Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 16
We set out from Brest without sending any letter to announce our coming.
When we arrived near Varenne we alighted from the post-chaise and, ordering the driver to proceed by the longest road to Sainte-Sévère, took a short cut through the woods. As soon as I saw the trees in the park raising their venerable heads above the copses like a solemn phalanx of druids in the middle of a prostrate multitude, my heart began to beat so violently that I was forced to stop.
"Well," said Marcasse, turning round with an almost stern expression, as if he would have reproached me for my weakness.
But a moment later I saw that his own face, too, was betraying unexpected emotion. A plaintive whining and a bushy tail brushing against his legs had made him start. He uttered a loud cry on seeing Blaireau. The poor animal had scented his master from afar, and had rushed forward with all the speed of his first youth to roll at his feet. For a moment we thought he was going to die there, for he remained motionless and convulsed, as it were, under Marcasse's caressing hand; then suddenly he sprang up, as if struck with an idea worthy of a man, and set off with the speed of lightning in the direction of Patience's hut.
"Yes, go and tell my friend, good dog!" exclaimed Marcasse; "a better friend than you would be more than man."
He turned towards me, and I saw two big tears trickling down the cheeks of the impassive hidalgo.
We hastened our steps till we reached the hut. It had undergone striking improvements; a pretty rustic garden, inclosed by a quickset hedge with a bank of stones behind, extended round the little house. The approach to this was no longer a rough little path, but a handsome walk, on either side of which splendid vegetables stretched out in regular rows, like an army in marching order. The van was composed of a battalion of cabbages; carrots and lettuces formed the main body; and along the hedge some modest sorrel brought up the rear. Beautiful apple-trees, already well grown, spread their verdant shade above these plants; while pear-trees, alternately standards and espaliers, with borders of thyme and sage kissing the feet of sunflowers and gilli-flowers, convicted Patience of a strange return to ideas of social order, and even to a taste for luxuries.
The change was so remarkable that I thought I should no longer find Patience in the cottage. A strange feeling of uneasiness began to come over me; my fear almost turned into certainty when I saw two young men from the village occupied in trimming the espaliers. Our passage had lasted more than four months, and it must have been quite six months since we had had any news of the hermit. Marcasse, however, seemed to feel no fear; Blaireau had told him plainly that Patience was alive, and the footmarks of the little dog, freshly printed in the sand on the walk, showed the direction in which he had gone. Notwithstanding, I was so afraid of seeing a cloud come over the joy of this day, that I did not dare to question the gardeners about Patience. Silently I followed the hidalgo, whose eyes grew full of tears as they gazed upon this new Eden, and whose prudent mouth let no sound escape save the word "change," which he repeated several times.
At last I grew impatient; the walk seemed interminable, though very short in reality, and I began to run, my heart beating wildly.
"Perhaps Edmée," I said to myself, "is here!"
However, she was not there, and I could only hear the voice of the hermit saying:
"Now, then! What is the matter? Has the poor dog gone mad? Down, Blaireau! You would never have worried your master in this way. This is what comes of being too kind!"
"Blaireau is not mad!" I exclaimed, as I entered. "Have you grown deaf to the approach of a friend, Master Patience?"
Patience, who was in the act of counting a pile of money, let it fall on the table and came towards me with the old cordiality. I embraced him heartily; he was surprised and touched at my joy. Then he examined me from head to foot, and seemed to be wondering at the change in my appearance, when Marcasse arrived at the door.
Then a sublime expression came over Patience's face, and lifting his strong hand to heaven, he exclaimed:
"The words of the canticle! Now let me depart in peace; for mine eyes have seen him I yearned for."
The hidalgo said nothing; he raised his hat as usual; then sitting down he turned pale and shut his eyes. His dog jumped up on his knees and displayed his affection by attempts at little cries which changed into a series of sneezes (you remember that he was born dumb). Trembling with old age and delight, he stretched out his pointed nose towards the long nose of his master; but his master did not respond with the customary "Down, Blaireau!"
Marcasse had fainted.
This loving soul, no more able than Blaireau to express itself in words, had sunk beneath the weight of its own happiness. Patience ran and fetched him a large mug of wine of the district, in its second year—that is to say, the oldest and best possible. He made him swallow a few drops; its strength revived him. The hidalgo excused his weakness on the score of fatigue and the heat. He would not or could not assign it to its real sense. There are souls who die out, after burning with unsurpassable moral beauty and grandeur, without ever having found a way, and even without ever having felt the need, of revealing themselves to others.
When Patience, who was as demonstrative as his friend was the contrary, had recovered from his first transports, he turned to me and said:
"Now, my young officer, I see that you have no wish to remain here long. Let us make haste, then, to the place you are burning to reach. There is some one who will be much surprised and much delighted, you may take my word."
We entered the park, and while crossing it, Patience explained the change which had come over his habitation and his life.
"For myself," he said to me, "you see that I have not changed. The same appearance, the same ways; and if I offered you some wine just now, that does not prevent me from drinking water myself. But I have money, and land, and workmen—yes, I have. Well, all this is in spite of myself, as you will see. Some three years ago Mademoiselle Edmée spoke of the difficulty she had in bestowing alms so as to do real good. The abbé was as unskilful as herself. People would impose on them every day and use their money for bad ends; whereas proud and hard-working day-labourers might be in a state of real distress without any one being able to discover the fact. She was afraid that if she inquired into their wants they might take it as an insult; and when worthless fellows appealed to her she preferred being their dupe to erring against charity. In this manner she used to give away a great deal of money and do very little good. I then made her understand how money was the thing that was the least necessary to the necessitous. I explained that men were really unfortunate, not when they were able to dress better than their fellows, or go to the tavern on Sundays, or display at high-mass a spotlessly white stocking with a red garter above the knee, or talk about 'My mare, my cow, my vine, my barn, etc.,' but rather when they were afflicted with poor health and a bad season, when they could not protect themselves against the cold, and heat and sickness, against the pangs of hunger and thirst. I told her, then, not to judge of the strength and health of peasants by myself, but to go in person and inquire into their illnesses and their wants.
"These folk are not philosophers," I said; "they have their little vanities, they are fond of finery, spend the little they earn on cutting a figure, and have not foresight enough to deprive themselves of a passing pleasure in order to lay by something against a day of real need. In short, they do not know how to use their money; they tell you they are in debt, and, though that may be true, it is not true that they will use the money you give them to pay what they owe. They take no thought of the morrow; they will agree to as high a rate of interest as may be asked, and with your money they will buy a hemp-field or a set of furniture so as to astonish their neighbours and make them jealous. Meanwhile their debts go on increasing year by year, and in the end they have to sell their hemp-field and their furniture, because the creditor, who is always one of themselves, calls for repayment or for more interest than they can furnish. Everything goes; the principal takes all their capital, just as the interest had taken all their income. Then you grow old and can work no longer; your children abandon you, because you have brought them up badly, and because they have the same passions and the same vanities as yourself. All you can do is to take a wallet and go from door to door to beg your bread, because you are used to bread and would die if you had to live on roots like the sorcerer Patience, that outcast of Nature, whom everybody hates and despises because he has not become a beggar.
"The beggar, moreover, is hardly worse off than the day-labourer; probably he is better off. He is no longer troubled with pride, whether estimable or foolish; he has no longer to suffer. The folks in his part of the country are good to him; there is not a beggar that wants for a bed or supper as he goes his round. The peasants load him with bits of bread, to such an extent that he has enough to feed both poultry and pigs in the little hovel where he has left a child and an old mother to look after his animals. Every week he returns there and spends two or three days, doing nothing except counting the pennies that have been given him. These poor coins often serve to satisfy the superfluous wants which idleness breeds. A peasant rarely takes snuff; many beggars cannot do without it; they ask for it more eagerly than for bread. So the beggar is no more to be pitied than the labourer; but he is corrupt and debauched, when he is not a scoundrel and a brute, which, in truth, is seldom enough.
"'This, then, is what ought to be done,' I said to Edmée; 'and the abbé tells me that this is also the idea of your philosophers. You who are always ready to help the unfortunate, should give without consulting the special fancies of the man who asks, but only after ascertaining his real wants.'
"Edmée objected that it would be impossible for her to obtain the necessary information; that she would have to give her whole time to it, and neglect the chevalier, who is growing old and can no longer read anything without his daughter's eyes and head. The abbé was too fond of improving his mind from the writings of the wise to have time for anything else.
"'That is what comes of all this study of virtue!' I said to her; 'it makes a man forget to be virtuous.'
"'You are quite right,' answered Edmée; 'but what is to be done?'
"I promised to think it over; and this is how I went to work. Instead of taking my walks as usual in the direction of the woods, I paid a visit every day to the small holdings. It cost me a great effort; I like to be alone; and everywhere I had shunned my fellow-men for so many years that I had lost touch with them. However, this was a duty and I did it. I went to various houses, and by way of conversation, first of all over hedges, and then inside the houses themselves, I made inquiries as to those points which I wanted to learn. At first they gave me a welcome such as they would give to a lost dog in time of drought; and with a vexation I could scarce conceal I noticed the hatred and distrust on all their faces. Though I had not cared to live among other men, I still had an affection for them; I knew that they were unfortunate rather than vicious; I had spent all my time in lamenting their woes and railing against those that caused them; and when for the first time I saw a possibility of doing something for some of them, these very men shut their doors the very moment they caught sight of me in the distance, and their children (those pretty children that I love so much!) would hide themselves in ditches so as to escape the fever which, it was said, I could give with a glance. However, as Edmée's friendship for me was well known, they did not dare to repulse me openly, and I succeeded in getting the information we wanted. Whenever I told her of any distress she at once supplied a remedy. One house was full of cracks; and while the daughter was wearing an apron of cotton-cloth at four francs an ell, the rain was falling on the grandmother's bed and the little children's cradles. The roof and walls were repaired; we supplied the materials and paid the workmen; but no more money for gaudy aprons. In another case, an old woman had been reduced to beggary because she had listened too well to her heart, and given all she had to her children, who had turned her out of doors, or made her life so unbearable that she preferred to be a tramp. We took up the old woman's cause, and threatened that we would bring the matter before the courts at our own expense. Thus we obtained for her a pension, to which we added when it was not sufficient. We induced several old persons who were in a similar position to combine and live together under the same roof. We chose one as head, and gave him a little capital, and as he was an industrious and methodical man, he turned it to such profit that his children came and made their peace with him, and asked to be allowed to help in his establishment.
"We did many other things besides; I need not give you details, as you will see them yourself. I say 'we,' because, though I did not wish to be concerned in anything beyond what I had already done, I was gradually drawn on and obliged to do more and more, to concern myself with many things, and finally with everything. In short, it is I who make the investigations, superintend the works, and conduct all negotiations. Mademoiselle Edmée wished me to keep a sum of money by me, so that I might dispose of it without consulting her first. This I have never allowed myself to do; and, moreover, she has never once opposed any of my ideas. But all this, you know, has meant much work and many worries. Ever since the people realized that I was a little Turgot they have grovelled before me, and that has pained me not a little. And so I have various friends that I don't care for, and various enemies that I could well do without. The sham poor owe me a grudge because I do not let myself be duped by them; and there are perverse and worthless people who think one is always doing too much for others, and never enough for them. With all this bustle and all these bickerings, I can no longer take my walk during the night, and my sleep during the day. I am now Monsieur Patience, and no longer the sorcerer of Gazeau Tower; but alas! I am a hermit no more; and, believe me, I would wish with all my heart that I could have been born selfish, so that I might throw off my harness, and return to my savage life and my liberty."
When Patience had given us this account of his work we complimented him on it; but we ventured to express a doubt about his pretended self-sacrifice; this magnificent garden seemed to indicate a compromise with "those superfluous necessities," the use of which by others he had always deplored.
"That?" he said, waving his arm in the direction of his inclosure. "That does not concern me; they made it against my wishes; but, as they were worthy folk and my refusal would have grieved them, I was obliged to allow it. You must know that, if I have stirred ingratitude in many hearts, I have also made a few happy ones grateful. So, two or three families to whom I had done some service, tried all possible means to give me pleasure in return; and, as I refused everything, they thought they would give me a surprise. Once I had to pay a visit to Berthenoux for several days, on some confidential business which had been entrusted to me; for people have come to imagine me a very clever man, so easy is it to pass from one extreme to another. On my return I found this garden, marked out, planted, and inclosed as you see it. In vain did I get angry, and explain that I did not want to work, that I was too old, and that the pleasure of eating a little more fruit was not worth the trouble that this garden was going to cost me; they finished it without heeding what I said, and declared that I need not trouble in the least, because they would undertake to cultivate it for me. And, indeed, for the last two years the good folk have not failed to come, now one and now another, and give such time in each season as was necessary to keep it in perfect order. Besides, though I have altered nothing in my own ways of living, the produce of this garden has been very useful; during the winter I was able to feed several poor people with my vegetables; while my fruit has served to win the affection of the little children, who no longer cry out 'wolf' when they see me, but have even grown bold enough to come and kiss the sorcerer. Other people have forced me to accept presents of wine, and now and then of white bread, and cheeses of cow's milk. All these things, however, only enable me to be polite to the village elders when they come and report the deserving cases of the place, so that I may make them known at the castle. These honours have not turned my head, as you see; nay, more, I may say that when I have done about all that I have to do, I shall leave the cares of greatness behind me, and return to my philosopher's life, perhaps to Gazeau Tower—who knows?"
We were now at the end of our walk. As I set foot on the steps of the château, I was suddenly filled with a feeling of devoutness; I clasped my hands and called upon Heaven in a sort of terror. A vague, indefinable fear arose in me; I imagined all manner of things that might hinder my happiness. I hesitated to cross the threshold of the house; then I rushed forward. A mist came over my eyes, a buzzing filled my ears. I met Saint-Jean, who, not recognising me, gave a loud cry and threw himself in my path to prevent me from entering without being announced. I pushed him aside, and he sank down astounded on one of the hall chairs while I hastened to the door of the drawing-room. But, just as I was about to throw it open, I was seized with a new fear and checked myself; then I opened it so timidly that Edmée, who was occupied at some embroidery on a frame, did not raise her eyes, thinking that in this slight noise she recognised the respectful Saint-Jean. The chevalier was asleep and did not wake. This old man, tall and thin like all the Mauprats, was sitting with his head sunk on his breast; and his pale, wrinkled face, which seemed already wrapped in the torpor of the grave, resembled one of those angular heads in carved oak which adorned the back of his big arm-chair. His feet were stretched out in front of a fire of dried vine-branches, although the sun was warm and a bright ray was falling on his white head and making it shine like silver. And how could I describe to you my feelings on beholding Edmée? She was bending over her tapestry and glancing from time to time at her father to notice his slightest movements. But what patience and resignation were revealed in her whole attitude! Edmée was not fond of needlework; her mind was too vigorous to attach much importance to the effect of one shade by the side of another shade, and to the regularity of one stitch laid against another stitch. Besides, the blood flowed swiftly in her veins, and when her mind was not absorbed in intellectual work she needed exercise in the open air. But ever since her father, a prey to the infirmities of old age, had been almost unable to leave his arm-chair, she had refused to leave him for a single moment; and, since she could not always be reading and working her mind, she had felt the necessity of taking up some of those feminine occupations which, as she said, "are the amusements of captivity." She had conquered her nature then in truly heroic fashion. In one of those secret struggles which often take place under our eyes without our suspecting the issue involved, she had done more than subdue her nature, she had even changed the circulation of her blood. I found her thinner; and her complexion had lost that first freshness of youth which, like the bloom that the breath of morning spreads over fruit, disappears at the slightest shock from without, although it may have been respected by the heat of the sun. Yet in this premature paleness and in this somewhat unhealthy thinness there seemed to be an indefinable charm; her eyes, more sunken, but inscrutable as ever, showed less pride and more melancholy than of old; her mouth had become more mobile, and her smile was more delicate and less contemptuous. When she spoke to me, I seemed to behold two persons in her, the old and the new; and I found that, so far from having lost her beauty, she had attained ideal perfection. Still, I remember several persons at that time used to declare that she had "changed very much," which with them meant that she had greatly deteriorated. Beauty, however, is like a temple in which the profane see naught but the external magnificence. The divine mystery of the artist's thought reveals itself only to profound sympathy, and the inspiration in each detail of the sublime work remains unseen by the eyes of the vulgar. One of your modern authors, I fancy, has said this in other words and much better. As for myself, at no moment of her life did I find Edmée less beautiful than at any other. Even in the hours of suffering, when beauty in its material sense seems obliterated, hers but assumed a divine form in my eyes, and in her face I beheld the splendour of a new moral beauty. However, I am but indifferently endowed with artistic feeling, and had I been a painter, I could not have created more than a single type, that which filled my whole soul; for in the course of my long life only one woman has seemed to me really beautiful; and that woman was Edmée.
For a few seconds I stood looking at her, so touchingly pale, sad yet calm, a living image of filial piety, of power in thrall to affection. Then I rushed forward and fell at her feet without being able to say a word. She uttered no cry, no exclamation of surprise, but took my head in her two arms and held it for some time pressed to her bosom. In this strong pressure, in this silent joy I recognised the blood of my race, I felt the touch of a sister. The good chevalier, who had waked with a start, stared at us in astonishment, his body bent forward and his elbow resting on his knee; then he said:
"Well, well! What is the meaning of this?"
He could not see my face, hidden as it was in Edmée's breast. She pushed me towards him; and the old man clasped me in his feeble arms with a burst of generous affection that gave him back for a moment the vigour of youth.
I leave you to imagine the questions with which I was overwhelmed, and the attentions that were lavished on me. Edmée was a veritable mother to me. Her unaffected kindness and confidence savoured so much of heaven that throughout the day I could not think of her otherwise than if I had really been her son.
I was very much touched at the pleasure they took in preparing a big surprise for the abbé; I saw in this a sure proof of the delight he would feel at my return. They made me hide under Edmée's frame, and covered me with the large green cloth that was generally thrown over her work. The abbé sat down quite close to me, and I gave a shout and seized him by the legs. This was a little practical joke that I used to play on him in the old days. When, throwing aside the frame, and sending the balls of wool rolling over the floor, I came out from my hiding-place, the expression of terror and delight on his face was most quaint.
But I will spare you all these family scenes to which my memory goes back too readily.