Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 20
I gave an account of this interview to the abbé, who was waiting for me at Patience's. He was entirely of my own opinion; he thought, like myself, that the prior, so far from endeavouring to turn the Trappist from his pretended designs, was trying with all his power to frighten me, in the hope that I should be brought to make considerable sacrifices of money. In his eyes it was clear that this old man, faithful to the monkish spirit, wished to put into the hands of a clerical Mauprat the fruit of the labours and thrift of a lay Mauprat.
"That is the indelible mark of the Catholic clergy," he said. "They cannot live without waging war on the families around them, and being ever on the watch for opportunities to spoil them. They look upon this wealth as their property, and upon all ways of recovering it as lawful. It is not as easy as you think to protect one's self against this smooth-faced brigandage. Monks have stubborn appetites and ingenious minds. Act with caution and be prepared for anything. You can never induce a Trappist to show fight. Under the shelter of his hood, with head bowed and hands crossed, he will accept the crudest outrages; and, knowing quite well that you will not assassinate him, he will hardly fear you. Again, you do not know what justice can become in man's hands, and how a criminal trial is conducted and decided when one of the parties will not stick at any kind of bribery and intimidation. The Church is powerful, the law grandiloquent. The words 'honesty' and 'integrity' have for centuries been ringing against the hardened walls of courts of justice; but that has not prevented judges from being false or verdicts from being iniquitous. Have a care; have a care! The Trappist may start the cowled pack on his own track and throw them off by disappearing at the right point and leading them on yours. Remember that you have wounded many an amour propre by disappointing the pretensions of the dowry-hunters. One of the most incensed of them, and at the same time one of the most malicious, is a near relative of a magistrate who is all-powerful in the province. De la Marche has given up the gown for the sword; but among his old colleagues he may have left some who would like to do you an ill-turn. I am sorry you were not able to join him in America, and get on good terms with him. Do not shrug your shoulders; you may kill a dozen of them, and things will go from bad to worse. They will avenge themselves; not on your life, perhaps, for they know that you hold that cheap, but on your honour; and your great-uncle will die of grief. In short———"
"My dear abbé," I said, interrupting him, "you have a habit of seeing everything black at the first glance, when you do not happen to see the sun in the middle of the night. Now let me tell you some things which ought to drive out these gloomy presentiments. I know John Mauprat of old; he is a signal impostor, and, moreover, the rankest of cowards. He will sink into the earth at the sight of me, and as soon as I speak I will make him confess that he is neither Trappist, nor monk, nor saint. All this is a mere sharper's trick. In the old days I have heard him making plans which prevent me from being astonished at his impudence now; so I have but little fear of him."
"There you are wrong," replied the abbé. "You should always fear a coward, because he strikes from behind while you are expecting him in front. If John Mauprat were not a Trappist, if the papers he showed me were lies, the prior of the Carmelites is too shrewd and cautious to have let himself be deceived. Never would he have espoused the cause of a layman, and never would he mistake a layman for one of his own cloth. However, we must make inquiries; I will write to the superior of the Trappist monastery at once, but I am certain he will confirm what I know already. It is even possible that John Mauprat is a genuine devotee. Nothing becomes such a character better than certain shades of the Catholic spirit. The inquisition is the soul of the Church, and the inquisition should smile on John Mauprat. I firmly believe that he would give himself up to the sword of justice solely for the pleasure of compassing your ruin with his own, and that the desire to found a monastery with your money is a sudden inspiration, the honour of which belongs entirely to the prior of the Carmelites . . ."
"That is hardly probable, my dear abbé," I said. "Besides, where can these discussions lead us? Let us act. Let us keep the chevalier in sight, so that the unclean beast may not come and poison the calm of his last days. Write to the Trappist superior; I will offer the creature a pension, and when he comes, let us carefully watch his slightest movements. My sergeant, Marcasse, is an admirable bloodhound. Let us put him on the track, and if he can manage to tell us in vulgar speech what he has seen and heard, we shall soon know everything that is happening in the province."
Chatting thus, we arrived at the château towards the close of day. As I entered the silent building, I was seized with a fond, childish uneasiness, such as may come upon a mother when she leaves her babe a moment. The eternal security which nothing had ever disturbed within the bounds of the old sacred walls, the decrepitude of the servants, the way in which the doors always stood open, so that beggars would sometimes enter the drawing-room without meeting any one and without giving umbrage—the whole atmosphere of peace and trust and isolation formed a strange contrast to the thoughts of strife, and the cares with which John's return and the prior's threats had filled my mind for some hours. I quickened my pace, and, seized with an involuntary trembling, I crossed the billiard-room. At that moment I thought I saw a dark shadow pass under the windows of the ground floor, glide through the jasmines, and disappear in the twilight. I threw open the door of the drawing-room and stood still. There was not a sound, not a movement. I was going to look for Edmée in her father's room, when I thought I saw something white moving near the chimney-corner where the chevalier always sat.
"Edmée! Is that you?" I exclaimed.
No one answered. My brow was covered with a cold sweat and my knees were trembling. Ashamed of this strange weakness, I rushed towards the hearth, repeating Edmée's name in agonized tones.
"Have you come at last, Bernard?" she replied, in a trembling voice.
I seized her in my arms. She was kneeling beside her father's arm-chair and pressing to her lips the old man's icy hands.
"Great God!" I cried, when by the dim light in the room I could distinguish the chevalier's livid face. "Is our father dead?"
"Perhaps," she said, in a stifled voice; "perhaps he has only fainted, please God! But, a light, for Heaven's sake! Ring the bell! He has only been in this state for a moment."
I rang in all haste. The abbé now came in, and fortunately we succeeded in bringing my uncle back to life.
But when he opened his eyes, his mind seemed to be struggling against the impressions of a fearful dream.
"Has he gone? Has the vile phantom gone?" he repeated several times. "Ho, there, Saint-Jean! My pistols! Now, my men! Throw the fellow out of the window!"
I began to suspect the truth.
"What has happened?" I said to Edmée, in a low tone. "Who has been here in my absence?"
"If I told you," answered Edmée, "you would hardly believe it. You would think my father and I were mad. But I will tell you everything presently; let us attend to him."
With her soft words and loving attentions she succeeded in calming the old man. We carried him to his room, and he fell into a quiet sleep. When Edmée had gently withdrawn her hand from his and lowered the wadded curtain over his head, she joined the abbé and myself, and told us that a quarter of an hour before we returned a mendicant friar had entered the drawing-room, where, as usual, she was embroidering near her father, who had fallen asleep. Feeling no surprise at an incident which frequently happened, she had risen to get her purse from the mantel-piece, at the same time addressing a few words to the monk. But just as she was turning round to offer him an alms the chevalier had awakened with a start, and, eyeing the monk from head to foot, had cried in a tone half of anger and half of fear:
"What the devil are you doing here in that garb?"
Thereupon Edmée had looked at the monk's face and had recognised . . .
"A man you would never dream of," she said; "the frightful John Mauprat. I had only seen him a single hour in my life, but that repulsive face has never left my memory, and I have never had the slightest attack of fever without seeing it again. I could not repress a cry.
"'Do not be afraid,' he said, with a hideous smile. 'I come here not as an enemy, but as a supplicant.'
"And he went down on his knees so near my father that, not knowing what he might do, I rushed between them, and hastily pushed back the arm-chair to the wall. Then the monk, speaking in a mournful tone, which was rendered still more terrifying by the approach of night, began to pour out some lamentable rigmarole of a confession, and ended by asking pardon for his crimes, and declaring that he was already covered by the black veil which parricides wear when they go to the scaffold.
"'This wretched creature has gone mad,' said my father, pulling the bell-rope.
"But Saint-Jean is deaf, and he did not come. So we had to sit in unspeakable agony and listen to the strange talk of the man who calls himself a Trappist and declares that he has come to give himself up to justice in expiation of his transgressions. Before doing so, he wished to implore my father's forgiveness and his last blessing. While saying this he was moving forward on his knees, and speaking with an intense passion. In the sound of this voice, uttering words of extravagant humility, there seemed to be insult and a menace. As he continued moving nearer to my father, and as the idea of the foul caresses which he apparently wished to lavish on him filled me with disgust, I ordered him in a somewhat imperious tone to rise and speak becomingly. My father angrily ordered him to say no more and depart; and as at this moment he cried, 'No, you must let me clasp your knees!' I pushed him back to prevent him from touching my father. I shudder to think that my glove has touched that unclean gown. He turned towards me, and, though he still feigned penitence and humility, I could see rage gleaming in his eyes. My father made a violent effort to get up, and in fact he got up, as if by a miracle; but the next instant he fell back fainting in his chair. Then steps were heard in the billiard-room, and the monk rushed out by the glass door with the speed of lightning. It was then that you found me half-dead and frozen with terror at the feet of my prostrate father."
"The abominable coward has lost no time, you see, abbé," I cried. "His aim was to frighten the chevalier and Edmée, and he has succeeded; but he reckoned without me, and I swear that though he should have to be treated in the Roche-Mauprat fashion if he ever dares to come here again———"
"That is enough, Bernard," said Edmée. "You make me shudder. Speak seriously, and tell me what all this means."
When I had informed her of what had happened to the abbé and myself, she blamed us for not warning her.
"Had I known," she said, "what to expect I should not have been frightened, and I could have taken care never to be left alone in the house with my father, and Saint-Jean, who is hardly more active. Now, however, I am no longer afraid; I shall be on my guard. But the best thing, Bernard dear, is to avoid all contact with this loathsome man, and to make him as liberal an allowance as possible to get rid of him. The abbé is right; he may prove formidable. He knows that our kinship with him must always prevent us from summoning the law to protect us against his persecutions; and though he cannot injure us as seriously as he flatters himself, he can at least cause us a thousand annoyances, which I am reluctant to face. Throw him gold and let him take himself off. But do not leave me again, Bernard; you see you have become absolutely necessary to me; brood no more over the wrong you pretend to have done me."
I pressed her hand in mine, and vowed never to leave her, though she herself should order me, until this Trappist had freed the country from his presence.
The abbé undertook the negotiations with the monastery. He went into the town the following day, carrying from me a special message to the Trappist that I would throw him out of the window if he ever took it into his head to appear at Sainte-Sévère again. At the same time I proposed to supply him with money, even liberally, on condition that he would immediately withdraw to his convent or to any other secular or religious retreat he might choose, and that he would never again set foot in Berry.
The prior received the abbé with all the signs of profound contempt and holy aversion for his state of heresy. Far from attempting to wheedle him like myself, he told him that he wished to have nothing to do with this business, that he washed his hands of it, and that he would confine himself to conveying the decisions on both sides, and affording a refuge to Brother Népomucène, partly out of Christian charity, and partly to edify his monks by the example of a truly devout man. According to him, Brother Népomucène would be the second of that name placed in the front rank of the heavenly host by virtue of the canons of the Church.
The next day the abbé was summoned to the convent by a special messenger, and had an interview with the Trappist. To his great surprise, he found that the enemy had changed his tactics. He indignantly refused help of any sort, declaring that his vow of poverty and humility would not allow it; and he strongly blamed his dear host, the prior, for daring to suggest, without his consent, an exchange of things eternal for things temporal. On other matters he refused to explain his views, and took refuge in ambiguous and bombastic replies. God would inspire him, he said, and at the approaching festival of the Virgin, at the august and sublime hour of holy communion, he expected to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to his heart and announcing the line of conduct he ought to follow. The abbé was afraid of betraying uneasiness, if he insisted on probing this "Christian mystery," so he returned with this answer, which was least of all calculated to reassure me. He did not appear again either at the castle or in the neighbourhood, and kept himself so closely shut up in the convent that few people ever saw his face. However, it soon became known, and the prior was most active in spreading the news, that John Mauprat had been converted to the most zealous and exemplary piety, and was now staying at the Carmelite convent for a term, as a penitent from La Trappe. Every day they reported some fresh virtuous trait, some new act of austerity of this holy personage. Devotees, with a thirst for the marvellous, came to see him, and brought him a thousand little presents, which he obstinately refused. At times he would hide so well that people said he had returned to his monastery; but just as we were congratulating ourselves on being rid of him, we would hear that he had recently inflicted some terrible mortifications on himself in sackcloth and ashes; or else that he had gone barefooted on a pilgrimage into some of the wildest and most desolate parts of Varenne. People went so far as to say that he could work miracles. If the prior had not been cured of his gout, that was because, in a spirit of true penitence, he did not wish to be cured.
This state of uncertainty lasted almost two months.