scaffold," said the Abbe Dutheil. "The great scandal and horror his conduct will excite may hide our defeat and powerlessness. In fact, as I have just been saying to Monsieur de Grancour, this very spectacle may drive other sinners into the arms of the Church."
Troubled by these words, the bishop laid down upon a rustic wooden table the bunch of grapes at which he was picking, and wiped his fingers as he made a sign to the two grand vicars to be seated.
"The Abbe Pascal did not take a wise course," he said.
"He is actually ill in his bed from the effects of his last scene with the man," said the Abbe de Grancour. "If it were not for that we might get him to explain more clearly the difficulties that have defeated all the various efforts monseigneur ordered him to make."
"The condemned man sings obscene songs at the highest pitch of his voice as soon as he sees any one of us, so as to drown out every word we try to say to him," said a young priest who was sitting beside the bishop.
This young man, who was gifted with a charming personality, had his right arm resting on the table, while his white hand dropped negligently on the bunches of grapes, seeking the ripest, with the ease and assurance of an habitual guest or favorite. He was both to the prelate, being the younger brother of Baron Eugene de Rastignac, to whom ties of family and also of affection had long bound the Bishop of Limoges. Aware of the want of fortune which devoted this young man to the Church, the bishop took him as his private secretary to give him time to wait for eventual preferment. The Abbe Gabriel bore a name which would lead him sooner or later to the highest dignities of the Church.
"Did you go to see him, my son?" asked the bishop.
"Yes, Monseigneur. As soon as I entered his cell the wretched man hurled the most disgusting epithets at you and at me. He behaved in such a manner that it was impossible for any priest to remain in his presence. Might I give Monseigneur a word of advice?"
"Let us listen to the words of wisdom which God Almighty sometimes puts into the mouths of children," said the bishop, smiling.
"Well, you know he made Balaam's ass speak out," said the young abbe quickly.
"But according to some commentators she did not know what she was saying," replied the bishop, laughing.
The two grand vicars smiled. In the first place, the joke came from Monseigneur; next, it bore gently on the young abbe, of whom the dignitaries and other ambitious priests grouped around the bishop were somewhat jealous.
"My advice would be," resumed the young man, "to ask Monsieur de Grandville to reprieve the man for the present. When Tascheron knows that he owes an extension of his life to our intercession, he may pretend to listen to us, and if he listens--"
"He will persist in his present conduct, finding that it has won him that advantage," said the bishop, interrupting his favorite. "Messieurs," he said, after a moment's silence, "does the whole town know of these details?"
"There is not a household in which they are not talked over," said the Abbe de Grancour. "The state in which our good Abbe Pascal was put by his last efforts is the present topic of conversation throughout the town."
"When is Tascheron to be executed?" asked the bishop.
"To-morrow, which is market-day"; replied Monsieur de Grancour.
"Messieurs," exclaimed the bishop, "religion must not be overset in this way. The more public attention is attracted to the matter, the more I am determined to obtain a notable triumph. The Church is now in presence of a great difficulty. We are called upon to do miracles in this manufacturing town, where the spirit of sedition against religious and monarchical principles has such deep root, where the system of inquiry born of protestantism (which in these days calls itself liberalism, prepared at any moment to take another name) extends into everything. Go at once to Monsieur de Grandville; he is wholly on our side, and say to him from me that we beg for a few days' reprieve. I will go myself and see that unhappy man."
"You, Monseigneur!" said the Abbe de Rastignac. "If you should fail, wouldn't that complicate matters? You ought not to go unless you are certain of success."
"If Monseigneur will permit me to express my opinion," said the Abbe Dutheil, "I think I can suggest a means which may bring victory to religion in this sad case."
The prelate answered with a sign of assent, so coldly given as to show how little credit he gave to his vicar-general.
"If any one can influence that rebellious soul and bring it back to God," continued the Abbe Dutheil, "it is the rector of the village in which he was born, Monsieur Bonnet."
"One of your proteges," remarked the bishop.
"Monseigneur, Monsieur Bonnet is one of those men who protect themselves, both by their active virtues and their gospel work."
This simple and modest reply was received in a silence which would have embarrassed any other man than the Abbe Dutheil. The three priests chose to see in it one of those hidden and unanswerable sarcasms which are characteristic of ecclesiastics, who contrive to express what they want to say while observing the strictest decorum. In this case there was nothing of the kind. The Abbe Dutheil never thought of himself and had no double meaning.
"I have heard of Saint Aristides for some time," said the bishop, smiling. "If I have left his light under a bushel I may have been unjust or prejudiced. Your liberals are always crying up Monsieur Bonnet as though he belonged to their party. I should like to judge for myself of this rural apostle. Go at once, messieurs, to Monsieur de Grandville, and ask for the reprieve; I will await his answer before sending our dear Abbe Gabriel to Montegnac to fetch the saintly man. We will give his Blessedness a chance to do miracles."
As he listened to these words of the prelate the Abbe Dutheil reddened; but he would not allow himself to take notice of the incivilities of the speech. The two grand vicars bowed in silence and withdrew, leaving the prelate alone with his secretary.
"The secrets of the confession we are so anxious to obtain from the unhappy man himself are no doubt buried there," said the bishop to his young abbe, pointing to the shadow of the poplars where it fell on a lonely house between the island and Saint-Etienne.
"I have always thought so," replied Gabriel. "I am not a judge and I will not be an informer; but if I were a magistrate I should have known the name of that woman who trembles at every sound, at every word, while forced to keep her features calm and serene under pain of going to the scaffold with her lover. She has nothing to fear, however. I have seen the man; he will carry the secret of that passionate love to the grave with him."
"Ah! you sly fellow!" said the bishop, twisting the ear of his secretary as he motioned to the space between the island and the suburb of Saint-Etienne which the last gleams of the setting sun were illuminating, and on which the young abbe's eyes were fixed. "That is the place where justice should have searched; don't you think so?"
"I went to see the criminal to try the effect of my suspicions upon him," replied the young man. "I could not speak them out, for fear of compromising the woman for whose sake he dies."
"Yes," said the bishop, "we will hold our tongues; we are not the servants of human justice. One head is enough. Besides, sooner or later, the secret will be given to the Church."
The perspicacity which the habit of meditation gives to priests is far superior to that of lawyers or the police. By dint of contemplating from those terraces the scene of the crime, the prelate and his secretary had ended by perceiving circumstances unseen by others, in spite of all the investigations before and during the trial of the case.
Monsieur de Grandville was playing whist at Madame Graslin's house; it was necessary to await his return; the bishop did not therefore receive his answer till nearly midnight. The Abbe Gabriel, to whom the prelate lent his carriage, started at two in the morning for Montegnac. This region, which begins about twenty-five miles from the town, is situated in that part of the Limousin which lies at the base of the mountains of the Correze and follows the line of the Creuze. The young abbe left Limoges all heaving with expectation of the spectacle on the morrow, and still unaware that it would not take place.