“My darlings,” said the Comtesse, “you must go to bed.”
The three children, two girls and a boy, rose up, and went to kiss their grandmother.
Then, they came to say “Good night” to M. le Curé, who had dined at the chateau, as he did every Thursday.
The Abbé Mauduit put two of the young ones sitting on his knees, passing his long arms clad in black behind the children’s necks; and, drawing their heads towards him with a paternal movement, he kissed each of them on the forehead with a long, tender kiss.
Then, he again set them down on the ground, and the little beings went off, the boy in front, and the girls behind.
“You are fond of children, M. le Curé,” said the Comtesse.
“Very fond, Madame.”
The old woman raised her bright eyes towards the priest.
“And — has your solitude never weighed too heavily on you?”
He became silent, hesitated, and then added: “But I was never made for ordinary life.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Oh! I know very well. I was made to be a priest: I followed my own path.”
The Comtesse kept staring at him:
“Look here, M. le Curé, tell me this — tell me how it was you resolved to renounce for ever what makes us love life — the rest of us — all that consoles and sustains us? What is it that drove you, impelled you, to separate yourself from the great natural path of marriage and the family. You are neither an enthusiast nor a fanatic, neither a gloomy person nor a sad person. Was it some strange occurrence, some sorrow, that led you to take life-long vows?”
The Abbé Mauduit rose up and advanced towards the fire, then drew towards the flames the big shoes such as country priests generally wear. He seemed still hesitating as to what reply he should make.
He was a tall old man with white hair, and for the last twenty years he had been the pastor of the parish of Sainte–Antoine-du-Rocher. The peasants said of him: “There’s a good man for you!” And indeed he was a good man, benevolent, friendly to all, gentle, and, to crown all, generous. Like Saint Martin, he had cut his cloak in two. He freely laughed, and wept too for very little, just like a woman, — a thing that prejudiced him more or less in the hard minds of the country people.
The old Comtesse de Saville, living in retirement in her chateau of Rocher, in order to bring up her grand-children, after the successive deaths of her son and her daughter-inlaw, was very much attached to her curé, and used to say of him: “He has a kind heart!”
He came every Thursday to spend the evening at the chateau, and they were close friends, with the open and honest friendship of old people.
“Look here M. le Curé! ’tis your turn now to make a confession!”
He repeated: “I was not made for a life like everybody else. I saw it myself fortunately in time, and I have had many proofs since that I had made no mistake on the point.
“My parents, who were mercers in Verdiers, and rather rich, had much ambition on my account. They sent me to a boarding-school while I was very young. You cannot conceive what a boy may suffer at college, by the mere fact of separation, of isolation. This monotonous life without affection is good for some, and detestable for others. Young people have often hearts more sensitive than one supposes, and by shutting them up thus too soon, far from those they love, we may develop to an excessive extent a sensibility which is of an overstrung kind, and which becomes sickly and dangerous.
“I scarcely ever played; I never had companions; I passed my hours in looking back to my home with regret; I spent the whole night weeping in my bed. I sought to bring up before my mind recollections of my own home, trifling recollections of little things, little events. I thought incessantly of all I had left behind there. I became almost imperceptibly an over sensitive youth to whom the slightest annoyances were dreadful griefs.
“Together with this I remained taciturn, self-absorbed without expansion, without confidants. This work of mental exaltation was brought about obscurely but surely. The nerves of children are quickly excited; one ought to have regard to the fact that they live in a state of deep quiescence up to the time of their almost complete development. But does anyone reflect that, for certain students, an unjust imposition can be as great a pang as the death of a friend afterwards? Does anyone render an exact account to himself of the fact that certain young souls have with very little cause, terrible emotions, and are in a very short time diseased and incurable souls?
“This was my case. This faculty of regret developed itself in me in such a fashion that my existence became a martyrdom.
“I did not speak about it; I said nothing about it; but gradually I acquired a sensibility, or rather a sensitivity so lively that my soul resembled a living wound. Everything that touched it produced in it twitchings of pain, frightful vibrations, and consequently true ravages. Happy are the men whom nature has buttressed with indifference and armed with stoicism.
“I reached my sixteenth year. An excessive timidity had come to me from this aptitude to suffer on account of everything. Feeling myself unprotected against all the attacks of chance or fate, I feared every contact, every approach, every event. I lived on the watch as if under the constant threat of an unknown and always expected misfortune. I did not feel enough of boldness either to speak or to act publicly. I had, indeed, the sensation that life is a battle, a dreadful conflict in which one receives terrible blows, grievous, mortal wounds. In place of cherishing, like all men, the hope of good-fortune on the morrow, I only kept a confused fear of it, and I felt in my own mind a desire to conceal myself to avoid that combat in which I would be vanquished and slain.
“As soon as my studies were finished, they gave me six months’ time to choose a career. A very simple event made me see clearly all of a sudden into myself, showed me the diseased condition of my mind, made me understand the danger, and caused me to make up my mind to fly from it.
“Verdiers is a little town surrounded with plains and woods. In the central streets stands my parents’ house. I now passed my days far from this dwelling which I had so much regretted, so much desired. Dreams were awakened in me, and I walked all alone in the fields in order to let them escape and fly away. My father and my mother, quite occupied with business, and anxious about my future, talked to me only about their profits or about my possible plans. They were fond of me in the way that hard-headed, practical people are; they had more reason than heart in their affection for me. I lived imprisoned in my thoughts, and trembling with my eternal uneasiness.
“Now, one evening, after a long walk, I saw, as I was making my way home with great strides so as not to be late, a dog trotting towards me. He was a species of red spaniel, very lean, with long curly ears.
“When he was ten paces away from me he stopped. I did the same. Then he began wagging his tail, and came over to me with short steps and nervous movements of his whole body, going down on his paws as if appealing to me, and softly shaking his head. He then made a show of crawling with an air so humble, so sad, so suppliant, that I felt the tears coming into my eyes. I came near him; he ran away, then he came back again; and I bent down, trying to coax him to approach me with soft words. At last, he was within reach of my hands, and I gently caressed him with the most careful touch.
“He grew bold, rose up bit by bit, laid his paws on my shoulders, and began to lick my face. He followed me into the house.
“This was really the first being I had passionately loved, because he returned my affection. My attachment to this animal was certainly exaggerated and ridiculous. It seemed to me in a confused sort of way that we were two brothers, lost on this earth, and therefore isolated and without defense, one as well as the other. He never again quitted my side. He slept at the foot of my bed, ate at the table in spite of the objections of my parents, and he followed me in my solitary walks.
“I often stopped at the side of a ditch, and sat down in the grass. Sam immediately rushed up, fell asleep on my knees, and lifted up my hand with the end of his snout so that I might caress him.
“One day towards the end of June, as we were on the road from Saint–Pierre-deChavrol, I saw the diligence from Pavereau coming along. Its four horses were going at a gallop with its yellow box seat, and imperial crowned with black leather. The coachman cracked his whip; a cloud of dust rose up under the wheels of the heavy vehicle, then floated behind, just as a cloud would do.
“And, all of a sudden, as the vehicle came close to me, Sam, perhaps frightened by the noise and wishing to join me, jumped in front of it. A horse’s foot knocked him down. I saw him rolling over, turning round, falling back again on all fours, and then the entire coach gave two big shakes, and behind it I saw something quivering in the dust on the road. He was nearly cut in two; all his intestines were hanging through his stomach, which had been ripped open, and fell in spurts of blood to the ground. He tried to get up, to walk, but he could only move his two front paws, and scratch the ground with them, as if to make a hole. The two others were already dead. And he howled dreadfully, mad with pain.
“He died in a few minutes. I cannot describe how much I felt and suffered. I was confined to my own room for a month.
“Now, one night, my father, enraged at seeing me in such a state for so little, exclaimed:
“‘How then will it be when you have real griefs — if you lose your wife or children?’
“And I began to see clearly into myself. I understood why all the small miseries of each day assumed in my eyes the importance of a catastrophe; I saw that I was organized in such a way that I suffered dreadfully from everything, that every painful impression was multiplied by my diseased sensibility, and an atrocious fear of life took possession of me. I was without passions, without ambitions; I resolved to sacrifice possible joys in order to avoid sure sorrows. Existence is short, but I made up my mind to spend it in the service of others, in relieving their troubles and enjoying their happiness. By having no direct experience of either one or the other, I would only be conscious of passionless emotions.
“And if you only knew how, in spite of this, misery tortures me, ravages me! But what would be for me an intolerable affliction has become commiseration, pity.
“These sorrows which I have every day to concern myself about I could not endure if they fell on my own heart. I could not have seen one of my children die without dying myself. And I have, in spite of everything, preserved such an obscure and penetrating fear of circumstances, that the sight of the postman entering my house makes a shiver pass every day through my veins, and yet I have nothing to be afraid of now.”
The Abbé Mauduit ceased speaking. He stared into the fire in the huge grate, as if he saw there mysterious things, all the unknown portion of existence which he would have been able to live if he had been more fearless in the face of suffering.
He added, then, in a subdued tone:
“I was right. I was not made for this world.”
The Comtesse said nothing at first; but at length, after a long silence, she remarked:
“For my part, if I had not my grand-children, I believe I would not have the courage to live.”
And the curé rose up without saying another word.
As the servants were asleep in the kitchen, she conducted him herself to the door which looked out on the garden, and she saw his tall shadow lit up by the reflection of the lamp disappearing through the gloom of night.
Then she came back and sat down before the fire, and she pondered over many things on which we never think when we are young.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58