The Village Rector by Honore de Balzac
The young man whom these two different loves were now on their way to comfort, who excited so much artless curiosity, so much spurious sympathy and true solicitude, was lying on his prison pallet in one of the condemned cells. A spy watched beside the door to catch, if possible, any words that might escape him, either in sleep or in one of his violent furies; so anxious were the officers of justice to exhaust all human means of discovering Jean-Francois Tascheron's accomplice and recover the sums stolen.
The des Vanneaulx had promised a reward to the police, and the police kept constant watch on the obstinate silence of the prisoner. When the man on duty looked through a loophole made for the purpose he saw the convict always in the same position, bound in the straight-jacket, his head secured by a leather thong ever since he had attempted to tear the stuff of the jacket with his teeth.
Jean-Francois gazed steadily at the ceiling with a fixed and despairing eye, a burning eye, as if reddened by the terrible thoughts behind it. He was a living image of the antique Prometheus; the memory of some lost happiness gnawed at his heart. When the solicitor-general himself went to see him that magistrate could not help testifying his surprise at a character so obstinately persistent. No sooner did any one enter his cell than Jean-Francois flew into a frenzy which exceeded the limits known to physicians for such attacks. The moment he heard the key turn in the lock or the bolts of the barred door slide, a light foam whitened his lips.
Jean-Francois Tascheron, then twenty-five years of age, was small but well-made. His wiry, crinkled hair, growing low on his forehead, indicated energy. His eyes, of a clear and luminous yellow, were too near the root of the nose,--a defect which gave him some resemblance to birds of prey. The face was round, of the warm brown coloring which marks the inhabitants of middle France. One feature of his physiognomy confirmed an assertion of Lavater as to persons who are destined to commit murder; his front teeth lapped each other. Nevertheless his face bore all the characteristics of integrity and a sweet and artless moral nature; there was nothing surprising in the fact that a woman had loved him passionately. His fresh mouth with its dazzling teeth was charming, but the vermilion of the lips was of the red-lead tint which indicates repressed ferocity, and, in many human beings, a free abandonment to pleasure. His demeanor showed none of the low habits of a workman. In the eyes of the women who were present at the trial it seemed evident that one of their sex had softened those muscles used to toil, had ennobled the countenance of the rustic, and given grace to his person. Women can always detect the traces of love in a man, just as men can see in a woman whether, as the saying is, love has passed that way.
Toward evening of the day we are now relating Jean-Francois heard the sliding of bolts and the noise of the key in the lock. He turned his head violently and gave vent to the horrible growl with which his frenzies began; but he trembled all over when the beloved heads of his sister and his mother stood out against the fading light, and behind them the face of the rector of Montegnac.
"The wretches! is this why they keep me alive?" he said, closing his eyes.
Denise, who had lately been confined in a prison, was distrustful of everything; the spy had no doubt hidden himself merely to return in a few moments. The girl flung herself on her brother, bent her tearful face to his and whispered:--
"They may be listening to us."
"Otherwise they would not have let you come here," he replied in a loud voice. "I have long asked the favor that none of my family should be admitted here."
"Oh! how they have bound him!" cried the mother. "My poor child! my poor boy!" and she fell on her knees beside the pallet, hiding her head in the cassock of the priest, who was standing by her.
"If Jean will promise me to be quiet," said the rector, "and not attempt to injure himself, and to behave properly while we are with him, I will ask to have him unbound; but the least violation of his promise will reflect on me."
"I do so want to move as I please, dear Monsieur Bonnet," said the criminal, his eyes moistening with tears, "that I give you my word to do as you wish."
The rector went out, and returned with the jailer, and the jacket was taken off.
"You won't kill me to-night, will you?" said the turnkey.
Jean made no answer.
"Poor brother!" said Denise, opening a basket which had just passed through a rigorous examination. "Here are some of the things you like; I dare say they don't feed you for the love of God."
She showed him some fruit, gathered as soon as the rector had told her she could go to the jail, and a galette his mother had immediately baked for him. This attention, which reminded him of his boyhood, the voice and gestures of his sister, the presence of his mother and the rector, brought on a reaction and he burst into tears.
"Ah! Denise," he said, "I have not had a good meal for six months. I eat only when driven to it by hunger."
The mother and sister went out and then returned; with the natural housekeeping spirit of such women, who want to give their men material comfort, they soon had a supper for their poor child. In this the officials helped them; for an order had been given to do all that could with safety be done for the condemned man. The des Vanneaulx had contributed, with melancholy hope, toward the comfort of the man from whom they still expected to recover their inheritance. Thus poor Jean- Francois had a last glimpse of family joys, if joys they could be called under such circumstances.
"Is my appeal rejected?" he said to Monsieur Bonnet.
"Yes, my child; nothing is left for you to do but to make a Christian end. This life is nothing in comparison to that which awaits you; you must think now of your eternal happiness. You can pay your debt to man with your life, but God is not content with such a little thing as that."
"Give up my life! Ah! you do not know all that I am leaving."
Denise looked at her brother as if to warn him that even in matters of religion he must be cautious.
"Let us say no more about it," he resumed, eating the fruit with an avidity which told of his inward fire. "When am I--"
"No, no! say nothing of that before me!" said the mother.
"But I should be easier in mind if I knew," he said, in a low voice to the rector.
"Always the same nature," exclaimed Monsieur Bonnet. Then he bent down to the prisoner's ear and whispered, "If you will reconcile yourself this night with God so that your repentance will enable me to absolve you, it will be to-morrow. We have already gained much in calming you," he said, aloud.
Hearing these last words, Jean's lips turned pale, his eyes rolled up in a violent spasm, and an angry shudder passed through his frame.
"Am I calm?" he asked himself. Happily his eyes encountered the tearful face of Denise, and he recovered his self-control. "So be it," he said to the rector; "there is no one but you to whom I would listen; they have known how to conquer me."
And he flung himself on his mother's breast.
"My son," said the mother, weeping, "listen to Monsieur Bonnet; he risks his life, the dear rector, in going to you to--" she hesitated, and then said, "to the gate of eternal life."
Then she kissed Jean's head and held it to her breast for some moments.
"Will he, indeed, go with me?" asked Jean, looking at the rector, who bowed his head in assent. "Well, yes, I will listen to him; I will do all he asks of me."
"You promise it?" said Denise. "The saving of your soul is what we seek. Besides, you would not have all Limoges and the village say that a Tascheron knows not how to die a noble death? And then, too, think that all you lose here you will regain in heaven, where pardoned souls will meet again."
This superhuman effort parched the throat of the heroic girl. She was silent after this, like her mother, but she had triumphed. The criminal, furious at seeing his happiness torn from him by the law, now quivered at the sublime Catholic truth so simply expressed by his sister. All women, even young peasant-women like Denise, know how to touch these delicate chords; for does not every woman seek to make love eternal? Denise had touched two chords, each most sensitive. Awakened pride called on the other virtues chilled by misery and hardened by despair. Jean took his sister's hand and kissed it, and laid it on his heart in a deeply significant manner; he applied it both gently and forcibly.
"Yes," he said, "I must renounce all; this is the last beating of my heart, its last thought. Keep them, Denise."
And he gave her one of those glances by which a man in crucial moments tries to put his soul into the soul of another human being.
This thought, this word, was, in truth, a last testament, an unspoken legacy, to be as faithfully transmitted as it was trustfully given. It was so fully understood by mother, sister, and priest, that they all with one accord turned their faces from each other, to hide their tears and keep the secret of their thoughts in their own breasts. Those few words were the dying agony of a passion, the farewell of a soul to the glorious things of earth, in accordance with true Catholic renunciation. The rector, comprehending the majesty of all great human things, even criminal things, judged of this mysterious passion by the enormity of the sin. He raised his eyes to heaven as if to invoke the mercy of God. Thence come the consolations, the infinite tendernesses of the Catholic religion,--so humane, so gentle with the hand that descends to man, showing him the law of higher spheres; so awful, so divine, with that other hand held out to lead him into heaven.
Denise had now significantly shown the rector the spot by which to strike that rock and make the waters of repentance flow. But suddenly, as though the memories evoked were dragging him backwards, Jean- Francois gave the harrowing cry of the hyena when the hunters overtake it.
"No, no!" he cried, falling on his knees, "I will live! Mother, give me your clothes; I can escape! Mercy, mercy! Go see the king; tell him--"
He stopped, gave a horrible roar, and clung convulsively to the rector's cassock.
"Go," said Monsieur Bonnet, in a low voice, to the agitated women.
Jean heard the words; he raised his head, gazed at his mother and sister, then he stopped and kissed their feet.
"Let us say farewell now; do not come back; leave me alone with Monsieur Bonnet. You need not be uneasy about me any longer," he said, pressing his mother and his sister to him with a strength in which he seemed to put all his life.
"How is it we do not die of this?" said Denise to her mother as they passed through the wicket.
It was nearly eight o'clock when this parting took place. At the gate of the prison the two women met the Abbe de Rastignac, who asked them news of the prisoner.
"He will no doubt be reconciled with God," said Denise. "If repentance has not yet begun, he is very near it."
The bishop was soon after informed that the clergy would triumph on this occasion, and that the criminal would go to the scaffold with the most edifying religious sentiments. The prelate, with whom was the attorney-general, expressed a wish to see the rector. Monsieur Bonnet did not reach the palace before midnight. The Abbe Gabriel, who made many trips between the palace and the jail, judged it necessary to fetch the rector in the episcopal coach; for the poor priest was in a state of exhaustion which almost deprived him of the use of his legs. The effect of his day, the prospect of the morrow, the sight of the secret struggle he had witnessed, and the full repentance which had at last overtaken his stubborn lamb when the great reckoning of eternity was brought home to him,--all these things had combined to break down Monsieur Bonnet, whose nervous, electrical nature entered into the sufferings of others as though they were his own. Souls that resemble that noble soul espouse so ardently the impressions, miseries, passions, sufferings of those in whom they are interested, that they actually feel them, and in a horrible manner, too; for they are able to measure their extent,--a knowledge which escapes others who are blinded by selfishness of heart or the paroxysm of grief. It is here that a priest like Monsieur Bonnet becomes an artist who feels, rather than an artist who judges.
When the rector entered the bishop's salon and found there the two grand-vicars, the Abbe de Rastignac, Monsieur de Grandville, and the procureur-general, he felt convinced that something more was expected of him.
"Monsieur," said the bishop, "have you obtained any facts which you can, without violating your duty, confide to the officers of the law for their guidance?"
"Monseigneur, in order to give absolution to that poor, wandering child, I waited not only till his repentance was as sincere and as complete as the Church could wish, but I have also exacted from him the restitution of the money."
"This restitution," said the procureur-general, "brings me here to-night; it will, of course, be made in such a way as to throw light on the mysterious parts of this affair. The criminal certainly had accomplices."
"The interests of human justice," said the rector, "are not those for which I act. I am ignorant of how the restitution will be made, but I know it will take place. In sending for me to minister to my parishioner, Monseigneur placed me under the conditions which give to rectors in their parishes the same powers which Monseigneur exercises in his diocese,--barring, of course, all questions of discipline and ecclesiastical obedience."
"That is true," said the bishop. "But the question here is how to obtain from the condemned man voluntary information which may enlighten justice."
"My mission is to win souls to God," said Monsieur Bonnet.
Monsieur de Grancour shrugged his shoulders slightly, but his colleague, the Abbe Dutheil nodded his head in sign of approval.
"Tascheron is no doubt endeavoring to shield some one, whom the restitution will no doubt bring to light," said the procureur- general.
"Monsieur," replied the rector, "I know absolutely nothing which would either confute or justify your suspicion. Besides, the secrets of confession are inviolable."
"Will the restitution really take place?" asked the man of law.
"Yes, monsieur," replied the man of God.
"That is enough for me," said the procureur-general, who relied on the police to obtain the required information; as if passions and personal interests were not tenfold more astute than the police.
The next day, this being market-day, Jean-Francois Tascheron was led to execution in a manner to satisfy both the pious and the political spirits of the town. Exemplary in behavior, pious and humble, he kissed the crucifix, which Monsieur Bonnet held to his lips with a trembling hand. The unhappy man was watched and examined; his glance was particularly spied upon; would his eyes rove in search of some one in the crowd or in a house? His discretion did, as a matter of fact, hold firm to the last. He died as a Christian should, repentant and absolved.
The poor rector was carried away unconscious from the foot of the scaffold, though he did not even see the fatal knife.
During the following night, on the high-road fifteen miles from Limoges, Denise, though nearly exhausted by fatigue and grief, begged her father to let her go again to Limoges and take with her Louis- Marie Tascheron, one of her brothers.
"What more have you to do in that town?" asked her father, frowning.
"Father," she said, "not only must we pay the lawyer who defended him, but we must also restore the money which he has hidden."
"You are right," said the honest man, pulling out a leathern pouch he carried with him.
"No, no," said Denise, "he is no longer your son. It is not for those who cursed him, but for those who loved him, to reward the lawyer."
"We will wait for you at Havre," said the father.
Denise and her brother returned to Limoges before daylight. When the police heard, later, of this return they were never able to discover where the brother and sister had hidden themselves.
Denise and Louis went to the upper town cautiously, about four o'clock that afternoon, gliding along in the shadow of the houses. The poor girl dared not raise her eyes, fearing to meet the glances of those who had seen her brother's execution. After calling on Monsieur Bonnet, who in spite of his weakness, consented to serve as father and guardian to Denise in the matter, they all went to the lawyer's house in the rue de la Comedie.
"Good-morning, my poor children," said the lawyer, bowing to Monsieur Bonnet; "how can I be of service to you? Perhaps you would like me to claim your brother's body and send it to you?"
"No, monsieur," replied Denise, weeping at an idea which had never yet occurred to her. "I come to pay his debt to you--so far, at least, as money can pay an eternal debt."
"Pray sit down," said the lawyer; noticing that Denise and the rector were still standing.
Denise turned away to take from her corset two notes of five hundred francs each, which were fastened by a pin to her chemise; then she sat down and offered them to her brother's defender. The rector gave the lawyer a flashing look which was instantly moistened by a tear.
"Keep the money for yourself, my poor girl," said the lawyer. "The rich do not pay so generously for a lost cause."
"Monsieur," said Denise, "I cannot obey you."
"Then the money is not yours?" said the lawyer.
"You are mistaken," she replied, looking at Monsieur Bonnet as if to know whether God would be angry at the lie.
The rector kept his eyes lowered.
"Well, then," said the lawyer, taking one note of five hundred francs and offering the other to the rector, "I will share it with the poor. Now, Denise, change this one, which is really mine," he went on, giving her the note, "for your velvet ribbon and your gold cross. I will hang the cross above my mantel to remind me of the best and purest young girl's heart I have ever known in my whole experience as a lawyer."
"I will give it to you without selling it," cried Denise, taking off her jeannette and offering it to him.
"Monsieur," said the rector, "I accept the five hundred francs to pay for the exhumation of the poor lad's body and its transportation to Montegnac. God has no doubt pardoned him, and Jean will rise with my flock on that last day when the righteous and the repentant will be called together to the right hand of the Father."
"So be it," replied the lawyer.
He took Denise by the hand and drew her toward him to kiss her forehead; but the action had another motive.
"My child," he whispered, "no one in Montegnac has five-hundred-franc notes; they are rare even at Limoges, where they are only taken at a discount. This money has been given to you; you will not tell me by whom, and I don't ask you; but listen to me: if you have anything more to do in this town relating to your poor brother, take care! You and Monsieur Bonnet and your brother Louis will be followed by police- spies. Your family is known to have left Montegnac, and as soon as you are seen here you will be watched and surrounded before you are aware of it."
"Alas!" she said. "I have nothing more to do here."
"She is cautious," thought the lawyer, as he parted from her. "However, she is warned; and I hope she will get safely off."
During this last week in September, when the weather was as warm as in summer, the bishop gave a dinner to the authorities of the place. Among the guests were the procureur-du-roi and the attorney-general. Some lively discussions prolonged the party till a late hour. The company played whist and backgammon, a favorite game with the clergy. Toward eleven o'clock the procureur-du-roi walked out upon the upper terrace. From the spot where he stood he saw a light on that island to which, on a certain evening, the attention of the bishop and the Abbe Gabriel had been drawn,--Veronique's "Ile de France,"--and the gleam recalled to the procureur's mind the unexplained mysteries of the Tascheron crime. Then, reflecting that there could be no legitimate reason for a fire on that lonely island in the river at that time of night, an idea, which had already struck the bishop and the secretary, darted into his mind with the suddenness and brilliancy of the flame itself which was shining in the distance.
"We have all been fools!" he cried; "but this will give us the accomplices."
He returned to the salon, sought out Monsieur de Grandville, said a few words in his ear, after which they both took leave. But the Abbe de Rastignac accompanied them politely to the door; he watched them as they departed, saw them go to the terrace, noticed the fire on the island, and thought to himself, "She is lost!"
The emissaries of the law got there too late. Denise and Louis, whom Jean had taught to dive, were actually on the bank of the river at a spot named to them by Jean, but Louis Tascheron had already dived four times, bringing up each time a bundle containing twenty thousand francs' worth of gold. The first sum was wrapped in a foulard handkerchief knotted by the four corners. This handkerchief, from which the water was instantly wrung, was thrown into a great fire of drift wood already lighted. Denise did not leave the fire until she saw every particle of the handkerchief consumed. The second sum was wrapped in a shawl, the third in a cambric handkerchief; these wrappings were instantly burned like the foulard.
Just as Denise was throwing the wrapping of the fourth and last package into the fire the gendarmes, accompanied by the commissary of police, seized that incriminating article, which Denise let them take without manifesting the least emotion. It was a handkerchief, on which, in spite of its soaking in the river, traces of blood could still be seen. When questioned as to what she was doing there, Denise said she was taking the stolen gold from the river according to her brother's instructions. The commissary asked her why she was burning certain articles; she said she was obeying her brother's last directions. When asked what those articles were she boldly answered, without attempting to deceive: "A foulard, a shawl, a cambric handkerchief, and the handkerchief now captured." The latter had belonged to her brother.
This discovery and its attendant circumstances made a great stir in Limoges. The shawl, more especially, confirmed the belief that Tascheron had committed this crime in the interests of some love affair.
"He protects that woman after his death," said one lady, hearing of these last discoveries, rendered harmless by the criminal's precautions.
"There may be some husband in Limoges who will miss his foulard," said the procureur-du-roi, with a laugh, "but he will not dare speak of it."
"These matters of dress are really so compromising," said old Madame Perret, "that I shall make a search through my wardrobe this very evening."
"Whose pretty little footmarks could he have taken such pains to efface while he left his own?" said Monsieur de Grandville.
"Pooh! I dare say she was an ugly woman," said the procureur-du-roi.
"She has paid dearly for her sin," observed the Abbe de Grancour.
"Do you know what this affair shows?" cried Monsieur de Grandville. "It shows what women have lost by the Revolution, which has levelled all social ranks. Passions of this kind are no longer met with except in men who still feel an enormous distance between themselves and their mistresses."
"You saddle love with many vanities," remarked the Abbe Dutheil.
"What does Madame Graslin think?" asked the prefect.
"What do you expect her to think?" said Monsieur de Grandville. "Her child was born, as she predicted to me, on the morning of the execution; she has not seen any one since then, for she is dangerously ill."
A scene took place in another salon in Limoges which was almost comical. The friends of the des Vanneaulx came to congratulate them on the recovery of their property.
"Yes, but they ought to have pardoned that poor man," said Madame des Vanneaulx. "Love, and not greed, made him steal the money; he was neither vicious nor wicked."
"He was full of consideration for us," said Monsieur des Vanneaulx; "and if I knew where his family had gone I would do something for them. They are very worthy people, those Tascherons."