Une Vie



The following days were very sad and dreary, as they always are when there has been a death in the house. And, in addition, Jeanne was crushed at the thought of what she had discovered; her last shred of confidence had been destroyed with the destruction of her faith. Little father, after a short stay, went away to try and distract his thoughts from his grief, and the large house, whose former masters were leaving it from time to time, resumed its usual calm and monotonous course.

Then Paul fell ill, and Jeanne was almost beside herself, not sleeping for ten days, and scarcely tasting food. He recovered, but she was haunted by the idea that he might die. Then what should she do? What would become of her? And there gradually stole into her heart the hope that she might have another child. She dreamed of it, became obsessed with the idea. She longed to realize her old dream of seeing two little children around her; a boy and a girl.

But since the affair of Rosalie she and Julien had lived apart. A reconciliation seemed impossible in their present situation. Julien loved some one else, she knew it; and the very thought of suffering his approach filled her with repugnance. She had no one left whom she could consult. She resolved to go and see Abbé Picot and tell him, under the seal of confession, all that weighed upon her mind in this matter.

He was reading from his breviary in his little garden planted with fruit trees when she arrived.

After a few minutes’ conversation on indifferent matters, she faltered, her color rising: “I want to confess, Monsieur l’Abbé.”

He looked at her in astonishment, as he pushed his spectacles back on his forehead; then he began to laugh. “You surely have no great sins on your conscience.” This embarrassed her greatly, and she replied: “No, but I want to ask your advice on a subject that is so—so—so painful that I dare not mention it casually.”

He at once laid aside his jovial manner and assumed his priestly attitude. “Well, my child, I will listen to you in the confessional; come along.”

But she held back, undecided, restrained by a kind of scruple at speaking of these matters, of which she was half ashamed, in the seclusion of an empty church.

“Or else, no—Monsieur le Curé—I might—I might—if you wish, tell you now what brings me here. Let us go and sit over there, in your little arbor.”

They walked toward it, and Jeanne tried to think how she could begin. They sat down in the arbor, and then, as if she were confessing herself, she said: “Father——” then hesitated, and repeated: “Father——” and was silent from emotion.

He waited, his hands crossed over his paunch. Seeing her embarrassment, he sought to encourage her: “Why, my daughter, one would suppose you were afraid; come, take courage.”

She plucked up courage, like a coward who plunges headlong into danger. “Father, I should like to have another child.” He did not reply, as he did not understand her. Then she explained, timid and unable to express herself clearly:

“I am all alone in life now; my father and my husband do not get along together; my mother is dead; and—and——” she added with a shudder, “the other day I nearly lost my son! What would have become of me then?”

She was silent. The priest, bewildered, was gazing at her. “Come, get to the point of your subject.”

“I want to have another child,” she said. Then he smiled, accustomed to the coarse jokes of the peasants, who were not embarrassed in his presence, and he replied, with a sly motion of his head:

“Well, it seems to me that it depends only on yourself.”

She raised her candid eyes to his face, and said, hesitating with confusion: “But—but—you understand that since—since—what you know about—about that maid—my husband and I have lived—have lived quite apart.”

Accustomed to the promiscuity and undignified relations of the peasants, he was astonished at the revelation. All at once he thought he guessed at the young woman’s real desire, and looking at her out of the corner of his eye, with a heart full of benevolence and of sympathy for her distress, he said: “Oh, I understand perfectly. I know that your widowhood must be irksome to you. You are young and in good health. It is natural, quite natural.”

He smiled, bearing out his easy-going character of a country priest, and tapping Jeanne lightly on the hand, he said: “That is permissible, very permissible indeed, according to the commandments. You are married, are you not? Well, then, what is the harm?”

She, in her turn, had not understood his hidden meaning; but as soon as she saw through it, she blushed scarlet, shocked, and with tears in her eyes exclaimed: “Oh, Monsieur le Curé, what are you saying? What are you thinking of? I swear to you—I swear to you——” And sobs choked her words.

He was surprised and sought to console her: “Come, I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I was only joking a little; there is no harm in that when one is decent. But you may rely on me, you may rely on me. I will see M. Julien.”

She did not know what to say. She now wished to decline this intervention, which she thought clumsy and dangerous, but she did not dare to do so, and she went away hurriedly, faltering: “I am grateful to you, Monsieur le Curé.”

A week passed. One day at dinner Julien looked at her with a peculiar expression, a certain smiling curve of the lips that she had noticed when he was teasing her. He was even almost ironically gallant toward her, and as they were walking after dinner in little mother’s avenue, he said in a low tone: “We seem to have made up again.”

She did not reply, but continued to look on the ground at a sort of track that was almost effaced now that the grass was sprouting anew. They were the footprints of the baroness, which were vanishing as does a memory. And Jeanne was plunged in sadness; she felt herself lost in life, far away from everyone.

“As for me, I ask nothing better. I was afraid of displeasing you,” continued Julien.

The sun was going down, the air was mild. A longing to weep came over Jeanne, one of those needs of unbosoming oneself to a kindred spirit, of unbending and telling one’s griefs. A sob rose in her throat; she opened her arms and fell on Julien’s breast, and wept. He glanced down in surprise at her head, for he could not see her face which was hidden on his shoulder. He supposed that she still loved him, and placed a condescending kiss on the back of her head.

They entered the house and he followed her to her room. And thus they resumed their former relations, he, as a not unpleasant duty, and she, merely tolerating him.

She soon noticed, however, that his manner had changed, and one day with her lips to his, she murmured: “Why are you not the same as you used to be?”

“Because I do not want any more children,” he said jokingly.

She started. “Why not?”

He appeared greatly surprised. “Eh, what’s that you say? Are you crazy? No, indeed! One is enough, always crying and bothering everyone. Another baby! No, thank you!”

At the end of a month she told the news to everyone, far and wide, with the exception of Comtesse Gilberte, from reasons of modesty and delicacy.

What the priest had foreseen finally came to pass. She became enceinte. Then, filled with an unspeakable happiness, she locked her door every night when she retired, vowing herself from henceforth to eternal chastity, in gratitude to the vague divinity she adored.

She was now almost quite happy again. Her children would grow up and love her; she would grow old quietly, happy and contented, without troubling herself about her husband.

Toward the end of September, Abbé Picot called on a visit of ceremony to introduce his successor, a young priest, very thin, very short, with an emphatic way of talking, and with dark circles round his sunken eyes.

The old abbé had been appointed Dean of Goderville.

Jeanne was really sorry to lose the old man, who had been associated with all her recollections as a young woman. He had married her, baptized Paul, and buried the baroness. She could not imagine Étouvent without Abbé Picot and his paunch passing along by the farms, and she loved him because he was cheerful and natural.

But he did not seem very cheerful at the thought of his promotion. “It is a wrench, it is a wrench, madame la comtesse. I have been here for eighteen years. Oh, the place does not bring in much, and is not wealthy. The men have no more religion than they need, and the women, look you, the women have no morals. But nevertheless, I loved it.”

The new curé appeared impatient, and said abruptly: “When I am here all that will have to be changed.” He looked like an angry boy, thin and frail in his somewhat worn, though clean cassock.

Abbé Picot looked at him sideways, as he did when he was in a joking mood, and said: “You see, abbé, in order to prevent those happenings, you will have to chain up your parishioners; and even that would not be of much use.” The little priest replied sharply: “We shall see.” And the older man smiled as he took a pinch of snuff, and said: “Age will calm you down, abbé, and experience also. You will drive away from the church the remaining faithful ones, and that is all the good it will do. In this district they are religious, but pig-headed; be careful. Faith, when I see a girl come to confess who looks rather stout, I say to myself: ‘She is bringing me a new parishioner,’ and I try to get her married. You cannot prevent them from making mistakes; but you can go and look for the man, and prevent him from deserting the mother. Get them married, abbé, get them married, and do not trouble yourself about anything else.”

“We think differently,” said the young priest rudely; “it is useless to insist.” And Abbé Picot once more began to regret his village, the sea which he saw from his parsonage, the little valleys where he walked while repeating his breviary, glancing up at the boats as they passed.

As the two priests took their leave, the old man kissed Jeanne, who was on the verge of tears.

A week later Abbé Tolbiac called again. He spoke of reforms which he intended to accomplish, as a prince might have done on taking possession of a kingdom. Then he requested the vicomtesse not to miss the service on Sunday, and to communicate a all the festivals. “You and I,” he said, “we are at the head of the district; we must rule it and always set them an example to follow. We must be of one accord so that we may be powerful and respected. The church and the château in joining forces will make the peasants obey and fear us.”

Jeanne’s religion was all sentiment; she had all a woman’s dream faith, and if she attended at all to her religious duties, it was from a habit acquired at the convent, the baron’s advanced ideas having long since overthrown her convictions. Abbé Picot contented himself with what observances she gave him, and never blamed her. But his successor, not seeing her at mass the preceding Sunday, had come to call, uneasy and stern.

She did not wish to break with the parsonage, and promised, making up her mind to be assiduous in attendance the first few weeks, out of politeness.

Little by little, however, she got into the habit of going to church, and came under the influence of this delicate, upright and dictatorial abbé. A mystic, he appealed to her in his enthusiasm and zeal. He set in vibration in her soul the chord of religious poetry that all women possess. His unyielding austerity, his disgust for ordinary human interests, his love of God, his youthful and untutored inexperience, his harsh words, and his inflexible will, gave Jeanne an idea of the stuff martyrs were made of; and she let herself be carried away, all disillusioned as she was, by the fanaticism of this child, the minister of God.

He led her to Christ, the consoler, showing her how the joy of religion will calm all sorrow; and she knelt at the confessional, humbling herself, feeling herself small and weak in presence of this priest, who appeared to be about fifteen.

He was, however, very soon detested in all the countryside. Inflexibly severe toward himself, he was implacably intolerant toward others, and the one thing that especially roused his wrath and indignation was love. The young men and girls looked at each other slyly across the church, and the old peasants who liked to joke about such things disapproved his severity. All the parish was in a ferment. Soon the young men all stopped going to church.

The curé dined at the château every Thursday, and often came during the week to chat with his penitent. She became enthusiastic like himself, talked about spiritual matters, handling all the antique and complicated arsenal of religious controversy.

They walked together along the baroness’ avenue, talking of Christ and the apostles, the Virgin Mary and the Fathers of the Church as though they were personally acquainted with them.

Julien treated the new priest with great respect, saying constantly: “That priest suits me, he does not back down.” And he went to confession and communion, setting a fine example. He now went to the Fourvilles’ nearly every day, gunning with the husband, who was never happy without him, and riding with the comtesse, in spite of rain and storm. The comte said: “They are crazy about riding, but it does my wife good.”

The baron returned to the château about the middle of November. He was changed, aged, faded, filled with a deep sadness. And his love for his daughter seemed to have gained in strength, as if these few months of dreary solitude had aggravated his need of affection, confidence and tenderness. Jeanne did not tell him about her new ideas, and her friendship for the Abbé Tolbiac. The first time he saw the priest he conceived a great aversion to him. And when Jeanne asked him that evening how he liked him, he replied: “That man is an inquisitor! He must be very dangerous.”

When he learned from the peasants, whose friend he was, of the harshness and violence of the young priest, of the kind of persecution which he carried on against all human and natural instincts, he developed a hatred toward him. He, himself, was one of the old race of natural philosophers who bowed the knee to a sort of pantheistic Divinity, and shrank from the catholic conception of a God with bourgeois instincts, Jesuitical wrath, and tyrannical revenge. To him reproduction was the great law of nature, and he began from farm to farm an ardent campaign against this intolerant priest, the persecutor of life.

Jeanne, very much worried, prayed to the Lord, entreated her father; but he always replied: “We must fight such men as that, it is our duty and our right. They are not human.”

And he repeated, shaking his long white locks: “They are not human; they understand nothing, nothing, nothing. They are moving in a morbid dream; they are anti-physical.” And he pronounced the word “anti-physical” as though it were a malediction.

The priest knew who his enemy was, but as he wished to remain ruler of the château and of Jeanne, he temporized, sure of final victory. He was also haunted by a fixed idea. He had discovered by chance the amours of Julien and Gilberte, and he desired to put a stop to them at all costs.

He came to see Jeanne one day and, after a long conversation on spiritual matters, he asked her to give her aid in helping him to fight, to put an end to the evil in her own family, in order to save two souls that were in danger.

She did not understand, and did not wish to know. He replied: “The hour has not arrived. I shall see you some other time.” And he left abruptly.

The winter was coming to a close, a rotten winter, as they say in the country, damp and mild. The abbé called again some days later and hinted mysteriously at one of those shameless intrigues between persons whose conduct should be irreproachable. It was the duty, he said, of those who were aware of the facts to use every means to bring it to an end. He took Jeanne’s hand and adjured her to open her eyes and understand and lend him her aid.

This time she understood, but she was silent, terrified at the thought of all that might result in the house that was now peaceful, and she pretended not to understand. Then he spoke out clearly.

She faltered: “What do you wish me to do, Monsieur l’Abbé?”

“Anything, rather than permit this infamy. Anything, I say. Leave him. Flee from this impure house!”

“But I have no money; and then I have no longer any courage; and, besides, how can I go without any proof? I have not the right to do so.”

The priest arose trembling: “That is cowardice, madame; I am mistaken in you. You are unworthy of God’s mercy!”

She fell on her knees: “Oh, I pray you not to leave me, tell me what to do!”

“Open M. de Fourville’s eyes,” he said abruptly. “It is his place to break up this intrigue.”

This idea filled her with terror. “Why, he would kill them, Monsieur l’Abbé! And I should be guilty of denouncing them! Oh, never that, never!”

He raised his hand as if to curse her in his fury: “Remain in your shame and your crime; for you are more guilty than they are. You are the complaisant wife! There is nothing more for me to do here.” And he went off so furious that he trembled all over.

She followed him, distracted and ready to do as he suggested. But he strode along rapidly, shaking his large blue umbrella in his rage. He perceived Julien standing outside the gate superintending the lopping of the trees, so he turned to the left to go across the Couillard farm, and he said: “Leave me alone, madame, I have nothing further to say to you.”

Jeanne was entreating him to give her a few days for reflection, and then if he came back to the château she would tell him what she had done, and they could take counsel together.

Right in his road, in the middle of the farmyard, a group of children, those of the house and some neighbor’s children, were standing around the kennel of Mirza, the dog, looking curiously at something with silent and concentrated attention. In the midst of them stood the baron, his hands behind his back, also looking on with curiosity. One would have taken him for a schoolmaster. When he saw the priest approaching, he moved away so as not to have to meet him and speak to him.

The priest did not call again; but the following Sunday from the pulpit he hurled imprecations, curses and threats against the château, anathematizing the baron, and making veiled allusions, but timidly, to Julien’s latest intrigue. The vicomte was furious, but the dread of a shocking scandal kept him silent. At each service thereafter the priest declared his indignation, predicting the approach of the hour when God would smite all his enemies.

Julien wrote a firm, but respectful letter to the archbishop; the abbé was threatened with suspension. He was silent thereafter.

Gilberte and Julien now frequently met him during their rides reading his breviary, but they turned aside so as not to pass him by. Spring had come and reawakened their love. As the foliage was still sparse and the grass damp, they used to meet in a shepherd’s movable hut that had been deserted since autumn. But one day when they were leaving it, they saw the Abbé Tolbiac, almost hidden in the sea rushes on the slope.

“We must leave our horses in the ravine,” said Julien, “as they can be seen from a distance and would betray us.” One evening as they were coming home together to La Vrillette, where they were to dine with the comte, they met the curé of Étouvent coming out of the château. He stepped to the side of the road to let them pass, and bowed without their eyes meeting. They were uneasy for a few moments, but soon forgot it.

One afternoon, Jeanne was reading beside the fire while a storm of wind was raging outside, when she suddenly perceived Comte Fourville coming on foot at such a pace that she thought some misfortune had happened.

She ran downstairs to meet him, and when she saw him she thought he must be crazy. He wore a large quilted cap that he wore only at home, his hunting jacket, and looked so pale that his red mustache, usually the color of his skin, now seemed like a flame. His eyes were haggard, rolling as though his mind were vacant.

He stammered: “My wife is here, is she not?” Jeanne, losing her presence of mind, replied: “Why, no, I have not seen her to-day.”

He sat down as if his legs had given way. He then took off his cap and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief mechanically several times. Then starting up suddenly, he approached Jeanne, his hands stretched out, his mouth open, as if to speak, to confide some great sorrow to her. Then he stopped, looked at her fixedly and said as though he were wandering: “But it is your husband—you also——” And he fled, going toward the sea.

Jeanne ran after him, calling him, imploring him to stop, her heart beating with apprehension as she thought: “He knows all! What will he do? Oh, if he only does not find them!”

But she could not come up to him, and he disregarded her appeals. He went straight ahead without hesitation, straight to his goal. He crossed the ditch, then, stalking through the sea rushes like a giant, he reached the cliff.

Jeanne, standing on the mound covered with trees, followed him with her eyes until he was out of sight. Then she went into the house, distracted with grief.

He had turned to the right and started to run. Threatening waves overspread the sea, big black clouds were scudding along madly, passing on and followed by others, each of them coming down in a furious downpour. The wind whistled, moaned, laid the grass and the young crops low and carried away big white birds that looked like specks of foam and bore them far into the land.

The hail which followed beat in the comte’s face, filling his ears with noise and his heart with tumult.

Down yonder before him was the deep gorge of the Val de Vaucotte. There was nothing before him but a shepherd’s hut beside a deserted sheep pasture. Two horses were tied to the shafts of the hut on wheels. What might not happen to one in such a tempest as this?

As soon as he saw them the comte crouched on the ground and crawled along on his hands and knees as far as the lonely hut and hid himself beneath the hut that he might not be seen through the cracks. The horses on seeing him became restive. He slowly cut their reins with the knife which he held open in his hand, and a sudden squall coming up, the animals fled, frightened at the hail which rattled on the sloping roof of the wooden hut and made it shake on its wheels.

The comte then kneeling upright, put his eye to the bottom of the door and looked inside. He did not stir; he seemed to be waiting.

A little time elapsed and then he suddenly rose to his feet, covered with mud from head to foot. He frantically pushed back the bolt which closed the hut on the outside, and seizing the shafts, he began to shake the hut as though he would break it to pieces. Then all at once he got between the shafts, bending his huge frame, and with a desperate effort dragged it along like an ox, panting as he went. He dragged it, with whoever was in it, toward the steep incline.

Those inside screamed and banged with their fists on the door, not understanding what was going on.

When he reached the top of the cliff he let go the fragile dwelling, which began to roll down the incline, going ever faster and faster, plunging, stumbling like an animal and striking the ground with its shafts.

An old beggar hidden in a ditch saw it flying over his head and heard frightful screams coming from the wooden box.

All at once a wheel was wrenched off and it fell on its side and began to roll like a ball, as a house torn from its foundations might roll from the summit of a mountain. Then, reaching the ledge of the last ravine, it described a circle, and, falling to the bottom, burst open as an egg might do. It was no sooner smashed on the stones than the old beggar, who had seen it going past, went down toward it slowly amid the rushes, and with the customary caution of a peasant, not daring to go directly to the shattered hut, he went to the nearest farm to tell of the accident.

They all ran to look at it and raised the wreck of the hut. They found two bodies, bruised, crushed and bleeding. The man’s forehead was split open and his whole face crushed; the woman’s jaw was hanging, dislocated in one of the jolts, and their shattered limbs were soft as pulp.

“What were they doing in that shanty?” said a woman.

The old beggar then said that they had apparently taken refuge in it to get out of the storm and that a furious squall must have blown the hut over the cliff. He said he had intended to take shelter there himself, when he saw the horses tied to it, and understood that some one else must be inside. “But for that,” he added in a satisfied tone, “I might have rolled down in it.” Some one remarked: “Would not that have been a good thing?”

The old man, in a furious rage, said: “Why would it have been a good thing? Because I am poor and they are rich! Look at them now.” And trembling, ragged and dripping with rain, he pointed to the two dead bodies with his hooked stick and exclaimed: “We are all alike when we get to this.”

The comte, as soon as he saw the hut rolling down the steep slope, ran off at full speed through the blinding storm. He ran in this way for several hours, taking short cuts, leaping across ditches, breaking through the hedges, and thus got back home at dusk, not knowing how himself.

The frightened servants were awaiting his return and told him that the two horses had returned riderless some little time before, that of Julien following the other one.

Then M. de Fourville reeled and in a choked voice said: “Something must have happened to them in this dreadful weather. Let every one help to look for them.”

He started off himself, but he was no sooner out of sight than he concealed himself in a clump of bushes, watching the road along which she whom he even still loved with an almost savage passion was to return dead, dying or maybe crippled and disfigured forever.

And soon a carriole passed by carrying a strange burden.

It stopped at the château and passed through the gate. It was that, it was she. But a fearful anguish nailed him to the spot, a fear to know the worst, a dread of the truth, and he did not stir, hiding as a hare, starting at the least sound.

He waited thus an hour, two hours perhaps. The buggy did not come out. He concluded that his wife was expiring, and the thought of seeing her, of meeting her gaze filled him with so much horror that he suddenly feared to be discovered in his hiding place and of being compelled to return and be present at this agony, and he then fled into the thick of the wood. Then all of a sudden it occurred to him that she perhaps might be needing his care, that no one probably could properly attend to her. Then he returned on his tracks, running breathlessly.

On entering the château he met the gardener and called out to him, “Well?” The man did not dare answer him. Then M. de Fourville almost roared at him: “Is she dead?” and the servant stammered: “Yes, M. le Comte.”

He experienced a feeling of immense relief. His blood seemed to cool and his nerves relax somewhat of their extreme tension, and he walked firmly up the steps of his great hallway.

The other wagon had reached “The Poplars.” Jeanne saw it from afar. She descried the mattress; she guessed that a human form was lying upon it, and understood all. Her emotion was so vivid that she swooned and fell prostrate.

When she regained consciousness her father was holding her head and bathing her temples with vinegar. He said hesitatingly: “Do you know?” She murmured: “Yes, father.” But when she attempted to rise she found herself unable to do so, so intense was her agony.

That very night she gave birth to a stillborn infant, a girl.

Jeanne saw nothing of the funeral of Julien; she knew nothing of it. She merely noticed at the end of a day or two that Aunt Lison was back, and in her feverish dreams which haunted her she persistently sought to recall when the old maiden lady had left “The Poplars,” at what period and under what circumstances. She could not make this out, even in her lucid moments, but she was certain of having seen her subsequent to the death of “little mother.”

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