Abbe Mouret's Transgression, by Émile Zola

Book I

1

As La Teuse entered the church she rested her broom and feather-brush against the altar. She was late, as she had that day began her half-yearly wash. Limping more than ever in her haste and hustling the benches, she went down the church to ring the Angelus. The bare, worn bell-rope dangled from the ceiling near the confessional, and ended in a big knot greasy from handling. Again and again, with regular jumps, she hung herself upon it; and then let her whole bulky figure go with it, whirling in her petticoats, her cap awry, and her blood rushing to her broad face.

Having set her cap straight with a little pat, she came back breathless to give a hasty sweep before the altar. Every day the dust persistently settled between the disjoined boards of the platform. Her broom rummaged among the corners with an angry rumble. Then she lifted the altar cover and was sorely vexed to find that the large upper cloth, already darned in a score of places, was again worn through in the very middle, so as to show the under cloth, which in its turn was so worn and so transparent that one could see the consecrated stone, embedded in the painted wood of the altar. La Teuse dusted the linen, yellow from long usage, and plied her feather-brush along the shelf against which she set the liturgical altar-cards. Then, climbing upon a chair, she removed the yellow cotton covers from the crucifix and two of the candlesticks. The brass of the latter was tarnished.

‘Dear me!’ she muttered, ‘they really want a clean! I must give them a polish up!’

Then hopping on one leg, swaying and stumping heavily enough to drive in the flagstones, she hastened to the sacristy for the Missal, which she placed unopened on the lectern on the Epistle side, with its edges turned towards the middle of the altar. And afterwards she lighted the two candles. As she went off with her broom, she gave a glance round her to make sure that the abode of the Divinity had been put in proper order. All was still, save that the bell-rope near the confessional still swung between roof and floor with a sinuous sweep.

Abbe Mouret had just come down to the sacristy, a small and chilly apartment, which a passage separated from his dining-room.

‘Good morning, Monsieur le Cure,’ said La Teuse, laying her broom aside. ‘Oh! you have been lazy this morning! Do you know it’s a quarter past six?’ And without allowing the smiling young priest sufficient time to reply, she added ‘I’ve a scolding to give you. There’s another hole in the cloth again. There’s no sense in it. We have only one other, and I’ve been ruining my eyes over it these three days in trying to mend it. You will leave our poor Lord quite bare, if you go on like this.’

Abbe Mouret was still smiling. ‘Jesus does not need so much linen, my good Teuse,’ he cheerfully replied. ‘He is always warm, always royally received by those who love Him well.’

Then stepping towards a small tap, he asked: ‘Is my sister up yet? I have not seen her.’

‘Oh, Mademoiselle Desiree has been down a long time,’ answered the servant, who was kneeling before an old kitchen sideboard in which the sacred vestments were kept. ‘She is already with her fowls and rabbits. She was expecting some chicks to be hatched yesterday, and it didn’t come off. So you can guess her excitement.’ Then the worthy woman broke off to inquire: ‘The gold chasuble, eh?’

The priest, who had washed his hands and stood reverently murmuring a prayer, nodded affirmatively. The parish possessed only three chasubles: a violet one, a black one, and one in cloth-of-gold. The last had to be used on the days when white, red, or green was prescribed by the ritual, and it was therefore an all important garment. La Teuse lifted it reverently from the shelf covered with blue paper, on which she laid it after each service; and having placed it on the sideboard, she cautiously removed the fine cloths which protected its embroidery. A golden lamb slumbered on a golden cross, surrounded by broad rays of gold. The gold tissue, frayed at the folds, broke out in little slender tufts; the embossed ornaments were getting tarnished and worn. There was perpetual anxiety, fluttering concern, at seeing it thus go off spangle by spangle. The priest had to wear it almost every day. And how on earth could it be replaced — how would they be able to buy the three chasubles whose place it took, when the last gold threads should be worn out?

Upon the chasuble La Teuse next laid out the stole, the maniple, the girdle, alb and amice. But her tongue still wagged while she crossed the stole with the maniple, and wreathed the girdle so as to trace the venerated initial of Mary’s holy name.

‘That girdle is not up to much now,’ she muttered; ‘you will have to make up your mind to get another, your reverence. It wouldn’t be very hard; I could plait you one myself if I only had some hemp.’

Abbe Mouret made no answer. He was dressing the chalice at a small table. A large old silver-gilt chalice it was with a bronze base, which he had just taken from the bottom of a deal cupboard, in which the sacred vessels and linen, the Holy Oils, the Missals, candlesticks, and crosses were kept. Across the cup he laid a clean purificator, and on this set the silver-gilt paten, with the host in it, which he covered with a small lawn pall. As he was hiding the chalice by gathering together the folds in the veil of cloth of gold matching the chasuble, La Teuse exclaimed:

‘Stop, there’s no corporal in the burse. Last night I took all the dirty purificators, palls, and corporals to wash them — separately, of course — not with the house-wash. By-the-bye, your reverence, I didn’t tell you: I have just started the house-wash. A fine fat one it will be! Better than the last.’

Then while the priest slipped a corporal into the burse and laid the latter on the veil, she went on quickly:

‘By-the-bye, I forgot! that gadabout Vincent hasn’t come. Do you wish me to serve your mass, your reverence?’

The young priest eyed her sternly.

‘Well, it isn’t a sin,’ she continued, with her genial smile. ‘I did serve a mass once, in Monsieur Caffin’s time. I serve it better, too, than ragamuffins who laugh like heathens at seeing a fly buzzing about the church. True I may wear a cap, I may be sixty years old, and as round as a tub, but I have more respect for our Lord than those imps of boys whom I caught only the other day playing at leap-frog behind the altar.’

The priest was still looking at her and shaking his head.

‘What a hole this village is!’ she grumbled. ‘Not a hundred and fifty people in it! There are days, like to-day, when you wouldn’t find a living soul in Les Artaud. Even the babies in swaddling clothes are gone to the vineyards! And goodness knows what they do among such vines — vines that grow under the pebbles and look as dry as thistles! A perfect wilderness, three miles from any highway! Unless an angel comes down to serve your mass, your reverence, you’ve only got me to help you, on my honour! or one of Mademoiselle Desiree’s rabbits, no offence to your reverence!’

Just at that moment, however, Vincent, the Brichets’ younger son, gently opened the door of the sacristy. His shock of red hair and his little, glistening, grey eyes exasperated La Teuse.

‘Oh! the wretch!’ she cried. ‘I’ll bet he’s just been up to some mischief! Come on, you scamp, since his reverence is afraid I might dirty our Lord!’

On seeing the lad, Abbe Mouret had taken up the amice. He kissed the cross embroidered in the centre of it, and for a second laid the cloth upon his head; then lowering it over the collar-band of his cassock, he crossed it and fastened the tapes, the right one over the left. He next donned the alb, the symbol of purity, beginning with the right sleeve. Vincent stooped and turned around him, adjusting the alb, in order that it should fall evenly all round him to a couple of inches from the ground. Then he presented the girdle to the priest, who fastened it tightly round his loins, as a reminder of the bonds wherewith the Saviour was bound in His Passion.

La Teuse remained standing there, feeling jealous and hurt and struggling to keep silence; but so great was the itching of her tongue, that she soon broke out once more: ‘Brother Archangias has been here. He won’t have a single child at school to-day. He went off again like a whirlwind to pull the brats’ ears in the vineyards. You had better see him. I believe he has got something to say to you.’

Abbe Mouret silenced her with a wave of the hand. Then he repeated the usual prayers while he took the maniple — which he kissed before slipping it over his left forearm, as a symbol of the practice of good works — and while crossing on his breast the stole, the symbol of his dignity and power. La Teuse had to help Vincent in the work of adjusting the chasuble, which she fastened together with slender tapes, so that it might not slip off behind.

‘Holy Virgin! I had forgotten the cruets!’ she stammered, rushing to the cupboard. ‘Come, look sharp, lad!’

Thereupon Vincent filled the cruets, phials of coarse glass, while she hastened to take a clean finger-cloth from a drawer. Abbe Mouret, holding the chalice by its stem with his left hand, the fingers of his right resting meanwhile on the burse, then bowed profoundly, but without removing his biretta, to a black wooden crucifix, which hung over the side-board. The lad bowed too, and, bearing the cruets covered with the finger-cloth, led the way out of the sacristy, followed by the priest, who walked on with downcast eyes, absorbed in deep and prayerful meditation.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06