Book One : Chapter 3 - The Bread of the Poor
A virtuous priest who does not involve himself in intrigue is a blessing for the village.
It should be explained that the cure of Verrieres, an old man of eighty, but blessed by the keen air of his mountains with an iron character and strength, had the right to visit at any hour of the day the prison, the hospital, and even the poorhouse. It was at six o’clock in the morning precisely that M. Appert, who was armed with an introduction to the cure from Paris, had had the good sense to arrive in an inquisitive little town. He had gone at once to the presbytery.
As he read the letter addressed to him by M. le Marquis de La Mole, a Peer of France, and the wealthiest landowner in the province, the cure Chelan sat lost in thought.
‘I am old and liked here,’ he murmured to himself at length, ‘they would never dare!’ Turning at once to the gentleman from Paris, with eyes in which, despite his great age, there burned that sacred fire which betokens the pleasure of performing a fine action which is slightly dangerous:
‘Come with me, Sir, and, in the presence of the gaoler and especially of the superintendents of the poorhouse, be so good as not to express any opinion of the things we shall see.’ M. Appert realised that he had to deal with a man of feeling; he accompanied the venerable cure, visited the prison, the hospital, the poorhouse, asked many questions and, notwithstanding strange answers, did not allow himself to utter the least word of reproach.
This visit lasted for some hours. The cure invited M. Appert to dine with him, but was told that his guest had some letters to write: he did not wish to compromise his kind friend any further. About three o’clock, the gentlemen went back to complete their inspection of the poorhouse, after which they returned to the prison. There they found the gaoler standing in the doorway; a giant six feet tall, with bandy legs; terror had made his mean face hideous.
‘Ah, Sir,’ he said to the cure, on catching sight of him, ‘is not this gentleman, that I see with you, M. Appert?’
‘What if he is?’ said the cure.
‘Because yesterday I received the most definite instructions, which the Prefect sent down by a gendarme who had to gallop all night long, not to allow M. Appert into the prison.’
‘I declare to you, M. Noiroud,’ said the cure, ‘that this visitor, who is in my company, is M. Appert. Do you admit that I have the right to enter the prison at any hour of the day or night, bringing with me whom I please?’
‘Yes, M. le cure,’ the gaoler murmured in a subdued tone, lowering his head like a bulldog brought reluctantly to obedience by fear of the stick. ‘Only, M. le cure, I have a wife and children, if I am reported I shall be dismissed; I have only my place here to live on.’
‘I too should be very sorry to lose mine,’ replied the worthy cure, in a voice swayed by ever increasing emotion.
‘What a difference!’ the gaoler answered promptly; ‘why you, M. le cure, we know that you have an income of 800 livres, a fine place in the sun . . . ’
Such are the events which, commented upon, exaggerated in twenty different ways, had been arousing for the last two days all the evil passions of the little town of Verrieres. At that moment they were serving as text for the little discussion which M. de Renal was having with his wife. That morning, accompanied by M. Valenod, the governor of the poorhouse, he had gone to the cure’s house, to inform him of their extreme displeasure. M. Chelan was under no one’s protection; he felt the full force of their words.
‘Well, gentlemen, I shall be the third parish priest, eighty years of age, to be deprived of his living in this district. I have been here for six and fifty years; I have christened almost all the inhabitants of the town, which was no more than a village when I came. Every day I marry young couples whose grandparents I married long ago. Verrieres is my family; but I said to myself, when I saw the stranger: “This man, who has come from Paris, may indeed be a Liberal, there are far too many of them; but what harm can he do to our poor people and our prisoners?”’
The reproaches of M. de Renal, and above all those of M. Valenod, the governor of the poorhouse, becoming more and more bitter:
‘Very well, gentlemen, have me deprived,’ the old cure had cried, in a quavering voice. ‘I shall live in the town all the same. You all know that forty-eight years ago I inherited a piece of land which brings me 800 livres; I shall live on that income. I save nothing out of my stipend, gentlemen, and that may be why I am less alarmed when people speak of taking it from me.’
M. de Renal lived on excellent terms with his wife; but not knowing what answer to make to the question, which she timidly repeated: ‘What harm can this gentleman from Paris do to the prisoners?’ he was just about to lose his temper altogether when she uttered a cry. Her second son had climbed upon the parapet of the wall of the terrace, and was running along it, though this wall rose more than twenty feet from the vineyard beneath. The fear of alarming her son and so making him fall restrained Madame de Renal from calling him. Finally the child, who was laughing at his own prowess, turned to look at his mother, noticed how pale she was, sprang down upon the avenue and ran to join her. He was well scolded.
This little incident changed the course of the conversation.
‘I am quite determined to engage young Sorel, the sawyer’s son,’ said M. de Renal; ‘he will look after the children, who are beginning to be too much of a handful for us. He is a young priest or thereabouts, a good Latin scholar, and will bring the children on; for he has a strong character, the cure says. I shall give him 300 francs and his board. I had some doubts as to his morals; for he was the Benjamin of that old surgeon, the Member of the Legion of Honour who on pretence of being their cousin came to live with the Sorels. He might quite well have been nothing better than a secret agent of the Liberals; he said that our mountain air was good for his asthma; but that has never been proved. He had served in all Buonaparte’s campaigns in Italy, and they even say that he voted against the Empire in his day. This Liberal taught young Sorel Latin, and left him all the pile of books he brought here with him. Not that I should ever have dreamed of having the carpenter’s son with my children; but the cure, only the day before the scene which has made a permanent breach between us, told me that this Sorel has been studying theology for the last three years, with the idea of entering the Seminary; so he is not a Liberal, and he is a Latin scholar.
‘This arrangement suits me in more ways than one,’ M. de Renal went on, looking at his wife with an air of diplomacy; ‘Valenod is tremendously proud of the two fine Norman horses he has just bought for his calash. But he has not got a tutor for his children.’
‘He is quite capable of taking this one from us.’
‘Then you approve of my plan?’ said M. de Renal, thanking his wife, with a smile, for the excellent idea that had just occurred to her. ‘There, that’s settled.’
‘Oh, good gracious, my dear, how quickly you make up your mind!’
‘That is because I have a strong character, as the cure has had occasion to see. Let us make no pretence about it, we are surrounded by Liberals here. All these cloth merchants are jealous of me, I am certain of it; two or three of them are growing rich; very well, I wish them to see M. de Renal’s children go by, out walking in the care of their tutor. It will make an impression. My grandfather used often to tell us that in his young days he had had a tutor. It’s a hundred crowns he’s going to cost me, but that will have to be reckoned as a necessary expense to keep up our position.’
This sudden decision plunged Madame de Renal deep in thought. She was a tall, well-made woman, who had been the beauty of the place, as the saying is in this mountain district. She had a certain air of simplicity and bore herself like a girl; in the eyes of a Parisian, that artless grace, full of innocence and vivacity, might even have suggested ideas of a mildly passionate nature. Had she had wind of this kind of success, Madame de Renal would have been thoroughly ashamed of it. No trace either of coquetry or of affectation had ever appeared in her nature. M. Valenod, the wealthy governor of the poorhouse, was supposed to have paid his court to her, but without success, a failure which had given a marked distinction to her virtue; for this M. Valenod, a tall young man, strongly built, with a vivid complexion and bushy black whiskers, was one of those coarse, brazen, noisy creatures who in the provinces are called fine men.
Madame de Renal, being extremely shy and liable to be swayed by her moods, was offended chiefly by the restless movements and loud voice of M. Valenod. The distaste that she felt for what at Verrieres goes by the name of gaiety had won her the reputation of being extremely proud of her birth. She never gave it a thought, but had been greatly pleased to see the inhabitants of Verrieres come less frequently to her house. We shall not attempt to conceal the fact that she was reckoned a fool in the eyes of their ladies, because, without any regard for her husband’s interests, she let slip the most promising opportunities of procuring fine hats from Paris or Besancon. Provided that she was left alone to stroll in her fine garden, she never made any complaint.
She was a simple soul, who had never risen even to the point of criticising her husband, and admitting that he bored her. She supposed, without telling herself so, that between husband and wife there could be no more tender relations. She was especially fond of M. de Renal when he spoke to her of his plans for their children, one of whom he intended to place in the army, the second on the bench, and the third in the church. In short, she found M. de Renal a great deal less boring than any of the other men of her acquaintance.
This wifely opinion was justified. The Mayor of Verrieres owed his reputation for wit, and better still for good tone, to half a dozen pleasantries which he had inherited from an uncle. This old Captain de Renal had served before the Revolution in the Duke of Orleans’s regiment of infantry, and, when he went to Paris, had had the right of entry into that Prince’s drawing-rooms. He had there seen Madame de Montesson, the famous Madame de Genlis, M. Ducrest, the ‘inventor’ of the Palais–Royal. These personages figured all too frequently in M. de Renal’s stories. But by degrees these memories of things that it required so much delicacy to relate had become a burden to him, and for some time now it was only on solemn occasions that he would repeat his anecdotes of the House of Orleans. As he was in other respects most refined, except when the talk ran on money, he was regarded, and rightly, as the most aristocratic personage in Verrieres.