The Vicar of Tours, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 2

The next morning, on awaking, Birotteau thought so much of his prospective canonry that he forgot the four circumstances in which he had seen, the night before, such threatening prognostics of a future full of misery. The vicar was not a man to get up without a fire. He rang to let Marianne know that he was awake and that she must come to him; then he remained, as his habit was, absorbed in somnolent musings. The servant’s custom was to make the fire and gently draw him from his half sleep by the murmured sound of her movements — a sort of music which he loved. Twenty minutes passed and Marianne had not appeared. The vicar, now half a canon, was about to ring again, when he let go the bell-pull, hearing a man’s step on the staircase. In a minute more the Abbe Troubert, after discreetly knocking at the door, obeyed Birotteau’s invitation and entered the room. This visit, which the two abbe’s usually paid each other once a month, was no surprise to the vicar. The canon at once exclaimed when he saw that Marianne had not made the fire of his quasi-colleague. He opened the window and called to her harshly, telling her to come at once to the abbe; then, turning round to his ecclesiastical brother, he said, “If Mademoiselle knew that you had no fire she would scold Marianne.”

After this speech he inquired about Birotteau’s health, and asked in a gentle voice if he had had any recent news that gave him hopes of his canonry. The vicar explained the steps he had taken, and told, naively, the names of the persons with whom Madam de Listomere was using her influence, quite unaware that Troubert had never forgiven that lady for not admitting him — the Abbe Troubert, twice proposed by the bishop as vicar-general! — to her house.

It would be impossible to find two figures which presented so many contrasts to each other as those of the two abbes. Troubert, tall and lean, was yellow and bilious, while the vicar was what we call, familiarly, plump. Birotteau’s face, round and ruddy, proclaimed a kindly nature barren of ideas, while that of the Abbe Troubert, long and ploughed by many wrinkles, took on at times an expression of sarcasm, or else of contempt; but it was necessary to watch him very closely before those sentiments could be detected. The canon’s habitual condition was perfect calmness, and his eyelids were usually lowered over his orange-colored eyes, which could, however, give clear and piercing glances when he liked. Reddish hair added to the gloomy effect of this countenance, which was always obscured by the veil which deep meditation drew across its features. Many persons at first sight thought him absorbed in high and earnest ambitions; but those who claimed to know him better denied that impression, insisting that he was only stupidly dull under Mademoiselle Gamard’s despotism, or else worn out by too much fasting. He seldom spoke, and never laughed. When it did so happen that he felt agreeably moved, a feeble smile would flicker on his lips and lose itself in the wrinkles of his face.

Birotteau, on the other hand, was all expansion, all frankness; he loved good things and was amused by trifles with the simplicity of a man who knew no spite or malice. The Abbe Troubert roused, at first sight, an involuntary feeling of fear, while the vicar’s presence brought a kindly smile to the lips of all who looked at him. When the tall canon marched with solemn step through the naves and cloisters of Saint–Gatien, his head bowed, his eye stern, respect followed him; that bent face was in harmony with the yellowing arches of the cathedral; the folds of his cassock fell in monumental lines that were worthy of statuary. The good vicar, on the contrary, perambulated about with no gravity at all. He trotted and ambled and seemed at times to roll himself along. But with all this there was one point of resemblance between the two men. For, precisely as Troubert’s ambitious air, which made him feared, had contributed probably to keep him down to the insignificant position of a mere canon, so the character and ways of Birotteau marked him out as perpetually the vicar of the cathedral and nothing higher.

Yet the Abbe Troubert, now fifty years of age, had entirely removed, partly by the circumspection of his conduct and the apparent lack of all ambitions, and partly by his saintly life, the fears which his suspected ability and his powerful presence had roused in the minds of his superiors. His health having seriously failed him during the last year, it seemed probable that he would soon be raised to the office of vicar-general of the archbishopric. His competitors themselves desired the appointment, so that their own plans might have time to mature during the few remaining days which a malady, now become chronic, might allow him. Far from offering the same hopes to rivals, Birotteau’s triple chin showed to all who wanted his coveted canonry an evidence of the soundest health; even his gout seemed to them, in accordance with the proverb, an assurance of longevity.

The Abbe Chapeloud, a man of great good sense, whose amiability had made the leaders of the diocese and the members of the best society in Tours seek his company, had steadily opposed, though secretly and with much judgment, the elevation of the Abbe Troubert. He had even adroitly managed to prevent his access to the salons of the best society. Nevertheless, during Chapeloud’s lifetime Troubert treated him invariably with great respect, and showed him on all occasions the utmost deference. This constant submission did not, however, change the opinion of the late canon, who said to Birotteau during the last walk they took together: “Distrust that lean stick of a Troubert, — Sixtus the Fifth reduced to the limits of a bishopric!”

Such was the friend, the abiding guest of Mademoiselle Gamard, who now came, the morning after the old maid had, as it were, declared war against the poor vicar, to pay his brother a visit and show him marks of friendship.

“You must excuse Marianne,” said the canon, as the woman entered. “I suppose she went first to my rooms. They are very damp, and I coughed all night. You are most healthily situated here,” he added, looking up at the cornice.

“Yes; I am lodged like a canon,” replied Birotteau.

“And I like a vicar,” said the other, humbly.

“But you will soon be settled in the archbishop’s palace,” said the kindly vicar, who wanted everybody to be happy.

“Yes, or in the cemetery, but God’s will be done!” and Troubert raised his eyes to heaven resignedly. “I came,” he said, “to ask you to lend me the ‘Register of Bishops.’ You are the only man in Tours I know who has a copy.”

“Take it out of my library,” replied Birotteau, reminded by the canon’s words of the greatest happiness of his life.

The canon passed into the library and stayed there while the vicar dressed. Presently the breakfast bell rang, and the gouty vicar reflected that if it had not been for Troubert’s visit he would have had no fire to dress by. “He’s a kind man,” thought he.

The two priests went downstairs together, each armed with a huge folio which they laid on one of the side tables in the dining-room.

“What’s all that?” asked Mademoiselle Gamard, in a sharp voice, addressing Birotteau. “I hope you are not going to litter up my dining-room with your old books!”

“They are books I wanted,” replied the Abbe Troubert. “Monsieur Birotteau has been kind enough to lend them to me.”

“I might have guessed it,” she said, with a contemptuous smile. “Monsieur Birotteau doesn’t often read books of that size.”

“How are you, mademoiselle?” said the vicar, in a mellifluous voice.

“Not very well,” she replied, shortly. “You woke me up last night out of my first sleep, and I was wakeful for the rest of the night.” Then, sitting down, she added, “Gentlemen, the milk is getting cold.”

Stupefied at being so ill-naturedly received by his landlady, from whom he half expected an apology, and yet alarmed, like all timid people at the prospect of a discussion, especially if it relates to themselves, the poor vicar took his seat in silence. Then, observing in Mademoiselle Gamard’s face the visible signs of ill-humour, he was goaded into a struggle between his reason, which told him that he ought not to submit to such discourtesy from a landlady, and his natural character, which prompted him to avoid a quarrel.

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 asserting, 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 assert 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 assisted 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 scrap of sky visible above the garden between the two buttresses of Saint–Gatien, the vicar again summoned nerve to say, “It will be finer weather today 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 classes 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 passions which render their sex 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 sex 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 passion 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 happines. 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 passion 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 embarrassing 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 passing 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 class, 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.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31