The Vicar Of Tours Part 2

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The Vicar Of Tours is a Webnovel created by Honore De Balzac.
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Torn by this inward misery, Birotteau fell to examining attentively the broad green lines painted on the oilcloth which, from custom immemorial, Mademoiselle Gamard left on the table at breakfast-time, without regard to the ragged edges or the various scars displayed on its surface. The priests sat opposite to each other in cane-seated arm-chairs on either side of the square table, the head of which was taken by the landlady, who seemed to dominate the whole from a high chair raised on casters, filled with cushions, and standing very near to the dining-room stove.

This room and the salon were on the ground-floor beneath the salon and bedroom of the Abbe Birotteau.

When the vicar had received his cup of coffee, duly sugared, from Mademoiselle Gamard, he felt chilled to the bone at the grim silence in which he was forced to proceed with the usually gay function of breakfast. He dared not look at Troubert’s dried-up features, nor at the threatening visage of the old maid; and he therefore turned, to keep himself in countenance, to the plethoric pug which was lying on a cushion near the stove,–a position that victim of obesity seldom quitted, having a little plate of dainties always at his left side, and a bowl of fresh water at his right.

“Well, my pretty,” said the vicar, “are you waiting for your coffee?”

The personage thus addressed, one of the most important in the household, though the least troublesome inasmuch as he had ceased to bark and left the talking to his mistress, turned his little eyes, sunk in rolls of fat, upon Birotteau. Then he closed them peevishly.

To explain the misery of the poor vicar it should be said that being endowed by nature with an empty and sonorous loquacity, like the resounding of a football, he was in the habit of a.s.serting, without any medical reason to back him, that speech favored digestion. Mademoiselle Gamard, who believed in this hygienic doctrine, had not as yet refrained, in spite of their coolness, from talking at meals; though, for the last few mornings, the vicar had been forced to strain his mind to find beguiling topics on which to loosen her tongue. If the narrow limits of this history permitted us to report even one of the conversations which often brought a bitter and sarcastic smile to the lips of the Abbe Troubert, it would offer a finished picture of the Boeotian life of the provinces. The singular revelations of the Abbe Birotteau and Mademoiselle Gamard relating to their personal opinions on politics, religion, and literature would delight observing minds.

It would be highly entertaining to transcribe the reasons on which they mutually doubted the death of Napoleon in 1820, or the conjectures by which they mutually believed that the Dauphin was living,–rescued from the Temple in the hollow of a huge log of wood. Who could have helped laughing to hear them a.s.sert and prove, by reasons evidently their own, that the King of France alone imposed the taxes, that the Chambers were convoked to destroy the clergy, that thirteen hundred thousand persons had perished on the scaffold during the Revolution? They frequently discussed the press, without either of them having the faintest idea of what that modern engine really was. Monsieur Birotteau listened with acceptance to Mademoiselle Gamard when she told him that a man who ate an egg every morning would die in a year, and that facts proved it; that a roll of light bread eaten without drinking for several days together would cure sciatica; that all the workmen who a.s.sisted in pulling down the Abbey Saint-Martin had died in six months; that a certain prefect, under orders from Bonaparte, had done his best to damage the towers of Saint-Gatien,–with a hundred other absurd tales.

But on this occasion poor Birotteau felt he was tongue-tied, and he resigned himself to eat a meal without engaging in conversation. After a while, however, the thought crossed his mind that silence was dangerous for his digestion, and he boldly remarked, “This coffee is excellent.”

That act of courage was completely wasted. Then, after looking at the sc.r.a.p of sky visible above the garden between the two b.u.t.tresses of Saint-Gatien, the vicar again summoned nerve to say, “It will be finer weather to-day than it was yesterday.”

At that remark Mademoiselle Gamard cast her most gracious look on the Abbe Troubert, and immediately turned her eyes with terrible severity on Birotteau, who fortunately by that time was looking on his plate.

No creature of the feminine gender was ever more capable of presenting to the mind the elegaic nature of an old maid than Mademoiselle Sophie Gamard. In order to describe a being whose character gives a momentous interest to the petty events of the present drama and to the anterior lives of the actors in it, it may be useful to give a summary of the ideas which find expression in the being of an Old Maid,–remembering always that the habits of life form the soul, and the soul forms the physical presence.

Though all things in society as well as in the universe are said to have a purpose, there do exist here below certain beings whose purpose and utility seem inexplicable. Moral philosophy and political economy both condemn the individual who consumes without producing; who fills a place on the earth but does not shed upon it either good or evil,–for evil is sometimes good the meaning of which is not at once made manifest. It is seldom that old maids of their own motion enter the ranks of these unproductive beings. Now, if the consciousness of work done gives to the workers a sense of satisfaction which helps them to support life, the certainty of being a useless burden must, one would think, produce a contrary effect, and fill the minds of such fruitless beings with the same contempt for themselves which they inspire in others. This harsh social reprobation is one of the causes which contribute to fill the souls of old maids with the distress that appears in their faces.

Prejudice, in which there is truth, does cast, throughout the world but especially in France, a great stigma on the woman with whom no man has been willing to share the blessings or endure the ills of life. Now, there comes to all unmarried women a period when the world, be it right or wrong, condemns them on the fact of this contempt, this rejection.

If they are ugly, the goodness of their characters ought to have compensated for their natural imperfections; if, on the contrary, they are handsome, that fact argues that their misfortune has some serious cause. It is impossible to say which of the two cla.s.ses is most deserving of rejection. If, on the other hand, their celibacy is deliberate, if it proceeds from a desire for independence, neither men nor mothers will forgive their disloyalty to womanly devotion, evidenced in their refusal to feed those pa.s.sions which render their s.e.x so affecting. To renounce the pangs of womanhood is to abjure its poetry and cease to merit the consolations to which mothers have inalienable rights.

Moreover, the generous sentiments, the exquisite qualities of a woman will not develop unless by constant exercise. By remaining unmarried, a creature of the female s.e.x becomes void of meaning; selfish and cold, she creates repulsion. This implacable judgment of the world is unfortunately too just to leave old maids in ignorance of its causes.

Such ideas shoot up in their hearts as naturally as the effects of their saddened lives appear upon their features. Consequently they wither, because the constant expression of happiness which blooms on the faces of other women and gives so soft a grace to their movements has never existed for them. They grow sharp and peevish because all human beings who miss their vocation are unhappy; they suffer, and suffering gives birth to the bitterness of ill-will. In fact, before an old maid blames herself for her isolation she blames others, and there is but one step between reproach and the desire for revenge.

But more than this, the ill grace and want of charm noticeable in these women are the necessary result of their lives. Never having felt a desire to please, elegance and the refinements of good taste are foreign to them. They see only themselves in themselves. This instinct brings them, unconsciously, to choose the things that are most convenient to themselves, at the sacrifice of those which might be more agreeable to others. Without rendering account to their own minds of the difference between themselves and other women, they end by feeling that difference and suffering under it. Jealousy is an indelible sentiment in the female breast. An old maid’s soul is jealous and yet void; for she knows but one side–the miserable side–of the only pa.s.sion men will allow (because it flatters them) to women. Thus thwarted in all their hopes, forced to deny themselves the natural development of their natures, old maids endure an inward torment to which they never grow accustomed. It is hard at any age, above all for a woman, to see a feeling of repulsion on the faces of others, when her true destiny is to move all hearts about her to emotions of grace and love. One result of this inward trouble is that an old maid’s glance is always oblique, less from modesty than from fear and shame. Such beings never forgive society for their false position because they never forgive themselves for it.

Now it is impossible for a woman who is perpetually at war with herself and living in contradiction to her true life, to leave others in peace or refrain from envying their happiness. The whole range of these sad truths could be read in the dulled gray eyes of Mademoiselle Gamard; the dark circles that surrounded those eyes told of the inward conflicts of her solitary life. All the wrinkles on her face were in straight lines.

The structure of her forehead and cheeks was rigid and prominent. She allowed, with apparent indifference, certain scattered hairs, once brown, to grow upon her chin. Her thin lips scarcely covered teeth that were too long, though still quite white. Her complexion was dark, and her hair, originally black, had turned gray from frightful headaches,–a misfortune which obliged her to wear a false front. Not knowing how to put it on so as to conceal the junction between the real and the false, there were often little gaps between the border of her cap and the black string with which this semi-wig (always badly curled) was fastened to her head. Her gown, silk in summer, merino in winter, and always brown in color, was invariably rather tight for her angular figure and thin arms. Her collar, limp and bent, exposed too much the red skin of a neck which was ribbed like an oak-leaf in winter seen in the light. Her origin explains to some extent the defects of her conformation. She was the daughter of a wood-merchant, a peasant, who had risen from the ranks. She might have been plump at eighteen, but no trace remained of the fair complexion and pretty color of which she was wont to boast.

The tones of her flesh had taken the pallid tints so often seen in “devotes.” Her aquiline nose was the feature that chiefly proclaimed the despotism of her nature, and the flat shape of her forehead the narrowness of her mind. Her movements had an odd abruptness which precluded all grace; the mere motion with which she twitched her handkerchief from her bag and blew her nose with a loud noise would have shown her character and habits to a keen observer. Being rather tall, she held herself very erect, and justified the remark of a naturalist who once explained the peculiar gait of old maids by declaring that their joints were consolidating. When she walked her movements were not equally distributed over her whole person, as they are in other women, producing those graceful undulations which are so attractive. She moved, so to speak, in a single block, seeming to advance at each step like the statue of the Commendatore. When she felt in good humour she was apt, like other old maids, to tell of the chances she had had to marry, and of her fortunate discovery in time of the want of means of her lovers,–proving, unconsciously, that her worldly judgment was better than her heart.

This typical figure of the genus Old Maid was well framed by the grotesque designs, representing Turkish landscapes, on a varnished paper which decorated the walls of the dining-room. Mademoiselle Gamard usually sat in this room, which boasted of two pier tables and a barometer. Before the chair of each abbe was a little cushion covered with worsted work, the colors of which were faded. The salon in which she received company was worthy of its mistress. It will be visible to the eye at once when we state that it went by the name of the “yellow salon.” The curtains were yellow, the furniture and walls yellow; on the mantelpiece, surmounted by a mirror in a gilt frame, the candlesticks and a clock all of crystal struck the eye with sharp brilliancy. As to the private apartment of Mademoiselle Gamard, no one had ever been permitted to look into it. Conjecture alone suggested that it was full of odds and ends, worn-out furniture, and bits of stuff and pieces dear to the hearts of all old maids.

Such was the woman destined to exert a vast influence on the last years of the Abbe Birotteau.

For want of exercising in nature’s own way the activity bestowed upon women, and yet impelled to spend it in some way or other, Mademoiselle Gamard had acquired the habit of using it in petty intrigues, provincial cabals, and those self-seeking schemes which occupy, sooner or later, the lives of all old maids. Birotteau, unhappily, had developed in Sophie Gamard the only sentiments which it was possible for that poor creature to feel,–those of hatred; a pa.s.sion hitherto latent under the calmness and monotony of provincial life, but which was now to become the more intense because it was spent on petty things and in the midst of a narrow sphere. Birotteau was one of those beings who are predestined to suffer because, being unable to see things, they cannot avoid them; to them the worst happens.

“Yes, it will be a fine day,” replied the canon, after a pause, apparently issuing from a revery and wishing to conform to the rules of politeness.

Birotteau, frightened at the length of time which had elapsed between the question and the answer,–for he had, for the first time in his life, taken his coffee without uttering a word,–now left the dining-room where his heart was squeezed as if in a vise. Feeling that the coffee lay heavy on his stomach, he went to walk in a sad mood among the narrow, box-edged garden paths which outlined a star in the little garden. As he turned after making the first round, he saw Mademoiselle Gamard and the Abbe Troubert standing stock-still and silent on the threshold of the door,–he with his arms folded and motionless like a statue on a tomb; she leaning against the blind door. Both seemed to be gazing at him and counting his steps. Nothing is so embarra.s.sing to a creature naturally timid as to feel itself the object of a close examination, and if that is made by the eyes of hatred, the sort of suffering it causes is changed into intolerable martyrdom.

Presently Birotteau fancied he was preventing Mademoiselle Gamard and the abbe from walking in the narrow path. That idea, inspired equally by fear and kindness, became so strong that he left the garden and went to the church, thinking no longer of his canonry, so absorbed was he by the disheartening tyranny of the old maid. Luckily for him he happened to find much to do at Saint-Gatien,–several funerals, a marriage, and two baptisms. Thus employed he forgot his griefs. When his stomach told him that dinner was ready he drew out his watch and saw, not without alarm, that it was some minutes after four. Being well aware of Mademoiselle Gamard’s punctuality, he hurried back to the house.

He saw at once on pa.s.sing the kitchen door that the first course had been removed. When he reached the dining-room the old maid said, with a tone of voice in which were mingled sour rebuke and joy at being able to blame him:–

“It is half-past four, Monsieur Birotteau. You know we are not to wait for you.”

The vicar looked at the clock in the dining-room, and saw at once, by the way the gauze which protected it from dust had been moved, that his landlady had opened the face of the dial and set the hands in advance of the clock of the cathedral. He could make no remark. Had he uttered his suspicion it would only have caused and apparently justified one of those fierce and eloquent expositions to which Mademoiselle Gamard, like other women of her cla.s.s, knew very well how to give vent in particular cases. The thousand and one annoyances which a servant will sometimes make her master bear, or a woman her husband, were instinctively divined by Mademoiselle Gamard and used upon Birotteau. The way in which she delighted in plotting against the poor vicar’s domestic comfort bore all the marks of what we must call a profoundly malignant genius. Yet she so managed that she was never, so far as eye could see, in the wrong.

III

Eight days after the date on which this history began, the new arrangements of the household and the relations which grew up between the Abbe Birotteau and Mademoiselle Gamard revealed to the former the existence of a plot which had been hatching for the last six months.

As long as the old maid exercised her vengeance in an underhand way, and the vicar was able to shut his eyes to it and refuse to believe in her malevolent intentions, the moral effect upon him was slight. But since the affair of the candlestick and the altered clock, Birotteau would doubt no longer that he was under an eye of hatred turned fully upon him. From that moment he fell into despair, seeing everywhere the skinny, clawlike fingers of Mademoiselle Gamard ready to hook into his heart. The old maid, happy in a sentiment as fruitful of emotions as that of vengeance, enjoyed circling and swooping above the vicar as a bird of prey hovers and swoops above a field-mouse before pouncing down upon it and devouring it. She had long since laid a plan which the poor dumbfounded priest was quite incapable of imagining, and which she now proceeded to unfold with that genius for little things often shown by solitary persons, whose souls, incapable of feeling the grandeur of true piety, fling themselves into the details of outward devotion.

The petty nature of his troubles prevented Birotteau, always effusive and liking to be pitied and consoled, from enjoying the soothing pleasure of taking his friends into his confidence,–a last but cruel aggravation of his misery. The little amount of tact which he derived from his timidity made him fear to seem ridiculous in concerning himself with such pettiness. And yet those petty things made up the sum of his existence,–that cherished existence, full of busyness about nothings, and of nothingness in its business; a colorless barren life in which strong feelings were misfortunes, and the absence of emotion happiness.

The poor priest’s paradise was changed, in a moment, into h.e.l.l. His sufferings became intolerable. The terror he felt at the prospect of a discussion with Mademoiselle Gamard increased day by day; the secret distress which blighted his life began to injure his health. One morning, as he put on his mottled blue stockings, he noticed a marked diminution in the circ.u.mference of his calves. Horrified by so cruel and undeniable a symptom, he resolved to make an effort and appeal to the Abbe Troubert, requesting him to intervene, officially, between Mademoiselle Gamard and himself.

When he found himself in presence of the imposing canon, who, in order to receive his visitor in a bare and cheerless room, had hastily quitted a study full of papers, where he worked incessantly, and where no one was ever admitted, the vicar felt half ashamed at speaking of Mademoiselle Gamard’s provocations to a man who appeared to be so gravely occupied. But after going through the agony of the mental deliberations which all humble, undecided, and feeble persons endure about things of even no importance, he decided, not without much swelling and beating of the heart, to explain his position to the Abbe Troubert.

The canon listened in a cold, grave manner, trying, but in vain, to repress an occasional smile which to more intelligent eyes than those of the vicar might have betrayed the emotions of a secret satisfaction. A flame seemed to dart from his eyelids when Birotteau pictured with the eloquence of genuine feeling the constant bitterness he was made to swallow; but Troubert laid his hand above those lids with a gesture very common to thinkers, maintaining the dignified demeanor which was usual with him. When the vicar had ceased to speak he would indeed have been puzzled had he sought on Troubert’s face, marbled with yellow blotches even more yellow than his usually bilious skin, for any trace of the feelings he must have excited in that mysterious priest.

After a moment’s silence the canon made one of those answers which required long study before their meaning could be thoroughly perceived, though later they proved to reflecting persons the astonishing depths of his spirit and the power of his mind. He simply crushed Birotteau by telling him that “these things amazed him all the more because he should never have suspected their existence were it not for his brother’s confession. He attributed such stupidity on his part to the gravity of his occupations, his labors, the absorption in which his mind was held by certain elevated thoughts which prevented his taking due notice of the petty details of life.” He made the vicar observe, but without appearing to censure the conduct of a man whose age and connections deserved all respect, that “in former days, recluses thought little about their food and lodging in the solitude of their retreats, where they were lost in holy contemplations,” and that “in our days, priests could make a retreat for themselves in the solitude of their own hearts.” Then, reverting to Birotteau’s affairs, he added that “such disagreements were a novelty to him. For twelve years nothing of the kind had occurred between Mademoiselle Gamard and the venerable Abbe Chapeloud. As for himself, he might, no doubt, be an arbitrator between the vicar and their landlady, because his friendship for that person had never gone beyond the limits imposed by the Church on her faithful servants; but if so, justice demanded that he should hear both sides.

He certainly saw no change in Mademoiselle Gamard, who seemed to him the same as ever; he had always submitted to a few of her caprices, knowing that the excellent woman was kindness and gentleness itself; the slight fluctuations of her temper should be attributed, he thought, to sufferings caused by a pulmonary affection, of which she said little, resigning herself to bear them in a truly Christian spirit.” He ended by a.s.suring the vicar that “if he stayed a few years longer in Mademoiselle Gamard’s house he would learn to understand her better and acknowledge the real value of her excellent nature.”

Birotteau left the room confounded. In the direful necessity of consulting no one, he now judged Mademoiselle Gamard as he would himself, and the poor man fancied that if he left her house for a few days he might extinguish, for want of fuel, the dislike the old maid felt for him. He accordingly resolved to spend, as he formerly did, a week or so at a country-house where Madame de Listomere pa.s.sed her autumns, a season when the sky is usually pure and tender in Touraine.

Poor man! in so doing he did the thing that was most desired by his terrible enemy, whose plans could only have been brought to nought by the resistant patience of a monk. But the vicar, unable to divine them, not understanding even his own affairs, was doomed to fall, like a lamb, at the butcher’s first blow.

Madame de Listomere’s country-place, situated on the embankment which lies between Tours and the heights of Saint-Georges, with a southern exposure and surrounded by rocks, combined the charms of the country with the pleasures of the town. It took but ten minutes from the bridge of Tours to reach the house, which was called the “Alouette,”–a great advantage in a region where no one will put himself out for anything whatsoever, not even to seek a pleasure.

The Abbe Birotteau had been about ten days at the Alouette, when, one morning while he was breakfasting, the porter came to say that Monsieur Caron desired to speak with him. Monsieur Caron was Mademoiselle Gamard’s laywer, and had charge of her affairs. Birotteau, not remembering this, and unable to think of any matter of litigation between himself and others, left the table to see the lawyer in a stage of great agitation. He found him modestly seated on the bal.u.s.trade of a terrace.

“Your intention of ceasing to reside in Mademoiselle Gamard’s house being made evident–” began the man of business.

“Eh! monsieur,” cried the Abbe Birotteau, interrupting him, “I have not the slightest intention of leaving it.”

“Nevertheless, monsieur,” replied the lawyer, “you must have had some agreement in the matter with Mademoiselle, for she has sent me to ask how long you intend to remain in the country. The event of a long absence was not foreseen in the agreement, and may lead to a contest.

Now, Mademoiselle Gamard understanding that your board–“

“Monsieur,” said Birotteau, amazed, and again interrupting the lawyer, “I did not suppose it necessary to employ, as it were, legal means to–“

“Mademoiselle Gamard, who is anxious to avoid all dispute,” said Monsieur Caron, “has sent me to come to an understanding with you.”

“Well, if you will have the goodness to return to-morrow,” said the abbe, “I shall then have taken advice in the matter.”

The quill-driver withdrew. The poor vicar, frightened at the persistence with which Mademoiselle Gamard pursued him, returned to the dining-room with his face so convulsed that everybody cried out when they saw him: “What _is_ the matter, Monsieur Birotteau?”

The abbe, in despair, sat down without a word, so crushed was he by the vague presence of approaching disaster. But after breakfast, when his friends gathered round him before a comfortable fire, Birotteau naively related the history of his troubles. His hearers, who were beginning to weary of the monotony of a country-house, were keenly interested in a plot so thoroughly in keeping with the life of the provinces. They all took sides with the abbe against the old maid.

“Don’t you see, my dear friend,” said Madame de Listomere, “that the Abbe Troubert wants your apartment?”

Here the historian ought to sketch this lady; but it occurs to him that even those who are ignorant of Sterne’s system of “cognomology,” cannot p.r.o.nounce the three words “Madame de Listomere” without picturing her to themselves as n.o.ble and dignified, softening the sternness of rigid devotion by the gracious elegance and the courteous manners of the old monarchical regime; kind, but a little stiff; slightly nasal in voice; allowing herself the perusal of “La Nouvelle Heloise”; and still wearing her own hair.

“The Abbe Birotteau must not yield to that old vixen,” cried Monsieur de Listomere, a lieutenant in the navy who was spending a furlough with his aunt. “If the vicar has pluck and will follow my suggestions he will soon recover his tranquillity.”

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