The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes'/The Boarders

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The Boarders

But there was another side to my residence at Our Lady of the Snows. At this late season there were not many boarders; and yet I was not alone in the public part of the monastery. This itself is hard by the gate, with a small dining-room on the ground-floor and a whole corridor of cells similar to mine upstairs. I have stupidly forgotten the board for a regular retraitant;[1] but it was somewhere between three and five francs a day, and I think most probably the first. Chance visitors like myself might give what they chose as a free-will offering, but nothing was demanded. I may mention that when I was going away, Father Michael refused twenty francs as excessive. I explained the reasoning which led me to offer him so much; but even then, from a curious point of honour, he would not accept it with his own hand. ‘I have no right to refuse for the monastery,’ he explained, ‘but I should prefer if you would give it to one of the brothers.’

I had dined alone, because I arrived late; but at supper I found two other guests. One was a country parish priest, who had walked over that morning from the seat of his cure[2] near Mende to enjoy four days of solitude and prayer. He was a grenadier[3] in person, with the hale colour and circular wrinkles of a peasant; and as he complained much of how he had been impeded by his skirts upon the march, I have a vivid fancy portrait of him, striding along, upright, big-boned, with kilted cassock, through the bleak hills of Gévaudan. The other was a short, grizzling, thick-set man, from forty-five to fifty, dressed in tweed with a knitted spencer, and the red ribbon[4] of a decoration in his button-hole. This last was a hard person to classify. He was an old soldier, who had seen service and risen to the rank of commandant; and he retained some of the brisk decisive manners of the camp. On the other hand, as soon as his resignation was accepted, he had come to Our Lady of the Snows as a boarder, and, after a brief experience of its ways, had decided to remain as a novice. Already the new life was beginning to modify his appearance; already he had acquired somewhat of the quiet and smiling air of the brethren; and he was as yet neither an officer nor a Trappist, but partook of the character of each. And certainly here was a man in an interesting nick of life. Out of the noise of cannon and trumpets, he was in the act of passing into this still country bordering on the grave, where men sleep nightly in their grave-clothes, and, like phantoms, communicate by signs.

At supper we talked politics. I make it my business, when I am in France, to preach political good-will and moderation, and to dwell on the example of Poland, much as some alarmists in England dwell on the example of Carthage.[5] The priest and the commandant assured me of their sympathy with all I said, and made a heavy sighing over the bitterness of contemporary feeling.

‘Why, you cannot say anything to a man with which he does not absolutely agree,’ said I, ‘but he flies up at you in a temper.’

They both declared that such a state of things was antichristian.

While we were thus agreeing, what should my tongue stumble upon but a word in praise of Gambetta’s moderation. The old soldier’s countenance was instantly suffused with blood; with the palms of his hands he beat the table like a naughty child.

‘Comment, monsieur?’[6] he shouted. ‘Comment? Gambetta moderate? Will you dare to justify these words?’[7]

But the priest had not forgotten the tenor of our talk. And suddenly, in the height of his fury, the old soldier found a warning look directed on his face; the absurdity of his behaviour was brought home to him in a flash; and the storm came to an abrupt end, without another word.

It was only in the morning, over our coffee (Friday, September 27th), that this couple found out I was a heretic.[8] I suppose I had misled them by some admiring expressions as to the monastic life around us; and it was only by a point-blank question that the truth came out. I had been tolerantly used both by simple Father Apollinaris and astute Father Michael; and the good Irish deacon, when he heard of my religious weakness, had only patted me upon the shoulder and said, ‘You must be a Catholic and come to heaven.’ But I was now among a different sect of orthodox. These two men were bitter and upright and narrow, like the worst of Scotsmen, and indeed, upon my heart, I fancy they were worse. The priest snorted aloud like a battle-horse.

‘Et vous prétendez mourir dans cette espèce de croyance?’[9] he demanded; and there is no type used by mortal printers large enough to qualify his accent.

I humbly indicated that I had no design of changing.

But he could not away with such a monstrous attitude. ‘No, no,’ he cried; ‘you must change. You have come here, God has led you here, and you must embrace the opportunity.’

I made a slip in policy; I appealed to the family affections, though I was speaking to a priest and a soldier, two classes of men circumstantially divorced from the kind and homely ties of life.

‘Your father and mother?’ cried the priest. ‘Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.’

I think I see my father’s face! I would rather tackle the Gaetulian lion[10] in his den than embark on such an enterprise against the family theologian.

But now the hunt was up; priest and soldier were in full cry for my conversion; and the Work of the Propagation of the Faith, for which the people of Cheylard subscribed forty-eight francs ten centimes during 1877, was being gallantly pursued against myself. It was an odd but most effective proselytising. They never sought to convince me in argument, where I might have attempted some defence; but took it for granted that I was both ashamed and terrified at my position, and urged me solely on the point of time. Now, they said, when God had led me to Our Lady of the Snows, now was the appointed hour.

‘Do not be withheld by false shame,’ observed the priest, for my encouragement.

For one who feels very similarly to all sects of religion, and who has never been able, even for a moment, to weigh seriously the merit of this or that creed on the eternal side of things, however much he may see to praise or blame upon the secular and temporal side, the situation thus created was both unfair and painful. I committed my second fault in tact, and tried to plead that it was all the same thing in the end, and we were all drawing near by different sides to the same kind and undiscriminating Friend and Father. That, as it seems to lay spirits, would be the only gospel worthy of the name. But different men think differently; and this revolutionary aspiration brought down the priest with all the terrors of the law. He launched into harrowing details of hell. The damned, he said—on the authority of a little book which he had read not a week before, and which, to add conviction to conviction, he had fully intended to bring along with him in his pocket—were to occupy the same attitude through all eternity in the midst of dismal tortures. And as he thus expatiated, he grew in nobility of aspect with his enthusiasm.

As a result the pair concluded that I should seek out the Prior, since the Abbot was from home, and lay my case immediately before him.

‘C’est mon conseil comme ancien militaire,’ observed the commandant; ‘et celui de monsieur comme prêtre.’[11]

‘Oui,’ added the curé, sententiously nodding; ‘comme ancien militaire—et comme prêtre.’[12]

At this moment, whilst I was somewhat embarrassed how to answer, in came one of the monks, a little brown fellow, as lively as a grig,[13] and with an Italian accent, who threw himself at once into the contention, but in a milder and more persuasive vein, as befitted one of these pleasant brethren. Look at him, he said. The rule was very hard; he would have dearly liked to stay in his own country, Italy—it was well known how beautiful it was, the beautiful Italy; but then there were no Trappists in Italy; and he had a soul to save; and here he was.

I am afraid I must be at bottom, what a cheerful Indian critic has dubbed me, ‘a faddling hedonist,’[14] for this description of the brother’s motives gave me somewhat of a shock. I should have preferred to think he had chosen the life for its own sake, and not for ulterior purposes; and this shows how profoundly I was out of sympathy with these good Trappists, even when I was doing my best to sympathise. But to the curé[15] the argument seemed decisive.

‘Hear that!’ he cried. ‘And I have seen a marquis here, a marquis, a marquis’—he repeated the holy word three times over—‘and other persons high in society; and generals. And here, at your side, is this gentleman, who has been so many years in armies—decorated, an old warrior. And here he is, ready to dedicate himself to God.’

I was by this time so thoroughly embarrassed that I pled cold feet, and made my escape from the apartment. It was a furious windy morning, with a sky much cleared, and long and potent intervals of sunshine; and I wandered until dinner in the wild country towards the east, sorely staggered and beaten upon by the gale, but rewarded with some striking views.

At dinner the Work of the Propagation of the Faith was recommenced, and on this occasion still more distastefully to me. The priest asked me many questions as to the contemptible faith of my fathers, and received my replies with a kind of ecclesiastical titter.

‘Your sect,’ he said once; ‘for I think you will admit it would be doing it too much honour to call it a religion.’

‘As you please, monsieur,’ said I. ‘La parole est à vous.’[16]

At length I grew annoyed beyond endurance; and although he was on his own ground and, what is more to the purpose, an old man, and so holding a claim upon my toleration, I could not avoid a protest against this uncivil usage. He was sadly discountenanced.

‘I assure you,’ he said, ‘I have no inclination to laugh in my heart. I have no other feeling but interest in your soul.’

And there ended my conversion. Honest man! he was no dangerous deceiver; but a country parson, full of zeal and faith. Long may he tread Gévaudan with his kilted skirts—a man strong to walk and strong to comfort his parishioners in death! I daresay he would beat bravely through a snowstorm where his duty called him; and it is not always the most faithful believer who makes the cunningest apostle.


  1. retraitant .. "retrait" is a place of retreat or refuge.
  2. seat of his cure .. OED defines cure as "A parish or other sphere of spiritual ministration; a ‘charge’."
  3. grenadier .. OED quotes this passage from Trav. Donkey to define grenadier as "A person with the build of a grenadier". See also grenadier.
  4. red ribbon .. signifying membership in the Legion of Honour, an order of chivalry established by Napoleon (1802), it is the most senior order in France. The order is conferred upon men and women, either French citizens or foreigners, for outstanding achievements in military or civil life. The ribbon for the badge (decoration) is plain red. The badge or star is not worn usually, except at the time of the decoration ceremony or on a dress uniform. Instead, one normally wears the ribbon or rosette on one's suit.
  5. alarmists in England .. beginning in 1870 after Prussia's successful invasion of France, there arose in England, among important politicians which then spread to the populace at large, alarm of a possible seaborne invasion of the island, first finding voice in the fantastical Invasion Literature genre and in particular the influential 1871 fictional account of a German invasion called "The Battle of Dorking" by George Tomkyns Chesney. Just as the Roman Empire destroyed it's enemy Carthage across the sea in 146BC, the expanding Holy Roman Empire of Germany was seen as a threat to England leading up to World War I.
  6. Comment, monsieur? .. "How, sir?"
  7. Will you dare to justify these words? .. Léon Gambetta (1838-1882), moderate French politician, not only officiated the surrender of France to Germany in 1870, but on May 4th 1877 gave a rousing speech attacking the French clerical party in government - both would have been reprehensible to this former soldier turned priest.
  8. heretic .. Protestant.
  9. translation .. "and you plan to die in this belief [as a Protestant]?"
  10. Gaetulian lion .. Gaetulia is the former Roman region of modern Algiers.
  11. translation .. "This is my advice as an old soldier", observed the Commandant; "and this gentleman's as a priest."
  12. translation .. "Yes," added the parish priest, nodding; "as an old soldier and as a priest."
  13. as lively as a grig .. a saying supposed by some to be a corruption of "As merry as a Greek; " by others, to be an allusion to the cricket (grig).
  14. a faddling hedonist .. "a trifling hedonist", someone who seeks pleasure as the main aim in life. An anonymous critic in India, of Stevenson's first book An Inland Voyage, wrote that it was "decidedly brilliant, but not free from some serious faults: a large amount of affection founded on the faddling hedonism of the day ... being the worst" (Allahabad Pioneer, June 27, 1878).
  15. curé .. priest.
  16. translation .. "The word is yours"; that is, "it is for you to give your opinion".
The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes'