Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 19
After thoroughly reflecting on the Trappist's probable intentions, I decided that I ought to grant him the interview he had requested. In any case, John Mauprat could not hope to impose upon me, and I wished to do all in my power to prevent him from pestering my great-uncle's last days with his intrigues. Accordingly, the very next day I betook myself to the town, where I arrived towards the end of Vespers. I rang, not without emotion, at the door of the Carmelites.
The retreat chosen by the Trappist was of those innumerable mendicant societies which France supported at that time. Though its rules were ostensibly most austere, this monastery was rich and devoted to pleasure. In that age of scepticism the small number of the monks was entirely out of proportion to the wealth of the establishment which had been founded for them; and the friars who roamed about the vast monasteries in the most remote parts of the provinces led the easiest and idlest lives they had ever known, in the lap of luxury, and entirely freed from the control of opinion, which always loses its power when man isolates himself. But this isolation, the mother of the "amiable vices," as they used to phrase it, was dear only to the more ignorant. The leaders were a prey to the painful dreams of an ambition which had been nurtured in obscurity and embittered by inaction. To do something, even in the most limited sphere and with the help of the feeblest machinery; to do something at all costs—such was the one fixed idea of the priors and abbés.
The prior of the Carmelites whom I was about to see was the personification of this restless impotence. Bound to his great arm-chair by the gout, he offered a strange contrast to the venerable chevalier, pale and unable to move like himself, but noble and patriarchal in his affliction. The prior was short, stout, and very petulant. The upper part of his body was all activity; he would turn his head rapidly from side to side; he would brandish his arms while giving orders. He was sparing of words, and his muffled voice seemed to lend a mysterious meaning to the most trivial things. In short, one-half of his person seemed to be incessantly striving to drag along the other, like the bewitched man in the Arabian Nights, whose robe hid a body that was marble up to the waist.
He received me with exaggerated attention, got angry because they did not bring me a chair quickly enough, stretched out his fat, flabby hand to draw this chair quite close to his own, and made a sign to a tall, bearded satyr, whom he called the Brother Treasurer, to go out; then, after overwhelming me with questions about my journey, and my return, and my health, and my family, while his keen restless little eyes were darting glances at me from under eyelids swollen and heavy from intemperance, he came to the point.
"I know, my dear child," he said, "what brings you here; you wish to pay your respects to your holy relative, to the Trappist, that model of faith and holiness whom God has sent to us to serve as an example to the world, and reveal to all the miraculous power of grace."
"Prior," I answered, "I am not a good enough Christian to judge of the miracle you mention. Let devout souls give thanks to Heaven for it. For myself, I have come here because M. Jean de Mauprat desires to inform me, as he has said, of plans which concern myself, and to which I am ready to listen. If you will allow me to go and see him———"
"I did not want him to see you before myself, young man," exclaimed the prior, with an affectation of frankness, at the same time seizing my hands in his, at the touch of which I could not repress a feeling of disgust. "I have a favour to ask of you in the name of charity, in the name of the blood that flows in your veins . . ."
I withdrew one of my hands, and the prior, noticing my expression of displeasure, immediately changed his tone with admirable skill.
"You are a man of the world, I know. You have a grudge against him who once was Jean de Mauprat, and who to-day is the humble Brother Jean Népomucène. But if the precepts of our divine Master, Jesus Christ, cannot persuade you to pity, there are considerations of public propriety and of family pride which must make you share my fears and assist my efforts. You know the pious but rash resolution which Brother John has formed; you ought to assist me in dissuading him from it, and you will do so, I make no doubt."
"Possibly, sir," I replied very coldly; "but might I ask to what my family is indebted for the interest you are good enough to take in its affairs?"
"To that spirit of charity which animates all the followers of Christ," answered the monk, with very well assumed dignity.
Fortified with this pretext, on the strength of which the clergy have always taken upon themselves to meddle in all family secrets, it was not difficult for him to put an end to my questions; and, though he could not destroy the suspicions which I felt at heart, he succeeded in proving to my ears that I ought to be grateful to him for the care which he had taken of the honour of my name. I wanted to find out what he was driving at; it was as I had foreseen. My Uncle John claimed from me his share in the fief of Roche-Mauprat; and the prior was deputed to make me understand that I had to choose between paying a considerable sum of money (for he spoke of the interest accruing through the seven years of possession, besides a seventh part of the whole estate) and the insane step he intended taking, the scandal of which could not fail to hasten the chevalier's death and cause me, perhaps, "strange personal embarrassments." All this was hinted with consummate skill under the cover of the most Christian solicitude for my own welfare, the most fervent admiration for the Trappist's zeal, and the most sincere anxiety about the results of this "firm resolve." Finally, it was made evident that John Mauprat was not coming to ask me for the means of existence, but that I should have to humbly beseech him to accept the half of my possessions, if I wished to prevent him from dragging my name and probably my person to the felon's dock.
I tried a final objection.
"If," I said, "this resolve of Brother Népomucène, as you call him, is as fixed as you say; if the only one care he has in the world is for his own salvation, will you explain to me how the attractions of temporal wealth can possibly turn him from it? There seems to be a contradiction in this which I fail to understand."
The prior was somewhat embarrassed by the piercing glance I turned on him, but he immediately started on one of those exhibitions of simplicity which are the supreme resource of rogues:
"Mon Dieu! my dear son," he exclaimed, "you do not know, then, the immense consolation a pious soul can derive from the possession of worldly wealth? Just as perishable riches must be despised when they represent vain pleasures, even so must they be resolutely defended by the upright man when they afford him the means of doing good. I will not hide from you that if I were the holy Trappist I would not yield my rights to any one; I would found a religious society for the propagation of the faith and the distribution of alms with the wealth which, in the hands of a brilliant young nobleman like yourself, is only squandered on horses and dogs. The Church teaches us that by great sacrifices and rich offerings we may cleanse our souls of the blackest sins. Brother Népomucène, a prey to holy fear, believes that a public expiation is necessary for his salvation. Like a devout martyr, he wishes to satisfy the implacable justice of men with blood. But how much sweeter for you (and safer, at the same time) to see him raise some holy altar to the glory of God, and hide in the blessed peace of the cloister the baleful lustre of the name he has already abjured! He is so much swayed by the spirit of his order, he has conceived such a love for self-denial, for humility and poverty, that it will need all my efforts and much help from on high to make him agree to this change of expiations."
"It is you, then, prior, who from sheer goodness of heart are undertaking to alter this fatal resolution? I admire your zeal, and I thank you for it; but I do not think there will be any need of all these negotiations. M. Jean de Mauprat claims his share of the inheritance; nothing can be more just. Even should the law refuse all civil rights to a man who owed his safety only to flight (a point which I will pass over), my relative may rest assured that there would never be the least dispute between us on this ground, if I were the absolute possessor of any fortune whatever. But you are doubtless aware that I owe the enjoyment of this fortune only to the kindness of my great-uncle, the Chevalier Hubert de Mauprat; that he had enough to do to pay the debts of the family, which amounted to more than the total value of the estate; that I can alienate nothing without his permission, and that, in reality, I am merely the depositary of a fortune which I have not yet accepted."
The prior stared at me in astonishment, as if dazed by an unexpected blow. Then he smiled with a crafty expression, and said:
"Very good! It appears that I have been mistaken, and that I must apply to M. Hubert de Mauprat. I will do so; for I make no doubt that he will be very grateful to me for saving his family from a scandal which may have very good results for one of his relatives in the next world, but which, for a certainty, will have very bad ones for another relation in the present world."
"I understand, sir," I replied. "This is a threat. I will answer in the same strain: If M. Jean de Mauprat ventures to importune my uncle and cousin, it is with me that he will have to deal; and it will not be before the courts that I shall summon him to answer for certain outrages which I have by no means forgotten. Tell him that I shall grant no pardon to the Trappist penitent unless he remains faithful to the rôle he has adopted. If M. Jean de Mauprat is without resources, and he asks my help, I may, out of the income I receive, furnish him with the means of living humbly and decently, according to the spirit of the vows he has taken; but if ecclesiastical ambition has taken possession of his mind, and he thinks, by stupid, childish threats, to intimidate my uncle to such an extent that he will be able to extort from him the wherewithal to satisfy his new tastes, let him undeceive himself—tell him so from me. The old man's peace of mind and his daughter's future have only myself as guardian, and I shall manage to guard them, though it be at the risk of my life and my honour."
"And yet honour and life are of some importance at your age." replied the abbé, visibly irritated, but feigning a suaver manner than ever. "Who knows into what folly religious fervour may lead the Trappist? For, between ourselves be it said, my child—you see, I am a man of moderation—I knew the world in my youth, and I do not approve of these violent resolves, which are more often dictated by pride than piety. For instance, I have consented to temper the austerity of our rules; my friars look well-fed, and they wear shirts. Rest assured, my good sir, I am far from approving of your uncle's design, and I shall do all that is possible to hinder it. Yet, if he still persists, how will my efforts profit you? He has obtained his superior's permission, and may, after all, yield to his fatal inspiration. You may be seriously compromised by an affair of this kind; for, although reports say that you are a worthy young gentleman, though you have abjured the errors of the past, and though, perhaps, your soul has always hated iniquity, you have certainly been involved in many misdeeds which human laws condemn and punish. Who can tell into what involuntary revelations Brother Népomucène may find himself drawn if he sets in motion the machinery of criminal proceedings? Can he set it in motion against himself without at the same time setting it in motion against you? Believe me, I wish for peace—I am a kindly man."
"Yes, a very kindly man, father," I answered, in a tone of irony. "I see that perfectly. But do not let this matter cause you needless anxiety; for there is one very clear argument which must reassure both of us. If a veritable religious impulse urges Brother John the Trappist to make a public reparation, it will be easy to make him understand that he ought to hesitate before he drags another than himself into the abyss; the spirit of Christ forbids him to do this. But, if the truth is, as I presume, that M. Jean de Mauprat has not the least wish to hand himself over to justice, his threats are but little calculated to terrify me, and I shall take steps to prevent them from making more stir than is desirable."
"So that is the only answer I am to give him? "asked the prior, darting a vindictive glance at me.
"Yes, sir," I replied; "unless he would prefer to come here and receive the answer from my own mouth. I came with a determination to conquer the disgust which his presence arouses in me; and I am astonished that, after expressing so much eagerness to see me, he should remain in the background when I arrive."
"Sir," answered the prior, with ridiculous majesty, "my duty is to see that the peace of our Lord reigns in this holy place. I must, therefore, set myself against any interview which might lead to violent explanations . . ."
"You are much too easily frightened, sir," I replied. "There is nothing to rouse passion in this matter. However, as it was not I who called for these explanations, and as I came here out of pure complaisance, I most willingly refrain from pushing them further, and I thank you for having been good enough to act as intermediary."
With that, I made a profound bow and retired.