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Abbe Mouret's Transgression By Emile Zola Characters: 11895

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


When Abbe Mouret had got beyond all hearing of La Teuse he stopped, thankful to be alone at last. The church was built on a hillock, which sloped down gently to the village. With its large gaping windows and bright red tiles, it stretched out like a deserted sheep-cote. The priest turned round and glanced at the parsonage, a greyish building springing from the very side of the church; but as if fearful that he might again be overtaken by the interminable chatter that had been buzzing in his ears ever since morning, he turned up to the right again, and only felt safe when he at last stood before the great doorway, where he could not be seen from the parsonage. The front of the church, quite bare and worn by the sunshine and rain of years, was crowned by a narrow open stone belfry, in which a small bell showed its black silhouette, whilst its rope disappeared through the tiles. Six broken steps, on one side half buried in the earth, led up to the lofty arched door, now cracked, smothered with dust and rust and cobwebs, and so frailly hung upon its outwrenched hinges that it seemed as if the first slight puff would secure free entrance to the winds of heaven. Abbe Mouret, who had an affection for this dilapidated door, leaned against one of its leaves as he stood upon the steps. Thence he could survey the whole country round at a glance. And shading his eyes with his hands he scanned the horizon.

In the month of May exuberant vegetation burst forth from that stony soil. Gigantic lavenders, juniper bushes, patches of rank herbage swarmed over the church threshold, and scattered clumps of dark greenery even to the very tiles. It seemed as if the first throb of shooting sap in the tough matted underwood might well topple the church over. At that early hour, amid all the travail of nature's growth, there was a hum of vivifying warmth, and the very rocks quivered as with a long and silent effort. But the Abbe failed to comprehend the ardour of nature's painful labour; he simply thought that the steps were tottering, and thereupon leant against the other side of the door.

The countryside stretched away for a distance of six miles, bounded by a wall of tawny hills speckled with black pine-woods. It was a fearful landscape of arid wastes and rocky spurs rending the soil. The few patches of arable ground were like scattered pools of blood, red fields with rows of lean almond trees, grey-topped olive trees and long lines of vines, streaking the soil with their brown stems. It was as if some huge conflagration had swept by there, scattering the ashes of forests over the hill-tops, consuming all the grass of the meadow lands, and leaving its glare and furnace-like heat behind in the hollows. Only here and there was the softer note of a pale green patch of growing corn. The landscape generally was wild, lacking even a threadlet of water, dying of thirst, and flying away in clouds of dust at the least breath of wind. But at the farthest point where the crumbling hills on the horizon had left a breach one espied some distant fresh moist greenery, a stretch of the neighbouring valley fertilised by the Viorne, a river flowing down from the gorges of the Seille.

The priest lowered his dazzled glance upon the village, whose few scattered houses straggled away below the church-wretched hovels they were of rubble and boards strewn along a narrow path without sign of streets. There were about thirty of them altogether, some squatting amidst muck-heaps, and black with woeful want; others roomier and more cheerful-looking with their roofs of pinkish tiles. Strips of garden, victoriously planted amidst stony soil, displayed plots of vegetables enclosed by quickset hedges. At this hour Les Artaud was empty, not a woman was at the windows, not a child was wallowing in the dust; parties of fowls alone went to and fro, ferreting among the straw, seeking food up to the very thresholds of the houses, whose open doors gaped in the sunlight. A big black dog seated on his haunches at the entrance to the village seemed to be mounting guard over it.

Languor slowly stole over Abbe Mouret. The rising sun steeped him in such warmth that he leant back against the church door pervaded by a feeling of happy restfulness. His thoughts were dwelling on that hamlet of Les Artaud, which had sprung up there among the stones like one of the knotty growths of the valley. All its inhabitants were related, all bore the same name, so that from their very cradle they were distinguished among themselves by nicknames. An Artaud, their ancestor, had come hither and settled like a pariah in this waste. His family had grown with all the wild vitality of the herbage that sucked life from the rocky boulders. It had at last become a tribe, a rural community, in which cousin-ships were lost in the mists of centuries. They intermarried with shameless promiscuity. Not an instance could be cited of any Artaud taking himself a wife from any neighbouring village; only some of the girls occasionally went elsewhere. The others were born and died fixed to that spot, leisurely increasing and multiplying on their dunghills with the irreflectiveness of trees, and with no definite notion of the world that lay beyond the tawny rocks, in whose midst they vegetated. And yet there were already rich and poor among them; fowls having at times disappeared, the fowl-houses were now closed at night with stout padlocks; moreover one Artaud had killed another Artaud one evening behind the mill. These folk, begirt by that belt of desolate hills, were truly a people apart-a race sprung from the soil, a miniature replica of mankind, three hundred souls all told, beginning the centuries yet once again.

Over the priest the sombre shadows of seminary life still hovered. For years he had never seen the sun. He perceived it not even now, his eyes closed and gazing inwards on his soul, and with no feeling for perishab

le nature, fated to damnation, save contempt. For a long time in his hours of devout thought he had dreamt of some hermit's desert, of some mountain hole, where no living thing-neither being, plant, nor water-should distract him from the contemplation of God. It was an impulse springing from the purest love, from a loathing of all physical sensation. There, dying to self, and with his back turned to the light of day, he would have waited till he should cease to be, till nothing should remain of him but the sovereign whiteness of the soul. To him heaven seemed all white, with a luminous whiteness as if lilies there snowed down upon one, as if every form of purity, innocence, and chastity there blazed. But his confessor reproved him whenever he related his longings for solitude, his cravings for an existence of Godlike purity; and recalled him to the struggles of the Church, the necessary duties of the priesthood. Later on, after his ordination, the young priest had come to Les Artaud at his own request, there hoping to realise his dream of human annihilation. In that desolate spot, on that barren soil, he might shut his ears to all worldly sounds, and live the dreamy life of a saint. For some months past, in truth, his existence had been wholly undisturbed, rarely had any thrill of the village-life disturbed him; and even the sun's heat scarcely brought him any glow of feeling as he walked the paths, his whole being wrapped in heaven, heedless of the unceasing travail of life amidst which he moved.

The big black dog watching over Les Artaud had determined to come up to Abbe Mouret, and now sat upon its haunches at the priest's feet; but the unconscious man remained absorbed amidst the sweetness of the morning. On the previous evening he had begun the exercises of the Rosary, and to the intercession of the Virgin with her Divine Son he attributed the great joy which filled his soul. How despicable appeared all the good things of the earth! How thankfully he recognised his poverty! When he entered into holy orders, after losing on the same day both his father and his mother through a tragedy the fearful details of which were even now unknown to him,* he had relinquished all his share of their property to an elder brother. His only remaining link with the world was his sister; he had undertaken the care of her, stirred by a kind of religious affection for her feeble intelligence. The dear innocent was so childish, such a very little girl, that she recalled to him the poor in spirit to whom the Gospel promises the kingdom of heaven. Of late, however, she had somewhat disturbed him; she was growing too lusty, too full of health and life. But his discomfort was yet of the slightest. His days were spent in that inner life he had created for himself, for which he had relinquished all else. He closed the portals of his senses, and sought to free himself from all bodily needs, so that he might be but a soul enrapt in contemplation. To him nature offered only snares and abominations; he gloried in maltreating her, in despising her, in releasing himself from his human slime. And as the just man must be a fool according to the world, he considered himself an exile on this earth; his thoughts were solely fixed upon the favours of Heaven, incapable as he was of understanding how an eternity of bliss could be weighed against a few hours of perishable enjoyment. His reason duped him and his senses lied; and if he advanced in virtue it was particularly by humility and obedience. His wish was to be the last of all, one subject to all, in order that the divine dew might fall upon his heart as upon arid sand; he considered himself overwhelmed with reproach and with confusion, unworthy of ever being saved from sin. He no longer belonged to himself-blind, deaf, dead to the world as he was. He was God's thing. And from the depth of the abjectness to which he sought to plunge, Hosannahs suddenly bore him aloft, above the happy and the mighty into the splendour of never-ending bliss.

* This forms the subject of M. Zola's novel, The Conquest of

Plassans. ED.

Thus, at Les Artaud, Abbe Mouret had once more experienced, each time he read the 'Imitation,' the raptures of the cloistered life which he had longed for at one time so ardently. As yet he had not had to fight any battle. From the moment that he knelt down, he became perfect, absolutely oblivious of the flesh, unresisting, undisturbed, as if overpowered by the Divine grace. Such ecstasy at God's approach is well known to some young priests: it is a blissful moment when all is hushed, and the only desire is but a boundless craving for purity. From no human creature had he sought his consolations. He who believes a certain thing to be all in all cannot be troubled: and he did believe that God was all in all, and that humility, obedience, and chastity were everything. He could remember having heard temptation spoken of as an abominable torture that tries the holiest. But he would only smile: God had never left him. He bore his faith about him thus like a breast-plate protecting him from the slightest breath of evil. He could recall how he had hidden himself and wept for very love; he knew not whom he loved, but he wept for love, for love of some one afar off. The recollection never failed to move him. Later on he had decided on becoming a priest in order to satisfy that craving for a superhuman affection which was his sole torment. He could not see where greater love could be. In that state of life he satisfied his being, his inherited predisposition, his youthful dreams, his first virile desires. If temptation must come, he awaited it with the calmness of the seminarist ignorant of the world. He felt that his manhood had been killed in him: it gladdened him to feel himself a creature set apart, unsexed, turned from the usual paths of life, and, as became a lamb of the Lord, marked with the tonsure.

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