When Abbe Mouret had said the Pater, he bowed to the altar, and went to the Epistle side. Then he came down, and made the sign of the cross over big Fortune and Rosalie, who were kneeling, side by side, before the altar-rails.
'Ego conjungo vos in matrimonium, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.'
'Amen,' responded Vincent, who was serving the mass, and glancing curiously at his big brother out of the corner of his eye.
Fortune and Rosalie bent their heads, affected by some slight emotion, although they had nudged each other with their elbows when they knelt down, by way of making one another laugh. But Vincent went to get the basin and the sprinkler. Fortune placed the ring in the basin, a thick ring of solid silver. When the priest had blessed it, sprinkling it crosswise, he returned it to Fortune, who slipped it upon Rosalie's finger. Her hand was still discoloured with grass-stains, which soap had not been able to remove.
'In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,' Abbe Mouret murmured again, giving them a final benediction.
'Amen,' responded Vincent.
It was early morning. The sun was not yet shining through the big windows of the church. Outside one could hear the noisy twittering of the sparrows in the branches of the service tree, whose foliage shot through the broken panes. La Teuse, who had not previously had time to clean the church, was now dusting the altar, craning up on her sound leg to wipe the feet of the ochre and lake-bedaubed Christ, and arranging the chairs as quietly as possible; all the while bowing and crossing herself, and following the service, but not omitting a single sweep of her feather broom. Quite alone, at the foot of the pulpit, was mother Brichet, praying in a very demonstrative fashion. She kept on her knees, and repeated the prayers in so loud a whisper that it seemed as if a swarm of bluebottles had taken possession of the nave.
At the other end of the church near the confessional, Catherine held an infant in swaddling clothes. As it began to cry, she turned her back upon the altar, and tossed it up, and amused it with the bell-rope, which dangled just over its nose.
'Dominus vobiscum,' said the priest, turning round, and spreading out his hands.
'Et cum spiritu tuo,' responded Vincent.
At that moment three big girls came into the church. They were too shy to go far up, though they jostled one another to get a better view of what was going on. They were three friends of Rosalie, who had dropped in for a minute or two on their way to the fields, curious as they were to hear what his reverence would say to the bride and bridegroom. They had big scissors hanging at their waists. At last they hid themselves behind the font, where they pinched each other and twisted themselves about, while trying to choke their bursts of laughter with their clenched fists.
'Well,' whispered La Rousse, a finely built girl, with copper-coloured skin and hair, 'there won't be any scrimmage to get out of church when it's all over.'
'Oh! old Bambousse is quite right,' murmured Lisa, a short dark girl, with gleaming eyes; 'when one has vines, one looks after them. Since his reverence so particularly desired to marry Rosalie, he can very well do it all alone.'
The other girl, Babet, who was humpbacked, tittered. 'There's mother Brichet,' she said; 'she is always here. She prays for the whole family. Listen, do you hear how she's buzzing? All that will mean something in her pocket. She knows very well what she is about, I can tell you.'
'She is playing the organ for them,' retorted La Rousse.
At this all three burst into a laugh. La Teuse, in the distance, threatened them with her broom. At the altar, Abbe Mouret was taking the sacrament. As he went from the Epistle side towards Vincent, so that the water of ablution might be poured upon his thumb and fore-finger, Lisa said more softly: 'It's nearly over. He will begin to talk to them directly.'
'Yes,' said La Rousse, 'and so big Fortune will still be able to go to his work, and Rosalie won't lose her day's pay at the vintage. It is very convenient to be married so early in the morning. He looks very sheepish, that big Fortune.'
'Of course,' murmured Babet. 'It tires him, keeping so long on his knees. You may be sure that he has never knelt so long since his first communion.'
But the girls' attention was suddenly distracted by the baby which Catherine was dangling in her arms. It wanted to get hold of the bell-rope, and was quite blue with rage, frantically stretching out its little hands and almost choking itself with crying.
'Ah! so the youngster is there,' said La Rousse.
The baby now burst into still louder wailing, and struggled like a little Imp.
'Turn it over on its stomach, and let it suck,' said Babet to Catherine.
Catherine lifted up her head, and began to laugh, with the shamelessness of a little minx. 'It's not at all amusing,' she said, giving the baby a shake. 'Be quiet, will you, little pig! My sister plumped it down on my knees.'
'Naturally,' said Babet, mischievously. 'You could scarcely have expected her to give the brat to Monsieur le Cure to nurse.'
At this sally, La Rousse almost fell over in a fit of laughter. She leaned against the wall, holding her sides with her hands. Lisa threw herself against her, and attempted to soothe her by pinching her back and shoulders; while Babet laughed with a hunchback's laugh, which grated on the ear like the sound of a saw.
'If it hadn't been for the little one,' she continued, 'Monsieur le Cure would have lost all use for his holy water. Old Bambousse had made up his mind to marry Rosalie to young Laurent, of Figuieres.'
However, the girls' merriment and their chatter now came to an end, for they saw La Teuse limping furiously towards them. At this the three big hussies felt alarmed, stepped back, and subsided into sedateness.
'You worthless things!' hissed La Teuse. 'You come to talk a lot of filth here, do you? Aren't you ashamed of yourself, La Rousse? You ought to be there, on your knees, before the altar, like Rosalie. I will throw you outside if you stir again. Do you hear?'
La Rousse's copper cheeks were tinged with a rising blush, and Babet glanced at her and tittered.
'And you,' continued La Teuse, turning towards Catherine, 'just you leave that baby alone. You are pinching it on purpose to make it scream. Don't tell me you are not. Give it to me.'
She took the child, hushed it in her arms for a moment, and then laid it upon a chair, where it went to sleep, peacefully like a cherub. The church then subsided into solemn quietness, disturbed only by the chattering of the sparrows on the rowan tree outside. At the altar, Vincent had carried the missal to the right again, and Abbe Mouret had just folded the corporal and slipped it within the burse. He was now saying the concluding prayers with a solemn earnestness, which neither the screams of the baby nor the giggling of the three girls had been able to disturb. He seemed to hear nothing of them, but to be wholly absorbed in the prayers which he was offering up to Heaven for the happiness of the pair whose union he had just blessed. The sky that morning was grey with a hazy heat, which veiled the sun. Through the broken windows a russet vapour streamed into the church, betokening a stormy day. Along the walls the gaudily coloured pictures of the Stations of the Cross displayed their red, blue, and yellow patches; at the bottom of the nave the dry woodwork of the gallery creaked and strained; and under the doorway the tall grass by the steps thrust ripening straw, all alive with little brown grasshoppers. The clock, in its wooden case, made a whirring noise, as though it were some consumptive trying to clear his throat, and then huskily struck half-past six.
'Ite, missa est,' said the priest, turning round to the congregation.
'Deo gratias,' responded Vincent.
Then, having kissed the altar, Abbe Mouret once more turned round, and murmured over the bent heads of the newly married pair the final benediction: 'Deus Abraham, Deus Isaac, et Deus Jacob vobiscum sit'—his voice dying away into a gentle whisper.
'Now, he's going to address them,' said Babet to her friends.
'He is very pale,' observed Lisa. 'He isn't a bit like Monsieur Caffin, whose fat face always seemed to be on the laugh. My little sister Rose says that she daren't tell him anything when she goes to confess.'
'All the same,' murmured La Rousse, 'he's not ugly. His illness has aged him a little, but it seems to suit him. He has bigger eyes, and lines at the corners of his mouth which make him look like a man. Before he had the fever, he was too much like a girl.'
'I believe he's got some great trouble,' said Babet. 'He looks as though he were pining away. His face is deadly pale, but how his eyes glitter! When he drops his eyelids, it is just as though he were doing it to extinguish the fire in his eyes.'
La Teuse again shook her broom at them. 'Hush!' she hissed out, so energetically that it seemed as if a blast of wind had burst into the church.
Meantime Abbe Mouret had collected himself, and he began, in a rather low voice:
'My dear brother, my dear sister, you are joined together in Jesus. The institution of marriage symbolises the sacred union between Jesus and His Church. It is a bond which nothing can break; which God wills shall be eternal, so that man may not sever those whom Heaven has joined. In making you flesh of each other's flesh, and bone of each other's bone, God teaches you that it is your duty to walk side by side through life, a faithful couple, along the paths which He, in His omnipotence, appoints for you. And you must love each other with God-like love. The slightest ill-feeling between you will be disobedience to the Creator, Who has joined you together as a single body. Remain, then, for ever united, after the likeness of the Church, which Jesus has espoused, in giving to us all His body and blood.'
Big Fortune and Rosalie sat listening, with their noses peaked up inquisitively.
'What does he say?' asked Lisa, who was a little deaf.
'Oh! he says what they all say,' answered La Rousse. 'He has a glib tongue, like all the priests have.'
Abbe Mouret went on with his address, his eyes wandering over the heads of the newly wedded couple towards a shadowy corner of the church. And by degrees his voice became more flexible, and he put emotion into the words he spoke, words which he had formerly learned by heart from a manual intended for the use of young priests. He had turned slightly towards Rosalie, and whenever his memory failed him, he added sentences of his own:
'My dear sister, submit yourself to your husband, as the Church submits itself to Jesus. Remember that you must leave everything to follow him, like a faithful handmaiden. You must give up father and mother, you must cleave only to your husband, and you must obey him that you may obey God also. And your yoke will be a yoke of love and peace. Be his comfort, his happiness, the perfume of his days of strength, the support of his days of weakness. Let him find you, as a grace, ever by his side. Let him have but to reach out his hand to find yours grasping it. It is thus that you will step along together, never losing your way, and that you will meet with happiness in the carrying out of the divine laws. Oh! my dear sister, my dear daughter, your humility will hear sweet fruit; it will give birth to all the domestic virtues, to the joys of the hearth, and the prosperity that attends a God-fearing family. Have for your husband the love of Rachel, the wisdom of Rebecca, the constant fidelity of Sarah. Tell yourself that a pure life is the source of all happiness. Pray to God each morning that He may give you strength to live as a woman who respects her responsibilities and duties; for the punishment you would otherwise incur is terrible: you would lose your love. Oh! to live loveless, to tear flesh from flesh, to belong no more to the one who is half of your very self, to live on in pain and agony, bereft of the one you have loved! In vain would you stretch out your arms to him; he would turn away from you. You would yearn for happiness, but you would find in your heart nothing but shame and bitterness. Hear me, my daughter, it is in your own conduct, in your obedience, in your purity, in your love, that God has established the strength of your union.'
As Abbe Mouret spoke these words, there was a burst of laughter at the other end of the church. The baby had just woke up on the chair where La Teuse had laid it. But it was no longer in a bad temper. Having kicked itself free of its swaddling clothes, it was laughing merrily, and shaking its rosy little feet in the air. It was the sight of these little feet that made it laugh.
Rosalie, who was beginning to find the priest's address rather tedious, turned her head to smile at the child. But, when she saw it kicking about on the chair, she grew alarmed, and cast an angry look at Catherine.
'Oh! you can look at me as much as you like,' said Catherine. 'I'm not going to take it any more. It would only begin to cry again.'
And she turned aside to ferret in an ant-hole at a corner of one of the stone flags under the gallery.
'Monsieur Caffin didn't talk so long,' now remarked La Rousse. 'When he married Miette, he just gave her two taps on the cheek and told her to be good.'
My dear brother,' resumed Abbe Mouret, turning towards big Fortune, 'it is God who, to-day, gives you a companion, for He does not wish that man should live alone. But, if He ordains that she shall be your servant, He demands from you that you shall be to her a master full of gentleness and love. You will love her, because she is part of your own flesh, of your own blood, and your own bone. You will protect her, because God has given you strong arms only that you may stretch them over her head in the hour of danger. Remember that she is entrusted to you, and that you cannot abuse her submission and weakness without sin. Oh! my dear brother, what proud happiness should be yours! Henceforth, you will no longer live in the selfish egotism of solitude. At all hours you will have a lovable duty before you. There is nothing better than to love, unless it be to protect those whom we love. Your heart will expand; your manly strength will increase a hundredfold. Oh! to be a support and stay, to have a love given into your keeping, to see a being sink her existence in yours and say, "Take me and do with me what you will! I trust myself wholly to you!" And may you be accursed if you ever abandon her! It would be a cowardly desertion which God would assuredly punish. From the moment she gives herself to you, she becomes yours for ever. Carry her rather in your arms, and set her not upon the ground until it be certain that she will be there in safety. Give up everything, my dear brother—'
But here the Abbe's voice faltered, and only an indistinct murmur came from his lips. He had quite closed his eyes, his face was deathly white, and his voice betokened such deep distress that big Fortune himself shed tears without knowing why.
'He hasn't recovered yet,' said Lisa. 'It is wrong of him to fatigue himself. See, there's Fortune crying!'
'Men are softer-hearted than women,' murmured Babet.
'He spoke very well, all the same,' remarked La Rousse. 'Those priests think of a lot of things that wouldn't occur to anybody else.'
'Hush!' cried La Teuse, who was already making ready to extinguish the candles.
But Abbe Mouret still stammered on, trying to utter a few more sentences. 'It is for this reason, my dear brother, my dear sister, that you must live in the Catholic Faith, which alone can ensure the peace of your hearth. Your families have taught you to love God, to pray to Him every morning and evening, to look only for the gifts of His mercy—'
He was unable to finish. He turned round, took the chalice off the altar, and retired, with bowed head, into the vestry, preceded by Vincent, who almost let the cruets and napkin fall, in trying to see what Catherine might be doing at the end of the church.
'Oh! the heartless creature!' said Rosalie, who left her husband to go and take her baby in her arms. The child laughed. She kissed it, and rearranged its swaddling clothes, while threatening Catherine with her fist. 'If it had fallen,' she cried out, 'I would have boxed your ears for you, nicely.'
Big Fortune now came slouching along. The three girls stepped towards him, with compressed lips.
'See how proud he is,' murmured Babet to the others. 'He is sure of inheriting old Bambousse's money now. I used to see him creeping along every night under the little wall with Rosalie.'
Then they giggled, and big Fortune, standing there in front of them, laughed even louder than they did. He pinched La Rousse, and let Lisa jeer at him. He was a sturdy young blood, and cared nothing for anybody. The priest's address had annoyed him.
'Hallo! mother, come on!' he called in his loud voice. But mother Brichet was begging at the vestry door. She stood there, tearful and wizen, before La Teuse, who was slipping some eggs into the pocket of her apron. Fortune didn't seem to feel the least sense of shame. He just winked and remarked: 'She is a knowing old card, my mother is. But then the Cure likes to see people at mass.'
Meanwhile, Rosalie had grown calm again. Before leaving the church, she asked Fortune if he had begged the priest to come and bless their room, according to the custom of the country. So Fortune ran off to the vestry, striding heavily through the church, as if it were a field. He soon reappeared, shouting that his reverence would come. La Teuse, who was scandalised at the noise made by all these people, who seemed to think themselves in a public street, gently clapped her hands, and pushed them towards the door.
'It is all over,' said she; 'go away and get to your work.'
She thought they had all gone, when her eye caught sight of Catherine, whom Vincent had joined. They were bending anxiously over the ants' nest. Catherine was poking a long straw into the hole so roughly, that a swarm of frightened ants had rushed out upon the floor. Vincent declared, however, that she must get her straw right to the bottom if she wished to find the queen.
'Ah! you young imps!' cried La Teuse, 'what are you after there? Can't you leave the poor little things alone? That is Mademoiselle Desiree's ants' nest. She would be nicely pleased if she saw you!'
At this the children promptly took to their heels.
Abbe Mouret, now wearing his cassock but still bareheaded, had come back to kneel at the foot of the altar. In the grey light that streamed through the window, his tonsure showed like a large livid spot amidst his hair; and a slight quiver, as if from cold, sped down his neck. With his hands tightly clasped he was praying earnestly, so absorbed in his devotions that he did not hear the heavy footsteps of La Teuse, who hovered around without daring to disturb him. She seemed to be grieved at seeing him bowed down there on his knees. For a moment, she thought that he was in tears, and thereupon she went behind the altar to watch him. Since his return, she had never liked to leave him in the church alone, for one evening she had found him lying in a dead faint upon the flagstones, with icy lips and clenched teeth, like a corpse.
'Come in, mademoiselle!' she said to Desiree, who was peeping through the vestry-doorway. 'He is still here, and he will lay himself up. You know you are the only person that he will listen to.'
'It is breakfast-time,' she replied softly, 'and I am very hungry.'
Then she gently sidled up to the priest, passed an arm round his neck, and kissed him.
'Good morning, brother,' she said. 'Do you want to make me die of hunger this morning?'
The face he turned upon her was so intensely sad, that she kissed him again on both his cheeks. He was emerging from agony. Then, on recognising her, he tried to put her from him, but she kept hold of one of his hands and would not release it. She would scarcely allow him to cross himself, but insisted upon leading him away.
'Come! Come! for I am very hungry. You must be hungry too.'
La Teuse had laid out the breakfast beneath two big mulberry trees, whose spreading branches formed a sheltering roof at the bottom of the little garden. The sun, which had at last succeeded in dissipating the stormy-looking vapours of early morning, was warming the beds of vegetables, while the mulberry-trees cast a broad shadow over the rickety table, on which were laid two cups of milk and some thick slices of bread.
'You see how nice it looks,' said Desiree, delighted at breakfasting in the fresh air.
She was already cutting some of the bread into strips, which she ate with eager appetite. And as she saw La Teuse still standing in front of them, she said, 'Why don't you eat something?'
'I shall, presently,' the old servant answered. 'My soup is warming.'
Then, after a moment's silence, looking with admiration at the girl's big bites, she said to the priest: 'It is quite a pleasure to see her. Doesn't she make you feel hungry, Monsieur le Cure? You should force yourself.'
Abbe Mouret smiled as he glanced at his sister. 'Yes, yes,' he murmured; 'she gets on famously, she grows fatter every day.'
'That's because I eat,' said Desiree. 'If you would eat you would get fat, too. Are you ill again? You look very melancholy. I don't want to have it all over again, you know. I was so very lonely when they took you away to cure you.'
'She is right,' said La Teuse. 'You don't behave reasonably, Monsieur le Cure. You can't expect to be strong, living, as you do, on two or three crumbs a day, as though you were a bird. You don't make blood; and that's why you are so pale. Don't you feel ashamed of keeping as thin as a lath when we are so fat; we who are only women? People will begin to think that we gobble up everything and leave you nothing but the empty plates.'
Then both La Teuse and Desiree, brimful of health and strength, scolded him affectionately. His eyes seemed very large and bright, but empty, expressionless. He was still gently smiling.
'I am not ill,' he said; 'I have nearly finished my milk.' He had swallowed two mouthfuls of it, but had not touched the bread.
'The animals, now,' said Desiree, thoughtfully, 'seem to get on much more comfortably than we do. The fowls never have headaches, have they? The rabbits grow as fat as ever one wants them to be. And you never saw my pig looking sad.'
Then, turning towards her brother, she went on with an air of rapture:
'I have named it Matthew, because it is so like that fat man who brings the letters. It is growing so big and strong. It is very unkind of you to refuse to come and look at it as you always do. You will come to see it some day, won't you?'
While she was thus talking she had laid hold of her brother's share of bread, and was eating away at it. She had already finished one piece, and was beginning the second, when La Teuse became aware of what she was doing.
'That doesn't belong to you, that bread! You are actually stealing his food from him now!'
'Let her have it,' said Abbe Mouret, gently. 'I shouldn't have touched it myself. Eat it all, my dear, eat it all.'
For a moment Desiree fell into confusion, with her eyes fixed upon the bread, whilst she struggled to check her rising tears. Then she began to laugh, and finished the slice.
'My cow,' said she, continuing her remarks, 'is never as sad as you are. You were not here when uncle Pascal gave her to me, on the promise that I would be a good girl, or you would have seen how pleased she was when I kissed her for the first time.'
She paused to listen. A cock crowed in the yard, and a great uproar followed, with flapping of wings and cackling, grunting, and hoarse cries as if the whole yard were in a state of commotion.
'Ah! you know,' resumed Desiree, clapping her hands, 'she must be in calf now. I took her to the bull at Beage, three leagues from here. There are very few bulls hereabouts, you know.'
La Teuse shrugged her shoulders, and glanced at the priest with an expression of annoyance.
'It would be much better, mademoiselle,' said she, 'if you were to go and quiet your fowls. They all seem to be murdering one another.'
Indeed, the uproar in the yard had now become so great that the girl was already hurrying off with a great rustling of her petticoats, when the priest called her back. 'The milk, my dear; you have not finished the milk.'
He held out his cup to her, which he had scarcely touched. And she came back and drank the milk without the slightest scruple, in spite of La Teuse's angry look. Then she again set off for the poultry-yard, where they soon heard her reducing the fowls to peace and order. She had, perhaps, sat down in the midst of them, for she could be heard gently humming as though she were trying to lull them to sleep.
'Now my soup is too hot!' grumbled La Teuse, as she returned from the kitchen with a basin, from which a wooden spoon was projecting.
She placed herself just in front of Abbe Mouret, and began to eat very cautiously from the edge of the spoon. She wanted to enliven the Abbe and to draw him out of his melancholy moodiness. Ever since he had returned from the Paradou, he had declared himself well again, and had never complained. Often, indeed, he smiled in so soft and sweet a fashion, that his fever seemed to have increased his saintliness, at least so thought the villagers. But, at intervals, he had fits of gloomy silence, and appeared to be suffering torture which he strove to bear uncomplainingly. It was a mute agony which bore down upon him, and, for hours at a time, left him stupefied, a prey to a frightful inward struggle, the violence of which could only be guessed by the sweat of anguish that streamed down his face.
At such times La Teuse refused to leave him, and overwhelmed him with a torrent of gossip, until he had gradually recovered tranquillity by crushing the rebellion of his blood. On that particular morning, the old servant foresaw a more grievous attack than usual, and poured forth an amazing flood of talk, while continuing her wary manoeuvres with the spoon, which threatened to burn her tongue.
'Well, well,' said she, 'one has to live among a lot of wild beasts to see such goings-on. Would any one ever think in a decent village of being married by candlelight? It shows what a poor sort these Artauds are. When I was in Normandy, I used to see weddings that threw every one into commotion for a couple of leagues round. They would feast for three whole days. The priest would be there, and the mayor, too; and at the marriage of one of my cousins, all the firemen came as well. And didn't they have a fine time of it! But to make a priest get up before sunrise and marry people before even the chickens have left their roost, why, there's no sense in it! If I had been your reverence, I should have refused to do it. You haven't had your proper sleep, and you may have caught cold in the church. It is that which has upset you. Besides which it would be better to marry brute beasts than that Rosalie and her ugly lout. That brat of theirs dirtied one of the chairs.—But you ought to tell me when you feel poorly, and I could make you something warm.—Eh! Monsieur le Cure, speak to me!'
He answered, in a feeble voice, that he was quite well, and only needed a little fresh air. He had just leant against one of the mulberry-trees, and was breathing rather quickly, as if faint.
'Oh! all right,' went on La Teuse, 'do just as you like. Go on marrying people when you haven't the strength for it, and when you know very well that it's bound to upset you. I knew how it would be; I told you so yesterday. And if you took my advice, you wouldn't stay where you are. The smell of the yard is bad for you. It is frightful just now. I can't imagine what Mademoiselle Desiree can be stirring about there. She's singing away, and doesn't seem to mind it at all. Ah! that reminds me of something I want to tell you. You know that I did all I could to keep her from taking the cow to Beage; but she's like you, obstinate, and will go her own way. Fortunately, however, for her, she's none the worse for it. She delights to be amongst the animals and their young ones. But come now, your reverence, do be reasonable. Let me take you to your room. You must lie down and rest a little. What, you don't want to! Well, then, so much the worse for you, if you suffer! Besides, it's absurd to keep one's worries locked up in one's heart till they stifle one.'
Then, in her indignation, she hastily swallowed a big spoonful of soup at the risk of burning her throat. She rattled the handle of the spoon against the bowl, muttering and grumbling to herself.
'There never was such a man,' said she. 'He would die rather than say a word. But it's all very well for him to keep silent. I know quite enough, and it doesn't require much cleverness to guess the rest. Well! well! let him keep it to himself. I dare say it is better.'
La Teuse was jealous. Dr. Pascal had had a tremendous fight with her in order to get her patient away at the time when he had come to the conclusion that the young priest's case would be quite hopeless if he should remain at the parsonage. He had then explained to her that the sound of the bell would aggravate and intensify Serge's fever, that the religious pictures and statuettes scattered about his room would fill his brain with hallucinations, and that entirely new surroundings were necessary if he was to be restored to health and strength and peacefulness of mind. She, however, had vigorously shaken her head, and declared that her 'dear child' would nowhere find a better nurse than herself. Still, she had ended by yielding. She had even resigned herself to seeing him go to the Paradou, though protesting against this selection of the doctor's, which astonished her. But she retained a strong feeling of hatred for the Paradou; and she was hurt by the silence which Abbe Mouret maintained as to the time he had spent there. She had frequently laid all sorts of unsuccessful traps to induce him to talk of it. That morning, exasperated by his ghastly pallor, and his obstinacy in suffering in silence, she ended by waving her spoon about and crying:
'You should go back yonder again, Monsieur le Cure, if you were so happy there—I dare say there is some one there who would nurse you better than I do.'
It was the first time she had ventured upon a direct allusion to her suspicions. The blow was so painful to the priest that he could not check a slight cry, as he raised his grief-racked countenance. At this La Teuse's kindly heart was filled with regret.
'Ah!' she murmured, 'it is all the fault of your uncle Pascal. I told him what it would be. But those clever men cling so obstinately to their own ideas. Some of them would kill you, just for the sake of rummaging in your body afterwards—It made me so angry that I would never speak of it to any one. Yes, Monsieur le Cure, you have me to thank that nobody knew where you were; I was so angry about it. I thought it abominable! When Abbe Guyot, from Saint-Eutrope, who took your place during your absence, came to say mass here on Sundays, I told him all sorts of stories. I said you had gone to Switzerland. I don't even know where Switzerland is.—Well! well! I surely don't want to say anything to pain you, but it was certainly over yonder that you got your trouble. Very finely they've cured you indeed! It would have been very much better if they had left you with me. I shouldn't have thought of trying to turn your head.'
Abbe Mouret, whose brow was again lowered, made no attempt to interrupt her. La Teuse had seated herself upon the ground a few yards away from him, in order if possible to catch his eye. And she went on again in her motherly way, delighted at his seeming complacency in listening to her.
'You would never let me tell you about Abbe Caffin. As soon as I began to speak of him, you always made me stop. Well, well; Abbe Caffin had had his troubles in my part of the world, at Canteleu. And yet he was a very holy man, with an irreproachable character. But, you see, he was a man of very delicate taste, and liked soft pretty things. Well, there was a young party who was always prowling round him, the daughter of a miller, whom her parents had sent to a boarding-school. Well, to put it shortly, what was likely to happen did happen. When the story got about, all the neighbourhood was very indignant with the Abbe. But he managed to escape to Rouen, and poured out his grief to the Archbishop there. Then he was sent here. The poor man was punished quite enough by being made to live in this hole of a place. I heard of the girl afterwards. She had married a cattle-dealer, and was very happy.'
La Teuse, delighted at having been allowed to tell her story, interpreted the priest's silence as an encouragement to continue her gossiping. So she drew a little nearer to him and said:
'He was very friendly with me, was good Monsieur Caffin, and often spoke to me of his sin. It won't keep him out of heaven, I'm sure. He can rest quite peacefully out there under the turf, for he never harmed any one. For my part, I can't understand why people should get so angry with a priest when such a thing unhappily befalls him. Of course it's wrong, and likely to anger God; but then one can confess and repent, and get absolution. Isn't it so, your reverence, that when one truly repents, one is saved in spite of one's sins?'
Abbe Mouret slowly raised his head. By a supreme effort he had overcome his agony, and though his face was still very pale, he exclaimed in a firm voice, 'One should never sin; never! never!'
'Ah! sir,' cried the old servant, 'you are too proud and reserved. It is not a nice thing, that pride of yours.—If I were in your place, I would not harden myself like that. I would talk of what was troubling me, and not try to rend my heart in pieces. You should reconcile yourself to the separation gradually. The worry wears off little by little. But, instead of that, you won't even allow people's names to be uttered. You forbid them to be mentioned. It is as though they were dead. Since you came back, I have not dared to tell you the least bit of news. Well, well, I am going to speak now, and I shall tell you all I know; because I see quite well that it is all this silence that is preying upon your heart.'
He looked at her sternly, and lifted his finger to silence her.
'Yes, yes,' she went on, 'I get news from over yonder, very often indeed, and I am going to tell it to you. To begin with, there is some one there who is no happier than you are.'
'Silence! Silence!' said Abbe Mouret, summoning all his strength to rise and move away.
But La Teuse also rose and barred his way with her bulky figure. She was angry, and cried out:
'There, you see, you want to be off already! But you are going to listen to me. You know quite well that I am not over fond of the people yonder, don't you? If I talk to you about them, it is for your own good. Some people say that I am jealous. Well, one day I mean to take you over there. You would be with me, and you wouldn't be afraid of any harm happening. Will you go?'
He motioned her away from him with his hands, and his face was calm again as he said:
'I desire nothing. I wish to know nothing. There is high mass to-morrow. You must see that the altar is made ready.'
Then, as he walked away, he added, smiling:
'Don't be uneasy, my good Teuse. I am stronger than you imagine. I shall be able to cure myself without any one's assistance.'
With these words he went off, bearing himself sturdily, with his head erect, for he had vanquished his feelings. His cassock rustled very gently against the borders of thyme. La Teuse, who for a moment had remained rooted to the spot where she was standing, sulkily picked up her basin and wooden spoon. Then, shrugging her big shoulders again and again, she mumbled between her teeth:
'That's all bravado of his. He imagines that he is differently made from other men, just because he is a priest. Well, as a matter of fact, he is very firm and determined. I have known some who wouldn't have had to be wheedled so long. And he is quite capable of crushing his heart, just as one might crush a flea. It must be the Almighty who gives him his strength.'
As she returned to the kitchen she saw Abbe Mouret standing by the gate of the farmyard. Desiree had stopped him there to make him feel a capon which she had been fattening for some weeks past. He told her pleasantly that it was very heavy, and the big child chuckled with glee.
'Ah! well,' said La Teuse in a fury, 'that bird has got to crush its heart too. But then it can't help itself.'
Abbe Mouret spent his days at the parsonage. He shunned the long walks which he had been wont to take before his illness. The scorched soil of Les Artaud, the ardent heat of that valley where the vines could never even grow straight, distressed him. On two occasions, in the morning, he had attempted to go out and read his breviary as he strolled along the road; but he had not gone beyond the village. He had returned home, overcome by the perfumes, the heat, the breadth of the landscape. It was only in the evening, in the cool twilight air, that he ventured to saunter a little in front of the church, on the terrace which led to the graveyard. In the afternoons, to fill up his time, and satisfy his craving for some kind of occupation, he had imposed upon himself the task of pasting paper over the broken panes of the church windows, This had kept him for a week mounted on a ladder, arranging his paper panes with great exactness, and laying on the paste with the most scrupulous care in order to avoid any mess.
La Teuse stood at the foot of the ladder and watched him. And Desiree urged that he must not fill up all the windows, or else the sparrows would no longer be able to get through. To please her, the priest left a pane or two in each window unfilled. Then, having completed these repairs, he was seized with the ambition of decorating the church, without summoning to his aid either mason or carpenter or painter. He would do it all himself. This sort of handiwork would amuse him, he said, and help to bring back his strength. Uncle Pascal encouraged him every time he called at the parsonage, assuring him that such exercise and fatigue were better than all the drugs in the world. And so Abbe Mouret began to stop up the holes in the walls with plaster, to drive fresh nails into the disjoined altars, and to crush and mix paints, in order that he might put a new coating on the pulpit and confessional-box. It was quite an event in the district, and folks talked of it for a couple of leagues round. Peasants would come and stand gazing, with their hands behind their backs, at his reverence's work. The Abbe himself, with a blue apron tied round his waist, and his hands all soiled with his labour, became absorbed in it, and used it as an excuse for no longer going out. He spent his days in the midst of his repairs, and was more tranquil than he had been before; almost cheerful, indeed, as he forgot the outer world, the trees and the sunshine and the warm breezes, which had formerly disturbed him so much.
'Monsieur le Cure is free to do as he pleases, since the parish hasn't got to find the money,' said old Bambousse, who came round every evening to see how the work was progressing.
Abbe Mouret spent all his savings on it. Some of his decorations, indeed, were so awkward that they would have excited many people's smiles. The replastering of the stonework soon tired him: so he contented himself with patching up the church walls all round to a height of some six feet from the ground. La Teuse mixed the plaster. When she talked of repairing the parsonage as well, for she was continually fearing that it would topple down on their heads, he told her that he did not think he could manage it, that a regular workman would be necessary; a reply which led to a terrible quarrel between them. La Teuse said it was quite ridiculous to go on ornamenting the church, where nobody slept, while their bedrooms were in such a crazy condition, for she was quite sure they would all be found, one morning, crushed to death by the fallen ceilings.
'I shall end by bringing my bed here, and placing it behind the altar,' she grumbled. 'I feel quite terrified sometimes at night.'
However, when the plaster was all used up, she said no more about repairing the parsonage. The painting which the priest executed quite delighted her. It was the chief charm of the improvements. The Abbe, who had repaired the woodwork everywhere with bits of boards, took particular pleasure in spreading his big brush, dipped in bright yellow paint, over all this woodwork. The gentle, up-and-down motion of the brush lulled him, left him thoughtless for hours whilst he gazed on the oily streaks of paint. When everything was quite yellow, the pulpit, the confessional-box, the altar rails, even the clock-case itself, he ventured to try his hand at imitation marble work by way of touching up the high altar. Then, growing bolder, he painted it all over. Glistening with white and yellow and blue, it was pronounced superb. People who had not been to mass for fifty years streamed into the church to see it.
And now the paint was dry. All that remained for Abbe Mouret to do was to edge the panels with brown beading. So, that afternoon, he set to work at it, wishing to get it done by evening; for on the following day, as he had reminded La Teuse, there would be high mass. She was there ready to arrange the altar. She had already placed on the credence the candlesticks and the silver cross, the porcelain vases filled with artificial roses, and the laced cloth which was only used on great festivals. The beading, however, proved so difficult of execution, that it was not completed till late in the evening. It was growing quite dark as the Abbe finished his last panel.
'It will be really too beautiful,' said a rough voice from amidst the greyish gloom of twilight which was filling the church.
La Teuse, who had knelt down to get a better view of the Abbe's brush as it glided along his rule, started with alarm.
'Ah! it's Brother Archangias,' she said, turning round. 'You came in by the sacristy then? You gave me quite a turn. Your voice seemed to sound from under the floor.'
Abbe Mouret had resumed his work, after greeting the Brother with a slight nod. The Brother remained standing there in silence, with his fat hands clasped in front of his cassock. Then, shrugging his shoulders, as he observed with what scrupulous care the priest sought to make his beading perfectly straight, he repeated:
'It will be really too beautiful.'
La Teuse, who knelt near by in ecstasy, started again.
'Dear me!' she said, 'I had quite forgotten you were there. You really ought to cough before you speak. You have a voice that comes on one so suddenly that one might think it was a voice from the grave.'
She rose up and drew back a little the better to admire the Abbe's work.
'Why too beautiful?' she asked. 'Nothing can be too beautiful when it is done for the Almighty. If his reverence had only had some gold, he would have done it with gold, I'm sure.'
When the priest had finished, she hastened to change the altar-cloth, taking the greatest care not to smudge the beading. Then she arranged the cross, the candlesticks, and the vases symmetrically. Abbe Mouret had gone to lean against the wooden screen which separated the choir from the nave, by the side of Brother Archangias. Not a word passed between them. Their eyes were fixed upon the silver crucifix, which, in the increasing gloom, still cast some glimmer of light on the feet and the left side and the right temple of the big Christ. When La Teuse had finished, she came down towards them, triumphantly.
'Doesn't it look lovely?' she asked. 'Just you see what a crowd there will be at mass to-morrow! Those heathens will only come to God's house when they think He is well-to-do. Now, Monsieur le Cure, we must do as much for the Blessed Virgin's altar.'
'Waste of money!' growled Brother Archangias.
But La Teuse flew into a tantrum; and, as Abbe Mouret remained silent, she led them both before the altar of the Virgin, pushing them and dragging them by their cassocks.
'Just look at it,' said she; 'it is too shabby for anything, now that the high altar is so smart. It looks as though it had never been painted at all. However much I may rub it of a morning, the dust sticks to it. It is quite black; it is filthy. Do you know what people will say about you, your reverence? They will say that you care nothing for the Blessed Virgin; that's what they'll say.'
'Well, what of it?' queried Brother Archangias.
La Teuse looked at him, half suffocated by indignation.
'What of it? It would be sinful, of course,' she muttered. 'This altar is like a neglected tomb in a graveyard. If it were not for me, the spiders would spin their webs across it, and moss would soon grow over it. From time to time, when I can spare a bunch of flowers, I give it to the Virgin. All the flowers in our garden used to be for her once.'
She had mounted the altar steps, and she took up two withered bunches of flowers, which had been left there, forgotten.
'See! it is just as it is in the graveyards,' she said, throwing the flowers at Abbe Mouret's feet.
He picked them up, without replying. It was quite dark now, and Brother Archangias stumbled about amongst the chairs and nearly fell. He growled and muttered some angry words, in which the names of Jesus and Mary recurred. When La Teuse, who had gone for a lamp, returned into the church, she asked the priest:
'So I can put the brushes and pots away in the attic, then?'
'Yes,' he answered. 'I have finished. We will see about the rest later on.'
She walked away in front of them, carrying all the things with her, and keeping silence, lest she should say too much. And as Abbe Mouret had kept the withered bunches of flowers in his hand, Brother Archangias said to him, as they passed the farmyard: 'Throw those things away.'
The Abbe took a few steps more, with downcast head; and then over the palings he flung the flowers upon a manure-heap.
The Brother, who had already had his own meal, seated himself astride a chair, while the priest dined. Since Serge's return to Les Artaud, the Brother had thus spent most of his evenings at the parsonage; but never before had he imposed his presence upon the other in so rough a fashion. He stamped on the tiled floor with his heavy boots, his voice thundered and he smote the furniture, whilst he related how he had whipped some of his pupils that morning, or expounded his moral principles in terms as stern, as uncompromising as bludgeon-blows. Then feeling bored, he suggested that he and La Teuse should have a game at cards. They had endless bouts of 'Beggar-my-neighbour' together, that being the only game which La Teuse had ever been able to learn. Abbe Mouret would smilingly glance at the first few cards flung on the table and would then gradually sink into reverie, remaining for hours forgetful of his self-restraint, oblivious of his surroundings, beneath the suspicious glances of Brother Archangias.
That evening La Teuse felt so cross that she had talked of going to bed as soon as the cloth was removed. The Brother, however, wanted his game of cards. So he caught hold of her shoulders and sat her down, so roughly that the chair creaked beneath her. And forthwith he began to shuffle the cards. Desiree, who hated him, had gone off carrying her dessert, which she generally took upstairs with her every evening to eat in bed.
'I want the red cards,' said La Teuse.
Then the struggle began. The old woman at first won some of the Brother's best cards. But before long two aces fell together on the table.
'Here's a battle!' she cried, wild with excitement.
She threw down a nine, which rather alarmed her, but as the Brother, in his turn, only put down a seven, she picked up the cards with a triumphant air. At the end of half an hour, however, she had only gained two aces, so that the chances remained fairly equal. And a quarter of an hour later she lost an ace. The knaves and kings and queens were perpetually coming and going as the battle furiously progressed.
'It's a splendid game, eh?' said Brother Archangias, turning towards Abbe Mouret.
But when he saw him sitting there, so absorbed in his reverie, with such a gentle smile playing unconsciously round his lips, he roughly raised his voice:
'Why, Monsieur le Cure, you are not paying any attention to us! It isn't polite of you. We are only playing on your account. We were trying to amuse you. Come and watch the game. It would do you more good than dozing and dreaming away there. Where were you just now?'
The priest started. He said nothing, but with quivering eyelids tried to force himself to look at the game. The play went on vigorously. La Teuse won her ace back, and then lost it again. On some evenings they would fight in this way over the aces for quite four hours, and often they would go off to bed, angry at having failed to bring the contest to a decisive issue.
'But, dear me! I've only just remembered it!' suddenly cried La Teuse, who greatly feared that she was going to be beaten. 'His reverence has to go out to-night. He promised Fortune and Rosalie that he would go to bless their room, according to the custom. Make haste, Monsieur le Cure! The Brother will go with you.'
Abbe Mouret had already risen from his chair, and was looking for his hat. But Brother Archangias, still holding his cards, flew into a tantrum: 'Oh! don't bother about it,' said he. 'What does it want to be blessed for that pigsty of theirs? It is a custom that you should do away with. I can't see any sense in it. Stay here and let us finish the game. That is much the best thing to do.'
'No,' said the priest, 'I promised to go. Those good people might feel hurt if I didn't. You stay here and play your game out while you are waiting for me.'
La Teuse glanced uneasily at Brother Archangias.
'Well, yes, I will stay here,' cried the Brother. 'It is really too absurd.'
But before Abbe Mouret could open the door, he flung his cards on the table and rose to follow him. Then half turning back he called to La Teuse:
'I should have won. Leave the cards as they are, and we will play the game out to-morrow.'
'Oh! they are all mixed now,' answered the old servant, who had lost no time in shuffling them together. 'Did you suppose that I was going to put your hand away under a glass case? And, besides, I might very well have won, for I still had an ace left.'
A few strides brought Brother Archangias up with Abbe Mouret, who was walking down the narrow path that led to the village. The Brother had undertaken the task of keeping watch over the Abbe's movements. He incessantly played the spy upon him, accompanying him everywhere, or, if he could not go in person, sending some school urchin to follow him. With that terrible laugh of his, he was wont to remark that he was 'God's gendarme.'
And, in truth, the Abbe seemed like a culprit ever guarded by the black shadow of the Brother's cassock; a culprit to be treated distrustfully, since in his weakness he might well lapse into fresh crime were he left free from surveillance for a single moment. Thus he was watched and guarded with all the spiteful eagerness that some jealous old maid might have displayed, the overreaching zeal of a gaoler who might carry precautions so far as to exclude even such rays of light as might creep through the chinks of the prison-house. Brother Archangias was always on the watch to keep out the sunlight, to prevent even a whiff of air from entering, to shut up his prison so completely that nothing from outside could gain access to it. He noted the Abbe's slightest fits of weakness, and by his glance divined his tender thoughts, which with a word he pitilessly crushed, as though they were poisonous vermin. The priest's intervals of silence, his smiles, the paling of his brow, the faint quivering of his limbs, were all noted by the Brother. But he never spoke openly of the transgression. His presence alone was a sufficient reproach. The manner in which he uttered certain words imparted to them all the sting of a whip stroke. With a mere gesture he expressed his utter disgust for the priest's sin. Like one of those betrayed husbands who enjoy torturing their wives with cruel allusions, he contented himself with recalling the scene at the Paradou, in an indirect fashion, by some word or phrase which sufficed to annihilate the Abbe, whenever the latter's flesh rebelled.
It was nearly ten o'clock and most of the villagers of Les Artaud had retired to rest. But from a brightly lighted house at the far end, near the mill, there still came sounds of merriment. While keeping the best rooms for his own use, old Bambousse had given a corner of his house to his daughter and son-in-law. They were all assembled there, drinking a last glass, while waiting for the priest.
'They are drunk,' growled Brother Archangias. 'Don't you hear the row they are making?'
Abbe Mouret made no reply. It was a lovely night and all looked bluish in the moonlight, which lent to the distant part of the valley the aspect of a sleeping lake. The priest slackened his pace that he might the more fully enjoy the charm of that soft radiance, and now and then he even stopped as he came upon some expanse of light, experiencing the delightful quiver which the proximity of fresh water brings one on a hot day. But the Brother continued striding along, grumbling and calling him.
'Come along; come along! It isn't good to loiter out of doors at this time of night. You would be much better in bed.'
All at once, however, just as they were entering the village, Archangias himself stopped short in the middle of the road. He was looking towards the heights, where the white lines of the roads vanished amidst black patches of pine-woods, and he growled to himself, like a dog that scents danger.
'Who can be coming down so late?' he muttered.
But the priest, who neither saw nor heard anything, was now, in his turn, anxious to press on.
'Stay! stay! there he is,' eagerly added Brother Archangias. 'He has just turned the corner. See! he is in the moonlight now. One can see him plainly. It is a tall man, with a stick.'
Then, after a moment's silence, he resumed, in a voice husky with fury: 'It is he, that beggar! I felt sure it was!'
Thereupon, the new-comer having now reached the bottom of the hill, Abbe Mouret saw that it was Jeanbernat. In spite of his eighty years, the old man set his feet down with such force, that his heavy, nailed boots sent sparks flying from the flints on the road. And he walked along as upright as an oak, without the aid of his stick, which he carried across his shoulder like a musket.
'Ah! the villain!' stammered the Brother, still standing motionless. 'May the fiend light all the blazes of hell under his feet!'
The priest, who felt greatly disturbed, and despaired of inducing his companion to come on, turned round to continue his journey, hoping that, by a quick walk to the Bambousses' house, he might yet manage to avoid Jeanbernat. But he had not taken five strides before he heard the bantering voice of the old man close behind him.
'Hie! Cure! wait for me. Are you afraid of me?'
And as Abbe Mouret stopped, he came up and continued: 'Ah! those cassocks of yours are tiresome things, aren't they? They prevent your getting along too quickly. It's such a fine clear night, too, that one can recognise you by your gown a long way off. When I was right at the top of the hill, I said to myself, "Surely that is the little priest down yonder." Oh! yes, I still have very good eyes.... Well, so you never come to see us now?'
'I have had so much to do,' murmured the priest, who had turned very pale.
'Well, well, every one's free to please himself. If I've mentioned the matter, it's only because I want you to know that I don't bear you any grudge for being a priest. We wouldn't even talk about your religion, it's all one and the same to me. But the little one thinks that it's I who prevents your coming. I said to her, "The priest is an idiot," and I think so, indeed. Did I try to eat you during your illness? Why, I didn't even go upstairs to see you. Every one's free, you know.'
He spoke on in the most unconcerned manner, pretending that he did not notice the presence of Brother Archangias; but as the latter suddenly broke into an angry grunt, he added, 'Why, Cure, so you bring your pig out with you?'
'Take care, you bandit!' hissed the Brother, clenching his fists.
Jeanbernat, whose stick was still raised, then pretended to recognise him.
'Hands off!' he cried. 'Ah! it's you, you soul-saver! I ought to have known you by your smell. We have a little account to settle together, remember. I have sworn to cut off your ears in the middle of your school. It will amuse the children you are poisoning.'
The Brother fell back before the raised staff, a flood of abuse rising to his lips; but he began to stammer and went on disjointedly:
'I will set the gendarmes after you, scoundrel! You spat on the church; I saw you. You give the plague to the poor people who merely pass your door. At Saint-Eutrope you made a girl die by forcing her to chew a consecrated wafer which you had stolen. At Beage you went and dug up the bodies of little dead children and carried them away on your back. You are an old sorcerer! Everybody knows it, you scoundrel! You are the disgrace of the district. Whoever strangles you will gain heaven for the deed.'
The old man listened with a sneer, twirling the while his staff between his fingers. And between the Brother's successive insults he ejaculated in an undertone:
'Go on, go on; relieve yourself, you viper. I'll break your back for you by-and-by.'
Abbe Mouret tried to interfere, but Brother Archangias pushed him away, exclaiming: 'You are led by him yourself! Didn't he make you trample upon the cross? Deny it, if you dare!' Then again, turning to Jeanbernat, he yelled: 'Ah! Satan, you must have chuckled and no mistake when you held a priest in your grasp! May Heaven curse those who abetted you in that sacrilege! What was it you did, at night, while he slept? You came and moistened his tonsure with your saliva, eh? so that his hair might grow more quickly. And then you breathed upon his chin and his cheeks that his beard might grow a hand's breadth in a single night. And you rubbed all your philters into his body, and breathed into his mouth the lasciviousness of a dog. You turned him into a brute-beast, Satan.'
'He's idiotic,' said Jeanbernat, resting his stick on his shoulder. 'He quite bores me.'
The Brother, however, growing bolder, thrust his fists under the old man's nose.
'And that drab of yours!' he cried, 'you can't deny that you set her on to damn the priest.'
Then he suddenly sprang backwards, with a shriek, for the old man, swinging his stick with all his strength, had just broken it over his back. Retreating yet a little further, Archangias picked from a heap of stones beside the road a piece of flint twice the size of a man's fist, and threw it at Jeanbernat. It would surely have split the other's forehead open if he had not bent down. He, however, now likewise crossed over to a heap of stones, sheltered himself behind it, and provided himself with missiles; and from one heap to the other a terrible combat began, with a perfect hail of flints. The moon now shone very brightly, and their dark shadows fell distinctly on the ground.
'Yes, yes, you set that hussy on to ruin him!' repeated the Brother, wild with rage. 'Ah! you are astonished that I know all about it! You hope for some monstrous result from it all. Every morning you make the thirteen signs of hell over that minx of yours! You would like her to become the mother of Antichrist. You long for Antichrist, you villain! But may this stone blind you!'
'And may this one bung your mouth up!' retorted Jeanbernat, who was now quite calm again. 'Is he cracked, the silly fellow, with all those stories of his?... Shall I have to break your head for you, before I can get on my way? Is it your catechism that has turned your brain?'
'Catechism, indeed! Do you know what catechism is taught to accursed ones like you? Ah! I will show you how to make the sign of the cross.—This stone is for the Father, and this for the Son, and this for the Holy Ghost. Ah! you are still standing. Wait a bit, wait a bit. Amen!' Then he threw a handful of small pebbles like a volley of grape-shot. Jeanbernat, who was struck upon the shoulder, dropped the stones he was holding, and quietly stepped forwards, while Brother Archangias picked two fresh handfuls from the heap, blurting out:
I am going to exterminate you. It is God who wills it. God is acting through my arm.'
'Will you be quiet!' said the old man, grasping him by the nape of the neck.
Then came a short struggle amidst the dust of the road, all bluish with moonlight. The Brother, finding himself the weaker of the two, tried to bite. But Jeanbernat's sinewy limbs were like coils of rope which pinioned him so tightly that he could almost feel them cutting into his flesh. He panted and ceased to struggle, meditating some act of treachery.
The old man, having got the other under him, scoffingly exclaimed: 'I have a good mind to break one of your arms. You see that it isn't you who are the stronger, but that it is I who am exterminating you.... Now I'm going to cut your ears off. You have tried my endurance too far.'
Jeanbernat calmly drew his knife from his pocket. But Abbe Mouret, who had several times attempted to part the combatants, now raised such strenuous opposition to the old man's design that he consented to defer the operation till another time.
'You are acting foolishly, Cure,' said he. 'It would do this scoundrel good to be well bled; but, since it seems to displease you, I'll wait a little longer; I shall be meeting him again in some quiet corner.'
And as the Brother broke out into a growl, Jeanbernat cried threateningly: 'If you don't keep still I will cut your ears off at once!'
'But you are sitting on his chest,' said the priest, 'get up and let him breathe.'
'No, no; he would begin his tomfoolery again. I will give him his liberty when I go away, but not before.... Well, I was telling you, Cure, when this good-for-nothing interrupted us, that you would be very welcome yonder. The little one is mistress, you know; I don't attempt to interfere with her any more than I do with my salad-plants. There are only fools like this croaker here who see any harm in it. Where did you see anything wrong, scoundrel? It was yourself who imagined it, villain that you are!'
And thereupon he gave the Brother another shaking. 'Let him get up,' begged Abbe Mouret.
'By-and-by. The little one has not been well for a long time. I did not notice anything myself, but she told me; and now I am on my way to tell your uncle Pascal, at Plassans. I like the night for walking; it is quiet, and, as a rule, one isn't delayed by meeting people.... Yes, yes, the little one is quite ailing.'
The priest could not find a word to say. He staggered, and his head sank.
'It made her so happy to look after you,' continued the old man. 'While I smoked my pipe I used to hear her laugh. That was quite sufficient for me. Girls are like the hawthorns; when they break out into blossom, they do all they can. Well, now, you will come, if your heart prompts you to it. I am sure it would please the little one. Good night, Cure.'
He got up slowly, keeping a firm grasp of the Brother's wrists, to guard against any treacherous attack. Then he proceeded on his way, with swinging strides, without once turning his head. The Brother silently crept to the heap of stones, and waited till the old man was some distance off. Then, with both hands, and with mad violence, he again began flinging stones, but they fell harmlessly upon the dusty road. Jeanbernat did not condescend to notice them, but went his way, upright like a tree, through the clear night.
'The accursed one!—Satan carries him on!' shrieked Brother Archangias, as he hurled his last stone. 'An old scoundrel, that the least touch ought to upset! But he is baked in hell's fire. I smelt his claws.'
The Brother stamped with impotent rage on the scattered flints. Then he suddenly attacked Abbe Mouret. 'It was all your fault,' he cried; 'you ought to have helped me, and, between us, we could have strangled him.'
Meantime, at the other end of the village, the uproar in the Bambousses' house had become greater than ever. The rhythmic tapping of glasses on a table could be distinctly heard. The priest resumed his walk without raising his head, making his way towards the flood of bright light that streamed out of the window like the flare of a fire of vine-cuttings. The Brother followed him gloomily; his cassock soiled with dust, and one of his cheeks bleeding from a stone-cut. And, after a short interval of silence, he asked, in his harsh voice: 'Shall you go?'
Then as Abbe Mouret did not answer, he went on: 'Take care! You are lapsing into sin again. It was sufficient for that man to pass by to send a thrill through your whole body. I saw you by the light of the moon looking as pale as a girl. Take care! take care! Do you hear me? Another time God will not pardon you—you will sink into the lowest abyss! Ah! wretched piece of clay that you are, filth is mastering you!'
Thereupon, the priest at last raised his head. Big tears were streaming from his eyes, and it was in gentle heartbroken accents that he spoke: 'Why do you speak to me like that?—You are always with me, and you know my ceaseless struggles. Do not doubt me, leave me strength to master myself.'
Those simple words, bathed with silent tears, fell on the night air with such an expression of superhuman suffering, that even Brother Archangias, in spite of all his harshness, felt touched. He made no reply, but shook his dusty cassock, and wiped his bleeding cheek. When they reached the Bambousses' house, he refused to go inside. He seated himself, a few yards away, on the body of an overturned cart, where he waited for the Abbe with dog-like patience.
'Ah! here is Monsieur le Cure!' cried all the company of Bambousses and Brichets as Serge entered.
They filled their glasses once more. Abbe Mouret was compelled to take one, too. There had been no regular wedding-feast; but, in the evening, after dinner, a ten-gallon 'Dame Jane' had been placed upon the table, and they were making it their business to empty it before going to bed. There were ten of them, and old Bambousse was already with one hand tilting over the jar whence only a thread of red liquor now flowed. Rosalie, in a very sportive frame of mind, was dipping her baby's chin into her glass, while big Fortune showed off his strength by lifting up the chairs with his teeth. All the company passed into the bedroom. Custom required that the priest should there drink the glass of wine which had been poured out for him. It brought good luck, and prevented quarrels in the household. In Monsieur Caffin's time, it had always been a very merry ceremony, for the old priest loved a joke. He had even gained a reputation for the skilful way in which he could drain his glass, without leaving a single drop at the bottom of it; and the Artaud women pretended that every drop undrunk meant a year's less love for the newly married pair. But with Abbe Mouret they dare not joke so freely. However, he drank his wine at one gulp, which seemed to greatly please old Bambousse. Mother Brichet looked at the bottom of the glass and saw but a drop or two of the liquid remaining there. Then, after a few jokes, they all returned to the living room, where Vincent and Catherine had remained by themselves. Vincent, standing upon a chair, was clasping the huge jar in his arms, and draining the last drops of wine into Catherine's open mouth.
'We are much obliged to you, Monsieur le Cure,' said old Bambousse, as he escorted the priest to the door. 'Well, they're married now, so I suppose you are satisfied. And they are not likely to complain, I'm sure.... Good night, sleep well, your reverence.'
Brother Archangias had slowly risen from his seat on the old cart.
'May the devil pile hot coals over them, and roast them!' he murmured.
Then without again opening his lips he accompanied Abbe Mouret to the parsonage. And he waited outside till the door was closed. Even then he did not go off without twice looking round to make sure that the Abbe was not coming out again. As for the priest, when he reached his bedroom, he threw himself in his clothes upon his bed, clasping his hands to his ears, and pressing his face to the pillow, in order that he might shut out all sound and sight. And thus stilling his senses he fell into death-like slumber.
The next day was Sunday. As the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross fell on a high mass day, Abbe Mouret desired to celebrate the festival with especial solemnity. He was now full of extraordinary devotion for the Cross, and had replaced the image of the Immaculate Conception in his bedroom by a large crucifix of black wood, before which he spent long hours in worship. To exalt the Cross, to plant it before him, above all else, in a halo of glory, as the one object of his life, gave him the strength he needed to suffer and to struggle. He sometimes dreamed of hanging there himself, in Jesus's place, his head crowned with thorns, nails driven through his hands and feet, and his side rent by spears. What a coward he must be to complain of an imaginary wound, when God bled there from His whole body, and yet preserved on His lips the blessed smile of the Redemption! And however unworthy it might be, he offered up his wound as a sacrifice, ended by falling into ecstasy, and believing that blood did really stream from his brow and side and limbs. Those were hours of relief, for he fancied that all the impurity within him flowed forth from his wounds. And he then usually drew himself up with the heroism of a martyr, and longed to be called upon to suffer the most frightful tortures, in order that he might bear them without a quiver of the flesh.
At early dawn that day he knelt before the crucifix, and grace came upon him abundantly as dew. He made no effort, he simply fell upon his knees, to receive it in his heart, to be permeated with it to the marrow of his bones in sweetest and most refreshing fulness. On the previous day he had prayed for grace in agony, and it had not come. At times it long remained deaf to his entreaties, and then, when he simply clasped his hands, in quite childlike fashion, it flowed down to succour him. It came upon him that morning like a benediction, bringing perfect serenity, absolute trusting faith. He forgot his anguish of the previous days, and surrendered himself wholly to the triumphant joy of the Cross. He seemed to be cased in such impenetrable armour that the world's most deadly blows would glide off from it harmlessly. When he came down from his bedroom, he stepped along with an air of serenity and victory. La Teuse was astonished, and went to find Desiree, that he might kiss her; and both of them clapped their hands, and said that they had not seen him looking so well for the last six months.
But it was in the church, at high mass, that the priest felt that he had really recovered divine grace. It was a long time since he had approached the altar with such loving emotion; and he had to make a great effort to restrain himself from weeping whilst he remained with his lips pressed to the altar-cloth. It was a solemn high mass. The local rural guard, an uncle of Rosalie, chanted in a deep bass voice which rumbled through the low nave like a hoarse organ. Vincent, robed in a surplice much too large for him, which had formerly belonged to Abbe Caffin, carried an old silver censer, and was vastly amused by the tinkling of its chains; he swung it to a great height, so as to produce copious clouds of smoke, and glanced behind him every now and then to see if he had succeeded in making any one cough. The church was almost full, for everybody wanted to see his reverence's painting. Peasant women laughed with pleasure because the place smelt so nice, while the men, standing under the gallery, jerked their heads approvingly at each deeper and deeper note that came from the rural guard. Filtering through the paper window panes the full morning sun lighted up the brightly painted walls, on which the women's caps cast shadows resembling huge butterflies. The artificial flowers, with which the altar was decorated, almost seemed to possess the moist freshness of natural ones newly gathered; and when the priest turned round to bless the congregation, he felt even stronger emotion than before, as he saw his church so clean, so full, and so steeped in music and incense and light.
After the offertory, however, a buzzing murmur sped through the peasant women. Vincent inquisitively turned his head, and in doing so, almost let the charcoal in his censer fall upon the priest's chasuble. And, wishing to excuse himself, as he saw the Abbe looking at him with an expression of reproof, he murmured: 'It is your reverence's uncle, who has just come in.'
At the end of the church, standing beside one of the slender wooden pillars that supported the gallery, Abbe Mouret then perceived Doctor Pascal. The doctor was not wearing his usual cheerful and slightly scoffing expression. Hat in hand, he stood there looking very grave, and followed the service with evident impatience. The sight of the priest at the altar, his solemn demeanour, his slow gestures, and the perfect serenity of his countenance, appeared to gradually increase his irritation. He could not stay there till the end of the mass, but left the church, and walked up and down beside his horse and gig, which he had secured to one of the parsonage shutters.
'Will that nephew of mine never have finished censing himself?' he asked of La Teuse, who was just coming out of the vestry.
'It is all over,' she replied. 'Won't you come into the drawing-room? His reverence is unrobing. He knows you are here.'
'Well, unless he were blind, he couldn't very well help it,' growled the doctor, as he followed La Teuse into the cold-looking, stiffly furnished chamber, which she pompously called the drawing-room. Here for a few minutes he paced up and down. The gloomy coldness of his surroundings seemed to increase his irritation. As he strode about, flourishing a stick he carried, he kept on striking the well-worn chair-seats of horsehair which sounded hard and dead as stone. Then, tired of walking, he took his stand in front of the mantelpiece, in the centre of which a gaudily painted image of Saint Joseph occupied the place of a clock.
'Ah! here he comes at last,' he said, as he heard the door opening. And stepping towards the Abbe he went on: 'Do you know that you made me listen to half a mass? It is a very long time since that happened to me. But I was bent on seeing you to-day. I have something to say to you.'
Then he stopped, and looked at the priest with an expression of surprise. Silence fell. 'You at all events are quite well,' he resumed, in a different voice.
'Yes, I am very much better than I was,' replied Abbe Mouret, with a smile. 'I did not expect you before Thursday. Sunday isn't your day for coming. Is there something you want to tell me?'
Uncle Pascal did not give an immediate answer. He went on looking at the Abbe. The latter was still fresh from the influence of the church and the mass. His hair was fragrant with the perfume of the incense, and in his eyes shone all the joy of the Cross. His uncle jogged his head, as he noticed that expression of triumphant peace.
'I have come from the Paradou,' he said, abruptly. 'Jeanbernat came to fetch me there. I have seen Albine, and she disquiets me. She needs much careful treatment.'
He kept his eyes fixed upon the priest as he spoke, but he did not detect so much as a quiver of Serge's eyelids.
'She took great care of you, you know,' he added, more roughly. 'Without her, my boy, you might now be in one of the cells at Les Tulettes, with a strait waistcoat on.... Well, I promised that you would go to see her. I will take you with me. It will be a farewell meeting. She is anxious to go away.'
'I can do nothing more than pray for the person of whom you speak,' said Abbe Mouret, softly.
And as the doctor, losing his temper, brought his stick down heavily upon the couch, he added calmly, but in a firm voice:
'I am a priest, and can only help with prayers.'
'Ah, well! Yes, you are right,' said Uncle Pascal, dropping down into an armchair, 'it is I who am an old fool. Yes, I wept like a child, as I came here alone in my gig. That is what comes of living amongst books. One learns a lot from them, but one makes a fool of oneself in the world. How could I guess that it would all turn out so badly?'
He rose from his chair and began to walk about again, looking exceedingly troubled.
'But yes, but yes, I ought to have guessed. It was all quite natural. Though with one in your position, it was bound to be abominable! You are not as other men. But listen to me, I assure you that otherwise you would never have recovered. It was she alone, with the atmosphere she set round you, who saved you from madness. There is no need for me to tell you what a state you were in. It is one of my most wonderful cures. But I can't take any pride, any pleasure in it, for now the poor girl is dying of it!'
Abbe Mouret remained there erect, perfectly calm, his face reflecting all the quiet serenity of a martyr whom nothing that man might do could disturb.
'God will take mercy upon her,' he said.
'God! God!' muttered the doctor below his breath. 'Ah! He would do better not to interfere. We might manage matters if we were left to ourselves.' Then, raising his voice, he added: 'I thought I had considered everything carefully, that is the most wonderful part of it. Oh! what a fool I was! You would stay there, I thought, for a month to recover your strength. The shade of the trees, the cheerful chatter of the girl, all the youthfulness about you would quickly bring you round. And then you, on your side, it seemed to me, would do something to reclaim the poor child from her wild ways; you would civilise her, and, between us, we should turn her into a young lady, for whom we should, by-and-by, find a suitable husband. It seemed such a perfect scheme. And then how was I to guess that old philosophising Jeanbernat would never stir an inch from his lettuce-beds? Well! well! I myself never left my own laboratory. I had such pressing work there.... And it is all my fault! Ah! I am a stupid bungler!'
He was choking, and wished to go off. And he began to look about him for his hat, though, all the while, he had it on his head.
'Good-bye!' he stammered; 'I am going. So you won't come? Do, now—for my sake! You see how miserable, how upset I am. I swear to you that she shall go away immediately afterwards. That is all settled. My gig is here; you might be back in an hour. Come, do come, I beg you.'
The priest made a sweeping gesture; such a gesture as the doctor had seen him make before the altar.
'No,' he said, 'I cannot.'
Then, as he accompanied his uncle out of the room, he added:
'Tell her to fall on her knees and pray to God. God will hear her as He heard me, and He will comfort her as He has comforted me. There is no other means of salvation.'
The doctor looked him full in the face, and shrugged his shoulders.
'Good-bye, then,' he repeated. 'You are quite well now, and have no further need of me.'
But, as he was unfastening his horse, Desiree, who had heard his voice, came running up. She was extremely attached to her uncle. When she had been younger he had been wont to listen to her childish prattle for hours without showing the least sign of weariness. And, even now, he did his best to spoil her, and manifested the greatest interest in her farmyard, often spending a whole afternoon with her amongst her fowls and ducks, and smiling at her with his bright eyes. He seemed to consider her superior to other girls. And so she now flung herself round his neck, in an impulse of affection, and cried:
'Aren't you going to stay and have some lunch with us?'
But having kissed her, he said he could not remain, and unfastened her arms from his neck with a somewhat pettish air. She laughed however, and again clasped her arms round him.
'Oh! but you must,' she persisted. 'I have some eggs that have only just been laid. I have been looking in the nests, and there are fourteen eggs this morning. And, if you will stay, we can have a fowl, the white one, that is always quarrelling with the others. When you were here on Thursday, you know, it pecked the big spotted hen's eye out.'
But her uncle persisted in his refusal. He was irritated to find that he could not unfasten the knot in which he had tied his reins. And then she began to skip round him, clapping her hands and repeating in a sing-song voice: 'Yes! yes! you'll stay, and we will eat it up, we'll eat it up!'
Her uncle could no longer resist her blandishments; he raised his head and smiled at her. She seemed so full of life and health and sincerity; her gaiety was as frank and natural as the sheet of sunlight which was gilding her bare arms.
'You big silly!' he said; and clasping her by the wrists as she continued skipping gleefully about him, he went on: 'No, dear; not to-day. I have to go to see a poor girl who is ill. But I will come some other morning. I promise you faithfully.'
'When? when?' she persisted. 'On Thursday? The cow is in calf, you know, and she hasn't seemed at all well these last two days. You are a doctor, and you ought to be able to give her something to do her good.'
Abbe Mouret, who had calmly remained there, could not restrain a slight laugh.
The doctor gaily got into his gig and exclaimed: 'All right, my dear, I will attend to your cow. Come and let me kiss you. Ah! how nice and healthy you are! And you are worth more than all the others put together. Ah! if every one was like my big silly, this earth would be too beautiful!'
He set his horse off with a cluck of his tongue, and continued talking to himself as the gig rattled down the hill.
'Yes, yes! there should be nothing but animals. Ah! if they were mere animals, how happy and gay and strong they would all be! It has gone well with the girl, who is as happy as her cow; but it has gone badly with the lad, who is in torture beneath his cassock. A drop too much blood, a little too much nerve, and one's whole life is wrecked! ... They are true Rougons and true Macquarts those children there! The tail-end of the stock—its final degeneracy.'
Then, urging on his horse, he drove at a trot up the hill that led to the Paradou.
Sunday was a busy day for Abbe Mouret. He had to think of vespers, which he generally said to empty seats, for even mother Brichet did not carry her piety so far as to go back to church in the afternoon. Then, at four o'clock, Brother Archangias brought the little rogues from his school to repeat their catechism to his reverence. This lesson sometimes lasted until late. When the children showed themselves quite intractable, La Teuse was summoned to frighten them with her broom.
On that particular Sunday, about four o'clock, Desiree found herself quite alone in the parsonage. As she felt a little bored, she went to gather some food for her rabbits in the churchyard, where there were some magnificent poppies, of which rabbits are extremely fond. Dragging herself about on her knees between the grave-stones, she gathered apronfuls of juicy verdure on which her pets fell greedily.
'Oh! what lovely plantains!' she muttered, stooping before Abbe Caffin's tombstone, and delighted with the discovery she had made.
There were, indeed, some magnificent plantains spreading out their broad leaves beside the stone. Desiree had just finished filling her apron with them when she fancied she heard a strange noise behind her. A rustling of branches and a rolling of small pebbles came from the ravine which skirted one side of the graveyard, and at the bottom of which flowed the Mascle, a stream which descended from the high lands of the Paradou. But the ascent here was so rough, so impracticable, that Desiree imagined that the noise could only have been made by some lost dog or straying goat. She stepped quickly to the edge, and, as she looked over, she was amazed to see amidst the brambles a girl who was climbing up the rocks with extraordinary agility.
'I will give you a hand,' she said. 'You might easily break your neck there.'
The girl, directly she saw she was discovered, started back, as though she would rather go down again, but after a moment's hesitation she ventured to take the hand that was held out to her.
'Oh! I know who you are,' said Desiree, with a beaming smile, and letting her apron fall that she might grasp the girl by the waist. 'You once gave me some blackbirds, but they all died, poor little dears. I was so sorry about it.—Wait a bit, I know your name, I have heard it before. La Teuse often mentions it when Serge isn't there; but she told me that I was not to repeat it. Wait a moment, I shall remember it directly!'
She tried to recall the name, and grew quite grave in the attempt. Then, having succeeded in remembering it, she became gay again, and seemingly found great pleasure in dwelling upon its musical sound.
'Albine! Albine!—— What a sweet name it is! At first I used to think you must be a tomtit, because I once had a tomtit with a name very like yours, though I don't remember exactly what it was.'
Albine did not smile. Her face was very pale, and there was a feverish gleam in her eyes. A few drops of blood trickled from her hands. When she had recovered her breath, she hastily exclaimed:
No! no! leave it alone. You will only stain your handkerchief. It is nothing but a scratch. I didn't want to come by the road, as I should have been seen—so I preferred coming along the bed of the torrent—— Is Serge there?'
Desiree did not feel at all shocked at hearing the girl pronounce her brother's name thus familiarly and with an expression of subdued passion. She simply replied that he was in the church hearing the children say their catechism.
'You must not speak at all loudly,' she added, raising her finger to her lips. 'Serge forbade me to talk loudly when he is catechising the children, and we shall get into trouble if we don't keep quiet. Let us go into the stable—shall we? We can talk better there.'
'I want to see Serge,' said Albine, simply.
Desiree cast a hasty glance at the church, and then whispered, 'Yes, yes; Serge will be finely caught. Come with me. We will hide ourselves, and keep quite quiet. We shall have some fine fun!'
She had picked up the herbage which had fallen from her apron, and quitting the graveyard she stole back to the parsonage, telling Albine to hide herself behind her and make herself as little as possible. As they stealthily glided through the farmyard, they caught sight of La Teuse, who was crossing over to the vestry, but she did not appear to notice them.
'There! There!' said Desiree, quite delighted, as they stowed themselves away in the stable; 'keep quiet, and no one will know that we are here. There is some straw there for you to lie down upon.'
Albine seated herself on a truss of straw.
'And Serge?' she asked, persisting in her one fixed idea.
'Listen! You can hear his voice. When he claps his hands, it will be all over, and the children will go away—Listen! he is telling them a tale.'
They could indeed just hear Abbe Mouret's voice, which was wafted to them through the vestry doorway which La Teuse had doubtless left open. It came to them like a solemn murmur, in which they could distinguish the name of Jesus thrice repeated. Albine trembled. She sprang up as though to hasten to that beloved voice whose caressing accents she knew so well, but all sound of it suddenly died away, shut off by the closing of the door. Then she sat down again, to wait, her hands tightly clasped, and her clear eyes gleaming with the intensity of her thoughts. Desiree, who was lying at her feet, gazed up at her with innocent admiration.
'How beautiful you are!' she whispered. 'You are like an image that Serge used to have in his bedroom. It was quite white like you are, with great curls floating about the neck; and the heart was quite bare and uncovered, just in the place where I can feel yours beating—— But you are not listening to me. You are looking quite sad. Let us play at something? Will you?'
Then she stopped short, holding her breath and saying between her teeth: 'Ah! the wretches! they will get us caught!' She still had her apron full of herbage with her, and her pets were taking it by assault. A troop of fowls had surrounded her, clucking and calling each other, and pecking at the hanging green stuff. The goat pushed its head slyly under her arm, and began to eat the longer leaves. Even the cow, which was tethered to the wall, strained at its cord and poked out its nose, kissing her with its warm breath.
'Oh! you thieves!' cried Desiree. 'But this is for the rabbits, not for you! Leave me alone, won't you! You, there, will get your ears boxed, if you don't go away! And you too will have your tail pulled if I catch you at it again. The wretches! they will be eating my hands soon!'
She drove the goat off, dispersed the fowls with her feet, and tapped the cow's nose with her fists. But the creatures just shook themselves, and then came back more greedily than ever, surrounding her, jumping on her, and tearing open her apron. At this she whispered to Albine, as though she were afraid the animals might hear her.
'Aren't they amusing, the dears? Watch them eat.'
Albine looked on with a grave expression.
'Now, now, be good,' resumed Desiree; 'you shall all have some, but you must wait your turns. Now, big Lisa, you first. Eh! how fond you are of plantain, aren't you?'
Big Lisa was the cow. She slowly munched a handful of the juicy leaves which had grown beside Abbe Caffin's tomb. A thread of saliva hung down from her mouth, and her great brown eyes shone with quiet enjoyment.
'There! now it's your turn,' continued Desiree, turning towards the goat. 'You are fond of poppies, I know; and you like the flowers best, don't you? The buds that shine in your teeth like red-hot butterflies! See, here are some splendid ones; they came from the left-hand corner, where there was a burial last year.'
As she spoke, she gave the goat a bunch of scarlet flowers, which the animal ate from her hand. When there was nothing left in her grasp but the stalks, she pushed these between its teeth. Behind her, in the meanwhile, the fowls were desperately pecking away at her petticoats. She threw them some wild chicory and dandelions which she had gathered amongst the old slabs that were ranged alongside the church walls. It was particularly over the dandelions that the fowls quarrelled, so voraciously indeed, with such scratchings and flapping of wings, that the other fowls in the yard heard them. And then came a general invasion. The big yellow cock, Alexander, was the first to appear; having seized a dandelion and torn it in halves, without attempting to eat it, he called to the hens who were still outside to come and peck. Then a white hen strutted in, then a black one, and then a whole crowd of hens, who hustled one another, and trod on one another's tails, and ended by forming a wild flood of feathers. Behind the fowls came the pigeons, and the ducks, and the geese, and, last of all, the turkeys. Desiree laughed at seeing herself thus surrounded by this noisy, squabbling mob.
'This is what always happens,' said she, 'every time that I bring any green stuff from the graveyard. They nearly kill each other to get at it; they must find it very nice.'
Then she made a fight to keep a few handfuls of the leaves from the greedy beaks which rose all round her, saying that something must really be saved for the rabbits. She would surely get angry with them if they went on like that, and give them nothing but dry bread in future. However, she was obliged to give way. The geese tugged at her apron so violently that she was almost pulled down upon her knees; the ducks gobbled away at her ankles; two of the pigeons flew upon her head, and some of the fowls fluttered about her shoulders. It was the ferocity of creatures who smell flesh: the fat plantains, the crimson poppies, the milky dandelions, in which remained some of the life of the dead. Desiree laughed loudly, and felt that she was on the point of slipping down, and letting go of her last two handfuls, when the fowls were panic-stricken by a terrible grunting.
'Ah! it's you, my fatty,' she exclaimed, quite delighted; 'eat them up, and set me at liberty.'
The pig waddled in; he was no longer the little pig of former days—pink as a newly painted toy, with a tiny little tail, like a bit of string; but a fat wobbling creature, fit to be killed, with a belly as round as a monk's, and a back all bristling with rough hairs, that reeked of fatness. His stomach had grown quite yellow from his habit of sleeping on the manure heap. Waddling along on his shaky feet, he charged with lowered snout at the scared fowls, and so left Desiree at liberty to escape, and take the rabbits the few scraps of green stuff which she had so strenuously defended. When she came back, all was peace again. The stupid, ecstatic-looking geese were lazily swaying their long necks about, the ducks and turkeys were waddling in ungainly fashion alongside the wall; the fowls were quietly clucking and peaking at invisible grains on the hard ground of the stable; while the pig, the goat, and the big cow, were drowsily blinking their eyes, as though they were falling asleep. Outside it had just begun to rain.
'Ah! well, there's a shower coming on!' cried Desiree, throwing herself down on the straw. 'You had better stay where you are, my dears, if you don't want to get soaked.'
Then she turned to Albine and added: 'How stupid they all look, don't they? They only wake up just to eat!'
Albine still remained silent. The merry laughter of that buxom girl as she struggled amidst those greedy necks and gluttonous beaks, which tickled and kissed her, and seemed bent on devouring her very flesh, had rendered the unhappy daughter of the Paradou yet paler than she had been before. So much gaiety, so much vitality, so much boisterous health made her despair. She strained her feverish arms to her desolate bosom, which desertion had parched.
'And Serge?' she asked again, in the same clear, stubborn voice.
'Hush!' said Desiree. 'I heard him just now. He hasn't finished yet—— We have been making a pretty disturbance; La Teuse must surely have grown deaf this afternoon—— Let us keep quiet now. I like to hear the rain fall.'
The shower beat in at the open doorway, casting big drops upon the threshold. The restless fowls, after venturing out for a moment, had quickly retreated to the far end of the stable; where, indeed, with the exception of three ducks who remained quietly walking in the rain, all the pets had now taken refuge, clustering round the girl's skirts. It was growing very warm amongst the straw. Desiree pulled two big trusses together, made a bed of them, and lay down at full length. She felt extremely comfortable there.
'It is so nice,' she murmured. 'Come and lie down like me. It is so springy and soft, all this straw; and it tickles one so funnily in the neck. Do you roll about in the straw at home? There is nothing I am fonder of—— Sometimes I tickle the soles of my feet with it. That is very funny, too——'
But at that moment, the big yellow cock, who had been gravely stalking towards her, jumped upon her breast.
'Get away with you, Alexander! get away!' she cried. 'What a tiresome creature he is! The idea of his perching himself on me—— You are too rough, sir, and you scratch me with your claws. Do you hear me? I don't want you to go away, but you must be good, and mustn't peck at my hair.'
Then she troubled herself no further about him. The cock still maintained his position, every now and then glancing inquisitively at the girl's chin with his gleaming eye. The other birds all began to cluster round her. After rolling amongst the straw, she was now lying lazily on her back with her arms stretched out.
'Ah! how pleasant it is,' she said; 'but then it makes me feel so sleepy. Straw always makes one drowsy, doesn't it? Serge doesn't like it. Perhaps you don't either. What do you like? Tell me, so that I may know.'
She was gradually dozing off. For a moment she opened her eyes widely, as though she were looking for something, and then her eyelids fell with a tranquil smile of content. She seemed to be asleep, but after a few minutes she opened her eyes again, and said:
'The cow is going to have a calf—— That will be so nice, and will please me more than anything.'
Then she sank into deep slumber. The fowls had ended by perching on her body; she was buried beneath a wave of living plumage. Hens were brooding over her feet; geese stretched their soft downy necks over her legs. The pig lay against her left side, while on the right, the goat poked its bearded head under her arm. The pigeons were roosting and nestling all over her, on her hands, her waist, and her shoulders. And there she lay asleep, in all her rosy freshness, caressed by the cow's warm breath, while the big cock still squatted just below her bosom with gleaming comb and quivering wings.
Outside, the rain was falling less heavily. A sunbeam, escaping from beneath a cloud, gilded the fine drops of water. Albine, who had remained perfectly still, watched the slumber of Desiree, that big, plump girl who found her great delight in rolling about in the straw. She wished that she, too, could slumber away so peacefully, and feel such pleasure, because a few straws had tickled her neck. And she felt jealous of those strong arms, that firm bosom, all that vitality, all that purely animal development which made the other like a tranquil easy-minded sister of the big red and white cow.
However, the rain had now quite ceased. The three cats of the parsonage filed out into the yard one after the other, keeping close to the wall, and taking the greatest precautions to avoid wetting their paws. They peeped into the stable, and then stalked up to the sleeping girl, and lay down, purring, close by her. Moumou, the big black cat, curled itself up close to her cheek, and gently licked her chin.
'And Serge?' murmured Albine, quite mechanically.
What was it that kept them apart? Who was it that prevented them from being happy together? Why might she not love him, and why might she not be loved, freely and in the broad sunlight, as the trees lived and loved? She knew not, but she felt that she had been forsaken, and had received a mortal wound. Yet she was possessed by a stubborn, determined longing, a very necessity, indeed, of once more clasping her love in her arms, of concealing him somewhere, that he might be hers in all felicity. She rose to her feet. The vestry door had just been opened again. A clapping of hands sounded, followed by the uproar of a swarm of children clattering in wooden shoes over the stone flags. The catechising was over. Then Albine gently glided out of the stable, where she had been waiting for an hour amidst the reeking warmth that emanated from Desiree's pets.
As she quietly slipped through the passage that led to the vestry, she caught sight of La Teuse, who was going to her kitchen, and who fortunately did not turn her head. Certain, now, of not being seen and stopped, Albine softly pushed the door which was before her, keeping hold of it in order that it might make no noise as it closed again.
And she found herself in the church.
At first she could see nobody. Outside, the rain had again begun to fall in fine close drops. The church looked very grey and gloomy. She passed behind the high altar, and walked on towards the pulpit. In the middle of the nave, there were only a number of empty benches, left there in disorder by the urchins of the catechism class. Amidst all this void came a low tic-tac from the swaying pendulum. She went down the church to knock at the confessional-box, which she saw standing at the other end. But, just as she passed the Chapel of the Dead, she caught sight of Abbe Mouret prostrated before the great bleeding Christ. He did not stir; he must have thought that it was only La Teuse putting the seats in order behind him.
But Albine laid her hand upon his shoulder.
'Serge,' she said, 'I have come for you.'
The priest raised his head with a start. His face was very pale. He remained on his knees and crossed himself, while his lips still quivered with the words of his prayer.
'I have been waiting for you,' she continued. 'Every morning and every evening I looked to see if you were not coming. I have counted the days till I could keep the reckoning no longer. Ah! for weeks and weeks—— Then, when I grew sure that you were not coming, I set out myself, and came here. I said to myself: "I will fetch him away with me." Give me your hand and let us go.'
She stretched out her hands, as though to help him to rise. But he only crossed himself, afresh. He still continued his prayers as he looked at her. He had succeeded in calming the first quiver of his flesh. From the Divine grace which had been streaming around him since the early morning, like a celestial bath, he derived a superhuman strength.
'It is not right for you to be here,' he said, gravely. 'Go away. You are aggravating your sufferings.'
'I suffer no longer,' she said, with a smile. 'I am well again; I am cured, now that I see you once more—— Listen! I made myself out worse than I really was, to induce them to go and fetch you. I am quite willing to confess it now. And that promise of going away, of leaving the neighbourhood, you didn't suppose I should have kept it, did you? No, indeed, unless I had carried you away with me on my shoulders. The others don't know it, but you must know that I cannot now live anywhere but at your side.'
She grew quite cheerful again, and drew close to the priest with the caressing ways of a child of nature, never noticing his cold and rigid demeanour. And she became impatient, clapped her hands, and exclaimed:
'Come, Serge; make up your mind and come. We are only losing time. There is no necessity to think so much about it. It is quite simple; I am going to take you with me. If you don't want any one to see you, we will go along by the Mascle. It is not very easy walking, but I managed it all by myself; and, when we are together, we can help each other. You know the way, don't you? We cross the churchyard, we descend to the torrent, and then we shall only have to follow its course right up to the garden. And one is quite at home down there. Nobody can see us, there is nothing but brambles and big round stones. The bed of the stream is nearly dry. As I came along, I thought: "By-and-by, when he is with me, we will walk along gently together and kiss one another." Come, Serge, be quick; I am waiting for you.'
The priest no longer appeared to hear her. He had betaken himself to his prayers again, and was asking Heaven to grant him the courage of the saints. Before entering upon the supreme struggle, he was arming himself with the flaming sword of faith. For a moment he had feared he was wavering. He had required all a martyr's courage and endurance to remain firmly kneeling there on the flagstones, while Albine was calling him: his heart had leapt out towards her, all his blood had surged passionately through his veins, filling him with an intense yearning to clasp her in his arms and kiss her hair. Her mere breath had awakened all the memory of their love; the vast garden, their saunters beneath the trees, and all the joy of their companionship.
But Divine grace was poured down upon him more abundantly, and the torturing strife, during which all his blood seemed to quit his veins, lasted but a moment. Nothing human then remained within him. He had become wholly God's.
Albine, however, again touched him on the shoulder. She was growing uneasy and angry.
'Why do you not speak to me?' she asked. 'You can't refuse; you will come with me? Remember that I shall die if you refuse. But no! you can't; it is impossible. We lived together once; it was vowed that we should never separate. Twenty times, at least, did you give yourself to me. You bade me take you wholly, your limbs, your breath, your very life itself. I did not dream it all. There is nothing of you that you have not given to me; not a hair in your head which is not mine. Your hands are mine. For days and days have I held them clasped in mine. Your face, your lips, your eyes, your brow, all, all are mine, and I have lavished my love upon them. Do you hear me, Serge?'
She stood erect before him, full of proud assertion, with outstretched arms. And, in a louder voice, she repeated:
'Do you hear me, Serge? You belong to me.'
Then Abbe Mouret slowly rose to his feet. He leant against the altar, and replied:
'No. You are mistaken. I belong to God.'
He was full of serenity. His shorn face seemed like that of some stone saint, whom no impulse of the flesh can disturb. His cassock fell around him in straight folds like a black winding-sheet, concealing all the outlines of his body. Albine dropped back at the sight of that sombre phantom of her former love. She missed his freely flowing beard, his freely flowing curls. And in the midst of his shorn locks she saw the pallid circle of his tonsure, which disquieted her as if it had been some mysterious evil, some malignant sore which had grown there, and would eat away all memory of the happy days they had spent together. She could recognise neither his hands, once so warm with caresses, nor his lissom neck, once so sonorous with laughter; nor his agile feet, which had carried her into the recesses of the woodlands. Could this, indeed, be the strong youth with whom she had lived one whole season—the youth with soft down gleaming on his bare breast, with skin browned by the sun's rays, with every limb full of vibrating life? At this present hour he seemed fleshless; his hair had fallen away from him, and all his virility had withered within that womanish gown, which left him sexless.
'Oh! you frighten me,' she murmured. 'Did you think then that I was dead, that you put on mourning? Take off that black thing; put on a blouse. You can tuck up the sleeves, and we will catch crayfishes again. Your arms used to be as white as mine.'
She laid her hand on his cassock, as though to tear it off him; but he repulsed her with a gesture, without touching her. He looked at her now and strengthened himself against temptation by never allowing his eyes to leave her. She seemed to him to have grown taller. She was no longer the playful damsel adorned with bunches of wild-flowers, and casting to the winds gay, gipsy laughter, nor was she the amorosa in white skirts, gracefully bending her slender form as she sauntered lingeringly beside the hedges. Now, there was a velvety bloom upon her lips; her hips were gracefully rounded; her bosom was in full bloom. She had become a woman, with a long oval face that seemed expressive of fruitfulness. Life slumbered within her. And her cheeks glowed with luscious maturity.
The priest, bathed in the voluptuous atmosphere that seemed to emanate from all that feminine ripeness, took a bitter pleasure in defying the caresses of her coral lips, the tempting smile of her eyes, the witching charm of her bosom, and all the intoxication which seemed to pour from her at every movement. He even carried his temerity so far as to search with his gaze for the spots that he had once so hotly kissed, the corners of her eyes and lips, her narrow temples, soft as satin, and the ambery nape of her neck, which was like velvet. And never, even in her embrace, had he tasted such felicity as he now felt in martyring himself, by boldly looking in the face the love that he refused. At last, fearing lest he might there yield to some new allurement of the flesh, he dropped his eyes, and said, very gently:
'I cannot hear you here. Let us go out, if you, indeed, persist in adding to the pain of both of us. Our presence in this place is a scandal. We are in God's house.'
'God!' cried Albine, excitedly, suddenly becoming a child of nature once more. 'God! Who is He? I know nothing of your God! I want to know nothing of Him if He has stolen you away from me, who have never harmed Him. My uncle Jeanbernat was right then when he said that your God was only an invention to frighten people, and make them weep! You are lying; you love me no longer, and that God of yours does not exist.'
'You are in His house now,' said Abbe Mouret, sternly. 'You blaspheme. With a breath He might turn you into dust.'
She laughed with proud disdain, and raised her hands as if to defy Heaven.
'Ah! then,' said she, 'you prefer your God to me. You think He is stronger than I am, and you imagine that He will love you better than I did. Oh! but you are a child, a foolish child. Come, leave all this folly. We will return to the garden together, and love each other, and be happy and free. That, that is life!'
This time she succeeded in throwing an arm round his waist, and she tried to drag him away. But he, quivering all over, freed himself from her embrace, and again took his stand against the altar.
'Go away!' he faltered. 'If you still love me, go away.... O Lord, pardon her, and pardon me too, for thus defiling this Thy house. Should I go with her beyond the door, I might, perhaps, follow her. Here, in Thy presence, I am strong. Suffer that I may remain here, to protect Thee from insult.'
Albine remained silent for a moment. Then, in a calm voice, she said:
'Well, let us stay here, then. I wish to speak to you. You cannot, surely, be cruel. You will understand me. You will not let me go away alone. Oh! do not begin to excuse yourself. I will not lay my hands upon you again, since it distresses you. I am quite calm now as you can see. We will talk quietly, as we used to do in the old days when we lost our way, and did not hurry to find it again, that we might have the more time to talk together.'
She smiled at that memory, and continued:
'I don't know about these things myself. My uncle Jeanbernat used to forbid me to go to church. "Silly girl," he'd say to me, "why do you want to go to a stuffy building when you have got a garden to run about in?" I grew up quite happy and contented. I used to look in the birds' nests without even taking the eggs. I did not even pluck the flowers, for fear of hurting the plants; and you know that I could never torture an insect. Why, then, should God be angry with me?'
'You should learn to know Him, pray to Him, and render Him the constant worship which is His due,' answered the priest.
'Ah! it would please you if I did, would it not?' she said. 'You would forgive me, and love me again? Well, I will do all that you wish me. Tell me about God, and I will believe in Him, and worship Him. All that you tell me shall be a truth to which I will listen on my knees. Have I ever had a thought that was not your own? We will begin our long walks again; and you shall teach me, and make of me whatever you will. Say "yes," I beg of you.'
Abbe Mouret pointed to his cassock.
'I cannot,' he simply said. 'I am a priest.'
'A priest!' she repeated after him, the smile dying out of her eyes. 'My uncle says that priests have neither wife, nor sister, nor mother. So that is true, then. But why did you ever come? It was you who took me for your sister, for your wife. Were you then lying?'
The priest raised his pale face, moist with the sweat of agony. 'I have sinned,' he murmured.
'When I saw you so free,' the girl went on, 'I thought that you were no longer a priest. I believed that all that was over, that you would always remain there with me, and for my sake.—— And now, what would you have me do, if you rob me of my whole life?'
'What I do,' he answered; 'kneel down, suffer on your knees, and never rise until God pardons you.'
'Are you a coward, then?' she exclaimed, her anger roused once more, her lips curving scornfully.
He staggered, and kept silence. Agony held him by the throat; but he proved stronger than pain. He held his head erect, and a smile almost played about his trembling lips. Albine for a moment defied him with her fixed glance; then, carried away by a fresh burst of passion, she exclaimed:
'Well, answer me. Accuse me! Say it was I who came to tempt you! That will be the climax! Speak, and say what you can for yourself. Strike me if you like. I should prefer your blows to that corpse-like stiffness you put on. Is there no blood left in your veins? Have you no spirit? Don't you hear me calling you a coward? Yes, indeed, you are a coward. You should never have loved me, since you may not be a man. Is it that black robe of yours which holds you back? Tear it off! When you are naked, perhaps you will remember yourself again.'
The priest slowly repeated his former words:
'I have sinned. I had no excuse for my sin. I do penitence for my sin without hope of pardon. If I tore off my cassock, I should tear away my very flesh, for I have given myself wholly to God, soul and body. I am a priest.'
'And I! what is to become of me?' cried Albine.
He looked unflinchingly at her.
'May your sufferings be reckoned against me as so many crimes! May I be eternally punished for the desertion in which I am forced to leave you! That will be only just. All unworthy though I be, I pray for you each night.'
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of great discouragement. Her anger was subsiding. She almost felt inclined to pity him.
'You are mad,' she murmured. 'Keep your prayers. It is you yourself that I want. But you will never understand me. There were so many things I wanted to tell you! Yet you stand there and irritate me with your chatter of another world. Come, let us try to talk sensibly. Let us wait for a moment till we are calmer. You cannot dismiss me in this way, I cannot leave you here. It is because you are here that you are so corpse-like, so cold that I dare not touch you. We won't talk any more just now. We will wait a little.'
She ceased speaking, and took a few steps, examining the little church. The rain was still gently pattering against the windows; and the cold damp light seemed to moisten the walls. Not a sound came from outside save the monotonous plashing of the rain. The sparrows were doubtless crouching for shelter under the tiles, and the rowan-tree's deserted branches showed but indistinctly in the veiling, drenching downpour. Five o'clock struck, grated out, stroke by stroke, from the wheezy chest of the old clock; and then the silence fell again, seeming to grow yet deeper, dimmer, and more despairing. The priest's painting work, as yet scarcely dry, gave to the high altar and the wainscoting an appearance of gloomy cleanliness, like that of some convent chapel where the sun never shines. Grievous anguish seemed to fill the nave, splashed with the blood that flowed from the limbs of the huge Christ; while, along the walls, the fourteen scenes of the Passion displayed their awful story in red and yellow daubs, reeking with horror. It was life that was suffering the last agonies there, amidst that deathlike quiver of the atmosphere, upon those altars which resembled tombs, in that bare vault which looked like a sepulchre. The surroundings all spoke of slaughter and gloom, terror and anguish and nothingness. A faint scent of incense still lingered there, like the last expiring breath of some dead girl, who had been hurriedly stifled beneath the flagstones.
'Ah,' said Albine at last, 'how sweet it used to be in the sunshine! Don't you remember? One morning we walked past a hedge of tall rose bushes, to the left of the flower-garden. I recollect the very colour of the grass; it was almost blue, shot with green. When we reached the end of the hedge we turned and walked back again, so sweet was the perfume of the sunny air. And we did nothing else, that morning; we took just twenty paces forward and then twenty paces back. It was so sweet a spot you would not leave it. The bees buzzed all around; and there was a tomtit that never left us, but skipped along by our side from branch to branch. You whispered to me, "How delightful is life!" Ah! life! it was the green grass, the trees, the running waters, the sky, and the sun, amongst which we seemed all fair and golden.'
She mused for another moment and then continued: 'Life 'twas the Paradou. How vast it used to seem to us! Never were we able to find the end of it. The sea of foliage rolled freely with rustling waves as far as the eye could reach. And all that glorious blue overhead! we were free to grow, and soar, and roam, like the clouds without meeting more obstacles than they. The very air was ours!'
She stopped and pointed to the low walls of the church.
'But, here, you are in a grave. You cannot stretch out your hand without hurting it against the stones. The roof hides the sky from you and blots out the sun. It is all so small and confined that your limbs grow stiff and cramped as though you were buried alive.'
'No,' answered the priest. 'The church is wide as the world.'
But she waved her hands towards the crosses, and the dying Christ, and the pictures of the Passion.
'And you live in the very midst of death. The grass, the trees, the springs, the sun, the sky, all are in the death throes around you.'
'No, no; all revives, all grows purified and reascends to the source of light.'
He had now drawn himself quite erect, with flashing eyes. And feeling that he was now invincible, so permeated with faith as to disdain temptation, he quitted the altar, took Albine's hand, and led her, as though she had been his sister, to the ghastly pictures of the Stations of the Cross.
'See,' he said, 'this is what God suffered! Jesus is cruelly scourged. Look! His shoulders are naked; His flesh is torn; His blood flows down His back.... And Jesus is crowned with thorns. Tears of blood trickle down His gashed brow. On His temple is a jagged wound.... Again Jesus is insulted by the soldiers. His murderers have scoffingly thrown a purple robe around His shoulders, and they spit upon His face and strike Him, and press the thorny crown deep into His flesh.'
Albine turned away her head, that she might not see the crudely painted pictures, in which the ochreous flesh of Christ had been plentifully bedaubed with carmine wounds. The purple robe round His shoulders seemed like a shred of His skin torn away.
'Why suffer? why die?' she said. 'O Serge, if you would only remember!... You told me, that morning, that you were tired. But I knew that you were only pretending, for the air was quite cool and we had only been walking for a quarter of an hour. But you wanted to sit down that you might hold me in your arms. Right down in the orchard, by the edge of a stream, there was a cherry tree—you remember it, don't you?—which you never could pass without wishing to kiss my hands. And your kisses ran all up my arms and shoulders to my lips. Cherry time was over, and so you devoured my lips.... It used to make us feel so sad to see the flowers fading, and one day, when you found a dead bird in the grass, you turned quite pale, and caught me to your breast, as if to forbid the earth to take me.'
But the priest drew her towards the other Stations of the Cross.
'Hush! hush!' he cried, 'look here, and here! Bow down in grief and pity—— Jesus falls beneath the weight of His cross. The ascent of Calvary is very tiring. He has dropped down on His knees. But He does not stay to wipe even the sweat from His brow, He rises up again and continues His journey.... And again Jesus falls beneath the weight of His cross. At each step He staggers. This time He has fallen on His side, so heavily that for a moment He lies there quite breathless. His lacerated hands have relaxed their hold upon the cross. His bruised and aching feet leave blood-stained prints behind them. Agonising weariness overwhelms Him, for He carries upon His shoulders the sins of the whole world.'
Albine gazed at the pictured Jesus, lying in a blue shirt prostrate beneath the cross, the blackness of which bedimmed the gold of His aureole. Then, with her glance wandering far away, she said:
'Oh! those meadow-paths! Have you no memory left, Serge? Have you forgotten those soft grassy walks through the meadows, amidst very seas of greenery? On the afternoon I am telling you of, we had only meant to stay out of doors an hour; but we went wandering on and were still wandering when the stars came out above us. Ah! how velvety it was, that endless carpet, soft as finest silk! It was just like a green sea whose gentle waters lapped us round. And well we knew whither those beguiling paths that led nowhere, were taking us! They were taking us to our love, to the joy of living together, to the certainty of happiness.'
With his hands trembling with anguish, Abbe Mouret pointed to the remaining pictures.
'Jesus,' he stammered, 'Jesus is nailed to the cross. The nails are hammered through His outspread hands. A single nail suffices for his feet, whose bones split asunder. He, Himself, while His flesh quivers with pain, fixes His eyes upon heaven and smiles.... Jesus is crucified between two thieves. The weight of His body terribly aggravates His wounds. From His brow, from His limbs, does a bloody sweat stream down. The two thieves insult Him, the passers-by mock at Him, the soldiers cast lots for His raiment. And the shadowy darkness grows deeper and the sun hides himself.... Jesus dies upon the cross. He utters a piercing cry and gives up the ghost. Oh! most terrible of deaths! The veil of the temple is rent in twain from top to bottom. The earth quakes, the stones are broken, and the very graves open.'
The priest had fallen on his knees, his voice choked by sobs, his eyes fixed upon the three crosses of Calvary, where writhed the gaunt pallid bodies of the crucified. Albine placed herself in front of the paintings in order that he might no longer see them.
'One evening,' she said, 'I lay through the long gloaming with my head upon your lap. It was in the forest, at the end of that great avenue of chestnut-trees, through which the setting sun shot a parting ray. Ah! what a caressing farewell He bade us! He lingered awhile by our feet with a kindly smile, as if saying "Till to-morrow." The sky slowly grew paler. I told you merrily that it was taking off its blue gown, and donning its gold-flowered robe of black to go out for the evening. And it was not night that fell, but a soft dimness, a veil of love and mystery, reminding us of those dusky paths, where the foliage arches overhead, one of those paths in which one hides for a moment with the certainty of finding the joyousness of daylight at the other end.
'That evening the calm clearness of the twilight gave promise of a splendid morrow. When I saw that it did not grow dark as quickly as you wished, I pretended to fall asleep. I may confess it to you now, but I was not really sleeping while you kissed me on the eyes. I felt your kisses and tried to keep from laughing. And then, when the darkness really came, it was like one long caress. The trees slept no more than I did. At night, don't you remember, the flowers always breathed a stronger perfume.'
Then, as he still remained on his knees, while tears streamed down his face, she caught him by the wrists, and pulled him to his feet, resuming passionately:
'Oh! if you knew you would bid me carry you off; you would fasten your arms about my neck, lest I should go away without you.... Yesterday I had a longing to see the garden once more. It seems larger, deeper, more unfathomable than ever. I discovered there new scents, so sweetly aromatic that they brought tears into my eyes. In the avenues I found a rain of sunbeams that thrilled me with desire. The roses spoke to me of you. The bullfinches were amazed at seeing me alone. All the garden broke out into sighs. Oh! come! Never has the grass spread itself out more softly. I have marked with a flower the hidden nook whither I long to take you. It is a nest of greenery in the midst of a tangle of brushwood. And there one can hear all the teeming life of the garden, of the trees and the streams and the sky. The earth's very breathing will softly lull us to rest there. Oh! come! come! and let us love one another amidst that universal loving!'
But he pushed her from him. He had returned to the Chapel of the Dead and stood in front of the painted papier-mache Christ, big as a ten-year-old boy, that writhed in such horridly realistic agony. There were real iron nails driven into the figure's limbs, and the wounds gaped in the torn and bleeding flesh.
'O Jesus, Who hast died for us!' cried the priest, 'convince her of our nothingness! Tell her that we are but dust, rottenness, and damnation! Ah! suffer that I may hide my head in a hair-cloth and rest it against Thy feet and stay there, motionless, until I rot away in death. The earth will no longer exist for me. The sun will no longer shine. I shall see nothing more, feel nothing, hear nothing. Nought of all this wretched world will come to turn my soul from its adoration of Thee.'
He was gradually becoming more and more excited, and he stepped towards Albine with upraised hands.
'You said rightly. It is Death that is present here; Death that is before my eyes; Death that delivers and saves one from all rottenness. Hear me! I renounce, I deny life, I wholly refuse it, I spit upon it. Those flowers of yours stink; your sun dazzles and blinds; your grass makes lepers of those that lie upon it; your garden is but a charnel-place where all rots and putrefies. The earth reeks with abomination. You lie when you talk of love and light and gladsome life in the depths of your palace of greenery. There is nought but darkness there. Those trees of yours exhale a poison which transforms men into beasts; your thickets are charged with the venom of vipers; your streams carry pestilence in their blue waters. If I could snatch away from that world of nature, which you extol, its kirtle of sunshine and its girdle of greenery, you would see it hideous like a very fury, a skeleton, rotting away with disease and vice.
'And even if you spoke the truth, even if your hands were really filled with pleasures, even if you should carry me to a couch of roses and offer me the dreams of Paradise, I would defend myself yet the more desperately from your embraces. There is war between us; war eternal and implacable. See! the church is very small; it is poverty-stricken; it is ugly; its confessional-box and pulpit are made of common deal, its font is merely of plaster, its altars are formed of four boards which I have painted myself. But what of that? It is yet vaster than your garden, greater than the valley, greater, even, than the whole earth. It is an impregnable fortress which nothing can ever break down. The winds, the sun, the forests, the ocean, all that is, may combine to assault it; yet it will stand erect and unshaken for ever!
'Yes, let all the jungles tower aloft and assail the walls with their thorny arms, let all the legions of insects swarm out of their holes in the ground and gnaw at the walls; the church, ruinous though it may seem, will never fall before the invasion of life. It is Death, Death the inexpugnable!... And do you know what will one day happen? The tiny church will grow and spread to such a colossal size, and will cast around such a mighty shadow, that all that nature, you speak of, will give up the ghost. Ah! Death, the Death of everything, with the skies gaping to receive our souls, above the curse-stricken ruins of the world!'
As he shouted those last words, he pushed Albine forcibly towards the door. She, extremely pale, retreated step by step. When he had finished in a gasping voice she very gravely answered:
'It is all over, then? You drive me away? Yet, I am your wife. It is you who made me so. And God, since He permitted it, cannot punish us to such a point as this.'
She was now on the threshold, and she added:
'Listen! Every day, at sunset, I go to the end of the garden, to the spot where the wall has fallen in. I shall wait for you there.'
And then she disappeared. The vestry door fell back with a sound like a deep sigh.
The church was perfectly silent, except for the murmuring sound of the rain, which was falling heavily once more. In that sudden change to quietude the priest's anger subsided, and he even felt moved. It was with his face streaming with tears, his frame shaken by sobs, that he went back to throw himself on his knees before the great crucifix. A torrent of ardent thanksgiving burst from his lips.
'Thanks be to Thee, O God, for the help which Thou hast graciously bestowed upon me. Without Thy grace I should have hearkened unto the promptings of my flesh, and should have miserably returned to my sin. It was Thy grace that girded my loins as with armour for battle; Thy grace was indeed my armour, my courage, the support of my soul, that kept me erect, beyond weakness. Oh! my God, Thou wert in me; it was Thy voice that spoke in me, for I no longer felt the cowardice of the flesh, I could have cut asunder my very heart-strings. And now, O God, I offer Thee my bleeding heart. It no longer belongs to any creature of this world; it is Thine alone. To give it to Thee I have wrenched it from all worldly affection. But think not, O God, that I take any pride to myself for this victory. I know that without Thee I am nothing; and I humbly cast myself at Thy feet.'
He sank down upon the altar steps, unable to utter another word, while his breath panted incense-like from his parted lips. The divine grace bathed him in ineffable ecstasy. He sought Jesus in the recesses of his being, in that sanctuary of love which he was ever preparing for His worthy reception. And Jesus was now present there. The Abbe knew it by the sweet influences which permeated him. And thereupon he joined with Jesus in that spiritual converse which at times bore him away from earth to companionship with God. He sighed out the verse from the 'Song of Solomon,' 'My beloved is mine, and I am his; He feedeth his flock among the lilies, until the day be cool, and the shadows flee away.' He pondered over the words of the 'Imitation:' 'It is a great art to know how to talk with Jesus, and it requires much prudence to keep Him near one.' And then, with adorable condescension, Jesus came down to him, and spoke with him for hours of his needs, his happiness, and his hopes. Their confidences were not less affectionate and touching than those of two friends, who meet after long separation and quietly retire to converse on the bank of some lonely stream; for during those hours of divine condescension Jesus deigned to be his friend, his best, most faithful friend, one who never forsook him, and who in return for a little love gave him all the treasures of eternal life. That day the priest was eager to prolong the sweet converse, and indeed, when six o'clock sounded through the quiet church, he was still listening to the words which echoed through his soul.
On his side there was unreserved confession, unimpeded by the restraints of language, natural effusion of the heart which spoke even more quickly than the mind. Abbe Mouret told everything to Jesus, as to a God who had come down in all the intimacy of the most loving tenderness, and who would listen to everything. He confessed that he still loved Albine; and he was surprised that he had been able to speak sternly to her and drive her away, without his whole being breaking out into revolt. He marvelled at it, and smiled as though it were some wonderful miracle performed by another. And Jesus told him that he must not be astonished, and that the greatest saints were often but unconscious instruments in the hands of God. Then the Abbe gave expression to a doubt. Had he not lost merit in seeking refuge in the Cross and even in the Passion of his Saviour? Had he not shown that he possessed as yet but little courage, since he had not dared to fight unaided? But Jesus evinced kindly tolerance, and answered that man's weakness was God's continual care, and that He especially loved those suffering souls, to whose assistance He went, like a friend to the bedside of a sick companion.
But was it a sin to love Albine, a sin for which he, Serge, would be damned? No; if his love was clean of all fleshly taint, and added another hope to his desire for eternal life. But, then, how was he to love her? In silence; without speaking a word to her, without taking a step towards her; simply allowing his pure affection to breathe forth, like a sweet perfume, pleasing unto heaven. And Jesus smiled with increasing kindliness, drawing nearer as if to encourage confession, in such wise that the priest grew bolder and began to recapitulate Albine's charms. She had hair that was fair and golden as an angel's; she was very white, with big soft eyes, like those of the aureoled saints. Jesus seemed to listen to this in silence, though a smile still played upon His face. And the priest continued: She had grown much taller. She was now like a queen, with rounded form and splendid shoulders. Oh! to clasp her waist, were it only for a second, and to feel her shoulders drawn close by his embrace! But the smile on the divine countenance then paled and died away, as a star sinks and falls beneath the horizon. Abbe Mouret now spoke all alone. Ah! had he not shown himself too hard-hearted? Why had he driven her away without one single word of affection, since Heaven allowed him to love her?
'I do love her! I do love her!' he cried aloud, in a distracted voice, that rang through the church.
He thought he saw her still standing there. She was stretching out her arms to him; she was beautiful enough to make him break all his vows. He threw himself upon her bosom without thought of the reverence due to his surroundings, he clasped her and rained kisses upon her face. It was before her that he now knelt, imploring her mercy, and beseeching her to forgive him his unkindness. He told her that, at times a voice which was not his own spoke through his lips. Could he himself ever have treated her harshly? It was the strange voice that had repulsed her. It could not, surely, be he himself, for he would have been unable to touch a hair of her head without loving emotion. And yet he had driven her away. The church was really empty! Whither should he hasten to find her again, to bring her back, and wipe her tears away with kisses? The rain was streaming down more violently than ever. The roads must be rivers of mud. He pictured her to himself lashed by the downpour, tottering alongside the ditches, her clothes soaked and clinging to her skin. No! no! it could not have been himself; it was that other voice, the jealous voice that had so cruelly sought to slay his love.
'O Jesus!' he cried in desperation, 'be merciful and give her back to me!'
But his Lord was no longer there. Then Abbe Mouret, awaking with a start, turned horribly pale. He understood it all. He had not known how to keep Jesus with him. He had lost his friend, and had been left defenceless against the powers of evil. Instead of that inward light, which had shone so brightly within him as he received his God, he now found utter darkness, a foul vapour that irritated his senses. Jesus had withdrawn His grace on leaving him; and he, who since early morning had been so strong with heaven-sent help, now felt utterly miserable, forsaken, weak and helpless as an infant. How frightful was his fall! How galling its bitterness! To have straggled so heroically, to have remained unshaken, invincible, implacable, while the temptress actually stood before him, with all her warm life, her swelling bosom and superb shoulders, her perfume of love and passion; and then to fall so shamefully, to throb with desire, when she had disappeared, leaving behind her but the echo of her skirts, and the fragrance diffused from her white neck! Now, these mere recollections sufficed to make her all powerful, her influence permeated the church.
'Jesus! Jesus!' cried the priest, once more, 'return, come back to me; speak to me once again!'
But Jesus remained deaf to his cry. For a moment Abbe Mouret raised his arms to heaven in desperate entreaty. His shoulders cracked and strained beneath the wild violence of his supplications. But soon his hands fell down again in discouragement. Heaven preserved that hopeless silence which suppliants at times encounter. Then he once more sat down on the altar steps, heart-crushed and with ashen face, pressing his elbows to his sides, as though he were trying to reduce his flesh to the smallest proportions possible.
'My God! Thou deserted me!' he murmured. 'Nevertheless, Thy will be done!'
He spoke not another word, but sat there, panting breathlessly, like a hunted beast that cowers motionless in fear of the hounds. Ever since his sin, he had thus seemed to be the sport of the divine grace. It denied itself to his most ardent prayers; it poured down upon him, unexpectedly and refreshingly, when he had lost all hope of winning it for long years to come.
At first he had been inclined to rebel against this dispensation of Heaven, complaining like a betrayed lover, and demanding the immediate return of that consoling grace, whose kiss made him so strong. But afterwards, after unavailing outbursts of anger, he had learned to understand that humility profited him most and could alone enable him to endure the withdrawal of the divine assistance. Then, for hours and for days, he would humble himself and wait for comfort which came not. In vain he cast himself unreservedly into the hands of God, annihilated himself before the Divinity, wearied himself with the incessant repetition of prayers. He could not perceive God's presence with him; and his flesh, breaking free from all restraint, rose up in rebellious desire. It was a slow agony of temptation, in which the weapons of faith fell, one by one, from his faltering hands, in which he lay inert in the clutch of passion, in which he beheld with horror his own ignominy, without having the courage to raise his little finger to free himself from the thraldom of sin.
Such was now his life. He had felt sin's attacks in every form. Not a day passed that he was not tried. Sin assumed a thousand guises, assailed him through his eyes and ears, flew boldly at his throat, leaped treacherously upon his shoulders, or stole torturingly into his bones. His transgression was ever present, he almost always beheld Albine dazzling as the sunshine, lighting up the greenery of the Paradou. He only ceased to see her in those rare moments when the divine grace deigned to close his eyes with its cool caresses. And he strove to hide his sufferings as one hides those of some disgraceful disease. He wrapped himself in the endless silence, which no one knew how to make him break, filling the parsonage with his martyrdom and resignation, and exasperating La Teuse, who, at times, when his back was turned, would shake her fist at heaven.
This time he was alone now, and need take no care to hide his torment. Sin had just struck him such an overwhelming blow, that he had not strength left to move from the altar steps, where he had fallen. He remained there, sighing, and groaning, parched with agony, incapable of a single tear. And he thought of the calm unruffled life that had once been his. Ah! the perfect peace, the full confidence of his first days at Les Artaud! The path of salvation had seemed so straight and easy then! He had smiled at the very mention of temptation. He had lived in the midst of wickedness, without knowledge of it, without fear of it, certain of being able to withstand it. He had been a model priest, so pure and chaste, so inexperienced and innocent in God's sight, that God had led him by the hand like a little child.
But now, all that childlike innocence was dead, God visited him in the morning, and forthwith tried him. A state of temptation became his life on earth. Now that full manhood and sin had come upon him, he entered into the everlasting struggle. Could it be that God really loved him more now than before? The great saints have all left fragments of their torn flesh upon the thorns of the way of sorrow. He tried to gather some consolation from this circumstance. At each laceration of his flesh, each racking of his bones, he tried to assure himself of some exceeding great reward. And then, no infliction that Heaven might now cast upon him could be too heavy. He even looked back with scorn on his former serenity, his easy fervour, which had set him on his knees with mere girlish enthusiasm, and left him unconscious even of the bruising of the hard stones. He strove also to discover pleasure in pain, in plunging into it, annihilating himself in it. But, even while he poured out thanks to God, his teeth chattered with growing terror, and the voice of his rebellious blood cried out to him that this was all falsehood, and that the only happiness worth desiring was in Albine's arms, amongst the flowers of the Paradou.
Yet he had put aside Mary for Jesus, sacrificing his heart that he might subdue his flesh, and hoping to implant some virility in his faith. Mary disquieted him too much, with her smoothly braided hair, her outstretched hands, and her womanly smile. He could never kneel before her without dropping his eyes, for fear of catching sight of the hem of her dress. Then, too, he accused her of having treated him too tenderly in former times. She had kept him sheltered so long within the folds of her robe, that he had let himself slip from her arms to those of a human creature without being conscious even of the change of his affection. He thought of all the roughness of Brother Archangias, of his refusal to worship Mary, of the distrustful glances with which he had seemed to watch her. He himself despaired of ever rising to such a height of roughness, and so he simply left her, hiding her images and deserting her altar. Yet she remained in his heart, like some love which, though unavowed, is ever present. Sin, with sacrilege whose very horror made him shudder, made use of her to tempt him.
Whenever he still invoked her, as he did at times of irrepressible emotion, it was Albine who showed herself beneath the white veil, with the blue scarf knotted round her waist and the golden roses blooming on her bare feet. All the representations of the Virgin, the Virgin with the royal mantle of cloth-of-gold, the Virgin crowned with stars, the Virgin visited by the Angel of the Annunciation, the peaceful Virgin poised between a lily and a distaff, all brought him some memory of Albine, her smiling eyes or her delicately curved mouth or her softly rounded cheeks.
Thereupon, by a supreme effort, he drove the female element from his worship, and sought refuge in Jesus, though even His gentle mildness sometimes proved a source of disquietude to him. What he needed was a jealous God, an implacable God, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, girded with thunder and manifesting Himself only to chastise the terrified world. He had done with the saints and the angels and the Divine Mother; he bowed down before God Himself alone, the omnipotent Master, who demanded from him his every breath. And he felt the hand of this God laid heavily upon him, holding him helpless at His mercy through space and time, like a guilty atom. Ah! to be nothing, to be damned, to dream of hell, to wrestle vainly against hideous temptations, all that was surely good.
From Jesus he took but the cross. He was seized with that passion for the cross which has made so many lips press themselves again and again to the crucifix till they were worn away with kissing. He took up the cross and followed Jesus. He sought to make it heavier, the mightiest of burdens; it was great joy to him to fall beneath its weight, to drag it on his knees, his back half broken. In it he beheld the only source of strength for the soul, of joy for the mind, of the consummation of virtue and the perfection of holiness. In it lay all that was good; all ended in death upon it. To suffer and to die, those words ever sounded in his ears, as the end and goal of mortal wisdom. And, when he had fastened himself to the cross, he enjoyed the boundless consolation of God's love. It was no longer, now, upon Mary that he lavished filial tenderness or lover's passion. He loved for love's mere sake, with an absolute abstract love. He loved God with a love that lifted him out of himself, out of all else, and wrapped him round with a dazzling radiance of glory. He was like a torch that burns away with blazing light. And death seemed to him to be only a great impulse of love.
But what had he omitted to do that he was thus so sorely tried? With his hand he wiped away the perspiration that streamed down his brow, and reflected that, that very morning, he had made his usual self-examination without finding any great guilt within him. Was he not leading a life of great austerity and mortification of the flesh? Did he not love God solely and blindly? Ah! how he would have blessed His Holy Name had He only restored him his peace, deeming him now sufficiently punished for his transgression! But, perhaps, that sin of his could never be expiated. And then, in spite of himself, his mind reverted to Albine and the Paradou, and all their memories.
At first he tried to make excuses for himself. He had fallen, one evening, senseless upon the tiled floor of his bedroom, stricken with brain fever. For three weeks he had remained unconscious. His blood surged furiously through his veins and raged within him like a torrent that had burst its banks. His whole body, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, was so scoured and renewed and wrought afresh by the mighty labouring of his ailment, that in his delirium he had sometimes thought he could hear the very hammer blows of workmen that nailed his bones together again. Then, one morning, he had awakened, feeling like a new being. He was born a second time, freed of all that his five-and-twenty years of life had successively implanted in him. His childish piety, his education at the seminary, the faith of his early priesthood, had all vanished, had been carried off, and their place was bare and empty. In truth, it could be hell alone that had thus prepared him for the reception of evil, disarming him of all his former weapons, and reducing his body to languor and softness, through which sin might readily enter.
He, perfectly unconscious of it all, unknowingly surrendered himself to the gradual approach of evil. When he had reopened his eyes in the Paradou, he had felt himself an infant once more, with no memory of the past, no knowledge of his priesthood. He experienced a gentle pleasure, a glad feeling of surprise at thus beginning life afresh, as though it were all new and strange to him and would be delightful to learn. Oh! the sweet apprenticeship, the charming observations, the delicious discoveries! That Paradou was a vast abode of felicity; and hell, in placing him there, had known full well that he would be defenceless. Never, in his first youth, had he known such enjoyment in growing. That first youth of his, when he now thought of it, seemed quite black and gloomy, graceless, wan and inactive, as if it had been spent far away from the sunlight.
But at the Paradou, how joyfully had he hailed the sun! How admiringly had he gazed at the first tree, at the first flower, at the tiniest insect he had seen, at the most insignificant pebble he had picked up! The very stones charmed him. The horizon was a source of never-ending amazement. One clear morning, the memory of which still filled his eyes, bringing back a perfume of jasmine, a lark's clear song, he had been so affected by emotion that he felt all power desert his limbs. He had long found pleasure in learning the sensations of life. And, ah! the morning when Albine had been born beside him amidst the roses! As he thought of it, an ecstatic smile broke out upon his face. She rose up like a star that was necessary to the very sun's existence. She illumined everything, she made everything clear. She made his life complete.
Then in fancy he once again walked with her through the Paradou. He remembered the little curls that waved behind her neck as she ran on before him. She exhaled delicious scent, and the touch of her warm swaying skirts seemed like a caress. And when she clasped him with her supple curving arms, he half expected to see her, so slight and slender she was, twine herself around him. It was she who went foremost. She led him through winding paths, where they loitered, that their walk might last the longer. It was she who instilled into him love for nature; and it was by watching the loves of the plants that he had learned to love her, with a love that was long, indeed, in bursting into life, but whose sweetness had been theirs at last. Beneath the shade of the giant tree they had reached their journey's goal. Oh! to clasp her once again—yet once again!
A low groan suddenly came from the priest. He hastily sprang up and then flung himself down again. Temptation had just assailed him afresh. Into what paths were his recollections leading him? Did he not know, only too well, that Satan avails himself of every wile to insinuate his serpent-head into the soul, even when it is absorbed in self-examination? No! no! he had no excuse. His illness had in no wise authorised him to sin. He should have set strict guard upon himself, and have sought God anew upon recovering from his fever. And what a frightful proof he now had of his vileness: he was not even able to make calm confession of his sin. Would he never be able to silence his nature? He wildly thought of scooping his brains out of his skull that he might be able to think no more, and of opening his veins that his blood might no longer torment him. For a moment he buried his face within his hands, shuddering as though the beasts that he felt prowling around him might infect him with the hot breath of temptation.
But his thoughts strayed on in spite of himself, and his blood throbbed wildly in his very heart. Though he held his clenched fists to his eyes, he still saw Albine, dazzling like a sun. Every effort that he made to press the vision from his sight only made her shine out before him with increased brilliancy. Was God, then, utterly forsaking him, that he could find no refuge from temptation? And, in spite of all his efforts to control his thoughts, he espied every tiny blade of grass that thrust itself up by Albine's skirts; he saw a little thistle-flower fastened in her hair, against which he remembered that he had pricked his lips. Even the perfumed atmosphere of the Paradou floated round him, and well-remembered sounds came back, the repeated call of a bird, then an interval of hushed silence, then a sigh floating through the trees.
Why did not Heaven at once strike him dead with its lightning? That would have been less cruel. It was with a voluptuous pang, like the pangs which assail the damned, that he recalled his transgression. He shuddered when he again heard in his heart the abominable words that he had spoken at Albine's feet. Their echoes were now accusing him before the throne of God. He had acknowledged Woman as his sovereign. He had yielded to her as a slave, kissing her feet, longing to be the water she drank and the bread she ate. He began to understand now why he could no longer recover self-control. God had given him over to Woman. But he would chastise her, scourge her, break her very limbs to force her to let him go! It was she who was the slave; she, the creature of impurity, to whom the Church should have denied a soul. Then he braced himself, and shook his fists at the vision of Albine; but his fists opened and his hands glided along her shoulders in a loving caress, while his lips, just now breathing out anger and insult, pressed themselves to her hair, stammering forth words of adoration.
Abbe Mouret opened his eyes again. The burning apparition of Albine vanished. It was sudden and unexpected solace. He was able to weep. Tears flowed slowly and refreshingly down his cheeks, and he drew a long breath, still fearing to move, lest the Evil One should again grip him by the neck, for he yet thought that he heard the snarl of a beast behind him. And then he found such pleasure in the cessation of his sufferings that his one thought was to prolong the enjoyment of it.
Outside the rain had ceased falling. The sun was setting in a vast crimson glow, which spread across the windows like curtains of rose-coloured satin. The church was quite warm and bright in the parting breath of the sinking luminary. The priest thanked God for the respite He had been pleased to vouchsafe to him. A broad ray of light, like a beam of gold-dust, streamed through the nave and illumined the far end of the building, the clock, the pulpit, and the high altar. Perhaps the Divine grace was returning to him from heaven along that radiant path. He watched with interest the atoms that came and went with prodigious speed through the ray, like a swarm of busy messengers ever hastening with news from the sun to the earth. A thousand lighted candles would not have filled the church with such splendour. Curtains of cloth-of-gold seemed to hang behind the high altar; treasures of the goldsmith's art covered all the ledges; candle-holders arose in dazzling sheaves; censers glowed full of burning gems; sacred vases gleamed like fiery comets; and around all there seemed to be a rain of luminous flowers amidst waving lacework—beds, bouquets, and garlands of roses, from whose expanding petals dropped showers of stars.
Never had Abbe Mouret desired such magnificence for his poor church. He smiled, and dreamt of how he might retain all that splendour there, and then arrange it most effectively. He would have preferred to see the curtains of cloth-of-gold hung rather higher; the vases, too, needed more careful arrangement; and he thought that the bouquets of flowers might be tied up more neatly, and the garlands be more regularly shaped. Yet how wondrously magnificent it all was! He was the pontiff of a church of gold. Bishops, princes, princesses, arrayed in royal mantles, multitudes of believers, bending to the ground, were coming to visit it, encamping in the valley, waiting for weeks at the door until they should be able to enter. They kissed his feet, for even his feet had turned to gold, and worked miracles. The bath of gold mounted to his knees. A golden heart was beating within his golden breast, with so clear a musical pulsation that the waiting crowds could hear it from outside. Then a feeling of overweening pride seized upon him. He was an idol. The golden beam mounted still higher, the high altar was all ablaze with glory, and the priest grew certain that the Divine grace must be returning to him, such was his inward satisfaction. The fierce snarl behind him had now grown gentle and coaxing, and he only felt on his shoulder a soft velvety pressure, as though some giant cat were lightly caressing him.
He still pursued his reverie. Never before had he seen things under such a favourable light. Everything seemed quite easy to him now that he once more felt full of strength. Since Albine was waiting for him, he would go and join her. It was only natural. On the previous morning he had married Fortune and Rosalie. The Church did not forbid marriages. He saw that young couple again as they knelt before him, smiling and nudging each other while his hands were held over them in benediction. Then, in the evening, they had shown him their room. Each word that he had spoken to them echoed loudly in his ear. He had told Fortune that God had sent him a companion, because He did not wish man to live alone; and he had told Rosalie that she must cleave to her husband, never leaving him, but always acting as his obedient helpmate. But he had said these things also for Albine and himself. Was she not his companion, his obedient helpmate, whom God had sent to him that his manhood might not wither up in solitude? Besides, they had been joined the one to the other. He felt surprised that he had not understood and recognised it at once; that he had not gone away with her, as his duty plainly required that he should have done. But he had quite made up his mind now; he would certainly join her in the morning. He could be with her in half an hour. He would go through the village, and take the road up the hill; it was much the shortest way. He could do what he pleased; he was the master, and no one would presume to say anything to him. If any one looked at him, a wave of his hand would force them to bend their heads. He would live with Albine. He would call her his wife. They would be very happy together.
The golden stream mounted still higher, and played amongst his fingers. Again did he seem to be immersed in a bath of gold. He would take the altar-vases away to ornament his house, he would keep up a fine establishment, he would pay his servants with fragments of chalices which he could easily break with his fingers. He would hang his bridal-bed with the cloth-of-gold that draped the altar; and he would give his wife for jewels the golden hearts and chaplets and crosses that hung from the necks of the Virgin and the saints. The church itself, if another storey were added to it, would supply them with a palace. God would have no objection to make since He had allowed them to love each other. And, besides, was it not he who was now God, with the people kissing his golden miracle-working feet?
Abbe Mouret rose. He made that sweeping gesture of Jeanbernat's, that wide gesture of negation, that took in everything as far as the horizon.
'There is nothing, nothing, nothing!' he said. 'God does not exist.'
A mighty shudder seemed to sweep through the church. The terrified priest turned deadly pale and listened. Who had spoken? Who was it that had blasphemed? Suddenly the velvety caress, whose gentle pressure he had felt upon his shoulder, turned fierce and savage: sharp talons seemed to be rending his flesh, and once more he felt his blood streaming forth. Yet he remained on his feet, struggling against the sudden attack. He cursed and reviled the triumphant sin that sniggered and grinned round his temples, whilst all the hammers of the Evil One battered at them. Why had he not been on his guard against Satan's wiles? Did he not know full well that it was his habit to glide up softly with gentle paws that he might drive them like blades into the very vitals of his victim?
His anger increased as he thought how he had been entrapped, like a mere child. Was he destined, then, to be ever hurled to the ground, with sin crouching victoriously on his breast? This time he had actually denied his God. It was all one fatal descent. His transgression had destroyed his faith, and then dogma had tottered. One single doubt of the flesh, pleading abomination, sufficed to sweep heaven away. The divine ordinances irritated one; the divine mysteries made one smile. Then came other temptations and allurements; gold, power, unrestrained liberty, an irresistible longing for enjoyment, culminating in luxuriousness, sprawling on a bed of wealth and pride. And then God was robbed. His vessels were broken to adorn woman's impurity. Ah! well, then, he was damned. Nothing could make any difference to him now. Sin might speak aloud. It was useless to struggle further. The monsters who had hovered about his neck were battening on his vitals now. He yielded to them with hideous satisfaction. He shook his fists at the church. No; he believed no longer in the divinity of Christ; he believed no longer in the Holy Trinity; he believed in naught but himself, and his muscles and the appetites of his body. He wanted to live. He felt the necessity of being a man. Oh! to speed along through the open air, to be lusty and strong, to owe obedience to no jealous master, to fell one's enemies with stones, to carry off the fair maidens that passed upon one's shoulders. He would break out from that living tomb where cruel hands had thrust him. He would awaken his manhood, which had only been slumbering. And might he die of shame if he should find that it were really dead! And might the Divinity be accursed if, by the touch of His finger, He had made him different from the rest of mankind.
The priest stood erect, his mind all dazed and scared. He fancied that, at this fresh outburst of blasphemy, the church was falling down upon him. The sunlight, which had poured over the high altar, had gradually spread and mounted the walls like ruddy fire. Flames soared and licked the rafters, then died away in a sanguineous, ember-like glow. And all at once the church became quite black. It was as though the fires of the setting sun had burst the roof asunder, pierced the walls, thrown open wide breaches on every side to some exterior foe. The gloomy framework seemed to shake beneath some violent assault. Night was coming on quickly.
Then, in the far distance, the priest heard a gentle murmur rising from the valley of Les Artaud. The time had been when he had not understood the impassioned language of those burning lands, where writhed but knotted vine-stocks, withered almond-trees, and decrepit olives sprawling with crippled limbs. Protected by his ignorance, he had passed undisturbed through all that world of passion. But, to-day, his ear detected the slightest sigh of the leaves that lay panting in the heat. Afar off, on the edge of the horizon, the hills, still hot with the sinking luminary's farewell, seemed to set themselves in motion with the tramp of an army on the march. Nearer at hand, the scattered rocks, the stones along the road, all the pebbles in the valley, throbbed and rolled as if possessed by a craving for motion. Then the tracts of ruddy soil, the few fields that had been reduced to cultivation, seemed to heave and growl like rivers that had burst their banks, bearing along in a blood-like flood the engenderings of seeds, the births of roots, the embraces of plants. Soon everything was in motion. The vine-branches appeared to crawl along like huge insects; the parched corn and the dry grass formed into dense, lance-waving battalions; the trees stretched out their boughs like wrestlers making ready for a contest; the fallen leaves skipped forward; the very dust on the road rolled on. It was a moving multitude reinforced by fresh recruits at every step; a legion, the sound of whose coming went on in front of it; an outburst of passionate life, sweeping everything along in a mighty whirlwind of fruitfulness. And all at once the assault began. From the limits of the horizon, the whole countryside, the hills and stones and fields and trees, rushed upon the church. At the first shock, the building quivered and cracked. The walls were pierced and the tiles on the roof were thrown down. But the great Christ, although shaken, did not fall.
A short respite followed. Outside, the voices sounded more angrily, and the priest could now distinguish human ones amongst them. The Artauds, those bastards who sprang up out of the rocky soil with the persistence of brambles, were now in their turn blowing a blast that reeked of teeming life. They had planted everywhere forests of humanity that swallowed up all around them. They came up to the church, they shattered the door with a push, and threatened to block up the very nave with the invading scions of their race. Behind them came the beasts; the oxen that tried to batter down the walls with their horns, the flocks of asses, goats, and sheep, that dashed against the ruined church like living waves, while swarms of wood-lice and crickets attacked the foundations and reduced them to dust with their sawlike teeth. Yet again, on the other side, there was Desiree's poultry-yard, where the dunghill reeked with suffocating fumes. Here the big cock, Alexander, sounded the assault, and the hens loosened the stones with their beaks, and the rabbits burrowed under the very altars; whilst the pig, too fat to stir, grunted and waited till all the sacred ornaments should be reduced to warm ashes in which he might wallow at his ease.
A great roar ascended, and a second assault was delivered. The villagers, the animals, all that overflowing sea of life assailed the church with such impetuosity that the rafters bent and curved. This time a part of the walls tottered and fell down, the ceiling shook, the woodwork of the windows was carried away, and the grey mist of the evening streamed in through the frightful gaping breaches. The great Christ now only clung to His cross by the nail that pierced His left hand.
A mighty shout hailed the downfall of the block of wall. Yet the church still stood there firmly, in spite of the injuries it had received. It offered a stern, silent, unflinching resistance, clutching desperately to the tiniest stones of its foundations. It seemed as though, to keep itself from falling, it required only the support of its slenderest pillar, which, by some miracle of equilibration, held up the gaping roof. Then Abbe Mouret beheld the rude plants of the plateau, the dreadful-looking growths that had become hard as iron amidst the arid rocks, that were knotted like snakes and bossy with muscles, set themselves to work. The rust-hued lichens gnawed away at the rough plasterwork like fiery leprosy. Then the thyme-plants thrust their roots between the bricks like so many iron wedges. The lavenders insinuated hooked fingers into the loosened stonework, and by slow persistent efforts tore the blocks asunder. The junipers, the rosemaries, the prickly holly bushes, climbed higher and battered the walls with irresistible blows; and even the grass, the grass whose dry blades slipped beneath the great door, stiffened itself into steel-like spears and made its way down the nave, where it forced up the flagstones with powerful levers. It was a victorious revolt, it was revolutionary nature constructing barricades out of the overturned altars, and wrecking the church which had for centuries cast too deep a shadow over it. The other combatants had fallen back, and let the plants, the thyme and the lavender and the lichens, complete the overthrow of the building with their ceaseless little blows, their constant gnawing, which proved more destructive than the heavier onslaught of the stronger assailants.
Then, suddenly, the end came. The rowan-tree, whose topmost branches had already forced their way through the broken windows under the vaulted roof, rushed in violently with its formidable stream of greenery. It planted itself in the centre of the nave and grew there monstrously. Its trunk expanded till its girth became so colossal that it seemed as though it would burst the church asunder like a girdle spanning it too closely. Its branches shot out in knotted arms, each one of which broke down a piece of the wall or thrust off a strip of the roof, and they went on multiplying without cessation, each branch ramifying, till a fresh tree sprang out of each single knot, with such impetuosity of growth that the ruins of the church, pierced through and through like a sieve, flew into fragments, scattering a fine dust to the four quarters of the heavens.
Now the giant tree seemed to reach the stars; its forest of branches was a forest of legs, arms, and breasts full of sap; the long locks of women streamed down from it; men's heads burst out from the bark; and up aloft pairs of lovers, lying languid by the edges of their nests, filled the air with the music of their delights.
A final blast of the storm which had broken over the church swept away the dust of its remains: the pulpit and the confessional-box, which had been ground into powder, the lacerated holy pictures, the shattered sacred vessels, all the litter at which the legion of sparrows that had once dwelt amongst the tiles was eagerly pecking. The great Christ, torn from the cross, hung for a moment from one of the streaming women's curls, and then was whirled away into the black darkness, in the depths of which it sank with a loud crash. The Tree of Life had pierced the heavens; it overtopped the stars.
Abbe Mouret was filled with the mad joy of an accursed spirit at the sight before him. The church was vanquished; God no longer had a house. And thenceforward God could no longer trouble him. He was free to rejoin Albine, since it was she who triumphed. He laughed at himself for having declared, an hour previously, that the church would swallow up the whole earth with its shadow. The earth, indeed, had avenged itself by consuming the church. The mad laughter into which he broke had the effect of suddenly awakening him from his hallucination. He gazed stupidly round the nave, which the evening shadows were slowly darkening. Through the windows he could see patches of star-spangled sky; and he was about to stretch out his arms to feel the walls, when he heard Desiree calling to him from the vestry-passage:
'Serge! Serge! Are you there? Why don't you answer? I have been looking for you for this last half-hour.'
She came in; she was holding a lighted lamp; and the priest then saw that the church was still standing. He could no longer understand anything, but remained in a horrible state of doubt betwixt the unconquerable church, springing up again from its ashes, and Albine, the all-powerful, who could shake the very throne of God by a single breath.
Desiree came up to him, full of merry chatter.
'Are you there? Are you there?' she cried. 'Why are you playing at hide-and-seek? I called out to you at the top of my voice at least a dozen times. I thought you must have gone out.'
She pried into all the gloomy corners with an inquisitive glance, and even stepped up to the confessional-box, as though she had expected to surprise some one hiding there. Then she came back to Serge, disappointed, and continued:
'So you are quite alone? Have you been asleep? What amusement do you find in shutting yourself up all alone in the dark? Come along; it is time we went to dinner.'
The Abbe drew his feverish hands across his brow to wipe away the traces of the thoughts which he feared were plain for all the world to read. He fumbled mechanically at the buttons of his cassock, which seemed to him all disarranged. Then he followed his sister with stern-set face and never a sign of emotion, stiffened by that priestly energy which throws the dignity of sacerdotalism like a veil over the agonies of the flesh. Desiree did not even suspect that there was anything the matter with him. She simply said as they entered the dining-room:
'I have had such a good sleep; but you have been talking too much, and have made yourself quite pale.'
In the evening, after dinner, Brother Archangias came in to have his game of cards with La Teuse. He was in a very merry mood that night; and, when the Brother was merry, it was his habit to prod La Teuse in the sides with his big fists, an attention which she returned by heartily boxing his ears. This skirmishing made them both laugh, with a laughter that shook the very ceiling. The Brother, too, when he was in these gay humours, would devise all kinds of pranks. He would try to smash plates with his nose, and would offer to wager that he could break through the dining-room door in battering-ram fashion. He would also empty the snuff out of his box into the old servant's coffee, or would thrust a handful of pebbles down her neck. The merest trifle would give rise to these noisy outbursts of gaiety in the very midst of his wonted surliness. Some little incident, at which nobody else laughed, often sufficed to throw him into a state of wild hilarity, make him stamp his feet, twirl himself round like a top, and hold in his splitting sides.
'What is it that makes you so gay to-night?' La Teuse inquired.
He made no reply, bestriding a chair and galloping round the table on it.
'Well! well! go on making a baby of yourself!' said the old woman; 'and, my gracious, what a big baby you are! If the Lord is looking at you, He must be very well pleased with you!'
The Brother had just slipped off the chair and was lying on the floor, with his legs in the air.
'He does see me, and is pleased to see me as I am. It is His wish that I should be gay. When He wishes me to be merry for a time, He rings a bell in my body, and then I begin to roll about; and all Paradise smiles as it watches me.'
He dragged himself on his back to the wall, and then, supporting himself on the nape of his neck, he hoisted up his body as high as he could and began drumming on the wall with his heels. His cassock slipped down and exposed to view his black breeches, which were patched at the knees with green cloth.
'Look, Monsieur le Cure,' he said, 'you see how high I can reach with my heels. I dare bet that you couldn't do as much. Come! look amused and laugh a little. It is better to drag oneself along on one's back than to think about a hussy as you are always doing. You know what I mean. For my part, when I take to scratching myself I imagine myself to be God's dog, and that's what makes me say that all Paradise looks out of the windows to smile at me. You might just as well laugh too, Monsieur le Cure. It's all done for the saints and you. See! here's a turn-over for Saint Joseph; here's another for Saint Michael, and another for Saint John, and another for Saint Mark, and another for Saint Matthew——'
So he went on, enumerating a whole string of saints, and turning somersaults all round the room.
Abbe Mouret, who had been sitting in perfect silence, with his hands resting on the edge of the table, was at last constrained to smile. As a rule, the Brother's sportiveness only disquieted him. La Teuse, as Archangias rolled within her reach, kicked at him with her foot.
'Come!' she said, 'are we to have our game to-night?'
His only reply was a grunt. Then, upon all fours, he sprang towards La Teuse as if he meant to bite her. But in lieu thereof he spat upon her petticoats.
'Let me alone! will you?' she cried. 'What are you up to now? I begin to think you have gone crazy. What it is that amuses you so much I can't conceive.'
'What makes me gay is my own affair,' he replied, rising to his feet and shaking himself. 'It is not necessary to explain it to you, La Teuse. However, as you want a game of cards, let us have it.'
Then the game began. It was a terrible struggle. The Brother hurled his cards upon the table. Whenever he cried out the windows shook sonorously. La Teuse at last seemed to be winning. She had secured three aces for some time already, and was casting longing eyes at the fourth. But Brother Archangias began to indulge in fresh outbursts of gaiety. He pushed up the table, at the risk of breaking the lamp. He cheated outrageously, and defended himself by means of the most abominable lies, 'Just for a joke,' said he. Then he suddenly began to sing the 'Vespers,' beating time on the palm of his left hand with his cards. When his gaiety reached a climax, and he could find no adequate means of expressing it, he always took to chanting the 'Vespers,' which he repeated for hours at a time. La Teuse, who well knew his habits, cried out to him, amidst the bellowing with which he shook the room:
'Make a little less noise, do! It is quite distracting. You are much too lively to-night.'
But he set to work on the 'Complines.' Abbe Mouret had now seated himself by the window. He appeared to pay no attention to what went on around him, apparently neither hearing nor seeing anything of it. At dinner he had eaten with his ordinary appetite and had even managed to reply to Desiree's everlasting rattle of questions. But now he had given up the struggle, his strength at an end, racked, exhausted as he was by the internal tempest that still raged within him. He even lacked the courage to rise from his seat and go upstairs to his own room. Moreover, he was afraid that if he turned his face towards the lamplight, the tears, which he could no longer keep from his eyes, would be noticed. So he pressed his face close to the window and gazed out into the darkness, growing gradually more drowsy, sinking into a kind of nightmare stupor.
Brother Archangias, still busy at his psalm-singing, winked and nodded in the direction of the dozing priest.
'What's the matter?' asked La Teuse.
The Brother replied by a yet more significant wink.
'Well, what do you mean? Can't you speak? Ah! there's a king. That's capital!—so I take your queen.'
The Brother laid down his cards, bent over the table, and whispered close to La Teuse's face: 'That hussy has been here.'
'I know that well enough,' answered La Teuse. 'I saw her go with mademoiselle into the poultry-yard.'
At this he gave her a terrible look, and shook his fist in her face.
'You saw her, and you let her come in! You ought to have called me, and we would have hung her up by the feet to a nail in your kitchen.'
But at this the old woman lost her temper, and, lowering her voice solely in order that she might not awaken Abbe Mouret, she replied: 'Don't you go talking about hanging people up in my kitchen! I certainly saw her, and I even kept my back turned when she went to join his reverence in the church when the catechising was over. But all that was no business of mine. I had my cooking to attend to! As for the girl herself, I detest her. But if his reverence wishes to see her—why, she is welcome to come whenever she pleases. I'd let her in myself!'
'If you were to do that, La Teuse,' retorted the Brother ragefully, 'I would strangle you, that I would.'
But she laughed at him.
'Don't talk any of your nonsense to me, my man! Don't you know that it is forbidden you to lay your hands upon a woman, just as it's forbidden for a donkey to have anything to do with the Pater Noster? Just you try to strangle me and you'll see what I'll do! But do be quiet now, and let us finish the game. See, here's another king.'
But the Brother, holding up a card, went on growling:
'She must have come by some road that the devil alone knows for me to have missed her to-day. Every afternoon I go and keep guard up yonder by the Paradou. If ever I find them together again, I will acquaint the hussy with a stout dogwood stick which I have cut expressly for her benefit. And I shall keep a watch in the church as well now.'
He played his card, which La Teuse took with a knave. Then he threw himself back in his chair and again burst into one of his loud laughs. He did not seem to be able to work himself up into a genuine rage that evening.
'Well, well,' he grumbled, 'never mind, even if she did see him, she had a smacking fall on her nose. I'll tell you all about it, La Teuse. It was raining, you know. I was standing by the school-door when I caught sight of her coming down from the church. She was walking along quite straight and upright, in her stuck-up fashion, in spite of the pouring rain. But when she got into the road, she tumbled down full length, no doubt because the ground was so slippery. Oh! how I did laugh! How I did laugh! I clapped my hands, too. When she picked herself up again, I saw she was bleeding at the wrist. I shall feel happy over it for a week. I cannot think of her lying there on the ground without feeling the greatest delight.'
Then, turning his attention to the game, he puffed out his cheeks and began to chant the De profundis. When he had got to the end of it, he began it all over again. The game came to a conclusion in the midst of this dirge. It was he who was beaten, but his defeat did not seem to vex him in the least.
When La Teuse had locked the door behind him, after first awakening Abbe Mouret, his voice could still be heard, as he went his way through the black night, singing the last verse of the psalm, Et ipse redimet Israel ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus, with extraordinary jubilation.
That night Abbe Mouret slept very heavily. When he opened his eyes in the morning, later than usual, his face and hands were wet with tears. He had been weeping all through the night while he slept. He did not say his mass that day. In spite of his long rest, he had not recovered from his excessive weariness of the previous evening, and he remained in his bedroom till noon, sitting in a chair at the foot of his bed. The condition of stupor into which he more and more deeply sank, took all sensation of suffering away from him. He was conscious only of a great void and blank as he sat there overpowered and benumbed. Even to read his breviary cost him a great effort. Its Latin seemed to him a barbarous language, which he would never again be able to pronounce.
Having tossed the book upon his bed he gazed for hours through his open window at the surrounding country. In the far distance he saw the long wall of the Paradou, creeping like a thin white line amongst the gloomy patches of the pine plantations to the crest of the hills. On the left, hidden by one of those plantations, was the breach. He could not see it, but he knew it was there. He remembered every bit of bramble scattered among the stones. On the previous night he would not have thus dared to gaze upon that dreaded scene. But now with impunity he allowed himself to trace the whole line of the wall, as it emerged again and again from the clumps of verdure which here and there concealed it. His blood pulsed none the faster for this scrutiny. Temptation, as though disdaining his present weakness, left him free from attack. Forsaken by the Divine grace, he was incapable of entering upon any struggle, the thought of sin could no longer even impassion him; it was sheer stupor alone that now rendered him willing to accept that which he had the day before so strenuously refused.
At one moment he caught himself talking aloud and saying that, since the breach in the wall was still open, he would go and join Albine at sunset. This decision brought him a slight feeling of worry, but he did not think that he could do otherwise. She was expecting him to go, and she was his wife. When he tried to picture her face, he could only imagine her as very pale and a long way off. Then he felt a little uneasy as to their future manner of life together. It would be difficult for them to remain in the neighbourhood; they would have to go away somewhere, without any one knowing anything about it. And then, when they had managed to conceal themselves, they would need a deal of money in order to live happily and comfortably. He tried a score of times to hit upon some scheme by which they could get away and live together like happy lovers, but he could devise nothing satisfactory. Now that he was no longer wild with passion, the practical side of the situation alarmed him. He found himself, in all his weakness, face to face with a complicated problem with which he was incompetent to grapple.
Where could they get horses for their escape? And if they went away on foot, would they not be stopped and detained as vagabonds? Was he capable of securing any employment by which he could earn bread for his wife? He had never been taught any kind of trade. He was quite ignorant of actual life. He ransacked his memory, and he could remember nothing but strings of prayers, details of ceremonies, and pages of Bouvier's 'Instruction Theologique,' which he had learned by heart at the seminary. He worried too over matters of no real concern. He asked himself whether he would dare to give his arm to his wife in the street. He certainly could not walk with a woman clinging to his arm. He would surely appear so strange and awkward that every one would turn round to stare at him. They would guess that he was a priest and would insult Albine. It would be vain for him to try to obliterate the traces of his priesthood. He would always wear that mournful pallor and carry the odour of incense about with him. And what if he should have children some day? As this thought suddenly occurred to him, he quite started. He felt a strange repugnance at the very idea. He felt sure that he should not care for any children that might be born to him. Suppose there were two of them, a little boy and a little girl. He could never let them get on his knees; it would distress him to feel their hands clutching at his clothes. The thought of the little girl troubled him the most; he could already see womanly tenderness shining in the depths of her big, childish eyes. No! no! he would have no children.
Nevertheless he resolved that he would flee with Albine that evening. But when the evening came, he felt too weary. So he deferred his flight till the next morning. And the next morning he made a fresh pretext for delay. He could not leave his sister alone with La Teuse. He would prepare a letter, directing that she should be taken to her uncle Pascal's. For three days he was ever on the point of writing that letter, and the paper and pen and ink were lying ready on the table in his room. Then, on the third day, he went off, leaving the letter unwritten. He took up his hat quite suddenly and set off for the Paradou in a state of mingled stupor and resignation, as though he were unwillingly performing some compulsory task which he saw no means of avoiding. Albine's image was now effaced from his memory; he no longer beheld her, but he was driven on by old resolves whose lingering influence, though they themselves were dead, still worked upon him in his silence and loneliness.
He took no pains to escape notice when he set foot out of doors. He stopped at the end of the village to talk for a moment to Rosalie. She told him that her baby was suffering from convulsions; but she laughed, as she spoke, with the laugh that was natural to her. Then he struck out through the rocks, and walked straight on towards the breach in the wall. By force of habit he had brought his breviary with him. Finding the way long, he opened the book and read the regulation prayers. When he put it back again under his arm, he had forgotten the Paradou. He went on walking steadily, thinking about a new chasuble that he wished to purchase to replace the old gold-broidered one, which was certainly falling into shreds. For some time past he had been saving up twenty-sous pieces, and he calculated that by the end of seven months he would have got the necessary amount of money together. He had reached the hills when the song of a peasant in the distance reminded him of a canticle which had been familiar to him at the seminary. He tried to recall the first lines of it, but his recollection failed him. It vexed him to find that his memory was so poor. And when, at last, he succeeded in remembering the words, he found a soothing pleasure in humming the verses, which came back to his mind one by one. It was a hymn of homage to Mary. He smiled as though some soft breath from the days of his childhood were playing upon his face. Ah! how happy he had then been! Why shouldn't he be as happy again? He had not grown any bigger, he wanted nothing more than the same old happiness, unruffled peace, a nook in the chapel, where his knees marked his place, a life of seclusion, enlivened by the delightful puerilities of childhood. Little by little he raised his voice, singing the canticle in flutelike tones, when he suddenly became aware of the breach immediately in front of him.
For a moment he seemed surprised. Then, the smile dying from his face, he murmured quietly:
'Albine must be expecting me. The sun is already setting.'
But just as he was about to push some stones aside to make himself a passage, he was startled by a snore. He sprang down again: he had only just missed setting his foot upon the very face of Brother Archangias, who was lying on the ground there sleeping soundly. Slumber had overtaken him while he kept guard over the entrance to the Paradou. He barred the approach to it, lying at full length before its threshold, with arms and legs spread out. His right hand, thrown back behind his head, still clutched his dogwood staff, which he seemed to brandish like a fiery sword. And he snored loudly in the midst of the brambles, his face exposed to the sun, without a quiver on his tanned skin. A swarm of big flies was hovering over his open mouth.
Abbe Mouret looked at him for a moment. He envied the slumber of that dust-wallowing saint. He wished to drive the flies away, but they persistently returned, and clung around the purple lips of the Brother, who was quite unconscious of their presence. Then the Abbe strode over his big body and entered the Paradou.
Albine was seated on a patch of grass a few paces away from the wall. She sprang up as she caught sight of Serge.
'Ah! you have come!' she cried, trembling from head to foot.
'Yes,' he answered calmly, 'I have come.'
She flung herself upon his neck, but she did not kiss him. To her bare arms the beads of his neckband seemed very cold. She scrutinised him, already feeling uneasy, and resuming:
'What is the matter with you? Why don't you kiss my cheeks as you used to do? Oh! if you are ill, I will cure you once again. Now that you are here, all our old happiness will return. There will be no more wretchedness.... See! I am smiling. You must smile, too, Serge.'
But his face remained grave.
'I have been troubled, too,' she went on. 'I am still quite pale, am I not? For a whole week I have been living on that patch of grass, where you found me. I wanted one thing only, to see you coming back through the breach in the wall. At every sound I sprang up and rushed to meet you. But, alas! it was not you I heard. It was only the leaves rustling in the wind. But I was sure that you would come. I should have waited for you for years.'
Then she asked him:
'Do you still love me?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'I love you still.'
They stood looking at each other, feeling rather ill at ease. And deep silence fell between them. Serge, who evinced perfect calmness, did not attempt to break it. Albine twice opened her mouth to speak, but closed it immediately, surprised at the words that rose to her lips. She could summon up nothing but expressions tinged with bitterness. She felt tears welling into her eyes. What could be the matter with her that she did not feel happy now that her love had come back?
'Listen to me,' she said at last. 'We must not stay here. It is that hole that freezes us! Let us go back to our old home. Give me your hand.'
They plunged into the depths of the Paradou. Autumn was fast approaching, and the trees seemed anxious as they stood there with their yellowing crests from which the leaves were falling one by one. The paths were already littered with dead foliage soaked with moisture, which gave out a sound as of sighing beneath one's tread. And away beyond the lawns misty vapour ascended, throwing a mourning veil over the blue distance. And the whole garden was wrapped in silence, broken only by some sorrowful moans that sounded quiveringly.
Serge began to shiver beneath the avenue of tall trees, along which they were walking.
'How cold it is here!' said he in an undertone.
'You are cold indeed,' murmured Albine, sadly. 'My hand is no longer able to warm you. Shall I wrap you round with part of my dress? Come, all our love will now be born afresh.'
She led him to the parterre, the flower-garden. The great thicket-like rosary was still fragrant with perfume, but there was a tinge of bitterness in the scent of the surviving blossoms, and their foliage, which had expanded in wild profusion, lay strewn upon the ground. Serge displayed such unwillingness to enter the tangled jungle, that they lingered on its borders, trying to detect in the distance the paths along which they had passed in the spring-time. Albine recollected every little nook. She pointed to the grotto where the marble woman lay sleeping; to the hanging screens of honeysuckle and clematis; the fields of violets; the fountain that spurted out crimson carnations; the steps down which flowed golden gilliflowers; the ruined colonnade, in the midst of which the lilies were rearing a snowy pavilion. It was there that they had been born again beneath the sunlight. And she recapitulated every detail of that first day together, how they had walked, and how fragrant had been the air beneath the cool shade. Serge seemed to be listening, but he suddenly asked a question which showed that he had not understood her. The slight shiver which made his face turn pale never left him.
Then she led him towards the orchard, but they could not reach it. The stream was too much swollen. Serge no longer thought of taking Albine upon his back and lightly bounding across with her to the other side. Yet there the apple-trees and the pear-trees were still laden with fruit, and the vines, now with scantier foliage, bent beneath the weight of their gleaming clusters, each grape freckled by the sun's caress. Ah! how they had gambolled beneath the appetising shade of those ancient trees! What merry children had they then been! Albine smiled as she thought of how she had clambered up into the cherry-tree that had broken down beneath her. He, Serge, must at least remember what a quantity of plums they had eaten. He only answered by a nod. He already seemed quite weary. The orchard, with its green depths and chaos of mossy trunks, disquieted him and suggested to his mind some dark, dank spot, teeming with snakes and nettles.
Then she led him to the meadow-lands, where he had to take a few steps amongst the grass. It reached to his shoulders now, and seemed to him like a swarm of clinging arms that tried to bind his limbs and pull him down and drown him beneath an endless sea of greenery. He begged Albine to go no further. She was walking on in front, and at first she did not stop; but when she saw how distressed he appeared, she halted and came back and stood beside him. She also was growing gradually more low-spirited, and at last she shuddered like himself. Still she went on talking. With a sweeping gesture she pointed out to him the streams, the rows of willows, the grassy expanse stretching far away towards the horizon. All that had formerly been theirs. For whole days they had lived there. Over yonder, between those three willows by the water's edge, they had played at being lovers. And they would then have been delighted if the grass had been taller than themselves so that they might have lost themselves in its depths, and have been the more secluded, like larks nesting at the bottom of a field of corn. Why, then, did he tremble so to-day, when the tip of his foot just sank into the grass?
Then she led him to the forest. But the huge trees seemed to inspire Serge with still greater dread. He did not know them again, so sternly solemn seemed their bare black trunks. Here, more than anywhere else, amidst those austere columns, through which the light now freely streamed, the past seemed quite dead. The first rains had washed the traces of their footsteps from the sandy paths, the winds had swept every other lingering memorial into the underbrush. But Albine, with grief at her throat, shot out a protesting glance. She could still plainly see their lightest footprints on the sandy gravel, and, as they passed each bush, the warmth with which they had once brushed against it surged to her cheeks. With eyes full of soft entreaty, she still strove to awaken Serge's memory. It was along that path that they had walked in silence, full of emotion, but as yet not daring to confess that they loved one another. It was in that clearing that they had lingered one evening till very late watching the stars, which had rained upon them like golden drops of warmth. Farther, beneath that oak they had exchanged their first kiss. Its fragrance still clung to the tree, and the very moss still remembered it. It was false to say that the forest had become voiceless and bare.
Serge, however, turned away his head, that he might escape the gaze of Albine's eyes, which oppressed him.
Then she led him to the great rocks. There, perhaps, he would no longer shudder with that appearance of debility which so distressed her. At that hour the rocks were still warm with the red glow of the setting sun. They still wore an aspect of tragic passion, with their hot ledges of stone whereon the fleshy plants writhed monstrously. Without speaking a word, without even turning her head, Albine led Serge up the rough ascent, wishing to take him ever higher and higher, far up beyond the springs, till they should emerge into the full light on the summit. They would there see the cedar, beneath whose shade they had first felt the thrill of desire, and there amidst the glowing stones they would assuredly find passion once more. But Serge soon began to stumble pitiably. He could walk no further. He fell a first time on his knees. Albine, by a mighty effort, raised him and for a moment carried him along, but afterwards he fell again, and remained, quite overcome, on the ground. In front of him, beneath him, spread the vast Paradou.
'You have lied!' cried Albine. 'You love me no longer!'
She burst into tears as she stood there by his side, feeling that she could not carry him any higher. There was no sign of anger in her now. She was simply weeping over their dying love. Serge lay dazed and stupefied.
'The garden is all dead. I feel so very cold,' he murmured. But she took his head between her hands, and showed him the Paradou.
'Look at it! Ah! it is your eyes that are dead; your ears and your limbs and your whole body. You have passed by all the scenes of our happiness without seeing them or hearing them or feeling their presence. You have done nothing but slip and stumble, and now you have fallen down here in sheer weariness and boredom.... You love me no more.'
He protested, but in a gentle, quiet fashion. Then, for the first time, she spoke out passionately.
'Be quiet! As if the garden could ever die! It will sleep for the winter, but it will wake up again in May, and will restore to us all the love we have entrusted to its keeping. Our kisses will blossom again amongst the flower-beds, and our vows will bud again with the trees and plants. If you could only see it and understand it, you would know that it throbs with even deeper passion, and loves even more absorbingly at this autumn-time, when it falls asleep in its fruitfulness.... But you love me no more, and so you can no longer understand.'
He raised his eyes to her as if begging her not to be angry. His face was pinched and pale with an expression of childish fear. The sound of her voice made him tremble. He ended by persuading her to rest a little while by his side. They could talk quietly and discuss matters. Then, with the Paradou spreading out in front of them, they began to speak of their love, but without even touching one another's fingers.
'I love you; indeed I love you,' said Serge, in his calm, quiet voice. 'If I did not love you, I should not be here: I should not have come. I am very weary, it is true. I don't know why. I thought I should find that pleasant warmth again, of which the mere memory was so delightful. But I am cold, the garden seems quite black. I cannot see anything of what I left here. But it is not my fault. I am trying hard to be as you would wish me and to please you.'
'You love me no longer!' Albine repeated once more.
'Yes, I do love you. I suffered grievously the other day after I had driven you away.... Oh! I loved you with such passion that, had you come back and thrown yourself in my arms, I should almost have crushed you to death.... And for hours your image remained present before me. When I shut my eyes, you gleamed out with all the brightness of the sun and threw a flame around me.... Then I trampled down every obstacle, and came here.'
He remained silent for a moment, as if in thought. Then he spoke again:
'And now my arms feel as though they were broken. If I tried to clasp you, I could not hold you; I should let you fall.... Wait till this shudder has passed away. Give me your hands, and let me kiss them again. Be gentle and do not look at me with such angry eyes. Help me to find my heart again.'
He spoke with such genuine sadness, such evident longing to begin the past anew, that Albine was touched. For a moment all her wonted gentleness returned to her, and she questioned him anxiously:
'What is the matter with you? What makes you so ill?'
'I do not know. It is as though all my blood had left my veins. Just now, as I was coming here, I felt as if some one had flung a robe of ice around my shoulders, which turned me into stone from head to foot.... I have felt it before, but where I don't remember.'
She interrupted him with a kindly laugh.
'You are a child. You have caught cold, that's all. At any rate, it is not I that you are afraid of, is it? We won't stop in the garden during the winter, like a couple of wild things. We will go wherever you like, to some big town. We can love each other there, amongst all the people, as quietly as amongst the trees. You will see that I can be something else than a wilding, for ever bird's-nesting and tramping about for hours. When I was a little girl, I used to wear embroidered skirts and fine stockings and laces and all kinds of finery. I dare say you never heard of that.'
He was not listening to her. He suddenly gave vent to a little cry, and said: 'Ah! now I recollect!'
She asked him what he meant, but he would not answer her. He had just remembered the feeling he had long ago experienced in the chapel of the seminary. That was the icy robe enwrapping his shoulders and turning him to stone. And then his life as a priest took complete possession of his thoughts. The vague recollections which had haunted him as he walked from Les Artaud to the Paradou became more and more distinct and assumed complete mastery over him. While Albine talked on of the happy life that they would lead together, he heard the tinkling of the sanctuary bell that signalled the elevation of the Host, and he saw the monstrance trace gleaming crosses over the heads of kneeling multitudes.
'And for your sake,' Albine was saying, 'I will put on my broidered skirts again.... I want you to be bright and gay. We will try to find something to make you lively. Perhaps you will love me better when you see me looking beautiful and prettily dressed, like a fine lady. I will wear my comb properly and won't let my hair fall wildly about my neck any more. And I won't roll my sleeves up over my elbows; I will fasten my dress so as to hide my shoulders. I still know how to bow and how to walk along quite properly. Yes, I will make you a nice little wife, as I walk through the streets leaning on your arm.'
'Did you ever go to church when you were a little girl?' he asked her in an undertone, as if, in spite of himself, he were continuing aloud the reverie which prevented him from hearing her. 'I could never pass a church without entering it. As soon as the door closed silently behind me, I felt as though I were in Paradise itself, with the angels whispering stories of love in my ears and the saints caressing me with their breath. Ah! I would have liked to live there for ever, in that absorbing beatitude.'
She looked at him with steady eyes, a passing blaze kindling in her loving glance. Nevertheless, submissive still, she answered:
'I will do as you may fancy. I learned music once. I was quite a clever young lady and was taught all the accomplishments. I will go back to school and start music again. If there is any tune you would like to hear me play, you will only have to tell me, and I will practise it for months and months, so as to play it to you some evening in our own home when we are by ourselves in some snug little room, with the curtains closely drawn. And you will pay me with just one kiss, won't you? A kiss right on the lips, which will awaken all your love again!'
'Yes, yes,' he murmured, answering his own thoughts only; 'my great pleasure at first was to light the candles, prepare the cruets, and carry the missal. Then, afterwards, I was filled with bliss at the approach of God, and felt as though I could die of sheer love. Those are my only recollections. I know of nothing else. When I raise my hand, it is to give a benediction. When my lips protrude it is to kiss the altar. If I look for my heart, I can no longer find it. I have offered it to God, and He has taken it.'
Albine grew very pale and her eyes gleamed like fire. In a quivering voice she resumed:
'I should not like my little girl to leave me. You can send the boy to college, if you wish, but the little girl must always keep with me. I myself will teach her to read. Oh! I shall remember everything, and if indeed there be anything that I find I have forgotten, I will have masters to teach me.... Yes, we will keep our dear little ones always about our knees. You will be happy so, won't you? Speak to me; tell me that you will then feel warm again, and will smile, and feel no regrets for anything you have left behind.'
But Serge continued:
'I have often thought of the stone-saints that have been censed in their niches for centuries past. They must have become quite saturated with incense; and I am like one of them. I have the fragrance of incense in the inmost parts of my being. It is that embalmment that gives me serenity, deathlike tranquillity of body, and the peace which I enjoy in no longer living.... Ah! may nothing ever disturb my quiescence! May I ever remain cold and rigid, with a ceaseless smile on my granite lips, incapable of descending among men! That is my one, my only desire!'
At this Albine sprang to her feet, exasperated, threatening. She shook Serge and cried:
'What are you saying? What is it you are dreaming aloud? Am I not your wife? Haven't you come here to be my husband?'
He recoiled, trembling yet more violently.
'No! Leave me! I am afraid!' he faltered.
'But our life together, our happiness, the children we shall have?'
'No, no; I am afraid.' And he broke out into a supreme cry: 'I cannot! I cannot!'
For a moment Albine remained silent, gazing at the unhappy man who lay shivering at her feet. Her face flared. She opened her arms as if to seize him and strain him to her breast with wild angry passion. But another idea came to her, and she merely took him by the hand and raised him to his feet.
'Come!' said she.
She led him away to that giant tree, to the very spot where their love had reigned supreme. There was the same bliss-inspiring shade, there was the same trunk as of yore, the same branches spreading far around, like sheltering and protecting arms. The tree still towered aloft, kindly, robust, powerful, and fertile. As on the day of their nuptials, languorous warmth, the glimmer of a summer's night fading on the bare shoulder of some fair girl, a sob of love dying away into passionate silence, lingered about the clearing as it lay there bathed in dim green light. And, in the distance, the Paradou, in spite of the first chills of autumn, sighed once more with passion, again becoming love's accomplice. From the parterre, from the orchard, from the meadow-lands, from the forest, from the great rocks, from the spreading heavens, came back a ripple of voluptuous joy. Never had the garden, even on the warmest evenings of spring-time, shown such deep tenderness as now, on this fair autumn evening, when the plants and trees seemed to be bidding one another goodnight ere they sank to sleep. And the scent of ripened germs wafted the intoxication of desire athwart the scanty leaves.
'Do you hear? Do you hear?' faltered Albine in Serge's ear, when she had let him slip upon the grass at the foot of the tree.
Serge was weeping.
'You see that the Paradou is not dead,' she added. 'It is crying out to us to love each other. It still desires our union. Oh, do remember! Clasp me to your heart!'
Serge still wept.
Albine said nothing more. She flung her arms around him; she pressed her warm lips to his corpse-like face; but tears were still his only answer.
Then, after a long silence, Albine spoke. She stood erect, full of contempt and determination.
'Away with you! Go!' she said, in a low voice.
Serge rose with difficulty. He picked up his breviary, which had fallen upon the grass. And he walked away.
'Away with you! Go!' repeated Albine, in louder tones, as she followed and drove him before her.
Thus she urged him on from bush to bush till she had driven him back to the breach in the wall, in the midst of the stern-looking trees. And there, as she saw Serge hesitate, with lowered head she cried out violently:
'Away with you Go!'
And slowly she herself went back into the Paradou, without even turning her head. Night was fast falling, and the garden was but a huge bier of shadows.
Brother Archangias, aroused from his slumber, stood erect in the breach, striking the stones with his stick and swearing abominably.
'May the devil break their legs for them! May he drag them to hell by their feet, with their noses trailing in their abomination!'
But when he saw Albine driving away the priest, he stopped for a moment in surprise. Then he struck the stones yet more vigorously, and burst into a roar of laughter.
'Good-bye, you hussy! A pleasant journey to you! Go back to your mates the wolves! A priest is no fit companion for such as you.'
Then, looking at Abbe Mouret, he growled:
'I knew you were in there. I saw that the stones had been disturbed.... Listen to me, Monsieur le Cure. Your sin has made me your superior, and God tells you, through my mouth, that hell has no torments severe enough for a priest who lets himself succumb to the lusts of the flesh. If He were to pardon you now, He would be too indulgent, it would be contrary to His own justice.'
They slowly walked down the hill towards Les Artaud. The priest had not opened his lips; but gradually he raised his head erect: he was no longer trembling. As in the distance he caught sight of the Solitaire looming blackly against the purplish sky, and the ruddy glow of the tiles on the church, a faint smile came to his lips, while to his calm eyes there rose an expression of perfect serenity.
Meantime the Brother was every now and then giving a vicious kick at the stones that came in his way. Presently he turned to his companion:
'Is it all over this time?' he asked. 'When I was your age I was possessed too. A demon was ever gnawing at me. But, after a time, he grew weary of it, and took himself off. Now that he has gone I live quietly enough.... Oh! I knew very well that you would go. For three weeks past I have been keeping watch upon you. I used to look into the garden through the breach in the wall. I should have liked to cut the trees down. I have often hurled stones at them; it was delightful to break the branches. Tell me, now, is it so very nice to be there?'
He made Abbe Mouret stop in the middle of the road, and glared at him with a terrible expression of jealousy. The thought of the priest's life in the Paradou tortured him. But the Abbe kept perfect silence, so Archangias set off again, jeering as he went. Then, in a louder voice, he said:
'You see, when a priest behaves as you have done, he scandalises every other priest. I myself felt sullied by your conduct. However, you are now behaving more sensibly. There is no need for you to make any confession. I know what has happened well enough. Heaven has broken your back for you, as it has done for so many others. So much the better! So much the better!'
He clapped his hands triumphantly. But Abbe Mouret, immersed in deep reverie, with a smile spreading over his whole face, did not even hear him. When the Brother quitted him at the parsonage door, he went round and entered the church. It was grey and gloomy, as on that terrible rainy evening when temptation had racked him so violently. And it still remained poverty-stricken and meditative, bare of all that gleaming gold and sighing passion that had seemed to him to sweep in from the countryside. It preserved solemn silence. But a breath of mercy seemed to fill it.
Kneeling before the great Christ and bursting into tears, which he let flow down his cheeks as though they were so many blessings, the priest murmured:
'O God, it is not true that Thou art pitiless. I know it, I feel it: Thou hast already pardoned me. I feel it in the outpouring of Thy grace, which, for hours now, has been flowing through me in a sweet stream, bringing me back, slowly but surely, perfect peace and spiritual health. O God, it was at the very moment when I was about to forsake Thee that Thou didst protect me most effectually. Thou didst hide Thyself from me, the better to rescue me from evil. Thou didst allow my flesh to run its course, that I might be convinced of its nothingness. And now, O God, I see that Thou hast for ever marked me with Thy seal, that awful seal, pregnant with blessings, which sets a man apart from other men, and whose mark is so ineffaceable that, sooner or later, it makes itself manifest even upon those who sin. Thou hast broken me with sin and temptation. Thou hast ravaged me with Thy flames. Thou hast willed that there should be nought left of me save ruins wherein Thou mightest safely descend. I am an empty tabernacle wherein Thou may'st dwell. Blessed art Thou, O God!'
He prostrated himself and continued stammering in the dust. The church triumphed. It remained firm and unshaken over the priest's head, with its altars and its confessional, its pulpit, its crosses, and its holy images. The world had ceased to exist. Temptation was extinguished like a fire that was henceforth unnecessary for the Abbe's purification. He was entering into supernatural peace. And he raised this supreme cry:
'To the exclusion of life and its creatures and of everything that be in it, I belong to Thee, O God; to Thee, Thee alone, through all eternity!'
At that moment Albine was still wandering about the Paradou with all the mute agony of a wounded animal. She had ceased to weep. Her face was very white and a deep crease showed upon her brow. Why did she have to suffer that deathlike agony? Of what fault had she been guilty, that the garden no longer kept the promises it had held out to her since her childhood's days? She questioned herself as she walked along, never heeding the avenues through which the gloom was slowly stealing. She had always obeyed the voices of the trees. She could not remember having injured a single flower. She had ever been the beloved daughter of the greenery, hearkening to it submissively, yielding to it with full belief in the happiness which it promised to her. And when, on that supreme day, the Paradou had cried to her to cast herself beneath the giant-tree, she had done so in compliance with its voice. If she then had nothing to reproach herself with, it must be the garden which had betrayed her; the garden which was torturing her for the mere sake of seeing her suffer.
She halted and looked around her. The great gloomy masses of foliage preserved deep silence. The paths were blocked with black walls of darkness. The distant lawns were lulling to sleep the breezes that kissed them. And she thrust out her hands with a gesture of hopelessness and raised a cry of protest. It could not all end thus. But her voice choked beneath the silent trees. Thrice did she implore the Paradou to answer her, but never an explanation fell from its lofty branches, not a leaf seemed to be moved with pity for her. Then she resumed her weary wandering, and felt that she was entering into the fatal sternness of winter. Now that she had ceased to rebelliously question the earth, she caught sound of a gentle murmur speeding along the ground. It was the farewell of the plants, wishing one another a happy death. To have drunk in the sunshine for a whole season, to have lived ever blossoming, to have breathed continual perfume, and then, at the first blast, to depart, with the hope of springing up again elsewhere, was not that sufficiently long and full a life which obstinate craving for further existence would mar? Ah! how sweet death must be; how sweet to have an endless night before one, wherein to dream of the short days of life and to recall eternally its fugitive joys!
She stayed her steps once more; but she no longer protested as she stood there amidst the deep stillness of the Paradou. She now believed that she understood everything. The garden doubtless had death in store for her as a supreme culminating happiness. It was to death that it had all along been leading her in its tender fashion. After love, there could be nought but death. And never had the garden loved her so much as it did now; she had shown herself ungrateful in accusing it, for all the time she had remained its best beloved child. The motionless boughs, the paths blocked up with darkness, the lawns where the breezes fell asleep, had only become mute in order that they might lure her on to taste the joys of long silence. They wished her to be with them in their winter rest, they dreamt of carrying her off, swathed in their dry leaves with her eyes frozen like the waters of the springs, her limbs stiffened like the bare branches, and her blood sleeping the sleep of the sap. And, yes, she would live their life to the very end, and die their death. Perhaps they had already willed that she should spring up next summer as a rose in the flower-garden, or a pale willow in the meadow-lands, or a tender birch in the forest. Yes, it was the great law of life; she was about to die.
Then, for the last time, she resumed her walk through the Paradou in quest of death. What fragrant plant might need her sweet-scented tresses to increase the perfume of its leaves? What flower might wish the gift of her satinlike skin, the snowy whiteness of her arms, the tender pink of her bosom? To what weakly tree should she offer her young blood? She would have liked to be of service to the weeds vegetating beside the paths, to slay herself there so that from her flesh some huge greenery might spring, lofty and sapful, laden with birds at May-time, and passionately caressed by the sun. But for a long while the Paradou still maintained silence as if it had not yet made up its mind to confide to her in what last kiss it would spirit away her life. She had to wander all over it again, seeking, pilgrim-like, for her favourite spots. Night was now more swiftly approaching, and it seemed to her as if she were being gradually sucked into the earth. She climbed to the great rocks and questioned them, asking whether it was upon their stony beds that she must breathe her last breath. She crossed the forest with lingering steps, hoping that some oak would topple down and bury her beneath the majesty of its fall. She skirted the streams that flowed through the meadows, bending down at almost every step she took so as to peep into the depths and see whether a couch had not been prepared for her amongst the water lilies. But nowhere did Death call her; nowhere did he offer her his cold hands. Yet, she was not mistaken. It was, indeed, the Paradou that was about to teach her to die, as, indeed, it had taught her to love. She again began to scour the bushes, more eagerly even than on those warm mornings of the past when she had gone searching for love. And, suddenly, just as she was reaching the parterre, she came upon death, amidst all the evening fragrance. She ran forward, breaking out into a rapturous laugh. She was to die amongst the flowers.
First she hastened to the thicket-like rosary. There, in the last flickering of the gloaming, she searched the beds and gathered all the roses that hung languishing at the approach of winter. She plucked them from down below, quite heedless of their thorns; she plucked them in front of her, with both hands; she plucked them from above, rising upon tip-toes and pulling down the boughs. So eager was she, so desperate was her haste, that she even broke the branches, she, who had ever shown herself tender to the tiniest blades of grass. Soon her arms were full of roses, she tottered beneath her burden of flowers. And having quite stripped the rose trees, carrying away even the fallen petals, she turned her steps to the pavilion; and when she had let her load of blossoms slip upon the floor of the room with the blue ceiling, she again went down to the garden.
This time she sought the violets. She made huge bunches of them, which she pressed one by one against her breast. Then she sought the carnations, plucking them all, even to the buds; massing them together in big sheaves of white blossoms that suggested bowls of milk, and big sheaves of the red ones, that seemed like bowls of blood. Then, too, she sought the stocks, the patches of mirabilis, the heliotropes and the lilies. She tore the last blossoming stocks off by the handful, pitilessly crumpling their satin ruches; she devastated the beds of mirabilis, whose flowers were scarcely opening to the evening air; she mowed down the field of heliotropes, piling her harvest of blooms into a heap; and she thrust bundles of lilies under her arms like handles of reeds. When she was again laden with as much as she could carry, she returned to the pavilion to cast the violets, the carnations, the lilies, the stocks, the heliotrope, and the mirabilis by the side of the roses. And then, without stopping to draw breath, she went down yet again.
This time she repaired to that gloomy corner which seemed like the graveyard of the flower-garden. A warm autumn had there brought on a second crop of spring flowers. She raided the borders of tuberoses and hyacinths; going down upon her knees, and gathering her harvest with all a miser's care, lest she should miss a single blossom. The tuberoses seemed to her to be extremely precious flowers, which would distil drops of gold and wealth and wondrous sweetness. The hyacinths, beaded with pearly blooms, were like necklets, whose every pearl would pour forth joys unknown to man. And although she almost buried herself beneath the mass of tuberoses and hyacinths which she plucked, she next stripped a field of poppies, and even found means to crop an expanse of marigolds farther on. All these she heaped over the tuberoses and hyacinths, and then ran back to the room with the blue ceiling, taking the greatest care as she went that the breeze should not rob her of a single pistil. And once more did she come downstairs.
But what was she to gather now? She had stripped the parterre bare. As she rose upon the tips of her shoes in the dim gloom, she could only see the garden lying there naked and dead, deprived of the tender eyes of its roses, the crimson smile of its carnations, and the perfumed locks of its heliotropes. Nevertheless, she could not return with empty arms. So she laid hands upon the herbs and leafy plants. She crawled over the ground, as though she would have carried off the very soil itself in a clutch of supreme passion. She filled her skirt with a harvest of aromatic plants, southernwood, mint, verbenas. She came across a border of balm, and left not a leaf of it unplucked. She even broke off two big fennels which she threw over her shoulders like a couple of trees. Had she been able, she would have carried all the greenery of the garden away with her between her teeth. When she reached the threshold of the pavilion, she turned round and gave a last look at the Paradou. It was quite dark now. The night had fully come and cast a black veil over everything. Then for the last time she went up the stairs, never more to step down them.
The spacious room was quickly decked. She had placed a lighted lamp upon the table. She sorted out the flowers heaped upon the floor and arranged them in big bunches, which she distributed about the room. First she placed some lilies behind the lamp on the table, forming with them a lofty lacelike screen which softened the light with its snowy purity. Then she threw handfuls of carnations and stocks over the old sofa, which was already strewn with red bouquets that had faded a century ago, till all these were hidden, and the sofa looked like a huge bed of stocks bristling with carnations. Next she placed the four armchairs in front of the alcove. On the first one she piled marigolds, on the second poppies, on the third mirabilis, and on the fourth heliotrope. The chairs were completely buried in bloom, with nothing but the tips of their arms visible. At last she thought of the bed. She pushed a little table near the head of it, and reared thereon a huge pile of violets. Then she covered the whole bed with the hyacinths and tuberoses she had plucked. They were so abundant that they formed a thick couch overflowing all around, so that the bed now looked like one colossal bloom.
The roses still remained. And these she scattered chancewise all over the room, without even looking to see where they fell. Some of them dropped upon the table, the sofa, and the chairs; and a corner of the bed was inundated with them. For some minutes there was a rain of roses, a real downpour of heavy blossoms, which settled in flowery pools in the hollows of the floor. But as the heap seemed scarcely diminished, she finished by weaving garlands of roses which she hung upon the walls. She twined wreaths around the necks and arms and waists of the plaster cupids that sported over the alcove. The blue ceiling, the oval panels, edged with flesh-coloured ribbon, the voluptuous paintings, preyed upon by time, were all hung with a mantle, a drapery of roses. The big room was fully decked at last. Now she could die there.
For a moment she remained standing, glancing around her. She was looking to see if death was there. And she gathered up the aromatic greenery, the southernwood, the mint, the verbenas, the balm, and the fennel. She broke them and twisted them and made wedges of them with which to stop up every little chink and cranny about the windows and the door. Then she drew the white coarsely sewn calico curtains and, without even a sigh, laid herself upon the bed, on all the florescence of hyacinths and tuberoses.
And then a final rapture was granted her. With her eyes wide open she smiled at the room. Ah! how she had loved there! And how happily she was there going to die! At that supreme moment the plaster cupids suggested nothing impure to her; the amorous paintings disturbed her no more. She was conscious of nothing beneath that blue ceiling save the intoxicating perfume of the flowers. And it seemed to her as if this perfume was none other than the old love-fragrance which had always warmed the room, now increased a hundredfold, till it had become so strong and penetrating that it would surely suffocate her. Perchance it was the breath of the lady who had died there a century ago. In perfect stillness, with her hands clasped over her heart, she continued smiling, while she listened to the whispers of the perfumes in her buzzing head. They were singing to her a soft strange melody of fragrance, which slowly and very gently lulled her to sleep.
At first there was a prelude, bright and childlike; her hands, that had just now twisted and twined the aromatic greenery, exhaled the pungency of crushed herbage, and recalled her old girlish ramblings through the wildness of the Paradou. Then there came a flutelike song, a song of short musky notes, rising from the violets that lay upon the table near the head of the bed; and this flutelike strain, trilling melodiously to the soft accompaniment of the lilies on the other table, sang to her of the first joys of love, its first confession, and first kiss beneath the trees of the forest. But she began to stifle as passion drew nigh with the clove-like breath of the carnations, which burst upon her in brazen notes that seemed to drown all others. She thought that death was nigh when the poppies and the marigolds broke into a wailing strain, which recalled the torment of desire. But suddenly all grew quieter; she felt that she could breathe more freely; she glided into greater serenity, lulled by a descending scale that came from the throats of the stocks, and died away amidst a delightful hymn from the heliotropes, which, with their vanilla-like breath, proclaimed the approach of nuptial bliss. Here and there the mirabilis gently trilled. Then came a hush. And afterwards the roses languidly made their entry. Their voices streamed from the ceiling, like the strains of a distant choir. It was a chorus of great breadth, to which she at first listened with a slight quiver. Then the volume of the strain increased, and soon her whole frame vibrated with the mighty sounds that burst in waves around her. The nuptials were at hand, the trumpet blasts of the roses announced them. She pressed her hands more closely to her heart as she lay there panting, gasping, dying. When she opened her lips for the kiss which was to stifle her, the hyacinths and tuberoses shot out their perfume and enveloped her with so deep, so great a sigh that the chorus of the roses could be heard no more.
And then, amidst the final gasp of the flowers, Albine died.
About three o'clock the next afternoon, La Teuse and Brother Archangias, who were chatting on the parsonage-steps, saw Doctor Pascal's gig come at full gallop through the village. The whip was being vigorously brandished from beneath the lowered hood.
'Where can he be off to at that rate?' murmured the old servant. 'He will break his neck.'
The gig had just reached the rising ground on which the church was built. Suddenly, the horse reared and stopped, and the doctor's head, with its long white hair all dishevelled appeared from under the hood.
'Is Serge there?' he cried, in a voice full of indignant excitement.
La Teuse had stepped to the edge of the hill. 'Monsieur le Cure is in his room,' she said. 'He must be reading his breviary. Do you want to speak to him? Shall I call him?'
Uncle Pascal, who seemed almost distracted, made an angry gesture with his whip hand. Bending still further forward, at the risk of falling out, he replied:
'Ah! he's reading his breviary, is he? No! no! don't call him. I should strangle him, and that would do no good. I wanted to tell him that Albine was dead. Dead! do you hear me? Tell him, from me, that she is dead!'
And he drove off, lashing his horse so fiercely that it almost bolted. But, twenty paces away, he pulled up again, and once more stretching out his head, cried loudly:
'Tell him, too, from me, that she was enceinte! It will please him to know that.'
Then the gig rolled on wildly again, jolting dangerously as it ascended the stony hill that led to the Paradou. La Teuse was quite dumbfounded. But Brother Archangias sniggered and looked at her with savage delight glittering in his eyes. She noticed this at last, and thrust him away from her, almost making him fall down the steps.
'Be off with you!' she stammered, full of anger, seeking to relieve her feelings by abusing him. 'I shall grow to hate you. Is it possible to rejoice at any one's death? I wasn't fond of the girl, myself; but it is very sad to die at her age. Be off with you, and don't go on sniggering like that, or I will throw my scissors in your face!'
It was only about one o'clock that a peasant, who had gone to Plassans to sell vegetables, had told Doctor Pascal of Albine's death, and had added that Jeanbernat wished to see him. The doctor now was feeling a little relieved by what he had just shouted as he passed the parsonage. He had gone out of his way expressly to give himself that satisfaction. He reproached himself for the death of the girl as for a crime in which he had participated. All along the road he had never ceased overwhelming himself with insults, and though he wiped the tears from his eyes that he might see where to guide his horse, he ever angrily drove his gig over heaps of stones, as if hoping that he would overturn himself and break one of his limbs. However, when he reached the long lane that skirted the endless wall of the park, a glimmer of hope broke upon him. Perhaps Albine was only in a dead faint. The peasant had told him that she had suffocated herself with flowers. Ah! if he could only get there in time, if he could only save her! And he lashed his horse ferociously as though he were lashing himself.
It was a lovely day. The pavilion was all bathed in sunlight, just as it had been in the fair spring-time. But the leaves of the ivy which mounted to the roof were spotted and patched with rust, and bees no longer buzzed round the tall gilliflowers. Doctor Pascal hastily tethered his horse and pushed open the gate of the little garden. All around still prevailed that perfect silence amidst which Jeanbernat had been wont to smoke his pipe; but, to-day, the old man was no longer seated on his bench watching his lettuces.
'Jeanbernat!' called the doctor.
No one answered. Then, on entering the vestibule, he saw something that he had never seen before. At the end of the passage, below the dark staircase, was a door opening into the Paradou, and he could see the vast garden spreading there beneath the pale sunlight, with all its autumn melancholy, its sere and yellow foliage. The doctor hurried through the doorway and took a few steps over the damp grass.
'Ah! it is you, doctor!' said Jeanbernat in a calm voice.
The old man was digging a hole at the foot of a mulberry-tree. He had straightened his tall figure on hearing the approach of footsteps. But he promptly betook himself to his task again, throwing out at each effort a huge mass of rich soil.
'What are you doing there?' asked Doctor Pascal.
Jeanbernat straightened himself again and wiped the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his jacket. 'I am digging a hole,' he answered simply. 'She always loved the garden, and it will please her to sleep here.'
The doctor nearly choked with emotion. For a moment he stood by the edge of the grave, incapable of speaking, but watching Jeanbernat as the other sturdily dug on.
'Where is she?' he asked at last.
'Up there, in her room. I left her on the bed. I should like you to go and listen to her heart before she is put away in here. I listened myself, but I couldn't hear anything at all.'
The doctor went upstairs. The room had not been disturbed. Only a window had been opened. There the withered flowers, stifled by their own perfumes, exhaled but the faint odour of dead beauty. Within the alcove, however, there still hung an asphyxiating warmth, which seemed to trickle into the room and gradually disperse in tiny puffs. Albine, snowy-pale, with her hands upon her heart and a smile playing over her face, lay sleeping on her couch of hyacinths and tuberoses. And she was quite happy, since she was quite dead. Standing by the bedside, the doctor gazed at her for a long time, with a keen expression such as comes into the eyes of scientists who attempt to work resurrections. But he did not even disturb her clasped hands. He kissed her brow, on the spot where her latent maternity had already set a slight shadow. Below, in the garden, Jeanbernat was still driving his spade into the ground in heavy, regular fashion.
A quarter of an hour later, however, the old man came upstairs. He had completed his work. He found the doctor seated by the bedside, buried in such a deep reverie that he did not seem conscious of the heavy tears that were trickling down his cheeks.
The two men only glanced at each other. Then, after an interval of silence, Jeanbernat slowly said:
'Well, was I not right? There is nothing, nothing, nothing. It is all mere nonsense.'
He remained standing and began to pick up the roses that had fallen from the bed, throwing them, one by one, upon Albine's skirts.
'The flowers,' he said, 'live only for a day, while the rough nettles, like me, wear out the very stones amidst which they spring.... Now it's all over; I can kick the bucket; I am nearly distracted. My last ray of sunlight has been snuffed out. It's all nonsense, as I said before.'
He threw himself upon one of the chairs in his turn. He did not shed a tear; he bore himself with rigid despair, like some automaton whose mechanism is broken. Mechanically he reached out his hand and took a book that lay on the little table strewn with violets. It was one of the books stored away in the loft, an odd volume of Holbach,* which he had been reading since the morning, while watching by Albine's body. As the doctor still remained silent, buried in distressful thought, he began to turn its pages over. But a sadden idea occurred to him.
* Doubtless Holbach's now forgotten Catechism of Nature, into
which M. Zola himself may well have peeped whilst writing this
'If you will help me,' he said to the doctor, 'we will carry her downstairs, and bury her with all her flowers.'
Uncle Pascal shuddered. Then he explained to the old man that it was not allowed for one to keep the dead in that fashion.
'What! it isn't allowed!' cried Jeanbernat. 'Well, then, I will allow it myself! Doesn't she belong to me? Isn't she mine? Do you think I am going to let the priests walk off with her? Let them try, if they want to get a shot from my gun!'
He sprang to his feet and waved his book about with a terrible gesture. But the doctor caught hold of his hands and clasped them within his own, beseeching him to be calm. And for a long time he talked to him, saying all that he had upon his mind. He blamed himself, made fragmentary confessions of his fault, and vaguely hinted at those who had killed Albine.
'Listen,' he said in conclusion, 'she is yours no longer; you must give her up.'
But Jeanbernat shook his head, and again waved his hand in token of refusal. However, his obstinate resolution was shaken; and at last he said:
'Well, well, let them take her, and may she break their arms for them! I only wish that she could rise up out of the ground and kill them all with fright.... By the way. I have a little business to settle over there. I will go to-morrow.... Good-bye, then, doctor. The hole will do for me.'
And, when the doctor had left, he again sat down by the dead girl's side, and gravely resumed the perusal of his book.
That morning there was great commotion in the yard at the parsonage. The Artaud butcher had just slaughtered Matthew, the pig, in the shed. Desiree, quite enthusiastic about it all, had held Matthew's feet, while he was being bled, kissing him on the back that he might feel the pain of the knife less, and telling him that it was absolutely necessary that he should be killed, now that he had got so fat. No one could cut off a goose's neck with a single stroke of the hatchet more unconcernedly than she could, or gash open a fowl's throat with a pair of scissors. However much she loved her charges, she looked upon their slaughter with great equanimity. It was quite necessary, she would say. It made room for the young ones who were growing up. And that morning she was very gay.
'Mademoiselle,' grumbled La Teuse every minute, 'you will end by making yourself ill. There is no sense in working yourself up into such a state, just because a pig has been slaughtered. You are as red as if you had been dancing a whole night.'
But Desiree only clapped her hands and turned away and bustled about again. La Teuse, for her part, complained that her legs were sinking under her. Since six o'clock in the morning her big carcass had been perpetually rolling between the kitchen and the yard, for she had black puddings to make. It was she who had whisked the blood in two large earthenware pans, and she had thought that she would never get finished, since mademoiselle was for ever calling her away for mere nothings.
It must be admitted that, at the very moment when the butcher was bleeding Matthew, Desiree had been thrilled with wild excitement, for Lisa, the cow, was about to calve. And the girl's delight at this had quite turned her head.
'One goes and another comes!' she cried, skipping and twirling round. 'Come here, La Teuse! come here!'
It was eleven o'clock. Every now and then the sound of chanting was wafted from the church. A confused murmur of doleful voices, a muttering of prayers could be heard amidst scraps of Latin pronounced in louder and clearer tones.
'Come! oh, do come!' repeated Desiree for the twentieth time.
'I must go and toll the bell, now,' muttered the old servant. 'I shall never get finished really. What is it that you want now, mademoiselle?'
But she did not wait for an answer. She threw herself upon a swarm of fowls, who were greedily drinking the blood from the pans. And having angrily kicked them away, and then covered up the pans, she called to Desiree:
'It would be a great deal better if, instead of tormenting me, you only came to look after these wretched birds. If you let them do as they like there will be no black-pudding for you. Do you hear?'
Desiree only laughed. What of it, if the fowls did drink a few drops of the blood? It would fatten them. Then she again tried to drag La Teuse off to the cow, but the old servant refused to go.
'I must go and toll the bell. The procession will be coming out of church directly. You know that quite well.'
At this moment the voices in the church rose yet more loudly, and a sound of steps could be distinctly heard.
'No! no!' insisted Desiree, dragging La Teuse towards the stable. 'Just come and look at her, and tell me what ought to be done.'
La Teuse shrugged her shoulders. All that the cow wanted was to be left alone and not bothered. Then she set off towards the vestry, but, as she passed the shed, she raised a fresh cry:
'There! there!' she shrieked, shaking her fist. 'Ah! the little wretch!'
Matthew was lying at full length on his back, with his feet in the air, under the shed, waiting to be singed.* The gash which the knife had made in his neck was still quite fresh, and was beaded with drops of blood. And a little white hen was very delicately picking off these drops of blood one by one.
* In some parts of France pigs, when killed, are singed, not scalded,
as is, I think, the usual practice in England.—ED.
'Why, of course,' quietly remarked Desiree, 'she's regaling herself.' And the girl stooped and patted the pig's plump belly, saying: 'Eh! my fat fellow, you have stolen their food too often to grudge them a wee bit of your neck now!'
La Teuse hastily doffed her apron and threw it round Matthew's neck. Then she hurried away and disappeared within the church. The great door had just creaked on its rusty hinges, and a burst of chanting rose in the open air amidst the quiet sunshine. Suddenly the bell began to toll with slow and regular strokes. Desiree, who had remained kneeling beside the pig patting his belly, raised her head to listen, while still continuing to smile. When she saw that she was alone, having glanced cautiously around, she glided away into the cow's stable and closed the door behind her.
The little iron gate of the graveyard, which had been opened quite wide to let the body pass, hung against the wall, half torn from its hinges. The sunshine slept upon the herbage of the empty expanse, into which the funeral procession passed, chanting the last verse of the Miserere. Then silence fell.
'Requiem �ternam dona ei, Domine,' resumed Abbe Mouret, in solemn tones.
'Et lux perpetua luceat ei,' Brother Archangias bellowed.
At the head walked Vincent, wearing a surplice and bearing the cross, a large copper cross, half the silver plating of which had come off. He lifted it aloft with both his hands. Then followed Abbe Mouret, looking very pale in his black chasuble, but with his head erect, and without a quiver on his lips as he chanted the office, gazing into the distance with fixed eyes. The flame of the lighted candle which he was carrying scarcely showed in the daylight. And behind him, almost touching him, came Albine's coffin, borne by four peasants on a sort of litter, painted black. The coffin was clumsily covered with too short a pall, and at the lower end of it the fresh deal of which it was made could be seen, with the heads of the nails sparkling with a steely glitter. Upon the pall lay flowers: handfuls of white roses, hyacinths, and tuberoses, taken from the dead girl's very bed.
'Just be careful!' cried Brother Archangias to the peasants, as they slightly tilted the litter in order to get it through the gateway. 'You will be upsetting everything on to the ground!'
He kept the coffin in its place with one of his fat hands. With the other—as there was no second clerk—he was carrying the holy-water vessel, and he likewise represented the choirman, the rural guard, who had been unable to come.
'Come in, too, you others,' he exclaimed, turning round.
There was a second funeral, that of Rosalie's baby, who had died the previous day from an attack of convulsions. The mother, the father, old mother Brichet, Catherine, and two big girls, La Rousse and Lisa, were there. The two last were carrying the baby's coffin, one supporting each end.
Suddenly all voices were hushed again, and there came another interval whilst the bell continued tolling in slow and desolate accents. The funeral procession crossed the entire burial-ground, going towards the corner which was formed by the church and the wall of Desiree's poultry-yard. Swarms of grasshoppers leaped away at the approaching footsteps, and lizards hurried into their holes. A heavy warmth hung over this corner of the loamy cemetery. The crackling of the dry grass beneath the tramp of the mourners sounded like choking sobs.
'There! stop where you are!' cried the Brother, barring the way before the two big girls who were carrying the baby's coffin. 'Wait for your turn. Don't be getting in our legs here.'
The two girls laid the baby on the ground. Rosalie, Fortune, and old mother Brichet were lingering in the middle of the graveyard, while Catherine slyly followed Brother Archangias. Albine's grave was on the left hand of Abbe Caffin's tomb, whose white stone seemed in the sunshine to be flecked with silvery spangles. The deep cavity, freshly dug that morning, yawned amidst thick tufts of grass. Big weeds, almost uprooted, drooped over the edges, and a fallen flower lay at the bottom, staining the dark soil with its crimson petals. When Abbe Mouret came forward, the soft earth crumbled and gave way beneath his feet; he was obliged to step back to keep himself from slipping into the grave.
'Ego sum—' he began in a full voice, which rose above the mournful tolling of the bell.
During the anthem, those who were present instinctively cast furtive glances towards the bottom of the empty grave. Vincent, who had planted the cross at the foot of the cavity opposite the priest, pushed the loose earth with his foot, and amused himself by watching it fall. This drew a laugh from Catherine, who was leaning forward from behind him to get a better view. The peasants had set the litter on the grass and were stretching their arms, while Brother Archangias prepared the sprinkler.
'Come here, Voriau!' called Fortune.
The big black dog, who had gone to sniff at the coffin, came back sulkily.
'Why has the dog been brought?' exclaimed Rosalie.
'Oh! he followed us,' said Lisa, smiling quietly.
They were all chatting together in subdued tones round the baby's coffin. The father and mother occasionally forgot all about it, but on catching sight of it again, lying between them at their feet, they relapsed into silence.
'And so old Bambousse wouldn't come?' said La Rousse. Mother Brichet raised her eyes to heaven.
'He threatened to break everything to pieces yesterday when the little one died,' said she. 'No, no, I must say that he is not a good man. Didn't he nearly strangle me, crying out that he had been robbed, and that he would have given one of his cornfields for the little one to have died three days before the wedding?'
'One can never tell what will happen,' remarked Fortune with a knowing look.
'What's the good of the old man putting himself out about it? We are married, all the same, now,' added Rosalie.
Then they exchanged a smile across the little coffin while Lisa and La Rousse nudged each other with their elbows. But afterwards they all became very serious again. Fortune picked up a clod of earth to throw at Voriau, who was now prowling about amongst the old tombstones.
'Ah! they've nearly finished over there, now!' La Rousse whispered very softly.
Abbe Mouret was just concluding the De profundis in front of Albine's grave. Then, with slow steps, he approached the coffin, drew himself up erect, and gazed at it for a moment without a quiver in his glance. He looked taller, his face shone with a serenity that seemed to transfigure him. He stooped and picked up a handful of earth, and scattered it over the coffin crosswise. Then, in a voice so steady and clear that not a syllable was lost, he said:
'Revertitur in terrain suam unde erat, et spiritus redit ad Deum qui dedit illum.'
A shudder ran through those who were present. Lisa seemed to reflect for a moment, and then remarked with an expression of worry: 'It is not very cheerful, eh, when one thinks that one's own turn will come some day or other.'
But Brother Archangias had now handed the sprinkler to the priest, who took it and shook it several times over the corpse.
'Requiescat in pace,' he murmured.
'Amen,' responded Vincent and the Brother together, in tones so respectively shrill and deep that Catherine had to cram her fist into her mouth to keep from laughing.
'No, indeed, it is certainly not cheerful,' continued Lisa. 'There really was nobody at all at that funeral. The graveyard would be quite empty without us.'
'I've heard say that she killed herself,' said old mother Brichet.
'Yes, I know,' interrupted La Rousse. 'The Brother didn't want to let her be buried amongst Christians, but Monsieur le Cure said that eternity was for everybody. I was there. But all the same the Philosopher might have come.'
At that very moment Rosalie reduced them all to silence by murmuring: 'See! there he is, the Philosopher.'
Jeanbernat was, indeed, just entering the graveyard. He walked straight to the group that stood around Albine's grave; and he stepped along with so lithe, so springy a gait, that none of them heard him coming. When he was close to them, he remained for a moment behind Brother Archangias and seemed to fix his eyes, for an instant, on the nape of the Brother's neck. Then, just as the Abbe Mouret was finishing the office, he calmly drew a knife from his pocket, opened it, and with a single cut sliced off the Brother's right ear.
There had been no time for any one to interfere. The Brother gave a terrible yell.
'The left one will be for another occasion,' said Jeanbernat quietly, as he threw the ear upon the ground. Then he went off.
So great and so general was the stupefaction that nobody followed him. Brother Archangias had dropped upon the heap of fresh soil which had been thrown out of the grave. He was staunching his bleeding wound with his handkerchief. One of the four peasants who had carried the coffin, wanted to lead him away, conduct him home; but he refused with a gesture and remained where he was, fierce and sullen, wishing to see Albine lowered into the pit.
'There! it's our turn at last!' said Rosalie with a little sigh.
But Abbe Mouret still lingered by the grave, watching the bearers who were slipping cords under Albine's coffin in order that they might let it down gently. The bell was still tolling; but La Teuse must have been getting tired, for it tolled irregularly, as though it were becoming a little irritated at the length of the ceremony.
The sun was growing hotter and the Solitaire's shadow crept slowly over the grass and the grave mounds. When Abbe Mouret was obliged to step back in order to give the bearers room, his eyes lighted upon the marble tombstone of Abbe Caffin, that priest who also had loved, and who was now sleeping there so peacefully beneath the wild-flowers.
Then, all at once, even as the coffin descended, supported by the cords, whose knots made it strain and creak, a tremendous uproar arose in the poultry-yard on the other side of the wall. The goat began to bleat. The ducks, the geese, and the turkeys raised their loudest calls and flapped their wings. The fowls all cackled at once. The yellow cock, Alexander, crowed forth his trumpet notes. The rabbits could even be heard leaping in their hutches and shaking their wooden floors. And, above all this lifeful uproar of the animal creation, a loud laugh rang out. There was a rustling of skirts. Desiree, with her hair streaming, her arms bare to the elbows, and her face crimson with triumph, burst into sight, her hands resting upon the coping of the wall. She had doubtless climbed upon the manure-heap.
'Serge! Serge!' she cried.
At that moment Albine's coffin had reached the bottom of the grave. The cords had just been withdrawn. One of the peasants was throwing the first shovelful of earth into the cavity.
'Serge! Serge!' Desiree cried, still more loudly, clapping her hands, 'the cow has got a calf!'