The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
Priests and religious devotees have a tendency in the matter of payments to keep strictly to the letter of the law. Is this from poverty, or from the selfishness to which their isolation condemns them, thus encouraging the natural inclination of all men to avarice; or is it from a conscientious parsimony which saves all it can for deeds of charity? Each nature will give a different answer to this question. The difficulty of putting the hand into the pocket, sometimes concealed by a gracious kindliness, oftener unreservedly exhibited, is more particularly noticeable in travelling. Gabriel de Rastignac, the prettiest youth who had served before the altar for many a long day, gave only a thirty-sous pour-boire to the postilion. Consequently he travelled slowly. Postilions drive bishops and other clergy with the utmost care when they merely double the legal wage, and they run no risk of damaging the episcopal carriage for any such sum, fearing, they might say, to get themselves into trouble. The Abbe Gabriel, who was travelling alone for the first time, said, at each relay, in his dulcet voice:--
"Pray go faster, postilion."
"We ply the whip," replied an old postilion, "according to how the traveller plies his finger and thumb."
The young abbe flung himself back into a corner of the carriage unable to comprehend that answer. To occupy the time he began to study the country through which he was passing, making several mental excursions on foot among the hills through which the road winds between Bordeaux and Lyon.
About fifteen miles from Limoges the landscape, losing the graceful flow of the Vienne through the undulating meadows of the Limousin, which in certain places remind one of Switzerland, especially about Saint-Leonard, takes on a harsh and melancholy aspect. Here we come upon vast tracts of uncultivated land, sandy plains without herbage, hemmed in on the horizon by the summits of the Correze. These mountains have neither the abrupt rise of the Alpine ranges nor their splendid ridges; neither the warm gorges and desolate peaks of the Appenines, nor the picturesque grandeur of the Pyrenees. Their undulating slopes, due to the action of water, prove the subsidence of some great natural catastrophe in which the floods retired slowly. This characteristic, common to most of the earth convulsions in France, has perhaps contributed, together with the climate, to the epitaph of douce bestowed by all Europe on our sunny France.
Though this abrupt transition from the smiling landscapes of the Limousin to the sterner aspects of La Marche and Auvergne may offer to the thinker and the poet, as he passes them on his way, an image of the Infinite, that terror of certain minds; though it incites to revelry the woman of the world, bored as she travels luxuriously in her carriage,--to the inhabitants of this region Nature is cruel, savage, and without resources. The soil of these great gray plains is thankless. The vicinity of a capital town could alone reproduce the miracle worked in Brie during the last two centuries. Here, however, not only is a town lacking, but also the great residences which sometimes give life to these hopeless deserts, where civilization languishes, where the agriculturist sees only barrenness, and the traveller finds not a single inn, nor that which, perchance, he is there to seek,--the picturesque.
Great minds, however, do not dislike these barren wastes, necessary shadows in Nature's vast picture. Quite recently Fenimore Cooper has magnificently developed with his melancholy genius the poesy of such solitudes, in his "Prairie." These regions, unknown to botanists, covered by mineral refuse, round pebbles, and a sterile soil, cast defiance to civilization. France should adopt the only solution to these difficulties, as the British have done in Scotland, where patient, heroic agriculture has changed the arid wastes into fertile farms. Left in their savage and primitive state these uncultivated social and natural wastes give birth to discouragement, laziness, weakness resulting from poor food, and crime when needs become importunate.
These few words present the past history of Montegnac. What could be done in that great tract of barren land, neglected by the government, abandoned by the nobility, useless to industry,--what but war against society which disregarded its duty? Consequently, the inhabitants of Montegnac lived to a recent period, as the Highlands of Scotland lived in former times, by murder and rapine. From the mere aspect of this region a thinking man would understand how, twenty years earlier, the inhabitants were at war with society. The great upland plain, flanked on one side by the valley of the Vienne, on the other by the charming valleys of La Marche, then by Auvergne, and bounded by the mountains of the Correze, is like (agriculture apart) the plateau of La Beauce, which separates the basin of the Loire from that of the Seine, also like those of Touraine and Berry, and many other of the great upland plains which are cut like facets on the surface of France and are numerous enough to claim the attention of the wisest administrators. It is amazing that while complaint is made of the influx of population to the social centres, the government does not employ the natural remedy of redeeming a region where, as statistics show, there are many million acres of waste land, certain parts of which, especially in Berry, have a soil from seven to eight feet deep.
Many of these plains which might be covered by villages and made splendidly productive belong to obstinate communes, the authorities of which refuse to sell to those who would develop them, merely to keep the right to pasture cows upon them! On all these useless, unproductive lands is written the word "Incapacity." All soils have some special fertility of their own. Arms and wills are ready; the thing lacking is a sense of duty combined with talent on the part of the government. In France, up to the present time, these upland plains have been sacrificed to the valleys; the government has chosen to give all its help to those regions of country which can take care of themselves.
Most of these luckless uplands are without water, the first essential for production. The mists which ought to fertilize the gray, dead soil by discharging oxygen upon it, sweep across it rapidly, driven by the wind, for want of trees which might arrest them and so obtain their nourishment. Merely to plant trees in such a region would be carrying a gospel to it. Separated from the nearest town or city by a distance as insurmountable to poor folk as though a desert lay between them, with no means of reaching a market for their products (if they produced anything), close to an unexplored forest which supplied them with wood and the uncertain livelihood of poaching, the inhabitants often suffered from hunger during the winters. The soil not being suitable for wheat, and the unfortunate peasantry having neither cattle of any kind nor farming implements, they lived for the most part on chestnuts.
Any one who has studied zoological productions in a museum, or become personally aware of the indescribable depression caused by the brown tones of all European products, will understand how the constant sight of these gray, arid plains must have affected the moral nature of the inhabitants, through the desolate sense of utter barrenness which they present to the eye. There, in those dismal regions, is neither coolness nor brightness, nor shade nor contrast,--none of all those ideas and spectacles of Nature which awaken and rejoice the heart; even a stunted apple-tree would be hailed as a friend.
A country road, recently made, runs through the centre of this great plain, and meets the high-road. Upon it, at a distance of some fifteen miles from the high-road, stands Montegnac, at the foot of a hill, as its name designates, the chief town of a canton or district in the Haute-Vienne. The hill is part of Montegnac, which thus unites a mountainous scenery with that of the plains. This district is a miniature Scotland, with its lowlands and highlands. Behind the hill, at the foot of which lies the village, rises, at a distance of about three miles, the first peak of the Correze mountains. The space between is covered by the great forest of Montegnac, which clothes the hill, extends over the valley, and along the slopes of the mountain (though these are bare in some places), continuing as far as the highway to Aubusson, where it diminishes to a point near a steep embankment on that road. This embankment commands a ravine through which the post-road between Bordeaux and Lyon passes. Travellers, either afoot or in carriages, were often stopped in the depths of this dangerous gorge by highwaymen, whose deeds of violence went unpunished, for the site favored them; they could instantly disappear, by ways known to them alone, into the inaccessible parts of the forest.
Such a region was naturally out of reach of law. No one now travelled through it. Without circulation, neither commerce, industry, exchange of ideas, nor any of the means to wealth, can exist; the material triumphs of civilization are always the result of the application of primitive ideas. Thought is invariably the point of departure and the goal of all social existence. The history of Montegnac is a proof of that axiom of social science. When at last the administration was able to concern itself with the needs and the material prosperity of this region of country, it cut down this strip of forest, and stationed a detachment of gendarmerie near the ravine, which escorted the mail- coaches between the two relays; but, to the shame of the gendarmerie be it said, it was the gospel, and not the sword, the rector Monsieur Bonnet, and not Corporal Chervin, who won a civil victory by changing the morals of a population. This priest, filled with Christian tenderness for the poor, hapless region, attempted to regenerate it, and succeeded in the attempt.
After travelling for about an hour over these plains, alternately stony and dusty, where the partridges flocked in tranquil coveys, their wings whirring with a dull, heavy sound as the carriage came toward them, the Abbe Gabriel, like all other travellers on the same road, saw with satisfaction the roofs of Montegnac in the distance. At the entrance of the village was one of those curious post-relays which are seen only in the remote parts of France. Its sign was an oak board on which some pretentious postilion had carved the words, Pauste o chevos, blackening the letters with ink, and then nailing the board by its four corners above the door of a wretched stable in which there were no horses. The door, which was nearly always open, had a plank laid on the soil for its threshold, to protect the stable floor, which was lower than the road, from inundation when it rained. The discouraged traveller could see within worn-out, mildewed, and mended harnesses, certain to break at a plunge of the horses. The horses themselves were hard at work in the fields, or anywhere but in the stable. If by any chance they happen to be in their stalls, they are eating; if they have finished eating, the postilion has gone to see his aunt or his cousin, or is getting in the hay, or else he is asleep; no one can say where he is; the traveller has to wait till he is found, and he never comes till he has finished what he is about. When he does come he loses an immense amount of time looking for his jacket and his whip, or putting the collars on his horses. Near by, at the door of the post-house, a worthy woman is fuming even more than the traveller, in order to prevent the latter from complaining loudly. This is sure to be the wife of the post-master, whose husband is away in the fields.
The bishop's secretary left his carriage before a post-house of this kind, the walls of which resembled a geographical map, while the thatched roof, blooming like a flower-garden, seemed to be giving way beneath the weight of stone-crop. After begging the post-mistress to have everything in readiness for his departure in an hour's time, the abbe asked the way to the parsonage. The good woman showed him a lane which led to the church, telling him the rectory was close beside it.
While the young abbe followed this lane, which was full of stones and closed on either side by hedges, the post-mistress questioned the postilion. Since starting from Limoges each postilion had informed his successor of the conjectures of the Limoges postilion as to the mission of the bishop's messenger. While the inhabitants of the town were getting out of bed and talking of the coming execution, a rumor spread among the country people that the bishop had obtained the pardon of the innocent man; and much was said about the mistakes to which human justice was liable. If Jean-Francois was executed later, it was certain that he was regarded in the country regions as a martyr.
After taking a few steps along the lane, reddened by the autumn leaves, and black with mulberries and damsons, the Abbe Gabriel turned round with the instinctive impulse which leads us all to make acquaintance with a region which we see for the first time,--a sort of instinctive physical curiosity shared by dogs and horses.
The position of Montegnac was explained to him as his eyes rested on various little streams flowing down the hillsides and on a little river, along the bank of which runs the country road which connects the chief town of the arrondissement with the prefecture. Like all the villages of this upland plain, Montegnac is built of earth baked in the sun and moulded into square blocks. After a fire a house looks as if it had been built of brick. The roofs are of thatch. Poverty is everywhere visible.
Before the village lay several fields of potatoes, radishes, and rye, redeemed from the barren plain. On the slope of the hill were irrigated meadows where the inhabitants raised horses, the famous Limousin breed, which is said to be a legacy of the Arabs when they descended by the Pyrenees into France and were cut to pieces by the battle-axes of the Franks under Charles Martel. The heights are barren. A hot, baked, reddish soil shows a region where chestnuts flourish. The springs, carefully applied to irrigation, water the meadows only, nourishing the sweet, crisp grass, so fine and choice, which produces this race of delicate and high-strung horses,--not over-strong to bear fatigue, but showy, excellent for the country of their birth, though subject to changes if transplanted. A few mulberry trees lately imported showed an intention of cultivating silk-worms.
Like most of the villages in this world Montegnac had but one street, through which the high road passed. Nevertheless there was an upper and a lower Montegnac, reached by lanes going up or going down from the main street. A line of houses standing along the brow of the hill presented the cheerful sight of terraced gardens, which were entered by flights of steps from the main street. Some had their steps of earth, others of pebbles; here and there old women were sitting on them, knitting or watching children, and keeping up a conversation from the upper to the lower town across the usually peaceful street of the little village; thus rumors spread easily and rapidly in Montegnac. All the gardens, which were full of fruit-trees, cabbages, onions, and other vegetables, had bee-hives along their terraces.
Another line of houses, running down from the main street to the river, the course of which was outlined by thriving little fields of hemp and the sorts of fruit trees which like moisture, lay parallel with the upper town; some of the houses, that of the post-house, for instance, were in a hollow, and were well-situated for certain kinds of work, such as weaving. Nearly all of them were shared by walnut- trees, the tree par excellence of strong soils.
On this side of the main street at the end farthest from the great plain was a dwelling-house, very much larger and better cared for than those in other parts of the village; around it were other houses equally well kept. This little hamlet, separated from the village by its gardens, was already called Les Tascherons, a name it keeps to the present day.
The village itself mounted to very little, but thirty or more outlying farms belonged to it. In the valley, leading down to the river, irrigating channels like those of La Marche and Berry indicated the flow of water around the village by the green fringe of verdure about them; Montegnac seemed tossed in their midst like a vessel at sea. When a house, an estate, a village, a region, passes from the wretched condition to a prosperous one, without becoming either rich or splendid, life seems so easy, so natural to living beings, that the spectator may not at once suspect the enormous labor, infinite in petty detail, grand in persistency like the toil buried in a foundation wall, in short, the forgotten labor on which the whole structure rests.
Consequently the scene that lay before him told nothing extraordinary to the young Abbe Gabriel as his eye took in the charming landscape. He knew nothing of the state of the region before the arrival of the rector, Monsieur Bonnet. The young man now went on a few steps and again saw, several hundred feet above the gardens of the upper village, the church and the parsonage, which he had already seen from a distance confusedly mingled with the imposing ruins clothed with creepers of the old castle of Montegnac, one of the residences of the Navarreins family in the twelfth century.
The parsonage, a house originally built no doubt for the bailiff or game-keeper, was noticeable for a long raised terrace planted with lindens from which a fine view extended over the country. The steps leading to this terrace and the walls which supported it showed their great age by the ravages of time. The flat moss which clings to stones had laid its dragon-green carpet on each surface. The numerous families of the pellitories, the chamomiles, the mesembryanthemums, pushed their varied and abundant tufts through the loop-holes in the walls, cracked and fissured in spite of their thickness. Botany had lavished there its most elegant drapery of ferns of all kinds, snap- dragons with their violet mouths and golden pistils, the blue anchusa, the brown lichens, so that the old worn stones seemed mere accessories peeping out at intervals from this fresh growth. Along the terrace a box hedge, cut into geometric figures, enclosed a pleasure garden surrounding the parsonage, above which the rock rose like a white wall surmounted by slender trees that drooped and swayed above it like plumes.
The ruins of the castle looked down upon the house and church. The house, built of pebbles and mortar, had but one story surmounted by an enormous sloping roof with gable ends, in which were attics, no doubt empty, considering the dilapidation of their windows. The ground-floor had two rooms parted by a corridor, at the farther end of which was a wooden staircase leading to the second floor, which also had two rooms. A little kitchen was at the back of the building in a yard, where were the stable and coach-house, both unused, deserted, and worthless. The kitchen garden lay between the church and the house; a ruined gallery led from the parsonage to the sacristy.
When the young abbe saw the four windows with their leaded panes, the brown and mossy walls, the door in common pine slit like a bundle of matches, far from being attracted by the adorable naivete of these details, the grace of the vegetations which draped the roof and the dilapidated wooden frames of the windows, the wealth of the clambering plants escaping from every cranny, and the clasping tendrils of the grape-vine which looked into every window as if to bring smiling ideas to those within, he congratulated himself heartily on being a bishop in perspective instead of a village rector.
This house, apparently always open, seemed to belong to everybody. The Abbe Gabriel entered a room communicating with the kitchen, which was poorly furnished with an oak table on four stout legs, a tapestried armchair, a number of chairs all of wood, and an old chest by way of buffet. No one was in the kitchen except a cat which revealed the presence of a woman about the house. The other room served as a salon. Casting a glance about it the young priest noticed armchairs in natural wood covered with tapestry; the woodwork and the rafters of the ceiling were of chestnut which had turned as black as ebony. A tall clock in a green case painted with flowers, a table with a faded green cloth, several chairs, two candlesticks on the chimney-piece, between which was an Infant Jesus in wax under a glass case, completed the furniture of the room. The chimney-piece of wood with common mouldings was filled by a fire-board covered by a painting representing the Good Shepherd with a lamb over his shoulder, which was probably the gift of some young girl,--the mayor's daughter, or the judge's daughter,--in return for the pastor's care of her education.
The forlorn condition of the house was distressing to behold; the walls, once whitewashed, were now discolored, and stained to a man's height by constant friction. The staircase with its heavy baluster and wooden steps, though very clean, looked as if it might easily give way under the feet. On the other side of the house, opposite to the entrance door, another door opening upon the kitchen garden enabled the Abbe de Rastignac to judge of the narrowness of that garden, which was closed at the back by a wall cut in the white and friable stone side of the mountain, against which espaliers were fastened, covered with grape-vines and fruit-trees so ill taken care of that their leaves were discolored with blight.
The abbe returned upon his steps and walked along the paths of the first garden, from which he could see, in the distance beyond the village, the magnificent stretch of valley, a true oasis at the edge of the vast plains, which now, veiled by the light mists of morning, lay along the horizon like a tranquil ocean. Behind him could be seen, on one side, for a foil, the dark masses of the bronze-green forest; on the other, the church and the ruins of the castle perched on the rock and vividly detached upon the blue of the ether. The Abbe Gabriel, his feet creaking on the gravelly paths cut in stars and rounds and lozenges, looked down upon the village, where some of the inhabitants were already gazing up at him, and then at the fresh, cool valley, with its tangled paths, its river bordered with willows in delightful contrast to the endless plain, and he was suddenly seized with sensations which changed the nature of his thoughts; he admired the sweet tranquillity of the place; he felt the influence of that pure air; he was conscious of the peace inspired by the revelation of a life brought back to Biblical simplicity; he saw, confusedly, the beauties of this old parsonage, which he now re-entered to examine its details with greater interest.
A little girl, employed, no doubt, to watch the house, though she was picking and eating fruit in the garden, heard the steps of a man with creaking shoes on the great square flags of the ground-floor rooms. She ran in to see who it was. Confused at being caught by a priest with a fruit in one hand and another in her mouth, she made no answer to the questions of the handsome young abbe. She had never imagined such an abbe,--dapper and spruce as hands could make him, in dazzling linen and fine black cloth without spot or wrinkle.
"Monsieur Bonnet?" she said at last. "Monsieur Bonnet is saying mass, and Mademoiselle Ursule is at church."
The Abbe Gabriel did not notice a covered way from the house to the church; he went back to the road which led to the front portal, a species of porch with a sloping roof that faced the village. It was reached by a series of disjointed stone steps, at the side of which lay a ravine washed out by the mountain torrents and covered with noble elms planted by Sully the Protestant. This church, one of the poorest in France where there are so many poor churches, was like one of those enormous barns with projecting doors covered by roofs supported on brick or wooden pillars. Built, like the parsonage, of cobblestones and mortar, flanked by a face of solid rock, and roofed by the commonest round tiles, this church was decorated on the outside with the richest creations of sculpture, rich in light and shade and lavishly massed and colored by Nature, who understands such art as well as any Michael Angelo. Ivy clasped the walls with its nervous tendrils, showing stems amid its foliage like the veins in a lay figure. This mantle, flung by Time to cover the wounds he made, was starred by autumn flowers drooping from the crevices, which also gave shelter to numerous singing birds. The rose-window above the projecting porch was adorned with blue campanula, like the first page of an illuminated missal. The side which communicated with the parsonage, toward the north, was not less decorated; the wall was gray and red with moss and lichen; but the other side and the apse, around which lay the cemetery, was covered with a wealth of varied blooms. A few trees, among others an almond-tree--one of the emblems of hope-- had taken root in the broken wall; two enormous pines standing close against the apsis served as lightning-rods. The cemetery, enclosed by a low, half-ruined wall, had for ornament an iron cross, mounted on a pedestal and hung with box, blessed at Easter,--one of those affecting Christian thoughts forgotten in cities. The village rector is the only priest who, in these days, thinks to go among his dead and say to them each Easter morn, "Thou shalt live again!" Here and there a few rotten wooden crosses stood up from the grassy mounds.
The interior of the church harmonized perfectly with the poetic tangle of the humble exterior, the luxury and art of which was bestowed by Time, for once in a way charitable. Within, the eye first went to the roof, lined with chestnut, to which age had given the richest tints of the oldest woods of Europe. This roof was supported at equal distances by strong shafts resting on transversal beams. The four white-washed walls had no ornament whatever. Poverty had made the parish iconoclastic, whether it would or not. The church, paved and furnished with benches, was lighted by four arched windows with leaded panes. The altar, shaped like a tomb, was adorned by a large crucifix placed above a tabernacle in walnut with a few gilt mouldings, kept clean and shining, eight candlesticks economically made of wood painted white, and two china vases filled with artificial flowers such as the drudge of a money-changer would have despised, but with which God was satisfied.
The sanctuary lamp was a night-wick placed in an old holy-water basin of plated copper hanging by silken cords, the spoil of some demolished chateau. The baptismal fonts were of wood; so were the pulpit and a sort of cage provided for the church-wardens, the patricians of the village. An altar to the Virgin presented to public admiration two colored lithographs in small gilt frames. The altar was painted white, adorned with artificial flowers in gilded wooden vases, and covered by a cloth edged with shabby and discolored lace.
At the farther end of the church a long window entirely covered by a red calico curtain produced a magical effect. This crimson mantle cast a rosy tint upon the whitewashed walls; a thought divine seemed to glow upon the altar and clasp the poor nave as if to warm it. The passage which led to the sacristy exhibited on one of its walls the patron saint of the village, a large Saint John the Baptist with his sheep, carved in wood and horribly painted.
But in spite of all this poverty the church was not without some tender harmonies delightful to choice souls, and set in charming relief by their own colors. The rich dark tones of the wood relieved the white of the walls and blended with the triumphal crimson cast on the chancel. This trinity of color was a reminder of the grand Catholic doctrine.
If surprise was the first emotion roused by this pitiful house of the Lord, surprise was followed speedily by admiration mingled with pity. Did it not truly express the poverty of that poor region? Was it not in harmony with the naive simplicity of the parsonage? The building was perfectly clean and well-kept. The fragrance of country virtues exhaled within it; nothing showed neglect or abandonment. Though rustic and poor and simple, prayer dwelt there; those precincts had a soul,--a soul which was felt, though we might not fully explain to our own souls how we felt it.