ABBE MOURET'S TRANSGRESSION
By Emile Zola
Edited with an Introduction by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly
'LA FAUTE DE L'ABBE MOURET' was, with respect to the date of publication, the fourth volume of M. Zola's 'Rougon-Macquart' series; but in the amended and final scheme of that great literary undertaking, it occupies the ninth place. It proceeds from the sixth volume of the series, 'The Conquest of Plassans;' which is followed by the two works that deal with the career of Octave Mouret, Abbe Serge Mouret's elder brother. In 'The Conquest of Plassans,' Serge and his half-witted sister, Desiree, are seen in childhood at their home in Plassans, which is wrecked by the doings of a certain Abbe Faujas and his relatives. Serge Mouret grows up, is called by an instinctive vocation to the priesthood, and becomes parish priest of Les Artaud, a well-nigh pagan hamlet in one of those bare, burning stretches of country with which Provence abounds. And here it is that 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret' opens in the old ruinous church, perched upon a hillock in full view of the squalid village, the arid fields, and the great belts of rock which shut in the landscape all around.
There are two elements in this remarkable story, which, from the standpoint of literary style, has never been excelled by anything that M. Zola has since written; and one may glance at it therefore from two points of view. Taking it under its sociological and religious aspect, it will be found to be an indirect indictment of the celibacy of the priesthood; that celibacy, contrary to Nature's fundamental law, which assuredly has largely influenced the destinies of the Roman Catholic Church. To that celibacy, and to all the evils that have sprang from it, may be ascribed much of the irreligion current in France to-day. The periodical reports on criminality issued by the French Ministers of Justice since the foundation of the Republic in 1871, supply materials for a most formidable indictment of that vow of perpetual chastity which Rome exacts from her clergy. Nowadays it is undoubtedly too late for Rome to go back upon that vow and thereby transform the whole of her sacerdotal organisation; but, perhaps, had she done so in past times, before the spirit of inquiry and free examination came into being, she might have assured herself many more centuries of supremacy than have fallen to her lot. But she has ever sought to dissociate the law of the Divinity from the law of Nature, as though indeed the latter were but the invention of the Fiend.
Abbe Mouret, M. Zola's hero, finds himself placed between the law of the Divinity and the law of Nature: and the struggle waged within him by those two forces is a terrible one. That which training has implanted in his mind proves the stronger, and, so far as the canons of the Church can warrant it, he saves his soul. But the problem is not quite frankly put by M. Zola; for if Abbe Mouret transgresses he does so unwittingly, at a time when he is unconscious of his priesthood and has no memory of any vow. When the truth flashes upon him he is horrified with himself, and forthwith returns to the Church. A further struggle between the contending forces then certainly ensues, and ends in the final victory of the Church. But it must at least be said that in the lapses which occur in real life among the Roman priesthood, the circumstances are altogether different from those which M. Zola has selected for his story.
The truth is that in 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret,' betwixt lifelike glimpses of French rural life, the author transports us to a realm of poesy and imagination. This is, indeed, so true that he has introduced into his work all the ideas on which he had based an early unfinished poem called 'Genesis.' He carries us to an enchanted garden, the Paradou—a name which one need hardly say is Provencal for Paradise*—and there Serge Mouret, on recovering from brain fever, becomes, as it were, a new Adam by the side of a new Eve, the fair and winsome Albine. All this part of the book, then, is poetry in prose. The author has remembered the ties which link Rousseau to the realistic school of fiction, and, as in the pages of Jean-Jacques, trees, springs, mountains, rocks, and flowers become animated beings and claim their place in the world's mechanism. One may indeed go back far beyond Rousseau, even to Lucretius himself; for more than once we are irresistibly reminded of Lucretian scenes, above which through M. Zola's pages there seems to hover the pronouncement of Sophocles:
No ordinance of man shall override The settled laws of Nature and of God; Not written these in pages of a book, Nor were they framed to-day, nor yesterday; We know not whence they are; but this we know, That they from all eternity have been, And shall to all eternity endure.
* There is a village called Paradou in Provence, between Les Baux and Arles.
And if we pass to the young pair whose duo of love is sung amidst the varied voices of creation, we are irresistibly reminded of the Paul and Virginia of St. Pierre, and the Daphnis and Chloe of Longus. Beside them, in their marvellous garden, lingers a memory too of Manon and Des Grieux, with a suggestion of Lauzun and a glimpse of the art of Fragonard. All combine, all contribute—from the great classics to the eighteenth century petits maitres—to build up a story of love's rise in the human breast in answer to Nature's promptings.
M. Zola wrote 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret' one summer under the trees of his garden, mindful the while of gardens that he had known in childhood: the flowery expanse which had stretched before his grandmother's home at Pont-au-Beraud and the wild estate of Galice, between Roquefavour and Aix-en-Provence, through which he had roamed as a lad with friends then boys like himself: Professor Baille and Cezanne, the painter. And into his description of the wondrous Paradou he has put all his remembrance of the gardens and woods of Provence, where many a plant and flower thrive with a luxuriance unknown to England. True, in order to refresh his memory and avoid mistakes, he consulted various horticultural manuals whilst he was writing; of which circumstance captious critics have readily laid hold, to proclaim that the description of the Paradou is a mere florist's catalogue.
But it is nothing of the kind. The florist who might dare to offer such a catalogue to the public would be speedily assailed by all the horticultural journalists of England and all the customers of villadom. For M. Zola avails himself of a poet's license to crowd marvel upon marvel, to exaggerate nature's forces, to transform the tiniest blooms into giant examples of efflorescence, and to mingle even the seasons one with the other. But all this was premeditated; there was a picture before his mind's eye, and that picture he sought to trace with his pen, regardless of all possible objections. It is the poet's privilege to do this and even to be admired for it. It would be easy for some leaned botanist, some expert zoologist, to demolish Milton from the standpoint of their respective sciences, but it would be absurd to do so. We ask of the poet the flowers of his imagination, and the further he carries us from the sordid realities, the limited possibilities of life, the more are we grateful to him.
And M. Zola's Paradou is a flight of fancy, even as its mistress, the fair, loving, guileless Albine, whose smiles and whose tears alike go to our hearts, is the daughter of imagination. She is a flower—the very flower of life's youth—in the midst of all the blossoms of her garden. She unfolds to life and to love even as they unfold; she loves rapturously even as they do under the sun and the azure; and she dies with them when the sun's caress is gone and the chill of winter has fallen. At the thought of her, one instinctively remembers Malherbe's 'Ode A Du Perrier:'
She to this earth belonged, where beauty fast To direst fate is borne: A rose, she lasted, as the roses last, Only for one brief morn.
French painters have made subjects of many episodes in M. Zola's works, but none has been more popular with them than Albine's pathetic, perfumed death amidst the flowers. I know several paintings of great merit which that touching incident has inspired.
Albine, if more or less unreal, a phantasm, the spirit as it were of Nature incarnate in womanhood, is none the less the most delightful of M. Zola's heroines. She smiles at us like the vision of perfect beauty and perfect love which rises before us when our hearts are yet young and full of illusions. She is the ideal, the very quintessence of woman.
In Serge Mouret, her lover, we find a man who, in more than one respect, recalls M. Zola's later hero, the Abbe Froment of 'Lourdes' and 'Rome.' He has the same loving, yearning nature; he is born—absolutely like Abbe Froment—of an unbelieving father and a mother of mystical mind. But unlike Froment he cannot shake off the shackles of his priesthood. Reborn to life after his dangerous illness, he relapses into the religion of death, the religion which regards life as impurity, which denies Nature's laws, and so often wrecks human existence, as if indeed that had been the Divine purpose in setting man upon earth. His struggles suggest various passages in 'Lourdes' and 'Rome.' In fact, in writing those works, M. Zola must have had his earlier creation in mind. There are passages in 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret' culled from the writings of the Spanish Jesuit Fathers and the 'Imitation' of Thomas a Kempis that recur almost word for word in the Trilogy of the Three Cities. Some might regard this as evidence of the limitation of M. Zola's powers, but I think differently. I consider that he has in both instances designedly taken the same type of priest in order to show how he may live under varied circumstances; for in the earlier instance he has led him to one goal, and in the later one to another. And the passages of prayer, entreaty, and spiritual conflict simply recur because they are germane, even necessary, to the subject in both cases.
Of the minor characters that figure in 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret' the chief thing to be said is that they are lifelike. If Serge is almost wholly spiritual, if Albine is the daughter of poesy, they, the others, are of the earth earthy. As a result of their appearance on the scene, there are some powerful contrasting passages in the book. Archangias, the coarse and brutal Christian Brother who serves as a foil to Abbe Mouret; La Teuse, the priest's garrulous old housekeeper; Desiree, his 'innocent' sister, a grown woman with the mind of a child and an almost crazy affection for every kind of bird and beast, are all admirably portrayed. Old Bambousse, though one sees but little of him, stands out as a genuine type of the hard-headed French peasant, who invariably places pecuniary considerations before all others. And Fortune and Rosalie, Vincent and Catherine, and their companions, are equally true to nature. It need hardly be said that there is many a village in France similar to Les Artaud. That hamlet's shameless, purely animal life has in no wise been over-pictured by M. Zola. Those who might doubt him need not go as far as Provence to find such communities. Many Norman hamlets are every whit as bad, and, in Normandy, conditions are aggravated by a marked predilection for the bottle, which, as French social-scientists have been pointing out for some years now, is fast hastening the degenerescence of the peasantry, both morally and physically.
With reference to the English version of 'La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret' herewith presented, I may just say that I have subjected it to considerable revision and have retranslated all the more important passages myself.
MERTON, SURREY. E. A. V.
ABBE MOURET'S TRANSGRESSION
As La Teuse entered the church she rested her broom and feather-brush against the altar. She was late, as she had that day began her half-yearly wash. Limping more than ever in her haste and hustling the benches, she went down the church to ring the Angelus. The bare, worn bell-rope dangled from the ceiling near the confessional, and ended in a big knot greasy from handling. Again and again, with regular jumps, she hung herself upon it; and then let her whole bulky figure go with it, whirling in her petticoats, her cap awry, and her blood rushing to her broad face.
Having set her cap straight with a little pat, she came back breathless to give a hasty sweep before the altar. Every day the dust persistently settled between the disjoined boards of the platform. Her broom rummaged among the corners with an angry rumble. Then she lifted the altar cover and was sorely vexed to find that the large upper cloth, already darned in a score of places, was again worn through in the very middle, so as to show the under cloth, which in its turn was so worn and so transparent that one could see the consecrated stone, embedded in the painted wood of the altar. La Teuse dusted the linen, yellow from long usage, and plied her feather-brush along the shelf against which she set the liturgical altar-cards. Then, climbing upon a chair, she removed the yellow cotton covers from the crucifix and two of the candlesticks. The brass of the latter was tarnished.
'Dear me!' she muttered, 'they really want a clean! I must give them a polish up!'
Then hopping on one leg, swaying and stumping heavily enough to drive in the flagstones, she hastened to the sacristy for the Missal, which she placed unopened on the lectern on the Epistle side, with its edges turned towards the middle of the altar. And afterwards she lighted the two candles. As she went off with her broom, she gave a glance round her to make sure that the abode of the Divinity had been put in proper order. All was still, save that the bell-rope near the confessional still swung between roof and floor with a sinuous sweep.
Abbe Mouret had just come down to the sacristy, a small and chilly apartment, which a passage separated from his dining-room.
'Good morning, Monsieur le Cure,' said La Teuse, laying her broom aside. 'Oh! you have been lazy this morning! Do you know it's a quarter past six?' And without allowing the smiling young priest sufficient time to reply, she added 'I've a scolding to give you. There's another hole in the cloth again. There's no sense in it. We have only one other, and I've been ruining my eyes over it these three days in trying to mend it. You will leave our poor Lord quite bare, if you go on like this.'
Abbe Mouret was still smiling. 'Jesus does not need so much linen, my good Teuse,' he cheerfully replied. 'He is always warm, always royally received by those who love Him well.'
Then stepping towards a small tap, he asked: 'Is my sister up yet? I have not seen her.'
'Oh, Mademoiselle Desiree has been down a long time,' answered the servant, who was kneeling before an old kitchen sideboard in which the sacred vestments were kept. 'She is already with her fowls and rabbits. She was expecting some chicks to be hatched yesterday, and it didn't come off. So you can guess her excitement.' Then the worthy woman broke off to inquire: 'The gold chasuble, eh?'
The priest, who had washed his hands and stood reverently murmuring a prayer, nodded affirmatively. The parish possessed only three chasubles: a violet one, a black one, and one in cloth-of-gold. The last had to be used on the days when white, red, or green was prescribed by the ritual, and it was therefore an all important garment. La Teuse lifted it reverently from the shelf covered with blue paper, on which she laid it after each service; and having placed it on the sideboard, she cautiously removed the fine cloths which protected its embroidery. A golden lamb slumbered on a golden cross, surrounded by broad rays of gold. The gold tissue, frayed at the folds, broke out in little slender tufts; the embossed ornaments were getting tarnished and worn. There was perpetual anxiety, fluttering concern, at seeing it thus go off spangle by spangle. The priest had to wear it almost every day. And how on earth could it be replaced—how would they be able to buy the three chasubles whose place it took, when the last gold threads should be worn out?
Upon the chasuble La Teuse next laid out the stole, the maniple, the girdle, alb and amice. But her tongue still wagged while she crossed the stole with the maniple, and wreathed the girdle so as to trace the venerated initial of Mary's holy name.
'That girdle is not up to much now,' she muttered; 'you will have to make up your mind to get another, your reverence. It wouldn't be very hard; I could plait you one myself if I only had some hemp.'
Abbe Mouret made no answer. He was dressing the chalice at a small table. A large old silver-gilt chalice it was with a bronze base, which he had just taken from the bottom of a deal cupboard, in which the sacred vessels and linen, the Holy Oils, the Missals, candlesticks, and crosses were kept. Across the cup he laid a clean purificator, and on this set the silver-gilt paten, with the host in it, which he covered with a small lawn pall. As he was hiding the chalice by gathering together the folds in the veil of cloth of gold matching the chasuble, La Teuse exclaimed:
'Stop, there's no corporal in the burse. Last night I took all the dirty purificators, palls, and corporals to wash them—separately, of course—not with the house-wash. By-the-bye, your reverence, I didn't tell you: I have just started the house-wash. A fine fat one it will be! Better than the last.'
Then while the priest slipped a corporal into the burse and laid the latter on the veil, she went on quickly:
'By-the-bye, I forgot! that gadabout Vincent hasn't come. Do you wish me to serve your mass, your reverence?'
The young priest eyed her sternly.
'Well, it isn't a sin,' she continued, with her genial smile. 'I did serve a mass once, in Monsieur Caffin's time. I serve it better, too, than ragamuffins who laugh like heathens at seeing a fly buzzing about the church. True I may wear a cap, I may be sixty years old, and as round as a tub, but I have more respect for our Lord than those imps of boys whom I caught only the other day playing at leap-frog behind the altar.'
The priest was still looking at her and shaking his head.
'What a hole this village is!' she grumbled. 'Not a hundred and fifty people in it! There are days, like to-day, when you wouldn't find a living soul in Les Artaud. Even the babies in swaddling clothes are gone to the vineyards! And goodness knows what they do among such vines—vines that grow under the pebbles and look as dry as thistles! A perfect wilderness, three miles from any highway! Unless an angel comes down to serve your mass, your reverence, you've only got me to help you, on my honour! or one of Mademoiselle Desiree's rabbits, no offence to your reverence!'
Just at that moment, however, Vincent, the Brichets' younger son, gently opened the door of the sacristy. His shock of red hair and his little, glistening, grey eyes exasperated La Teuse.
'Oh! the wretch!' she cried. 'I'll bet he's just been up to some mischief! Come on, you scamp, since his reverence is afraid I might dirty our Lord!'
On seeing the lad, Abbe Mouret had taken up the amice. He kissed the cross embroidered in the centre of it, and for a second laid the cloth upon his head; then lowering it over the collar-band of his cassock, he crossed it and fastened the tapes, the right one over the left. He next donned the alb, the symbol of purity, beginning with the right sleeve. Vincent stooped and turned around him, adjusting the alb, in order that it should fall evenly all round him to a couple of inches from the ground. Then he presented the girdle to the priest, who fastened it tightly round his loins, as a reminder of the bonds wherewith the Saviour was bound in His Passion.
La Teuse remained standing there, feeling jealous and hurt and struggling to keep silence; but so great was the itching of her tongue, that she soon broke out once more: 'Brother Archangias has been here. He won't have a single child at school to-day. He went off again like a whirlwind to pull the brats' ears in the vineyards. You had better see him. I believe he has got something to say to you.'
Abbe Mouret silenced her with a wave of the hand. Then he repeated the usual prayers while he took the maniple—which he kissed before slipping it over his left forearm, as a symbol of the practice of good works—and while crossing on his breast the stole, the symbol of his dignity and power. La Teuse had to help Vincent in the work of adjusting the chasuble, which she fastened together with slender tapes, so that it might not slip off behind.
'Holy Virgin! I had forgotten the cruets!' she stammered, rushing to the cupboard. 'Come, look sharp, lad!'
Thereupon Vincent filled the cruets, phials of coarse glass, while she hastened to take a clean finger-cloth from a drawer. Abbe Mouret, holding the chalice by its stem with his left hand, the fingers of his right resting meanwhile on the burse, then bowed profoundly, but without removing his biretta, to a black wooden crucifix, which hung over the side-board. The lad bowed too, and, bearing the cruets covered with the finger-cloth, led the way out of the sacristy, followed by the priest, who walked on with downcast eyes, absorbed in deep and prayerful meditation.
The empty church was quite white that May morning. The bell-rope near the confessional hung motionless once more. The little bracket light, with its stained glass shade, burned like a crimson splotch against the wall on the right of the tabernacle. Vincent, having set the cruets on the credence, came back and knelt just below the altar step on the left, while the priest, after rendering homage to the Holy Sacrament by a genuflexion, went up to the altar and there spread out the corporal, on the centre of which he placed the chalice. Then, having opened the Missal, he came down again. Another bend of the knee followed, and, after crossing himself and uttering aloud the formula, 'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,' he raised his joined hands to his breast, and entered on the great divine drama, with his countenance blanched by faith and love.
'Introibo ad altare Dei.'
'Ad Deum qui loetificat juventutem meam,' gabbled Vincent, who, squatting on his heels, mumbled the responses of the antiphon and the psalm, while watching La Teuse as she roved about the church.
The old servant was gazing at one of the candles with a troubled look. Her anxiety seemed to increase while the priest, bowing down with hands joined again, recited the Confiteor. She stood still, in her turn struck her breast, her head bowed, but still keeping a watchful eye on the taper. For another minute the priest's grave voice and the server's stammers alternated:
'Et cum spiritu tuo.'
Then the priest, spreading out his hands and afterwards again joining them, said with devout compunction: 'Oremus' (Let us pray).
La Teuse could now stand it no longer, but stepped behind the altar, reached the guttering candle, and trimmed it with the points of her scissors. Two large blobs of wax had already been wasted. When she came back again putting the benches straight on her way, and making sure that there was holy-water in the fonts, the priest, whose hands were resting on the edge of the altar-cloth, was praying in subdued tones. And at last he kissed the altar.
Behind him, the little church still looked wan in the pale light of early morn. The sun, as yet, was only level with the tiled roof. The Kyrie Eleisons rang quiveringly through that sort of whitewashed stable with flat ceiling and bedaubed beams. On either side three lofty windows of plain glass, most of them cracked or smashed, let in a raw light of chalky crudeness.
The free air poured in as it listed, emphasising the naked poverty of the God of that forlorn village. At the far end of the church, above the big door which was never opened and the threshold of which was green with weeds, a boarded gallery—reached by a common miller's ladder—stretched from wall to wall. Dire were its creakings on festival days beneath the weight of wooden shoes. Near the ladder stood the confessional, with warped panels, painted a lemon yellow. Facing it, beside the little door, stood the font—a former holy-water stoup resting on a stonework pedestal. To the right and to the left, halfway down the church, two narrow altars stood against the wall, surrounded by wooden balustrades. On the left-hand one, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, was a large gilded plaster statue of the Mother of God, wearing a regal gold crown upon her chestnut hair; while on her left arm sat the Divine Child, nude and smiling, whose little hand raised the star-spangled orb of the universe. The Virgin's feet were poised on clouds, and beneath them peeped the heads of winged cherubs. Then the right-hand altar, used for the masses for the dead, was surmounted by a crucifix of painted papier-mache—a pendant, as it were, to the Virgin's effigy. The figure of Christ, as large as a child of ten years old, showed Him in all the horror of His death-throes, with head thrown back, ribs projecting, abdomen hollowed in, and limbs distorted and splashed with blood. There was a pulpit, too—a square box reached by a five-step block—near a clock with running weights, in a walnut case, whose thuds shook the whole church like the beatings of some huge heart concealed, it might be, under the stone flags. All along the nave the fourteen Stations of the Cross, fourteen coarsely coloured prints in narrow black frames, bespeckled the staring whiteness of the walls with the yellow, blue, and scarlet of scenes from the Passion.
'Deo Gratias,' stuttered out Vincent at the end of the Epistle.
The mystery of love, the immolation of the Holy Victim, was about to begin. The server took the Missal and bore it to the left, or Gospel-side, of the altar, taking care not to touch the pages of the book. Each time he passed before the tabernacle he made a genuflexion slantwise, which threw him all askew. Returning to the right-hand side once more, he stood upright with crossed arms during the reading of the Gospel. The priest, after making the sign of the cross upon the Missal, next crossed himself: first upon his forehead—to declare that he would never blush for the divine word; then on his mouth—to show his unchanging readiness to confess his faith; and finally on his heart—to mark that it belonged to God alone.
'Dominus vobiscum,' said he, turning round and facing the cold white church.
'Et cum spirits tuo,' answered Vincent, who once more was on his knees.
The Offertory having been recited, the priest uncovered the chalice. For a moment he held before his breast the paten containing the host, which he offered up to God, for himself, for those present, and for all the faithful, living and dead. Then, slipping it on to the edge of the corporal without touching it with his fingers, he took up the chalice and carefully wiped it with the purificator. Vincent had in the meanwhile fetched the cruets from the credence table, and now presented them in turn, first the wine and then the water. The priest then offered up on behalf of the whole world the half-filled chalice, which he next replaced upon the corporal and covered with the pall. Then once again he prayed, and returned to the side of the altar where the server let a little water dribble over his thumbs and forefingers to purify him from the slightest sinful stain. When he had dried his hands on the finger-cloth, La Teuse—who stood there waiting—emptied the cruet-salver into a zinc pail at the corner of the altar.
'Orate, fratres,' resumed the priest aloud as he faced the empty benches, extending and reclasping his hands in a gesture of appeal to all men of good-will. And turning again towards the altar, he continued his prayer in a lower tone, while Vincent began to mutter a long Latin sentence in which he eventually got lost. Now it was that the yellow sunbeams began to dart through the windows; called, as it were, by the priest, the sun itself had come to mass, throwing golden sheets of light upon the left-hand wall, the confessional, the Virgin's altar, and the big clock.
A gentle creak came from the confessional; the Mother of God, in a halo, in the dazzlement of her golden crown and mantle smiled tenderly with tinted lips upon the infant Jesus; and the heated clock throbbed out the time with quickening strokes. It seemed as if the sun peopled the benches with the dusty motes that danced in his beams, as if the little church, that whitened stable, were filled with a glowing throng. Without, were heard the sounds that told of the happy waking of the countryside, the blades of grass sighed out content, the damp leaves dried themselves in the warmth, the birds pruned their feathers and took a first flit round. And indeed the countryside itself seemed to enter with the sun; for beside one of the windows a large rowan tree shot up, thrusting some of its branches through the shattered panes and stretching out leafy buds as if to take a peep within; while through the fissures of the great door the weeds on the threshold threatened to encroach upon the nave. Amid all this quickening life, the big Christ, still in shadow, alone displayed signs of death, the sufferings of ochre-daubed and lake-bespattered flesh. A sparrow raised himself up for a moment at the edge of a hole, took a glance, then flew away; but only to reappear almost immediately when with noiseless wing he dropped between the benches before the Virgin's altar. A second sparrow followed; and soon from all the boughs of the rowan tree came others that calmly hopped about the flags.
'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth,' said the priest in a low tone, whilst slightly stooping.
Vincent rang the little bell thrice; and the sparrows, scared by the sudden tinkling, flew off with such a mighty buzz of wings that La Teuse, who had just gone back into the sacristy, came out again, grumbling; 'The little rascals! they will mess everything. I'll bet that Mademoiselle Desiree has been here again to scatter bread-crumbs for them.'
The dread moment was at hand. The body and the blood of a God were about to descend upon the altar. The priest kissed the altar-cloth, clasped his hands, and multiplied signs of the cross over host and chalice. The prayers of the canon of the mass now fell from his lips in a very ecstasy of humility and gratitude. His attitude, his gestures, the inflections of his voice, all expressed his consciousness of his littleness, his emotion at being selected for so great a task. Vincent came and knelt beside him, lightly lifted the chasuble with his left hand, the bell ready in his right; and the priest, his elbows resting on the edge of the altar, holding the host with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands, pronounced over it the words of consecration: Hoc est enim corpus meum. Then having bowed the knee before it, he raised it slowly as high as his hands could reach, following it upwards with his eyes, while the kneeling server rang the bell thrice. Then he consecrated the wine—Hic est enim calix—leaning once more upon his elbows, bowing, raising the cup aloft, his right hand round the stem, his left holding its base, and his eyes following it aloft. Again the server rang the bell three times. The great mystery of the Redemption had once more been repeated, once more had the adorable Blood flowed forth.
'Just you wait a bit,' growled La Teuse, as she tried to scare away the sparrows with outstretched fist.
But the sparrows were now fearless. They had come back even while the bell was ringing, and, unabashed, were fluttering about the benches. The repeated tinklings even roused them into liveliness, and they answered back with little chirps which crossed amid the Latin words of prayer, like the rippling laughs of free urchins. The sun warmed their plumage, the sweet poverty of the church captivated them. They felt at home there, as in some barn whose shutters had been left open, and screeched, fought, and squabbled over the crumbs they found upon the floor. One flew to perch himself on the smiling Virgin's golden veil; another, whose daring put the old servant in a towering rage, made a hasty reconnaissance of La Teuse's skirts. And at the altar, the priest, with every faculty absorbed, his eyes fixed upon the sacred host, his thumbs and forefingers joined, did not even hear this invasion of the warm May morning, this rising flood of sunlight, greenery and birds, which overflowed even to the foot of the Calvary where doomed nature was wrestling in the death-throes.
'Per omnia soecula soeculorum,' he said.
'Amen,' answered Vincent.
The Pater ended, the priest, holding the host over the chalice, broke it in the centre. Detaching a particle from one of the halves, he dropped it into the precious blood, to symbolise the intimate union into which he was about to enter with God. He said the Agnus Dei aloud, softly recited the three prescribed prayers, and made his act of unworthiness, and then with his elbows resting on the altar, and with the paten beneath his chin, he partook of both portions of the host at once. After a fervent meditation, with his hands clasped before his face, he took the paten and gathered from the corporal the sacred particles of the host that had fallen, and dropped them into the chalice. One particle which had adhered to his thumb he removed with his forefinger. And, crossing himself, chalice in hand, with the paten once again below his chin, he drank all the precious blood in three draughts, never taking his lips from the cup's rim, but imbibing the divine Sacrifice to the last drop.
Vincent had risen to fetch the cruets from the credence table. But suddenly the door of the passage leading to the parsonage flew open and swung back against the wall, to admit a handsome child-like girl of twenty-two, who carried something hidden in her apron.
'Thirteen of them,' she called out. 'All the eggs were good.' And she opened out her apron and revealed a brood of little shivering chicks, with sprouting down and beady black eyes. 'Do just look,' said she; 'aren't they sweet little pets, the darlings! Oh, look at the little white one climbing on the others' backs! and the spotted one already flapping his tiny wings! The eggs were a splendid lot; not one of them unfertile.'
La Teuse, who was helping to serve the mass in spite of all prohibitions, and was at that very moment handing the cruets to Vincent for the ablutions, thereupon turned round and loudly exclaimed: 'Do be quiet, Mademoiselle Desiree! Don't you see we haven't finished yet?'
Through the open doorway now came the strong smell of a farmyard, blowing like some generative ferment into the church amidst the warm sunlight that was creeping over the altar. Desiree stood there for a moment delighted with the little ones she carried, watching Vincent pour, and her brother drink, the purifying wine, in order that nought of the sacred elements should be left within his mouth. And she stood there still when he came back to the side of the altar, holding the chalice in both hands, so that Vincent might pour over his forefingers and thumbs the wine and water of ablution, which he likewise drank. But when the mother hen ran up clucking with alarm to seek her little ones, and threatened to force her way into the church, Desiree went off, talking maternally to her chicks, while the priest, after pressing the purificator to his lips, wiped first the rim and next the interior of the chalice.
Then came the end, the act of thanksgiving to God. For the last time the server removed the Missal, and brought it back to the right-hand side. The priest replaced the purificator, paten, and pall upon the chalice; once more pinched the two large folds of the veil together, and laid upon it the burse containing the corporal. His whole being was now one act of ardent thanksgiving. He besought from Heaven the forgiveness of his sins, the grace of a holy life, and the reward of everlasting life. He remained as if overwhelmed by this miracle of love, the ever-recurring immolation, which sustained him day by day with the blood and flesh of his Savior.
Having read the final prayers, he turned and said: 'Ite, missa est.'
'Deo gratias,' answered Vincent.
And having turned back to kiss the altar, the priest faced round anew, his left hand just below his breast, his right outstretched whilst blessing the church, which the gladsome sunbeams and noisy sparrows filled.
'Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.'
'Amen,' said the server, as he crossed himself.
The sun had risen higher, and the sparrows were growing bolder. While the priest read from the left-hand altar-card the passage of the Gospel of St. John, announcing the eternity of the Word, the sunrays set the altar ablaze, whitened the panels of imitation marble, and dimmed the flame of the two candles, whose short wicks were now merely two dull spots. The victorious orb enveloped with his glory the crucifix, the candlesticks, the chasuble, the veil of the chalice—all the gold work that paled beneath his beams. And when at last the priest, after taking the chalice in his hands and making a genuflexion, covered his head and turned from the altar to follow the server, laden with the cruets and finger-cloth, to the sacristy, the planet remained sole master of the church. Its rays in turn now rested on the altar-cloth, irradiating the tabernacle-door with splendour, and celebrating the fertile powers of May. Warmth rose from the stone flags. The daubed walls, the tall Virgin, the huge Christ, too, all seemed to quiver as with shooting sap, as if death had been conquered by the earth's eternal youth.
Le Teuse hastily put out the candles, but lingered to make one last attempt to drive away the sparrows, and so when she returned to the sacristy with the Missal she no longer found Abbe Mouret there. Having washed his hands and put away the sacred vessels and vestments, he was now standing in the dining room, breakfasting off a cup of milk.
'You really ought to prevent your sister from scattering bread in the church,' said La Teuse on coming in. 'It was last winter she hit upon that pretty prank. She said the sparrows were cold, and that God might well give them some food. You see, she'll end by making us sleep with all her fowls and rabbits.'
'We should be all the warmer,' pleasantly replied the young priest. 'You are always grumbling, La Teuse. Do let our poor Desiree pet her animals. She has no other pleasure, poor innocent!'
The servant took her stand in the centre of the room.
'I do believe you yourself wouldn't mind a bit if the magpies actually built their nests in the church. You never can see anything, everything seems just what it ought to be to you. Your sister is precious lucky in having had you to take charge of her when you left the seminary. No father, no mother. I should like to know who would let her mess about as she does in a farmyard.'
Then softening, she added in a gentler tone: 'To be sure, it would be a pity to cross her. She hasn't a touch of malice in her. She's like a child of ten, although she's one of the finest grown girls in the neighbourhood. And I have to put her to bed, as you know, every night, and send her to sleep with stories, just like a little child.'
Abbe Mouret had remained standing, finishing the cup of milk he held between his fingers, which were slightly reddened by the chill atmosphere of the dining-room—a large room with painted grey walls, a floor of square tiles, and having no furniture beyond a table and a few chairs. La Teuse picked up a napkin which she had laid at a corner of the table in readiness for breakfast.
'It isn't much linen you dirty,' she muttered. 'One would think you could never sit down, that you are always just about to start off. Ah! if you had known Monsieur Caffin, the poor dead priest whose place you have taken! What a man he was for comfort! Why, he couldn't have digested his food, if he had eaten standing. A Norman he was, from Canteleu, like myself. I don't thank him, I tell you, for having brought me to such a wild-beast country as this. When first we came, O, Lord! how bored we were! But the poor priest had had some uncomfortable tales going about him at home.... Why, sir, didn't you sweeten your milk, then? Aren't those the two lumps of sugar?'
The priest put down his cup.
'Yes, I must have forgotten, I believe,' he said.
La Teuse stared at him and shrugged her shoulders. She folded up inside the napkin a slice of stale home-made bread which had also been left untouched on the table. Then just as the priest was about to go out, she ran after him and knelt down at his feet, exclaiming: 'Stop, your shoe-laces are not even fastened. I cannot imagine how your feet can stand those peasant shoes, you're such a little, tender man and look as if you had been preciously spoilt! Ah, the bishop must have known a deal about you, to go and give you the poorest living in the department.'
'But it was I who chose Les Artaud,' said the priest, breaking into another smile. 'You are very bad-tempered this morning, La Teuse. Are we not happy here? We have got all we want, and our life is as peaceful as if in paradise.'
She then restrained herself and laughed in her turn, saying: 'You are a holy man, Monsieur le Cure. But come and see what a splendid wash I have got. That will be better than squabbling with one another.'
The priest was obliged to follow, for she might prevent him going out at all if he did not compliment her on her washing. As he left the dining-room he stumbled over a heap of rubbish in the passage.
'What is this?' he asked.
Oh, nothing,' said La Teuse in her grimest tone. 'It's only the parsonage coming down. However, you are quite content, you've got all you want. Good heavens! there are holes and to spare. Just look at that ceiling, now. Isn't it cracked all over? If we don't get buried alive one of these days, we shall owe a precious big taper to our guardian angel. However, if it suits you—It's like the church. Those broken panes ought to have been replaced these two years. In winter our Lord gets frozen with the cold. Besides, it would keep out those rascally sparrows. I shall paste paper over the holes. You see if I don't.'
'A capital idea,' murmured the priest, 'they might very well be pasted over. As to the walls, they are stouter than we think. In my room, the floor has only given way slightly in front of the window. The house will see us all buried.'
On reaching the little open shed near the kitchen, in order to please La Teuse he went into ecstasies over the washing; he even had to dip his fingers into it and feel it. This so pleased the old woman that her attentions became quite motherly. She no longer scolded, but ran to fetch a clothes-brush, saying: 'You surely are not going out with yesterday's mud on your cassock! If you had left it out on the banister, it would be clean now—it's still a good one. But do lift it up well when you cross any field. The thistles tear everything.'
While speaking she kept turning him round like a child, shaking him from head to foot with her energetic brushing.
'There, there, that will do,' he said, escaping from her at last. 'Take care of Desiree, won't you? I will tell her I am going out.'
But at this minute a fresh clear voice called to him: 'Serge! Serge!'
Desiree came flying up, her cheeks ruddy with glee, her head bare, her black locks twisted tightly upon her neck, and her hands and arms smothered up to the elbows with manure. She had been cleaning out her poultry house. When she caught sight of her brother just about to go out with his breviary under his arm, she laughed aloud, and kissed him on his mouth, with her arms thrown back behind her to avoid soiling him.
'No, no,' she hurriedly exclaimed, 'I should dirty you. Oh! I am having such fun! You must see the animals when you come back.'
Thereupon she fled away again. Abbe Mouret then said that he would be back about eleven for luncheon, and as he started, La Teuse, who had followed him to the doorstep, shouted after him her last injunctions.
'Don't forget to see Brother Archangias. And look in also at the Brichets'; the wife came again yesterday about that wedding. Just listen, Monsieur le Cure! I met their Rosalie. She'd ask nothing better than to marry big Fortune. Have a talk with old Bambousse; perhaps he will listen to you now. And don't come back at twelve o'clock, like the other day. Come, say you'll be back at eleven, won't you?'
But the priest turned round no more. So she went in again, growling between her teeth:
'When does he ever listen to me? Barely twenty-six years old and does just as he likes. To be sure, he's an old man of sixty for holiness; but then he has never known life; he knows nothing, it's no trouble to him to be as good as a cherub!'
When Abbe Mouret had got beyond all hearing of La Teuse he stopped, thankful to be alone at last. The church was built on a hillock, which sloped down gently to the village. With its large gaping windows and bright red tiles, it stretched out like a deserted sheep-cote. The priest turned round and glanced at the parsonage, a greyish building springing from the very side of the church; but as if fearful that he might again be overtaken by the interminable chatter that had been buzzing in his ears ever since morning, he turned up to the right again, and only felt safe when he at last stood before the great doorway, where he could not be seen from the parsonage. The front of the church, quite bare and worn by the sunshine and rain of years, was crowned by a narrow open stone belfry, in which a small bell showed its black silhouette, whilst its rope disappeared through the tiles. Six broken steps, on one side half buried in the earth, led up to the lofty arched door, now cracked, smothered with dust and rust and cobwebs, and so frailly hung upon its outwrenched hinges that it seemed as if the first slight puff would secure free entrance to the winds of heaven. Abbe Mouret, who had an affection for this dilapidated door, leaned against one of its leaves as he stood upon the steps. Thence he could survey the whole country round at a glance. And shading his eyes with his hands he scanned the horizon.
In the month of May exuberant vegetation burst forth from that stony soil. Gigantic lavenders, juniper bushes, patches of rank herbage swarmed over the church threshold, and scattered clumps of dark greenery even to the very tiles. It seemed as if the first throb of shooting sap in the tough matted underwood might well topple the church over. At that early hour, amid all the travail of nature's growth, there was a hum of vivifying warmth, and the very rocks quivered as with a long and silent effort. But the Abbe failed to comprehend the ardour of nature's painful labour; he simply thought that the steps were tottering, and thereupon leant against the other side of the door.
The countryside stretched away for a distance of six miles, bounded by a wall of tawny hills speckled with black pine-woods. It was a fearful landscape of arid wastes and rocky spurs rending the soil. The few patches of arable ground were like scattered pools of blood, red fields with rows of lean almond trees, grey-topped olive trees and long lines of vines, streaking the soil with their brown stems. It was as if some huge conflagration had swept by there, scattering the ashes of forests over the hill-tops, consuming all the grass of the meadow lands, and leaving its glare and furnace-like heat behind in the hollows. Only here and there was the softer note of a pale green patch of growing corn. The landscape generally was wild, lacking even a threadlet of water, dying of thirst, and flying away in clouds of dust at the least breath of wind. But at the farthest point where the crumbling hills on the horizon had left a breach one espied some distant fresh moist greenery, a stretch of the neighbouring valley fertilised by the Viorne, a river flowing down from the gorges of the Seille.
The priest lowered his dazzled glance upon the village, whose few scattered houses straggled away below the church—wretched hovels they were of rubble and boards strewn along a narrow path without sign of streets. There were about thirty of them altogether, some squatting amidst muck-heaps, and black with woeful want; others roomier and more cheerful-looking with their roofs of pinkish tiles. Strips of garden, victoriously planted amidst stony soil, displayed plots of vegetables enclosed by quickset hedges. At this hour Les Artaud was empty, not a woman was at the windows, not a child was wallowing in the dust; parties of fowls alone went to and fro, ferreting among the straw, seeking food up to the very thresholds of the houses, whose open doors gaped in the sunlight. A big black dog seated on his haunches at the entrance to the village seemed to be mounting guard over it.
Languor slowly stole over Abbe Mouret. The rising sun steeped him in such warmth that he leant back against the church door pervaded by a feeling of happy restfulness. His thoughts were dwelling on that hamlet of Les Artaud, which had sprung up there among the stones like one of the knotty growths of the valley. All its inhabitants were related, all bore the same name, so that from their very cradle they were distinguished among themselves by nicknames. An Artaud, their ancestor, had come hither and settled like a pariah in this waste. His family had grown with all the wild vitality of the herbage that sucked life from the rocky boulders. It had at last become a tribe, a rural community, in which cousin-ships were lost in the mists of centuries. They intermarried with shameless promiscuity. Not an instance could be cited of any Artaud taking himself a wife from any neighbouring village; only some of the girls occasionally went elsewhere. The others were born and died fixed to that spot, leisurely increasing and multiplying on their dunghills with the irreflectiveness of trees, and with no definite notion of the world that lay beyond the tawny rocks, in whose midst they vegetated. And yet there were already rich and poor among them; fowls having at times disappeared, the fowl-houses were now closed at night with stout padlocks; moreover one Artaud had killed another Artaud one evening behind the mill. These folk, begirt by that belt of desolate hills, were truly a people apart—a race sprung from the soil, a miniature replica of mankind, three hundred souls all told, beginning the centuries yet once again.
Over the priest the sombre shadows of seminary life still hovered. For years he had never seen the sun. He perceived it not even now, his eyes closed and gazing inwards on his soul, and with no feeling for perishable nature, fated to damnation, save contempt. For a long time in his hours of devout thought he had dreamt of some hermit's desert, of some mountain hole, where no living thing—neither being, plant, nor water—should distract him from the contemplation of God. It was an impulse springing from the purest love, from a loathing of all physical sensation. There, dying to self, and with his back turned to the light of day, he would have waited till he should cease to be, till nothing should remain of him but the sovereign whiteness of the soul. To him heaven seemed all white, with a luminous whiteness as if lilies there snowed down upon one, as if every form of purity, innocence, and chastity there blazed. But his confessor reproved him whenever he related his longings for solitude, his cravings for an existence of Godlike purity; and recalled him to the struggles of the Church, the necessary duties of the priesthood. Later on, after his ordination, the young priest had come to Les Artaud at his own request, there hoping to realise his dream of human annihilation. In that desolate spot, on that barren soil, he might shut his ears to all worldly sounds, and live the dreamy life of a saint. For some months past, in truth, his existence had been wholly undisturbed, rarely had any thrill of the village-life disturbed him; and even the sun's heat scarcely brought him any glow of feeling as he walked the paths, his whole being wrapped in heaven, heedless of the unceasing travail of life amidst which he moved.
The big black dog watching over Les Artaud had determined to come up to Abbe Mouret, and now sat upon its haunches at the priest's feet; but the unconscious man remained absorbed amidst the sweetness of the morning. On the previous evening he had begun the exercises of the Rosary, and to the intercession of the Virgin with her Divine Son he attributed the great joy which filled his soul. How despicable appeared all the good things of the earth! How thankfully he recognised his poverty! When he entered into holy orders, after losing on the same day both his father and his mother through a tragedy the fearful details of which were even now unknown to him,* he had relinquished all his share of their property to an elder brother. His only remaining link with the world was his sister; he had undertaken the care of her, stirred by a kind of religious affection for her feeble intelligence. The dear innocent was so childish, such a very little girl, that she recalled to him the poor in spirit to whom the Gospel promises the kingdom of heaven. Of late, however, she had somewhat disturbed him; she was growing too lusty, too full of health and life. But his discomfort was yet of the slightest. His days were spent in that inner life he had created for himself, for which he had relinquished all else. He closed the portals of his senses, and sought to free himself from all bodily needs, so that he might be but a soul enrapt in contemplation. To him nature offered only snares and abominations; he gloried in maltreating her, in despising her, in releasing himself from his human slime. And as the just man must be a fool according to the world, he considered himself an exile on this earth; his thoughts were solely fixed upon the favours of Heaven, incapable as he was of understanding how an eternity of bliss could be weighed against a few hours of perishable enjoyment. His reason duped him and his senses lied; and if he advanced in virtue it was particularly by humility and obedience. His wish was to be the last of all, one subject to all, in order that the divine dew might fall upon his heart as upon arid sand; he considered himself overwhelmed with reproach and with confusion, unworthy of ever being saved from sin. He no longer belonged to himself—blind, deaf, dead to the world as he was. He was God's thing. And from the depth of the abjectness to which he sought to plunge, Hosannahs suddenly bore him aloft, above the happy and the mighty into the splendour of never-ending bliss.
* This forms the subject of M. Zola's novel, The Conquest of Plassans. ED.
Thus, at Les Artaud, Abbe Mouret had once more experienced, each time he read the 'Imitation,' the raptures of the cloistered life which he had longed for at one time so ardently. As yet he had not had to fight any battle. From the moment that he knelt down, he became perfect, absolutely oblivious of the flesh, unresisting, undisturbed, as if overpowered by the Divine grace. Such ecstasy at God's approach is well known to some young priests: it is a blissful moment when all is hushed, and the only desire is but a boundless craving for purity. From no human creature had he sought his consolations. He who believes a certain thing to be all in all cannot be troubled: and he did believe that God was all in all, and that humility, obedience, and chastity were everything. He could remember having heard temptation spoken of as an abominable torture that tries the holiest. But he would only smile: God had never left him. He bore his faith about him thus like a breast-plate protecting him from the slightest breath of evil. He could recall how he had hidden himself and wept for very love; he knew not whom he loved, but he wept for love, for love of some one afar off. The recollection never failed to move him. Later on he had decided on becoming a priest in order to satisfy that craving for a superhuman affection which was his sole torment. He could not see where greater love could be. In that state of life he satisfied his being, his inherited predisposition, his youthful dreams, his first virile desires. If temptation must come, he awaited it with the calmness of the seminarist ignorant of the world. He felt that his manhood had been killed in him: it gladdened him to feel himself a creature set apart, unsexed, turned from the usual paths of life, and, as became a lamb of the Lord, marked with the tonsure.
While the priest pondered the sun was heating the big church-door. Gilded flies buzzed round a large flower that was blooming between two of the church-door steps. Abbe Mouret, feeling slightly dazed, was at last about to move away, when the big black dog sprang, barking violently, towards the iron gate of the little graveyard on the left of the church. At the same time a harsh voice called out: 'Ah! you young rascal! So you stop away from school, and I find you in the graveyard! Oh, don't say no: I have been watching you this quarter of an hour.'
As the priest stepped forward he saw Vincent, whom a Brother of the Christian Schools was clutching tightly by the ear. The lad was suspended, as it were, over a ravine skirting the graveyard, at the bottom of which flowed the Mascle, a mountain torrent whose crystal waters plunged into the Viorne, six miles away.
'Brother Archangias!' softly called the priest, as if to appease the fearful man.
The Brother, however, did not release the boy's ear.
'Oh, it's you, Monsieur le Cure?' he growled. 'Just fancy, this rascal is always poking his nose into the graveyard. I don't know what he can be up to here. I ought to let go of him and let him smash his skull down there. It would be what he deserves.'
The lad remained dumb, with his cunning eyes tight shut as he clung to the bushes.
'Take care, Brother Archangias,' continued the priest, 'he might slip.'
And he himself helped Vincent to scramble up again.
'Come, my young friend, what were you doing there?' he asked. 'You must not go playing in graveyards.'
The lad had opened his eyes, and crept away, fearfully, from the Brother, to place himself under the priest's protection.
'I'll tell you,' he said in a low voice, as he raised his bushy head. 'There is a tomtit's nest in the brambles there, under that rock. For over ten days I've been watching it, and now the little ones are hatched, so I came this morning after serving your mass.'
'A tomtit's nest!' exclaimed Brother Archangias. 'Wait a bit! wait a bit!'
Thereupon he stepped aside, picked a clod of earth off a grave and flung it into the brambles. But he missed the nest. Another clod, however, more skilfully thrown upset the frail cradle, and precipitated the fledglings into the torrent below.
'Now, perhaps,' he continued, clapping his hands to shake off the earth that soiled them, 'you won't come roaming here any more, like a heathen; the dead will pull your feet at night if you go walking over them again.'
Vincent, who had laughed at seeing the nest dive into the stream, looked round him and shrugged his shoulders like one of strong mind.
'Oh, I'm not afraid,' he said. 'Dead folk don't stir.'
The graveyard, in truth, was not a place to inspire fear. It was a barren piece of ground whose narrow paths were smothered by rank weeds. Here and there the soil was bossy with mounds. A single tombstone, that of Abbe Caffin, brand-new and upright, could be perceived in the centre of the ground. Save this, all around there were only broken fragments of crosses, withered tufts of box, and old slabs split and moss-eaten. There were not two burials a year. Death seemed to make no dwelling in that waste spot, whither La Teuse came every evening to fill her apron with grass for Desiree's rabbits. A gigantic cypress tree, standing near the gate, alone cast shadow upon the desert field. This cypress, a landmark visible for nine miles around, was known to the whole countryside as the Solitaire.
'It's full of lizards,' added Vincent, looking at the cracks of the church-wall. 'One could have a fine lark—'
But he sprang out with a bound on seeing the Brother lift his foot. The latter proceeded to call the priest's attention to the dilapidated state of the gate, which was not only eaten up with rust, but had one hinge off, and the lock broken.
'It ought to be repaired,' said he.
Abbe Mouret smiled, but made no reply. Addressing Vincent, who was romping with the dog: 'I say, my boy,' he asked, 'do you know where old Bambousse is at work this morning?'
The lad glanced towards the horizon. 'He must be at his Olivettes field now,' he answered, pointing towards the left. 'But Voriau will show your reverence the way. He's sure to know where his master is.' And he clapped his hands and called: 'Hie! Voriau! hie!'
The big black dog paused a moment, wagging his tail, and seeking to read the urchin's eyes. Then, barking joyfully, he set off down the slope to the village. Abbe Mouret and Brother Archangias followed him, chatting. A hundred yards further Vincent surreptitiously bolted, and again glided up towards the church, keeping a watchful eye upon them, and ready to dart behind a bush if they should look round. With adder-like suppleness, he once more glided into the graveyard, that paradise full of lizards, nests, and flowers.
Meantime, while Voriau led the way before them along the dusty road, Brother Archangias was angrily saying to the priest: 'Let be! Monsieur le Cure, they're spawn of damnation, those toads are! They ought to have their backs broken, to make them pleasing to God. They grow up in irreligion, like their fathers. Fifteen years have I been here, and not one Christian have I been able to turn out. The minute they quit my hands, good-bye! They think of nothing but their land, their vines, their olive-trees. Not one ever sets foot in church. Brute beasts they are, struggling with their stony fields! Guide them with the stick, Monsieur le Cure, yes, the stick!'
Then, after drawing breath, he added with a terrific wave of his hands:
'Those Artauds, look you, are like the brambles over-running these rocks. One stem has been enough to poison the whole district. They cling on, they multiply, they live in spite of everything. Nothing short of fire from heaven, as at Gomorrha, will clear it all away.'
'We should never despair of sinners,' said Abbe Mouret, all inward peacefulness, as he leisurely walked on.
'But these are the devil's own,' broke in the Brother still more violently. 'I've been a peasant, too. Up to eighteen I dug the earth; and later on, when I was at the Training College, I had to sweep, pare vegetables, do all the heavy work. It's not their toilsome labour I find fault with. On the contrary, for God prefers the lowly. But the Artauds live like beasts! They are like their dogs, they never attend mass, and make a mock of the commandments of God and of the Church. They think of nothing but their plots of lands, so sweet they are on them!'
Voriau, his tail wagging, kept stopping and moving on again as soon as he saw that they still followed him.
'There certainly are some grievous things going on,' said Abbe Mouret. 'My predecessor, Abbe Caffin—'
'A poor specimen,' interrupted the Brother. 'He came here to us from Normandy owing to some disreputable affair. Once here, his sole thought was good living; he let everything go to rack and ruin.'
'Oh, no, Abbe Caffin certainly did what he could; but I must own that his efforts were all but barren in results. My own are mostly fruitless.'
Brother Archangias shrugged his shoulders. He walked on for a minute in silence, swaying his tall bony frame, which looked as if it had been roughly fashioned with a hatchet. The sun beat down upon his neck, shadowing his hard, sword-edged peasant's face.
'Listen to me, Monsieur le Cure,' he said at last. 'I am too much beneath you to lecture you; but still, I am almost double your age, I know this part, and therefore I feel justified in telling you that you will gain nothing by gentleness. The catechism, understand, is enough. God has no mercy on the wicked. He burns them. Stick to that.'
Then, as Abbe Mouret, whose head remained bowed, did not open his mouth, he went on: 'Religion is leaving the country districts because it is made over indulgent. It was respected when it spoke out like an unforgiving mistress. I really don't know what they can teach you now in the seminaries. The new priests weep like children with their parishioners. God no longer seems the same. I dare say, Monsieur le Cure, that you don't even know your catechism by heart now?'
But the priest, wounded by the imperiousness with which the Brother so roughly sought to dominate him, looked up and dryly rejoined:
'That will do, your zeal is very praiseworthy. But haven't you something to tell me? You came to the parsonage this morning, did you not?'
Thereupon Brother Archangias plumply answered: 'I had to tell you just what I have told you. The Artauds live like pigs. Only yesterday I learned that Rosalie, old Bambousse's eldest daughter, is in the family way. It happens with all of them before they get married. And they simply laugh at reproaches, as you know.'
'Yes,' murmured Abbe Mouret, 'it is a great scandal. I am just on my way to see old Bambousse to speak to him about it; it is desirable that they should be married as soon as possible. The child's father, it seems, is Fortune, the Brichets' eldest son. Unfortunately the Brichets are poor.'
'That Rosalie, now,' continued the Brother, 'is just eighteen. Not four years since I still had her under me at school, and she was already a gadabout. I have now got her sister Catherine, a chit of eleven, who seems likely to become even worse than her elder. One comes across her in every corner with that little scamp, Vincent. It's no good, you may pull their ears till they bleed, the woman always crops up in them. They carry perdition about with them and are only fit to be thrown on a muck-heap. What a splendid riddance if all girls were strangled at their birth!'
His loathing, his hatred of woman made him swear like a carter. Abbe Mouret, who had been listening to him with unmoved countenance, smiled at last at his rabid utterances. He called Voriau, who had strayed into a field close by.
'There, look there!' cried Brother Archangias, pointing to a group of children playing at the bottom of a ravine, 'there are my young devils, who play the truant under pretence of going to help their parents among the vines! You may be certain that jade of a Catherine is among them.... There, didn't I tell you! Till to-night, Monsieur le Cure. Oh, just you wait, you rascals!'
Off he went at a run, his dirty neckband flying over his shoulder, and his big greasy cassock tearing up the thistles. Abbe Mouret watched him swoop down into the midst of the children, who scattered like frightened sparrows. But he succeeded in seizing Catherine and one boy by the ears and led them back towards the village, clutching them tightly with his big hairy fingers, and overwhelming them with abuse.
The priest walked on again. Brother Archangias sometimes aroused strange scruples in his mind. With his vulgarity and coarseness the Brother seemed to him the true man of God, free from earthly ties, submissive in all to Heaven's will, humble, blunt, ready to shower abuse upon sin. He, the priest, would then feel despair at his inability to rid himself more completely of his body; he regretted that he was not ugly, unclean, covered with vermin like some of the saints. Whenever the Brother had wounded him by some words of excessive coarseness, or by some over-hasty churlishness, he would blame himself for his refinement, his innate shrinking, as if these were really faults. Ought he not to be dead to all the weaknesses of this world? And this time also he smiled sadly as he thought how near he had been to losing his temper at the Brother's roughly put lesson. It was pride, it seemed to him, seeking to work his perdition by making him despise the lowly. However, in spite of himself, he felt relieved at being alone again, at being able to walk on gently, reading his breviary, free at last from the grating voice that had disturbed his dream of heavenly love.
The road wound on between fallen rocks, among which the peasants had succeeded here and there in reclaiming six or seven yards of chalky soil, planted with old olive trees. Under the priest's feet the dust in the deep ruts crackled lightly like snow. At times, as he felt a warmer puff upon his face, he would raise his eyes from his book, as if to seek whence came this soft caress; but his gaze was vacant, straying without perception over the glowing horizon, over the twisted outlines of that passion-breathing landscape as it stretched out in the sun before him, dry, barren, despairing of the fertilisation for which it longed. And he would lower his hat over his forehead to protect himself against the warm breeze and tranquilly resume his reading, his cassock raising behind him a cloudlet of dust which rolled along the surface of the road.
'Good morning, Monsieur le Cure,' a passing peasant said to him.
Sounds of digging alongside the cultivated strips of ground again roused him from his abstraction. He turned his head and perceived big knotty-limbed old men greeting him from among the vines. The Artauds were eagerly satisfying their passion for the soil, in the sun's full blaze. Sweating brows appeared from behind the bushes, heaving chests were slowly raised, the whole scene was one of ardent fructification, through which he moved with the calm step born of ignorance. No discomfort came to him from the great travail of love that permeated that splendid morning.
'Steady! Voriau, you mustn't eat people!' some one gaily shouted in a powerful voice by way of silencing the dog's loud barks.
Abbe Mouret looked up.
'Oh! it's you. Fortune?' he said, approaching the edge of the field in which the young peasant was at work. 'I was just on my way to speak to you.'
Fortune was of the same age as the priest: a bigly built, bold-looking young fellow, with skin already hardened. He was clearing a small plot of stony heath.
'What about, Monsieur le Cure?' he asked.
'About Rosalie and you,' replied the priest.
Fortune began to laugh. Perhaps he thought it droll that a priest should interest himself in such a matter.
'Well,' he muttered, 'I'm not to blame in it nor she either. So much the worse if old Bambousse refuses to let me have her. You saw yourself how his dog was trying to bite me just now; he sets him on me.'
Then, as Abbe Mouret was about to continue, old Artaud, called Brichet, whom he had not previously perceived, emerged from the shadow of a bush behind which he and his wife were eating. He was a little man, withered by age, with a cringing face.
'Your reverence must have been told a pack of lies,' he exclaimed. 'The youngster is quite ready to marry Rosalie. What's happened isn't anybody's fault. It has happened to others who got on all right just the same. The matter doesn't rest with us. You ought to speak to Bambousse. He's the one who looks down on us because he's got money.'
'Yes, we are very poor,' whined his wife, a tall lachrymose woman, who also rose to her feet. 'We've only this scrap of ground where the very devil seems to have been hailing stones. Not a bite of bread from it, even. Without you, your reverence, life would be impossible.'
Brichet's wife was the one solitary devotee of the village. Whenever she had been to communion, she would hang about the parsonage, well knowing that La Teuse always kept a couple of loaves for her from her last baking. At times she was even able to carry off a rabbit or a fowl given her by Desiree.
'There's no end to the scandals,' continued the priest. 'The marriage must take place without delay.'
'Oh! at once! as soon as the others are agreeable,' said the old woman, alarmed about her periodical presents. 'What do you say, Brichet? we are not such bad Christians as to go against his reverence?'
'Oh, I'm quite ready,' he said, 'and so is Rosalie. I saw her yesterday at the back of the mill. We haven't quarrelled. We stopped there to have a bit of a laugh.'
But Abbe Mouret interrupted him: 'Very well, I am now going to speak to Bambousse. He is over there, at Les Olivettes, I believe.'
The priest was going off when the mother asked him what had become of her younger son Vincent, who had left in the early morning to serve mass. There was a lad now who badly needed his reverence's admonitions. And she walked by the priest's side for another hundred yards, bemoaning her poverty, the failure of the potato crop, the frost which had nipped the olive trees, the hot weather which threatened to scorch up the scanty corn. Then, as she left him, she solemnly declared that her son Fortune always said his prayers, both morning and evening.
Voriau now ran on in front, and suddenly, at a turn in the road, he bolted across the fields. The priest then struck into a small path leading up a low hill. He was now at Les Olivettes, the most fertile spot in the neighbourhood, where the mayor of the commune, Artaud, otherwise Bambousse, owned several fields of corn, olive plantations, and vines. The dog was now romping round the skirts of a tall brunette, who burst into a loud laugh as she caught sight of the priest.
'Is your father here, Rosalie?' the latter asked.
'Yes, just across there,' she said, pointing with her hand and still smiling.
Leaving the part of the field she had been weeding, she walked on before him with the vigorous springiness of a hard-working woman, her head unshielded from the sun, her neck all sunburnt, her hair black and coarse like a horse's mane. Her green-stained hands exhaled the odour of the weeds she had been pulling up.
'Father,' she called out, 'here's Monsieur le Cure asking for you.'
And there she remained, bold, unblushing, with a sly smile still hovering over her features. Bambousse, a stout, sweating, round-faced man, left his work and gaily came towards the priest.
'I'd take my oath you are going to speak to me about the repairs of the church,' he exclaimed, as he clapped his earthy hands. 'Well, then, Monsieur le Cure, I can only say no, it's impossible. The commune hasn't got the coin. If the Lord provides plaster and tiles, we'll provide the workmen.'
At this jest of his the unbelieving peasant burst into a loud guffaw, slapped his thighs, coughed, and almost choked himself.
'It was not for the church I came,' replied the Abbe Mouret. 'I wanted to speak to you about your daughter Rosalie.'
'Rosalie? What has she done to you, then?' inquired Bambousse, his eyes blinking.
The girl was boldly staring at the young priest, scrutinising his white hands and slender, feminine neck, as if trying to make him redden. He, however, bluntly and with unruffled countenance, as if speaking of something quite indifferent, continued:
'You know what I mean, Bambousse. She must get married.'
'Oh, that's it, is it?' muttered the old man, with a bantering look. 'Many thanks for the message. The Brichets sent you, didn't they? Mother Brichet goes to mass, and so you give her a helping hand to marry her son—it's all very fine. But, I've got nothing to do with that. It doesn't suit me. That's all.'
Thereupon the astonished priest represented to him that the scandal must be stopped, and that he ought to forgive Fortune, as the latter was willing to make reparation for his transgression, and that, lastly, his daughter's reputation demanded a speedy marriage.
'Ta, ta, ta,' replied Bambousse, what a lot of words! I shall keep my daughter, please understand it. All that's got nothing to do with me. That Fortune is a beggarly pauper, without a brass farthing. What an easy job, if one could marry a girl like that! At that rate we should have all the young things marrying off morning and night. Thank Heaven! I'm not worried about Rosalie: everybody knows what has happened; but it makes no difference. She can marry any one she chooses in the neighbourhood.'
'But the child?' interrupted the priest.
'The child indeed! There'll be time enough to think of that when it's born.'
Rosalie, perceiving the turn the priest's application was taking, now thought it proper to ram her fists into her eyes and whimper. And she even let herself fall upon the ground.
'Shut up, will you, you hussy!' howled her father in a rage. And he proceeded to revile her in the coarsest terms, which made her laugh silently behind her clenched fists.
'You won't shut up? won't you? Just wait a minute then, you jade!' continued old Bambousse. And thereupon he picked up a clod of earth and flung it at her. It burst upon her knot of hair, crumbling down her neck and smothering her in dust. Dizzy from the blow, she bounded to her feet and fled, sheltering her head between her hands. But Bambousse had time to fling two more clods at her, and if the first only grazed her left shoulder, the next caught her full on the base of the spine, with such force that she fell upon her knees.
'Bambousse!' cried the priest, as he wrenched from the peasant's hand a number of stones which he had just picked up.
'Let be, Monsieur le Cure,' said the other. 'It was only soft earth. I ought to have thrown these stones at her. It's easy to see that you don't know girls. Hard as nails, all of them. I might duck that one in the well, I might break all her bones with a cudgel, and she'd still be just the same. But I've got my eye on her, and if I catch her!... Ah! well, they are all like that.'
He was already comforted. He took a good pull at a big flat bottle of wine, encased in wicker-work, which lay warming on the hot ground. And breaking once more into a laugh, he said: 'If I only had a glass, Monsieur le Cure, I would offer you some with pleasure.'
'So then,' again asked the priest, 'this marriage?'
'No, it can't be; I should get laughed at. Rosalie is a stout wench. She's worth a man to me. I shall have to hire a lad the day she goes off.... We can have another talk about it after the vintage. Besides, I don't want to be robbed. Give and take, say I. That's fair. What do you think?'
Nevertheless for another long half-hour did the priest remain there preaching to Bambousse, speaking to him of God, and plying him with all the reasons suited to the circumstances. But the old man had resumed his work; he shrugged his shoulders, jested, and grew more and more obstinate. At last, he broke out: 'But if you asked me for a sack of corn, you would give me money, wouldn't you? So why do you want me to let my daughter go for nothing?'
Much discomfited, Abbe Mouret left him. As he went down the path he saw Rosalie rolling about under an olive tree with Voriau, who was licking her face. With her arms whirling, she kept on repeating: 'You tickle me, you big stupid. Leave off!'
When she perceived the priest, she made an attempt at a blush, settled her clothes, and once more raised her fists to her eyes. He, on his part, sought to console her by promising to attempt some fresh efforts with her father, adding that, in the meantime, she should do nothing to aggravate her sin. And then, as she impudently smiled at him, he pictured hell, where wicked women burn in torment. And afterwards he left her, his duty done, his soul once more full of the serenity which enabled him to pass undisturbed athwart the corruptions of the world.
The morning was becoming terribly hot. In that huge rocky amphitheatre the sun kindled a furnace-like glare from the moment when the first fine weather began. By the planet's height in the sky Abbe Mouret now perceived that he had only just time to return home if he wished to get there by eleven o'clock and escape a scolding from La Teuse. Having finished reading his breviary and made his application to Bambousse, he swiftly retraced his steps, gazing as he went at his church, now a grey spot in the distance, and at the black rigid silhouette which the big cypress-tree, the Solitaire, set against the blue sky. Amidst the drowsiness fostered by the heat, he thought of how richly that evening he might decorate the Lady chapel for the devotions of the month of Mary. Before him the road offered a carpet of dust, soft to the tread and of dazzling whiteness.
At the Croix-Verte, as the Abbe was about to cross the highway leading from Plassans to La Palud, a gig coming down the hill compelled him to step behind a heap of stones. Then, as he crossed the open space, a voice called to him: 'Hallo, Serge, my boy!'
The gig had pulled up and from it a man leant over. The priest recognised him—he was an uncle of his, Doctor Pascal Rougon, or Monsieur Pascal, as the poor folk of Plassans, whom he attended for nothing, briefly styled him. Although barely over fifty, he was already snowy white, with a big beard and abundant hair, amidst which his handsome regular features took an expression of shrewdness and benevolence.*
* See M. Zola's novels, Dr. Pascal and The Fortune of the Rougons.—ED.
'So you potter about in the dust at this hour of the day?' he said gaily, as he stooped to grasp the Abbe's hands. 'You're not afraid of sunstroke?'
'No more than you are, uncle,' answered the priest, laughing.
'Oh, I have the hood of my trap to shield me. Besides, sick folks won't wait. People die at all times, my boy.' And he went on to relate that he was now on his way to old Jeanbernat, the steward of the Paradou, who had had an apoplectic stroke the night before. A neighbour, a peasant on his way to Plassans market, had summoned him.
'He must be dead by this time,' the doctor continued. 'However, we must make sure.... Those old demons are jolly tough, you know.'
He was already raising his whip, when Abbe Mouret stopped him.
'Stay! what o'clock do you make it, uncle?'
'A quarter to eleven.'
The Abbe hesitated; he already seemed to hear La Teuse's terrible voice bawling in his ears that his luncheon was getting cold. But he plucked up courage and added swiftly: 'I'll go with you, uncle. The unhappy man may wish to reconcile himself to God in his last hour.'
Doctor Pascal could not restrain a laugh.
'What, Jeanbernat!' he said; 'ah, well! if ever you convert him! Never mind, come all the same. The sight of you is enough to cure him.'
The priest got in. The doctor, apparently regretting his jest, displayed an affectionate warmth of manner, whilst from time to time clucking his tongue by way of encouraging his horse. And out of the corner of his eye he inquisitively observed his nephew with the keenness of a scientist bent on taking notes. In short kindly sentences he inquired about his life, his habits, and the peaceful happiness he enjoyed at Les Artaud. And at each satisfactory reply he murmured, as if to himself in a tone of reassurance: 'Come, so much the better; that's just as it should be!'
He displayed peculiar anxiety about the young priest's state of health. And Serge, greatly surprised, assured him that he was in splendid trim, and had neither fits of giddiness or of nausea, nor headaches whatsoever.
'Capital, capital,' reiterated his uncle Pascal. 'In spring, you see, the blood is active. But you are sound enough. By-the-bye, I saw your brother Octave at Marseilles last month. He is off to Paris, where he will get a fine berth in a high-class business. The young beggar, a nice life he leads.'
'What life?' innocently inquired the priest.
To avoid replying the doctor chirruped to his horse, and then went on: 'Briefly, everybody is well—your aunt Felicite, your uncle Rougon, and the others. Still, that does not hinder our needing your prayers. You are the saint of the family, my lad; I rely upon you to save the whole lot.'
He laughed, but in such a friendly, good-humoured way that Serge himself began to indulge in jocularity.
'You see,' continued Pascal, 'there are some among the lot whom it won't be easy to lead to Paradise. Some nice confessions you'd hear if all came in turn. For my part, I can do without their confessions; I watch them from a distance; I have got their records at home among my botanical specimens and medical notes. Some day I shall be able to draw up a wondrously interesting diagram. We shall see; we shall see!'
He was forgetting himself, carried away by his enthusiasm for science. A glance at his nephew's cassock pulled him up short.
'As for you, you're a parson,' he muttered; 'you did well; a parson's a very happy man. The calling absorbs you, eh? And so you've taken to the good path. Well! you would never have been satisfied otherwise. Your relatives, starting like you, have done a deal of evil, and still they are unsatisfied. It's all logically perfect, my lad. A priest completes the family. Besides, it was inevitable. Our blood was bound to run to that. So much the better for you; you have had the most luck.' Correcting himself, however, with a strange smile, he added: 'No, it's your sister Desiree who has had the best luck of all.'