In the "citta dolente" of spinsterhood we often meet, especially in France, with women whose lives are a sacrifice nobly and daily offered to noble sentiments. Some remain proudly faithful to a heart which death tore from them; martyrs of love, they learn the secrets of womanhood only though their souls. Others obey some family pride (which in our days, and to our shame, decreases steadily); these devote themselves to the welfare of a brother, or to orphan nephews; they are mothers while remaining virgins. Such old maids attain to the highest heroism of their sex by consecrating all feminine feelings to the help of sorrow. They idealize womanhood by renouncing the rewards of woman's destiny, accepting its pains. They live surrounded by the splendour of their devotion, and men respectfully bow the head before their faded features. Mademoiselle de Sombreuil was neither wife nor maid; she was and ever will be a living poem. Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix belonged to the race of these heroic beings. Her devotion was religiously sublime, inasmuch as it won her no glory after being, for years, a daily agony. Beautiful and young, she loved and was beloved; her lover lost his reason. For five years she gave herself, with love's devotion, to the mere mechanical well-being of that unhappy man, whose madness she so penetrated that she never believed him mad. She was simple in manner, frank in speech, and her pallid face was not lacking in strength and character, though its features were regular. She never spoke of the events of her life. But at times a sudden quiver passed over her as she listened to the story of some sad or dreadful incident, thus betraying the emotions that great sufferings had developed within her. She had come to live at Tours after losing the companion of her life; but she was not appreciated there at her true value and was thought to be merely an amiable woman. She did much good, and attached herself, by preference, to feeble beings. For that reason the poor vicar had naturally inspired her with a deep interest.
Mademoiselle de Villenoix, who returned to Tours the next morning, took Birotteau with her and set him down on the quay of the cathedral leaving him to make his own way to the Cloister, where he was bent on going, to save at least the canonry and to superintend the removal of his furniture. He rang, not without violent palpitations of the heart, at the door of the house whither, for fourteen years, he had come daily, and where he had lived blissfully, and from which he was now exiled forever, after dreaming that he should die there in peace like his friend Chapeloud. Marianne was surprised at the vicar's visit. He told her that he had come to see the Abbe Troubert, and turned towards the ground-floor apartment where the canon lived; but Marianne called to him:—
"Not there, monsieur le vicaire; the Abbe Troubert is in your old apartment."
These words gave the vicar a frightful shock. He was forced to comprehend both Troubert's character and the depths of the revenge so slowly brought about when he found the canon settled in Chapeloud's library, seated in Chapeloud's handsome armchair, sleeping, no doubt, in Chapeloud's bed, and disinheriting at last the friend of Chapeloud, the man who, for so many years, had confined him to Mademoiselle Gamard's house, by preventing his advancement in the church, and closing the best salons in Tours against him. By what magic wand had the present transformation taken place? Surely these things belonged to Birotteau? And yet, observing the sardonic air with which Troubert glanced at that bookcase, the poor abbe knew that the future vicar-general felt certain of possessing the spoils of those he had so bitterly hated,—Chapeloud as an enemy, and Birotteau, in and through whom Chapeloud still thwarted him. Ideas rose in the heart of the poor man at the sight, and plunged him into a sort of vision. He stood motionless, as though fascinated by Troubert's eyes which fixed themselves upon him.
"I do not suppose, monsieur," said Birotteau at last, "that you intend to deprive me of the things that belong to me. Mademoiselle may have been impatient to give you better lodgings, but she ought to have been sufficiently just to give me time to pack my books and remove my furniture."
"Monsieur," said the Abbe Troubert, coldly, not permitting any sign of emotion to appear on his face, "Mademoiselle Gamard told me yesterday of your departure, the cause of which is still unknown to me. If she installed me here at once, it was from necessity. The Abbe Poirel has taken my apartment. I do not know if the furniture and things that are in these rooms belong to you or to Mademoiselle; but if they are yours, you know her scrupulous honesty; the sanctity of her life is the guarantee of her rectitude. As for me, you are well aware of my simple modes of living. I have slept for fifteen years in a bare room without complaining of the dampness,—which, eventually will have caused my death. Nevertheless, if you wish to return to this apartment I will cede it to you willingly."
After hearing these terrible words, Birotteau forgot the canonry and ran downstairs as quickly as a young man to find Mademoiselle Gamard. He met her at the foot of the staircase, on the broad, tiled landing which united the two wings of the house.
"Mademoiselle," he said, bowing to her without paying any attention to the bitter and derisive smile that was on her lips, nor to the extraordinary flame in her eyes which made them lucent as a tiger's, "I cannot understand how it is that you have not waited until I removed my furniture before—"
"What!" she said, interrupting him, "is it possible that your things have not been left at Madame de Listomere's?"
"But my furniture?"
"Haven't you read your deed?" said the old maid, in a tone which would have to be rendered in music before the shades of meaning that hatred is able to put into the accent of every word could be fully shown.
Mademoiselle Gamard seemed to rise in stature, her eyes shone, her face expanded, her whole person quivered with pleasure. The Abbe Troubert opened a window to get a better light on the folio volume he was reading. Birotteau stood as if a thunderbolt had stricken him. Mademoiselle Gamard made his ears hum when she enunciated in a voice as clear as a cornet the following sentence:—
"Was it not agreed that if you left my house your furniture should belong to me, to indemnify me for the difference in the price of board paid by you and that paid by the late venerable Abbe Chapeloud? Now, as the Abbe Poirel has just been appointed canon—"
Hearing the last words Birotteau made a feeble bow as if to take leave of the old maid, and left the house precipitately. He was afraid if he stayed longer that he should break down utterly, and give too great a triumph to his implacable enemies. Walking like a drunken man he at last reached Madame de Listomere's house, where he found in one of the lower rooms his linen, his clothing, and all his papers packed in a trunk. When he eyes fell on these few remnants of his possessions the unhappy priest sat down and hid his face in his hands to conceal his tears from the sight of others. The Abbe Poirel was canon! He, Birotteau, had neither home, nor means, nor furniture!
Fortunately Mademoiselle Salomon happened to drive past the house, and the porter, who saw and comprehended the despair of the poor abbe, made a sign to the coachman. After exchanging a few words with Mademoiselle Salomon the porter persuaded the vicar to let himself be placed, half dead as he was, in the carriage of his faithful friend, to whom he was unable to speak connectedly. Mademoiselle Salomon, alarmed at the momentary derangement of a head that was always feeble, took him back at once to the Alouette, believing that this beginning of mental alienation was an effect produced by the sudden news of Abbe Poirel's nomination. She knew nothing, of course, of the fatal agreement made by the abbe with Mademoiselle Gamard, for the excellent reason that he did not know of it himself; and because it is in the nature of things that the comical is often mingled with the pathetic, the singular replies of the poor abbe made her smile.
"Chapeloud was right," he said; "he is a monster!"
"Who?" she asked.
"Chapeloud. He has taken all."
"You mean Poirel?"
At last they reached the Alouette, where the priest's friends gave him such tender care that towards evening he grew calmer and was able to give them an account of what had happened during the morning.
The phlegmatic old fox asked to see the deed which, on thinking the matter over, seemed to him to contain the solution of the enigma. Birotteau drew the fatal stamped paper from his pocket and gave it to Monsieur de Bourbonne, who read it rapidly and soon came upon the following clause:—
"Whereas a difference exists of eight hundred francs yearly between the price of board paid by the late Abbe Chapeloud and that at which the said Sophie Gamard agrees to take into her house, on the above-named stipulated condition, the said Francois Birotteau; and whereas it is understood that the undersigned Francois Birotteau is not able for some years to pay the full price charged to the other boarders of Mademoiselle Gamard, more especially the Abbe Troubert; the said Birotteau does hereby engage, in consideration of certain sums of money advanced by the undersigned Sophie Gamard, to leave her, as indemnity, all the household property of which he may die possessed, or to transfer the same to her should he, for any reason whatever or at any time, voluntarily give up the apartment now leased to him, and thus derive no further profit from the above-named engagements made by Mademoiselle Gamard for his benefit—"
"Confound her! what an agreement!" cried the old gentleman. "The said Sophie Gamard is armed with claws."
Poor Birotteau never imagined in his childish brain that anything could ever separate him from that house where he expected to live and die with Mademoiselle Gamard. He had no remembrance whatever of that clause, the terms of which he had not discussed, for they had seemed quite just to him at a time when, in his great anxiety to enter the old maid's house, he would readily have signed any and all legal documents she had offered him. His simplicity was so guileless and Mademoiselle Gamard's conduct so atrocious, the fate of the poor old man seemed so deplorable, and his natural helplessness made him so touching, that in the first glow of her indignation Madame de Listomere exclaimed: "I made you put your signature to that document which has ruined you; I am bound to give you back the happiness of which I have deprived you."
"But," remarked Monsieur de Bourbonne, "that deed constitutes a fraud; there may be ground for a lawsuit."
"Then Birotteau shall go to the law. If he loses at Tours he may win at Orleans; if he loses at Orleans, he'll win in Paris," cried the Baron de Listomere.
"But if he does go to law," continued Monsieur de Bourbonne, coldly, "I should advise him to resign his vicariat."
"We will consult lawyers," said Madame de Listomere, "and go to law if law is best. But this affair is so disgraceful for Mademoiselle Gamard, and is likely to be so injurious to the Abbe Troubert, that I think we can compromise."
After mature deliberation all present promised their assistance to the Abbe Birotteau in the struggle which was now inevitable between the poor priest and his antagonists and all their adherents. A true presentiment, an infallible provincial instinct, led them to couple the names of Gamard and Troubert. But none of the persons assembled on this occasion in Madame de Listomere's salon, except the old fox, had any real idea of the nature and importance of such a struggle. Monsieur de Bourbonne took the poor abbe aside into a corner of the room.
"Of the fourteen persons now present," he said, in a low voice, "not one will stand by you a fortnight hence. If the time comes when you need some one to support you you may find that I am the only person in Tours bold enough to take up your defence; for I know the provinces and men and things, and, better still, I know self-interests. But these friends of yours, though full of the best intentions, are leading you astray into a bad path, from which you won't be able to extricate yourself. Take my advice; if you want to live in peace, resign the vicariat of Saint-Gatien and leave Tours. Don't say where you are going, but find some distant parish where Troubert cannot get hold of you."
"Leave Tours!" exclaimed the vicar, with indescribable terror.
To him it was a kind of death; the tearing up of all the roots by which he held to life. Celibates substitute habits for feelings; and when to that moral system, which makes them pass through life instead of really living it, is added a feeble character, external things assume an extraordinary power over them. Birotteau was like certain vegetables; transplant them, and you stop their ripening. Just as a tree needs daily the same sustenance, and must always send its roots into the same soil, so Birotteau needed to trot about Saint-Gatien, and amble along the Mail where he took his daily walk, and saunter through the streets, and visit the three salons where, night after night, he played his whist or his backgammon.
"Ah! I did not think of it!" replied Monsieur de Bourbonne, gazing at the priest with a sort of pity.
All Tours was soon aware that Madame la Baronne de Listomere, widow of a lieutenant-general, had invited the Abbe Birotteau, vicar of Saint-Gatien, to stay at her house. That act, which many persons questioned, presented the matter sharply and divided the town into parties, especially after Mademoiselle Salomon spoke openly of a fraud and a lawsuit. With the subtle vanity which is common to old maids, and the fanatic self-love which characterizes them, Mademoiselle Gamard was deeply wounded by the course taken by Madame de Listomere. The baroness was a woman of high rank, elegant in her habits and ways, whose good taste, courteous manners, and true piety could not be gainsaid. By receiving Birotteau as her guest she gave a formal denial to all Mademoiselle Gamard's assertions, and indirectly censured her conduct by maintaining the vicar's cause against his former landlady.
It is necessary for the full understanding of this history to explain how the natural discernment and spirit of analysis which old women bring to bear on the actions of others gave power to Mademoiselle Gamard, and what were the resources on her side. Accompanied by the taciturn Abbe Troubert she made a round of evening visits to five or six houses, at each of which she met a circle of a dozen or more persons, united by kindred tastes and the same general situation in life. Among them were one or two men who were influenced by the gossip and prejudices of their servants; five or six old maids who spent their time in sifting the words and scrutinizing the actions of their neighbours and others in the class below them; besides these, there were several old women who busied themselves in retailing scandal, keeping an exact account of each person's fortune, striving to control or influence the actions of others, prognosticating marriages, and blaming the conduct of friends as sharply as that of enemies. These persons, spread about the town like the capillary fibres of a plant, sucked in, with the thirst of a leaf for the dew, the news and the secrets of each household, and transmitted them mechanically to the Abbe Troubert, as the leaves convey to the branch the moisture they absorb.
Accordingly, during every evening of the week, these good devotees, excited by that need of emotion which exists in all of us, rendered an exact account of the current condition of the town with a sagacity worthy of the Council of Ten, and were, in fact, a species of police, armed with the unerring gift of spying bestowed by passions. When they had divined the secret meaning of some event their vanity led them to appropriate to themselves the wisdom of their sanhedrim, and set the tone to the gossip of their respective spheres. This idle but ever busy fraternity, invisible, yet seeing all things, dumb, but perpetually talking, possessed an influence which its nonentity seemed to render harmless, though it was in fact terrible in its effects when it concerned itself with serious interests. For a long time nothing had entered the sphere of these existences so serious and so momentous to each one of them as the struggle of Birotteau, supported by Madame de Listomere, against Mademoiselle Gamard and the Abbe Troubert. The three salons of Madame de Listomere and the Demoiselles Merlin de la Blottiere and de Villenoix being considered as enemies by all the salons which Mademoiselle Gamard frequented, there was at the bottom of the quarrel a class sentiment with all its jealousies. It was the old Roman struggle of people and senate in a molehill, a tempest in a teacup, as Montesquieu remarked when speaking of the Republic of San Marino, whose public offices are filled by the day only,—despotic power being easily seized by any citizen.
But this tempest, petty as it seems, did develop in the souls of these persons as many passions as would have been called forth by the highest social interests. It is a mistake to think that none but souls concerned in mighty projects, which stir their lives and set them foaming, find time too fleeting. The hours of the Abbe Troubert fled by as eagerly, laden with thoughts as anxious, harassed by despairs and hopes as deep as the cruellest hours of the gambler, the lover, or the statesman. God alone is in the secret of the energy we expend upon our occult triumphs over man, over things, over ourselves. Though we know not always whither we are going we know well what the journey costs us. If it be permissible for the historian to turn aside for a moment from the drama he is narrating and ask his readers to cast a glance upon the lives of these old maids and abbes, and seek the cause of the evil which vitiates them at their source, we may find it demonstrated that man must experience certain passions before he can develop within him those virtues which give grandeur to life by widening his sphere and checking the selfishness which is inherent in every created being.
Madame de Listomere returned to town without being aware that for the previous week her friends had felt obliged to refute a rumour (at which she would have laughed had she known if it) that her affection for her nephew had an almost criminal motive. She took Birotteau to her lawyer, who did not regard the case as an easy one. The vicar's friends, inspired by the belief that justice was certain in so good a cause, or inclined to procrastinate in a matter which did not concern them personally, had put off bringing the suit until they returned to Tours. Consequently the friends of Mademoiselle Gamard had taken the initiative, and told the affair wherever they could to the injury of Birotteau. The lawyer, whose practice was exclusively among the most devout church people, amazed Madame de Listomere by advising her not to embark on such a suit; he ended the consultation by saying that "he himself would not be able to undertake it, for, according to the terms of the deed, Mademoiselle Gamard had the law on her side, and in equity, that is to say outside of strict legal justice, the Abbe Birotteau would undoubtedly seem to the judges as well as to all respectable laymen to have derogated from the peaceable, conciliatory, and mild character hitherto attributed to him; that Mademoiselle Gamard, known to be a kindly woman and easy to live with, had put Birotteau under obligations to her by lending him the money he needed to pay the legacy duties on Chapeloud's bequest without taking from him a receipt; that Birotteau was not of an age or character to sign a deed without knowing what it contained or understanding the importance of it; that in leaving Mademoiselle Gamard's house at the end of two years, when his friend Chapeloud had lived there twelve and Troubert fifteen, he must have had some purpose known to himself only; and that the lawsuit, if undertaken, would strike the public as an act of ingratitude;" and so forth. Letting Birotteau go before them to the staircase, the lawyer detained Madame de Listomere a moment to entreat her, if she valued her own peace of mind, not to involve herself in the matter.
But that evening the poor vicar, suffering the torments of a man under sentence of death who awaits in the condemned cell at Bicetre the result of his appeal for mercy, could not refrain from telling his assembled friends the result of his visit to the lawyer.
"I don't know a single pettifogger in Tours," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, "except that Radical lawyer, who would be willing to take the case,—unless for the purpose of losing it; I don't advise you to undertake it."
"Then it is infamous!" cried the navel lieutenant. "I myself will take the abbe to the Radical—"
"Go at night," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, interrupting him.
"I have just learned that the Abbe Troubert is appointed vicar-general in place of the other man, who died yesterday."
"I don't care a fig for the Abbe Troubert."
Unfortunately the Baron de Listomere (a man thirty-six years of age) did not see the sign Monsieur de Bourbonne made him to be cautious in what he said, motioning as he did so to a friend of Troubert, a councillor of the Prefecture, who was present. The lieutenant therefore continued:—
"If the Abbe Troubert is a scoundrel—"
"Oh," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, cutting him short, "why bring Monsieur Troubert into a matter which doesn't concern him?"
"Not concern him?" cried the baron; "isn't he enjoying the use of the Abbe Birotteau's household property? I remember that when I called on the Abbe Chapeloud I noticed two valuable pictures. Say that they are worth ten thousand francs; do you suppose that Monsieur Birotteau meant to give ten thousand francs for living two years with that Gamard woman,—not to speak of the library and furniture, which are worth as much more?"
The Abbe Birotteau opened his eyes at hearing he had once possessed so enormous a fortune.
The baron, getting warmer than ever, went on to say: "By Jove! there's that Monsieur Salmon, formerly an expert at the Museum in Paris; he is down here on a visit to his mother-in-law. I'll go and see him this very evening with the Abbe Birotteau and ask him to look at those pictures and estimate their value. From there I'll take the abbe to the lawyer."
Two days after this conversation the suit was begun. This employment of the Liberal laywer did harm to the vicar's cause. Those who were opposed to the government, and all who were known to dislike the priests, or religion (two things quite distinct which many persons confound), got hold of the affair and the whole town talked of it. The Museum expert estimated the Virgin of Valentin and the Christ of Lebrun, two paintings of great beauty, at eleven thousand francs. As to the bookshelves and the gothic furniture, the taste for such things was increasing so rapidly in Paris that their immediate value was at least twelve thousand. In short, the appraisal of the whole property by the expert reached the sum of over thirty-six thousand francs. Now it was very evident that Birotteau never intended to give Mademoiselle Gamard such an enormous sum of money for the small amount he might owe her under the terms of the deed; therefore he had, legally speaking, equitable grounds on which to demand an amendment of the agreement; if this were denied, Mademoiselle Gamard was plainly guilty of intentional fraud. The Radical lawyer accordingly began the affair by serving a writ on Mademoiselle Gamard. Though very harsh in language, this document, strengthened by citations of precedents and supported by certain clauses in the Code, was a masterpiece of legal argument, and so evidently just in its condemnation of the old maid that thirty or forty copies were made and maliciously distributed through the town.
A few days after this commencement of hostilities between Birotteau and the old maid, the Baron de Listomere, who expected to be included as captain of a corvette in a coming promotion lately announced by the minister of the Navy, received a letter from one of his friends warning him that there was some intention of putting him on the retired list. Greatly astonished by this information he started for Paris immediately, and went at once to the minister, who seemed to be amazed himself, and even laughed at the baron's fears. The next day, however, in spite of the minister's assurance, Monsieur de Listomere made inquiries in the different offices. By an indiscretion (often practised by heads of departments in favor of their friends) one of the secretaries showed him a document confirming the fatal news, which was only waiting the signature of the director, who was ill, to be submitted to the minister.
The Baron de Listomere went immediately to an uncle of his, a deputy, who could see the minister of the Navy at the chamber without loss of time, and begged him to find out the real intentions of his Excellency in a matter which threatened the loss of his whole future. He waited in his uncle's carriage with the utmost anxiety for the end of the session. His uncle came out before the Chamber rose, and said to him at once as they drove away: "Why the devil have you meddled in a priest's quarrel? The minister began by telling me you had put yourself at the head of the Radicals in Tours; that your political opinions were objectionable; you were not following in the lines of the government,—with other remarks as much involved as if he were addressing the Chamber. On that I said to him, 'Nonsense; let us come to the point.' The end was that his Excellency told me frankly you were in bad odor with the diocese. In short, I made a few inquiries among my colleagues, and I find that you have been talking slightingly of a certain Abbe Troubert, the vicar-general, but a very important personage in the province, where he represents the Jesuits. I have made myself responsible to the minister for your future conduct. My good nephew, if you want to make your way be careful not to excite ecclesiastical enmities. Go at once to Tours and try to make your peace with that devil of a vicar-general; remember that such priests are men with whom we absolutely must live in harmony. Good heavens! when we are all striving and working to re-establish religion it is actually stupid, in a lieutenant who wants to be made a captain, to affront the priests. If you don't make up matters with that Abbe Troubert you needn't count on me; I shall abandon you. The minister of ecclesiastical affairs told me just now that Troubert was certain to be made bishop before long; if he takes a dislike to our family he could hinder me from being included in the next batch of peers. Don't you understand?"
These words explained to the naval officer the nature of Troubert's secret occupations, about which Birotteau often remarked in his silly way: "I can't think what he does with himself,—sitting up all night."
The canon's position in the midst of his female senate, converted so adroitly into provincial detectives, and his personal capacity, had induced the Congregation of Jesus to select him out of all the ecclesiastics in the town, as the secret proconsul of Touraine. Archbishop, general, prefect, all men, great and small, were under his occult dominion. The Baron de Listomere decided at once on his course.
"I shall take care," he said to his uncle, "not to get another round shot below my water-line."
Three days after this diplomatic conference between the uncle and nephew, the latter, returning hurriedly in a post-chaise, informed his aunt, the very night of his arrival, of the dangers the family were running if they persisted in supporting that "fool of a Birotteau." The baron had detained Monsieur de Bourbonne as the old gentleman was taking his hat and cane after the usual rubber of whist. The clear-sightedness of that sly old fox seemed indispensable for an understanding of the reefs among which the Listomere family suddenly found themselves; and perhaps the action of taking his hat and cane was only a ruse to have it whispered in his ear: "Stay after the others; we want to talk to you."
The baron's sudden return, his apparent satisfaction, which was quite out of keeping with a harassed look that occasionally crossed his face, informed Monsieur de Bourbonne vaguely that the lieutenant had met with some check in his crusade against Gamard and Troubert. He showed no surprise when the baron revealed the secret power of the Jesuit vicar-general.
"I knew that," he said.
"Then why," cried the baroness, "did you not warn us?"
"Madame," he said, sharply, "forget that I was aware of the invisible influence of that priest, and I will forget that you knew it equally well. If we do not keep this secret now we shall be thought his accomplices, and shall be more feared and hated than we are. Do as I do; pretend to be duped; but look carefully where you set your feet. I did warn you sufficiently, but you would not understand me, and I did not choose to compromise myself."
"What must we do now?" said the baron.
The abandonment of Birotteau was not even made a question; it was a first condition tacitly accepted by the three deliberators.
"To beat a retreat with the honors of war has always been the triumph of the ablest generals," replied Monsieur de Bourbonne. "Bow to Troubert, and if his hatred is less strong than his vanity you will make him your ally; but if you bow too low he will walk over you rough-shod; make believe that you intend to leave the service, and you'll escape him, Monsieur le baron. Send away Birotteau, madame, and you will set things right with Mademoiselle Gamard. Ask the Abbe Troubert, when you meet him at the archbishop's, if he can play whist. He will say yes. Then invite him to your salon, where he wants to be received; he'll be sure to come. You are a woman, and you can certainly win a priest to your interests. When the baron is promoted, his uncle peer of France, and Troubert a bishop, you can make Birotteau a canon if you choose. Meantime yield,—but yield gracefully, all the while with a slight menace. Your family can give Troubert quite as much support as he can give you. You'll understand each other perfectly on that score. As for you, sailor, carry your deep-sea line about you."
"Poor Birotteau?" said the baroness.
"Oh, get rid of him at once," replied the old man, as he rose to take leave. "If some clever Radical lays hold of that empty head of his, he may cause you much trouble. After all, the court would certainly give a verdict in his favour, and Troubert must fear that. He may forgive you for beginning the struggle, but if they were defeated he would be implacable. I have said my say."
He snapped his snuff-box, put on his overshoes, and departed.
The next day after breakfast the baroness took the vicar aside and said to him, not without visible embarrassment:—
"My dear Monsieur Birotteau, you will think what I am about to ask of you very unjust and very inconsistent; but it is necessary, both for you and for us, that your lawsuit with Mademoiselle Gamard be withdrawn by resigning your claims, and also that you should leave my house."
As he heard these words the poor abbe turned pale.
"I am," she continued, "the innocent cause of your misfortunes, and, moreover, if it had not been for my nephew you would never have begun this lawsuit, which has now turned to your injury and to ours. But listen to me."
She told him succinctly the immense ramifications of the affair, and explained the serious nature of its consequences. Her own meditations during the night had told her something of the probable antecedents of Troubert's life; she was able, without misleading Birotteau, to show him the net so ably woven round him by revenge, and to make him see the power and great capacity of his enemy, whose hatred to Chapeloud, under whom he had been forced to crouch for a dozen years, now found vent in seizing Chapeloud's property and in persecuting Chapeloud in the person of his friend. The harmless Birotteau clasped his hands as if to pray, and wept with distress at the sight of human horrors that his own pure soul was incapable of suspecting. As frightened as though he had suddenly found himself at the edge of a precipice, he listened, with fixed, moist eyes in which there was no expression, to the revelations of his friend, who ended by saying: "I know the wrong I do in abandoning your cause; but, my dear abbe, family duties must be considered before those of friendship. Yield, as I do, to this storm, and I will prove to you my gratitude. I am not talking of your worldly interests, for those I take charge of. You shall be made free of all such anxieties for the rest of your life. By means of Monsieur de Bourbonne, who will know how to save appearances, I shall arrange matters so that you shall lack nothing. My friend, grant me the right to abandon you. I shall ever be your friend, though forced to conform to the axioms of the world. You must decide."
The poor, bewildered abbe cried aloud: "Chapeloud was right when he said that if Troubert could drag him by the feet out of his grave he would do it! He sleeps in Chapeloud's bed!"
"There is no use in lamenting," said Madame de Listomere, "and we have little time now left to us. How will you decide?"
Birotteau was too good and kind not to obey in a great crisis the unreflecting impulse of the moment. Besides, his life was already in the agony of what to him was death. He said, with a despairing look at his protectress which cut her to the heart, "I trust myself to you—I am but the stubble of the streets."
He used the Tourainean word "bourrier" which has no other meaning than a "bit of straw." But there are pretty little straws, yellow, polished, and shining, the delight of children, whereas the bourrier is straw discolored, muddy, sodden in the puddles, whirled by the tempest, crushed under feet of men.
"But, madame, I cannot let the Abbe Troubert keep Chapeloud's portrait. It was painted for me, it belongs to me; obtain that for me, and I will give up all the rest."
"Well," said Madame de Listomere. "I will go myself to Mademoiselle Gamard." The words were said in a tone which plainly showed the immense effort the Baronne de Listomere was making in lowering herself to flatter the pride of the old maid. "I will see what can be done," she said; "I hardly dare hope anything. Go and consult Monsieur de Bourbonne; ask him to put your renunciation into proper form, and bring me the paper. I will see the archbishop, and with his help we may be able to stop the matter here."
Birotteau left the house dismayed. Troubert assumed in his eyes the dimensions of an Egyptian pyramid. The hands of that man were in Paris, his elbows in the Cloister of Saint-Gatien.
"He!" said the victim to himself, "He to prevent the Baron de Listomere from becoming peer of France!—and, perhaps, 'by the help of the archbishop we may be able to stop the matter here'!"
In presence of such great interests Birotteau felt he was a mere worm; he judged himself harshly.
The news of Birotteau's removal from Madame de Listomere's house seemed all the more amazing because the reason of it was wholly impenetrable. Madame de Listomere said that her nephew was intending to marry and leave the navy, and she wanted the vicar's apartment to enlarge her own. Birotteau's relinquishment was still unknown. The advice of Monsieur de Bourbonne was followed. Whenever the two facts reached the ears of the vicar-general his self-love was certain to be gratified by the assurance they gave that even if the Listomere family did not capitulate they would at least remain neutral and tacitly recognize the occult power of the Congregation,—to recognize it was, in fact, to submit to it. But the lawsuit was still sub-judice; his opponents yielded and threatened at the same time.
The Listomeres had thus taken precisely the same attitude as the vicar-general himself; they held themselves aloof, and yet were able to direct others. But just at this crisis an event occurred which complicated the plans laid by Monsieur de Bourbonne and the Listomeres to quiet the Gamard and Troubert party, and made them more difficult to carry out.
Mademoiselle Gamard took cold one evening in coming out of the cathedral; the next day she was confined to her bed, and soon after became dangerously ill. The whole town rang with pity and false commiseration: "Mademoiselle Gamard's sensitive nature has not been able to bear the scandal of this lawsuit. In spite of the justice of her cause she was likely to die of grief. Birotteau has killed his benefactress." Such were the speeches poured through the capillary tubes of the great female conclave, and taken up and repeated by the whole town of Tours.
Madame de Listomere went the day after Mademoiselle Gamard took cold to pay the promised visit, and she had the mortification of that act without obtaining any benefit from it, for the old maid was too ill to see her. She then asked politely to speak to the vicar-general.
Gratified, no doubt, to receive in Chapeloud's library, at the corner of the fireplace above which hung the two contested pictures, the woman who had hitherto ignored him, Troubert kept the baroness waiting a moment before he consented to admit her. No courtier and no diplomatist ever put into a discussion of their personal interests or into the management of some great national negotiation more shrewdness, dissimulation, and ability than the baroness and the priest displayed when they met face to face for the struggle.
Like the seconds or sponsors who in the Middle Age armed the champion, and strengthened his valor by useful counsel until he entered the lists, so the sly old fox had said to the baroness at the last moment: "Don't forget your cue. You are a mediator, and not an interested party. Troubert also is a mediator. Weigh your words; study the inflection of the man's voice. If he strokes his chin you have got him."
Some sketchers are fond of caricaturing the contrast often observable between "what is said" and "what is thought" by the speaker. To catch the full meaning of the duel of words which now took place between the priest and the lady, it is necessary to unveil the thoughts that each hid from the other under spoken sentences of apparent insignificance. Madame de Listomere began by expressing the regret she had felt at Birotteau's lawsuit; and then went on to speak of her desire to settle the matter to the satisfaction of both parties.
"The harm is done, madame," said the priest, in a grave voice. "The pious and excellent Mademoiselle Gamard is dying." ("I don't care a fig for the old thing," thought he, "but I mean to put her death on your shoulders and harass your conscience if you are such a fool as to listen to it.")
"On hearing of her illness," replied the baroness, "I entreated Monsieur Birotteau to relinquish his claims; I have brought the document, intending to give it to that excellent woman." ("I see what you mean, you wily scoundrel," thought she, "but we are safe now from your calumnies. If you take this document you'll cut your own fingers by admitting you are an accomplice.")
There was silence for a moment.
"Mademoiselle Gamard's temporal affairs do not concern me," said the priest at last, lowering the large lids over his eagle eyes to veil his emotions. ("Ho! ho!" thought he, "you can't compromise me. Thank God, those damned lawyers won't dare to plead any cause that could smirch me. What do these Listomeres expect to get by crouching in this way?")
"Monsieur," replied the baroness, "Monsieur Birotteau's affairs are no more mine than those of Mademoiselle Gamard are yours; but, unfortunately, religion is injured by such a quarrel, and I come to you as a mediator—just as I myself am seeking to make peace." ("We are not deceiving each other, Monsieur Troubert," thought she. "Don't you feel the sarcasm of that answer?")
"Injury to religion, madame!" exclaimed the vicar-general. "Religion is too lofty for the actions of men to injure." ("My religion is I," thought he.) "God makes no mistake in His judgments, madame; I recognize no tribunal but His."
"Then, monsieur," she replied, "let us endeavor to bring the judgments of men into harmony with the judgments of God." ("Yes, indeed, your religion is you.")
The Abbe Troubert suddenly changed his tone.
"Your nephew has been to Paris, I believe." ("You found out about me there," thought he; "you know now that I can crush you, you who dared to slight me, and you have come to capitulate.")
"Yes, monsieur; thank you for the interest you take in him. He returns to-night; the minister, who is very considerate of us, sent for him; he does not want Monsieur de Listomere to leave the service." ("Jesuit, you can't crush us," thought she. "I understand your civility.")
A moment's silence.
"I did not think my nephew's conduct in this affair quite the thing," she added; "but naval men must be excused; they know nothing of law." ("Come, we had better make peace," thought she; "we sha'n't gain anything by battling in this way.")
A slight smile wandered over the priests face and was lost in its wrinkles.
"He has done us the service of getting a proper estimate on the value of those paintings," he said, looking up at the pictures. "They will be a noble ornament to the chapel of the Virgin." ("You shot a sarcasm at me," thought he, "and there's another in return; we are quits, madame.")
"If you intend to give them to Saint-Gatien, allow me to offer frames that will be more suitable and worthy of the place, and of the works themselves." ("I wish I could force you to betray that you have taken Birotteau's things for your own," thought she.)
"They do not belong to me," said the priest, on his guard.
"Here is the deed of relinquishment," said Madame de Listomere; "it ends all discussion, and makes them over to Mademoiselle Gamard." She laid the document on the table. ("See the confidence I place in you," thought she.) "It is worthy of you, monsieur," she added, "worthy of your noble character, to reconcile two Christians,—though at present I am not especially concerned for Monsieur Birotteau—"
"He is living in your house," said Troubert, interrupting her.
"No, monsieur, he is no longer there." ("That peerage and my nephew's promotion force me to do base things," thought she.)
The priest remained impassible, but his calm exterior was an indication of violent emotion. Monsieur Bourbonne alone had fathomed the secret of that apparent tranquillity. The priest had triumphed!
"Why did you take upon yourself to bring that relinquishment," he asked, with a feeling analogous to that which impels a woman to fish for compliments.
"I could not avoid a feeling of compassion. Birotteau, whose feeble nature must be well known to you, entreated me to see Madaemoiselle Gamard and to obtain as the price of his renunciation—"
The priest frowned.
"of rights upheld by distinguished lawyers, the portrait of—"
Troubert looked fixedly at Madame de Listomere.
"the portrait of Chapeloud," she said, continuing: "I leave you to judge of his claim." ("You will be certain to lose your case if we go to law, and you know it," thought she.)
The tone of her voice as she said the words "distinguished lawyers" showed the priest that she knew very well both the strength and weakness of the enemy. She made her talent so plain to this connoisseur emeritus in the course of a conversation which lasted a long time in the tone here given, that Troubert finally went down to Mademoiselle Gamard to obtain her answer to Birotteau's request for the portrait.
He soon returned.
"Madame," he said, "I bring you the words of a dying woman. 'The Abbe Chapeloud was so true a friend to me,' she said, 'that I cannot consent to part with his picture.' As for me," added Troubert, "if it were mine I would not yield it. My feelings to my late friend were so faithful that I should feel my right to his portrait was above that of others."
"Well, there's no need to quarrel over a bad picture." ("I care as little about it as you do," thought she.) "Keep it, and I will have a copy made of it. I take some credit to myself for having averted this deplorable lawsuit; and I have gained, personally, the pleasure of your acquaintance. I hear you have a great talent for whist. You will forgive a woman for curiosity," she said, smiling. "If you will come and play at my house sometimes you cannot doubt your welcome."
Troubert stroked his chin. ("Caught! Bourbonne was right!" thought she; "he has his quantum of vanity!")
It was true. The vicar-general was feeling the delightful sensation which Mirabeau was unable to subdue when in the days of his power he found gates opening to his carriage which were barred to him in earlier days.
"Madame," he replied, "my avocations prevent my going much into society; but for you, what will not a man do?" ("The old maid is going to die; I'll get a footing at the Listomere's, and serve them if they serve me," thought he. "It is better to have them for friends than enemies.")
Madame de Listomere went home, hoping that the archbishop would complete the work of peace so auspiciously begun. But Birotteau was fated to gain nothing by his relinquishment. Mademoiselle Gamard died the next day. No one felt surprised when her will was opened to find that she had left everything to the Abbe Troubert. Her fortune was appraised at three hundred thousand francs. The vicar-general sent to Madame de Listomere two notes of invitation for the services and for the funeral procession of his friend; one for herself and one for her nephew.
"We must go," she said.
"It can't be helped," said Monsieur de Bourbonne. "It is a test to which Troubert puts you. Baron, you must go to the cemetery," he added, turning to the lieutenant, who, unluckily for him, had not left Tours.
The services took place, and were performed with unusual ecclesiastical magnificence. Only one person wept, and that was Birotteau, who, kneeling in a side chapel and seen by none, believed himself guilty of the death and prayed sincerely for the soul of the deceased, bitterly deploring that he was not able to obtain her forgiveness before she died.
The Abbe Troubert followed the body of his friend to the grave; at the verge of which he delivered a discourse in which, thanks to his eloquence, the narrow life the old maid had lived was enlarged to monumental proportions. Those present took particular note of the following words in the peroration:—
"This life of days devoted to God and to His religion, a life adorned with noble actions silently performed, and with modest and hidden virtues, was crushed by a sorrow which we might call undeserved if we could forget, here at the verge of this grave, that our afflictions are sent by God. The numerous friends of this saintly woman, knowing the innocence and nobility of her soul, foresaw that she would issue safely from her trials in spite of the accusations which blasted her life. It may be that Providence has called her to the bosom of God to withdraw her from those trials. Happy they who can rest here below in the peace of their own hearts as Sophie now is resting in her robe of innocence among the blest."
"When he had ended his pompous discourse," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, after relating the incidents of the internment to Madame de Listomere when whist was over, the doors shut, and they were alone with the baron, "this Louis XI. in a cassock—imagine him if you can!—gave a last flourish to the sprinkler and aspersed the coffin with holy water." Monsieur de Bourbonne picked up the tongs and imitated the priest's gesture so satirically that the baron and his aunt could not help laughing. "Not until then," continued the old gentleman, "did he contradict himself. Up to that time his behavior had been perfect; but it was no doubt impossible for him to put the old maid, whom he despised so heartily and hated almost as much as he hated Chapeloud, out of sight forever without allowing his joy to appear in that last gesture."
The next day Mademoiselle Salomon came to breakfast with Madame de Listomere, chiefly to say, with deep emotion: "Our poor Abbe Birotteau has just received a frightful blow, which shows the most determined hatred. He is appointed curate of Saint-Symphorien."
Saint-Symphorien is a suburb of Tours lying beyond the bridge. That bridge, one of the finest monuments of French architecture, is nineteen hundred feet long, and the two open squares which surround each end are precisely alike.
"Don't you see the misery of it?" she said, after a pause, amazed at the coldness with which Madame de Listomere received the news. "It is just as if the abbe were a hundred miles from Tours, from his friends, from everything! It is a frightful exile, and all the more cruel because he is kept within sight of the town where he can hardly ever come. Since his troubles he walks very feebly, yet he will have to walk three miles to see his old friends. He has taken to his bed, just now, with fever. The parsonage at Saint-Symphorien is very cold and damp, and the parish is too poor to repair it. The poor old man will be buried in a living tomb. Oh, it is an infamous plot!"
To end this history it will suffice to relate a few events in a simple way, and to give one last picture of its chief personages.
Five months later the vicar-general was made Bishop of Troyes; and Madame de Listomere was dead, leaving an annuity of fifteen hundred francs to the Abbe Birotteau. The day on which the dispositions in her will were made known Monseigneur Hyacinthe, Bishop of Troyes, was on the point of leaving Tours to reside in his diocese, but he delayed his departure on receiving the news. Furious at being foiled by a woman to whom he had lately given his countenance while she had been secretly holding the hand of a man whom he regarded as his enemy, Troubert again threatened the baron's future career, and put in jeopardy the peerage of his uncle. He made in the salon of the archbishop, and before an assembled party, one of those priestly speeches which are big with vengeance and soft with honied mildness. The Baron de Listomere went the next day to see this implacable enemy, who must have imposed sundry hard conditions on him, for the baron's subsequent conduct showed the most entire submission to the will of the terrible Jesuit.
The new bishop made over Mademoiselle Gamard's house by deed of gift to the Chapter of the cathedral; he gave Chapeloud's books and bookcases to the seminary; he presented the two disputed pictures to the Chapel of the Virgin; but he kept Chapeloud's portrait. No one knew how to explain this almost total renunciation of Mademoiselle Gamard's bequest. Monsieur de Bourbonne supposed that the bishop had secretly kept moneys that were invested, so as to support his rank with dignity in Paris, where of course he would take his seat on the Bishops' bench in the Upper Chamber. It was not until the night before Monseigneur Troubert's departure from Tours that the sly old fox unearthed the hidden reason of this strange action, the deathblow given by the most persistent vengeance to the feeblest of victims. Madame de Listomere's legacy to Birotteau was contested by the Baron de Listomere under a pretence of undue influence!
A few days after the case was brought the baron was promoted to the rank of captain. As a measure of ecclesiastical discipline, the curate of Saint-Symphorien was suspended. His superiors judged him guilty. The murderer of Sophie Gamard was also a swindler. If Monseigneur Troubert had kept Mademoiselle Gamard's property he would have found it difficult to make the ecclestiastical authorities censure Birotteau.
At the moment when Monseigneur Hyacinthe, Bishop of Troyes, drove along the quay Saint-Symphorien in a post-chaise on his way to Paris poor Birotteau had been placed in an armchair in the sun on a terrace above the road. The unhappy priest, smitten by the archbishop, was pale and haggard. Grief, stamped on every feature, distorted the face that was once so mildly gay. Illness had dimmed his eyes, formerly brightened by the pleasures of good living and devoid of serious ideas, with a veil which simulated thought. It was but the skeleton of the old Birotteau who had rolled only one year earlier so vacuous but so content along the Cloister. The bishop cast one look of pity and contempt upon his victim; then he consented to forget him, and went his way.
There is no doubt that Troubert would have been in other times a Hildebrand or an Alexander the Sixth. In these days the Church is no longer a political power, and does not absorb the whole strength of her solitaries. Celibacy, however, presents the inherent vice of concentrating the faculties of man upon a single passion, egotism, which renders celibates either useless or mischievous. We live at a period when the defect of governments is to make Man for Society rather than Society for Man. There is a perpetual struggle going on between the Individual and the Social system which insists on using him, while he is endeavoring to use it to his own profit; whereas, in former days, man, really more free, was also more loyal to the public weal. The round in which men struggle in these days has been insensibly widened; the soul which can grasp it as a whole will ever be a magnificent exception; for, as a general thing, in morals as in physics, impulsion loses in intensity what it gains in extension. Society can not be based on exceptions. Man in the first instance was purely and simply, father; his heart beat warmly, concentrated in the one ray of Family. Later, he lived for a clan, or a small community; hence the great historical devotions of Greece and Rome. After that he was a man of caste or of a religion, to maintain the greatness of which he often proved himself sublime; but by that time the field of his interests became enlarged by many intellectual regions. In our day, his life is attached to that of a vast country; sooner or later his family will be, it is predicted, the entire universe.
Will this moral cosmopolitanism, the hope of Christian Rome, prove to be only a sublime error? It is so natural to believe in the realization of a noble vision, in the Brotherhood of Man. But, alas! the human machine does not have such divine proportions. Souls that are vast enough to grasp a range of feelings bestowed on great men only will never belong to either fathers of families or simple citizens. Some physiologists have thought that as the brain enlarges the heart narrows; but they are mistaken. The apparent egotism of men who bear a science, a nation, a code of laws in their bosom is the noblest of passions; it is, as one may say, the maternity of the masses; to give birth to new peoples, to produce new ideas they must unite within their mighty brains the breasts of woman and the force of God. The history of such men as Innocent the Third and Peter the Great, and all great leaders of their age and nation will show, if need be, in the highest spheres the same vast thought of which Troubert was made the representative in the quiet depths of the Cloister of Saint-Gatien.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
Birotteau, Abbe Francois The Lily of the Valley Cesar Birotteau
Bourbonne, De Madame Firmiani
Listomere, Baronne de Cesar Birotteau The Muse of the Department
Troubert, Abbe Hyacinthe The Member for Arcis
Villenoix, Pauline Salomon de Louis Lambert A Seaside Tragedy