Mauprat, by George Sand

iii

Some three leagues from Roche–Mauprat, on your way to Fromental, you must have noticed an old tower standing by itself in the middle of the woods. It is famous for the tragic death of a prisoner about a century ago. The executioner, on his rounds, thought good to hang him without any further formality, merely to gratify an old Mauprat, his overlord.

At the time of which I am speaking Gazeau Tower was already deserted and falling into ruins. It was state property, and, more from negligence than kindness, the authorities had allowed a poor old fellow to take up his abode there. He was quite a character, used to live completely alone, and was known in the district as Gaffer Patience.

“Yes,” I interrupted; “I have heard my nurse’s grandmother speak of him; she believed he was a sorcerer.”

Exactly so; and while we are at this point let me tell you what sort of a man this Patience really was, for I shall have to speak of him more than once in the course of my story. I had opportunities of studying him thoroughly.

Patience, then, was a rustic philosopher. Heaven had endowed him with a keen intellect, but he had had little education. By a sort of strange fatality, his brain had doggedly resisted the little instruction he might have received. For instance, he had been to the Carmelite’s school at — — and instead of showing any aptitude for work, he had played truant with a keener delight than any of his school-fellows. His was an eminently contemplative nature, kindly and indolent, but proud and almost savage in its love of independence; religious, yet opposed to all authority; somewhat captious, very suspicious, and inexorable with hypocrites. The observances of the cloister inspired him with but little awe; and as a result of once or twice speaking his mind too freely to the monks he was expelled from the school. From that time forth he was the sworn foe of what he called monkism, and declared openly for the cure of the Briantes, who was accused of being a Jansenist. In the instruction of Patience, however, the cure succeeded no better than the monks. The young peasant, endowed though he was with herculean strength and a great desire for knowledge, displayed an unconquerable aversion for every kind of work, whether physical or mental. He professed a sort of artless philosophy which the cure found it very difficult to argue against. There was, he said, no need for a man to work as long as he did not want money; and he was in no need of money as long as his wants were moderate. Patience practised what he preached: during the years when passions are so powerful he lived a life of austerity, drank nothing but water, never entered a tavern, and never joined in a dance. He was always very awkward and shy with women, who, it must be owned, found little to please in his eccentric character, stern face, and somewhat sarcastic wit. As if to avenge himself for this by showing his contempt, or to console himself by displaying his wisdom, he took a pleasure, like Diogenes of old, in decrying the vain pleasures of others; and if at times he was to be seen passing under the branches in the middle of the fetes, it was merely to throw out some shaft of scorn, a flash from his inexorable good sense. Sometimes, too, his uncompromising morality found expression in biting words, which left clouds of sadness or fear hanging over agitated consciences. This naturally gained him violent enemies; and the efforts of impotent hatred, helped by the feeling of awe which his eccentric behaviour produced, fastened upon him the reputation of a sorcerer.

When I said that Patience was lacking in education, I expressed myself badly. Longing for a knowledge of the sublime mysteries of Nature, his mind wished to soar to heaven on its first flight. From the very beginning, the Jansenist vicar was so perplexed and startled by the audacity of his pupil, he had to say so much to calm him into submission, he was obliged to sustain such assaults of bold questions and proud objections, that he had no leisure to teach him the alphabet; and at the end of ten years of studies, broken off and taken up at the bidding of a whim or on compulsion, Patience could not even read. It was only with great difficulty, after poring over a book for some two hours, that he deciphered a single page, and even then he did not grasp the meaning of most of the words expressing abstract ideas. Yet these abstract ideas were undoubtedly in him; you felt their presence while watching and listening to him; and the way in which he managed to embody them in homely phrase enlivened with a rude poetry was so marvellous, that one scarcely knew whether to feel astounded or amused.

Always serious, always positive himself, he scorned dalliance with any dialectic. A Stoic by nature and on principle, enthusiastic in the propagation of his doctrine of severance from false ideas, but resolute in the practice of resignation, he made many a breach in the poor cure’s defences; and it was in these discussions, as he often told me in his last years, that he acquired his knowledge of philosophy. In order to make a stand against the battering-ram of natural logic, the worthy Jansenist was obliged to invoke the testimony of all the Fathers of the Church, and to oppose these, often even to corroborate them, with the teaching of all the sages and scholars of antiquity. Then Patience, his round eyes starting from his head (this was his own expression), lapsed into silence, and, delighted to learn without having the bother of studying, would ask for long explanations of the doctrines of these men, and for an account of their lives. Noticing this attention and this silence, his adversary would exult; but just as he thought he had convinced this rebellious soul, Patience, hearing the village clock strike midnight, would rise, take an affectionate leave of his host, and on the very threshold of the vicarage, would dismay the good man with some laconic and cutting comment that confounded Saint Jerome and Plato alike, Eusebius equally with Seneca, Tertullian no less than Aristotle.

The cure was not too ready to acknowledge the superiority of this untutored intellect. Still, he was quite astonished at passing so many winter evenings by his fireside with this peasant without feeling either bored or tired; and he would wonder how it was that the village schoolmaster, and even the prior of the convent, in spite of their Greek and Latin, appeared to him, the one a bore, the other a sophist, in all their discussions. Knowing the perfect purity of the peasant’s life, he attributed the ascendency of his mind to the power of virtue and the charm it spreads over all things. Then, each evening, he would humbly accuse himself before God of not having disputed with his pupil from a sufficiently Christian point of view; he would confess to his guardian angel that pride in his own learning and joy at being listened to so devoutly had carried him somewhat beyond the bounds of religious instruction; that he had quoted profane writers too complacently; that he had even experienced a dangerous pleasure in roaming with his disciple through the fields of the past, plucking pagan flowers unsprinkled by the waters of baptism, flowers in whose fragrance a priest should not have found such delight.

On his side, Patience loved the cure dearly. He was his only friend, his only bond of union with society, his only bond of union, through the light of knowledge, with God. The peasant largely over-estimated his pastor’s learning. He did not know that even the most enlightened men often draw wrong conclusions, or no conclusions at all, from the course of progress. Patience would have been spared great distress of mind if he could have seen for certain that his master was frequently mistaken and that it was the man, not the truth, that was at fault. Not knowing this, and finding the experience of the ages at variance with his innate sense of justice, he was continually a prey to agonizing reveries; and, living by himself, and wandering through the country at all hours of the day and night, wrapped in thoughts undreamed of by his fellows, he gave more and more credit to the tales of sorcery reported against him.

The convent did not like the pastor. A few monks whom Patience had unmasked hated Patience. Hence, both pastor and pupil were persecuted. The ignorant monks did not scruple to accuse the cure to his bishop of devoting himself to the occult sciences in concert with the magician Patience. A sort of religious war broke out in the village and neighbourhood. All who were not for the convent were for the cure, and vice versa. Patience scorned to take part in this struggle. One morning he went to see his friend, with tears in his eyes, and said to him:

“You are the one man in all the world that I love, and I will not have you persecuted on my account. Since, after you, I neither know nor care for a soul, I am going off to live in the woods, like the men of primitive times. I have inherited a field which brings me in fifty francs a year. It is the only land I have ever stirred with these hands, and half its wretched rent has gone to pay the tithe of labour I owe the seignior. I trust to die without ever doing duty as a beast of burden for others. And yet, should they remove you from your office, or rob you of your income, if you have a field that needs ploughing, only send me word, and you will see that these arms have not grown altogether stiff in their idleness.”

It was in vain that the pastor opposed this resolve. Patience departed, carrying with him as his only belonging the coat he had on his back, and an abridgment of the teachings of Epictetus. For this book he had a great affection, and, thanks to much study of it, could read as many as three of its pages a day without unduly tiring himself. The rustic anchorite went into the desert to live. At first he built himself a hut of branches in a wood. Then, as wolves attacked him, he took refuge in one of the lower halls of Gazeau Tower, which he furnished luxuriously with a bed of moss, and some stumps of trees; wild roots, wild fruit, and goat’s milk constituted a daily fare very little inferior to what he had had in the village. This is no exaggeration. You have to see the peasants in certain parts of Varenne to form an idea of the frugal diet on which a man can live and keep in good health. In the midst of these men of stoical habits all round him, Patience was still exceptional. Never had wine reddened his lips, and bread had seemed to him a superfluity. Besides, the doctrine of Pythagoras was not wholly displeasing to him; and in the rare interviews which he henceforth had with his friend he would declare that, without exactly believing in metempsychosis, and without making it a rule to eat vegetables only, he felt a secret joy at being able to live thus, and at having no further occasion to see death dealt out every day to innocent animals.

Patience had formed this curious resolution at the age of forty. He was sixty when I saw him for the first time, and he was then possessed of extraordinary physical vigour. In truth, he was in the habit of roaming about the country every year. However, in proportion as I tell you about my own life, I shall give you details of the hermit life of Patience.

At the time of which I am about to speak, the forest rangers, more from fear of his casting a spell over them than out of compassion, had finally ceased their persecutions, and given him full permission to live in Gazeau Tower, not, however, without warning him that it would probably fall about his head during the first gale of wind. To this Patience had replied philosophically that if he was destined to be crushed to death, the first tree in the forest would do the work quite as well as the walls of Gazeau Tower.

Before putting my actor Patience on the stage, and with many apologies for inflicting on you such a long preliminary biography, I have still to mention that during the twenty years of which I have spoken the cure’s mind had bowed to a new power. He loved philosophy, and in spite of himself, dear man, could not prevent this love from embracing the philosophers too, even the least orthodox. The works of Jean Jacques Rousseau carried him away into new regions, in spite of all his efforts at resistance; and when one morning, when returning from a visit to some sick folk, he came across Patience gathering his dinner of herbs from the rocks of Crevant, he sat down near him on one of the druidical stones and made, without knowing it, the profession of faith of the Savoyard vicar. Patience drank more willingly of this poetic religion than of the ancient orthodoxy. The pleasure with which he listened to a summary of the new doctrines led the cure to arrange secret meetings with him in isolated parts of Varenne, where they agreed to come upon each other as if by chance. At these mysterious interviews the imagination of Patience, fresh and ardent from long solitude, was fired with all the magic of the thoughts and hopes which were then fermenting in France, from the court of Versailles to the most uninhabitable heath. He became enamoured of Jean Jacques, and made the cure read as much of him as he possibly could without neglecting his duties. Then he begged a copy of the Contrat Social, and hastened to Gazeau Tower to spell his way through it feverishly. At first the cure had given him of this manna only with a sparing hand, and while making him admire the lofty thoughts and noble sentiments of the philosopher, had thought to put him on his guard against the poison of anarchy. But all the old learning, all the happy texts of bygone days — in a word, all the theology of the worthy priest — was swept away like a fragile bridge by the torrent of wild eloquence and ungovernable enthusiasm which Patience had accumulated in his desert. The vicar had to give way and fall back terrified upon himself. There he discovered that the shrine of his own science was everywhere cracking and crumbling to ruin. The new sun which was rising on the political horizon and making havoc in so many minds, melted his own like a light snow under the first breath of spring. The sublime enthusiasm of Patience; the strange poetic life of the man which seemed to reveal him as one inspired; the romantic turn which their mysterious relations were taking (the ignoble persecutions of the convent making it noble to revolt)— all this so worked upon the priest that by 1770 he had already travelled far from Jansenism, and was vainly searching all the religious heresies for some spot on which he might rest before falling into the abyss of philosophy so often opened at his feet by Patience, so often hidden in vain by the exorcisms of Roman theology.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29