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   Chapter 5 No.5

Abbe Mouret's Transgression By Emile Zola Characters: 11893

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


While the priest pondered the sun was heating the big church-door. Gilded flies buzzed round a large flower that was blooming between two of the church-door steps. Abbe Mouret, feeling slightly dazed, was at last about to move away, when the big black dog sprang, barking violently, towards the iron gate of the little graveyard on the left of the church. At the same time a harsh voice called out: 'Ah! you young rascal! So you stop away from school, and I find you in the graveyard! Oh, don't say no: I have been watching you this quarter of an hour.'

As the priest stepped forward he saw Vincent, whom a Brother of the Christian Schools was clutching tightly by the ear. The lad was suspended, as it were, over a ravine skirting the graveyard, at the bottom of which flowed the Mascle, a mountain torrent whose crystal waters plunged into the Viorne, six miles away.

'Brother Archangias!' softly called the priest, as if to appease the fearful man.

The Brother, however, did not release the boy's ear.

'Oh, it's you, Monsieur le Cure?' he growled. 'Just fancy, this rascal is always poking his nose into the graveyard. I don't know what he can be up to here. I ought to let go of him and let him smash his skull down there. It would be what he deserves.'

The lad remained dumb, with his cunning eyes tight shut as he clung to the bushes.

'Take care, Brother Archangias,' continued the priest, 'he might slip.'

And he himself helped Vincent to scramble up again.

'Come, my young friend, what were you doing there?' he asked. 'You must not go playing in graveyards.'

The lad had opened his eyes, and crept away, fearfully, from the Brother, to place himself under the priest's protection.

'I'll tell you,' he said in a low voice, as he raised his bushy head. 'There is a tomtit's nest in the brambles there, under that rock. For over ten days I've been watching it, and now the little ones are hatched, so I came this morning after serving your mass.'

'A tomtit's nest!' exclaimed Brother Archangias. 'Wait a bit! wait a bit!'

Thereupon he stepped aside, picked a clod of earth off a grave and flung it into the brambles. But he missed the nest. Another clod, however, more skilfully thrown upset the frail cradle, and precipitated the fledglings into the torrent below.

'Now, perhaps,' he continued, clapping his hands to shake off the earth that soiled them, 'you won't come roaming here any more, like a heathen; the dead will pull your feet at night if you go walking over them again.'

Vincent, who had laughed at seeing the nest dive into the stream, looked round him and shrugged his shoulders like one of strong mind.

'Oh, I'm not afraid,' he said. 'Dead folk don't stir.'

The graveyard, in truth, was not a place to inspire fear. It was a barren piece of ground whose narrow paths were smothered by rank weeds. Here and there the soil was bossy with mounds. A single tombstone, that of Abbe Caffin, brand-new and upright, could be perceived in the centre of the ground. Save this, all around there were only broken fragments of crosses, withered tufts of box, and old slabs split and moss-eaten. There were not two burials a year. Death seemed to make no dwelling in that waste spot, whither La Teuse came every evening to fill her apron with grass for Desiree's rabbits. A gigantic cypress tree, standing near the gate, alone cast shadow upon the desert field. This cypress, a landmark visible for nine miles around, was known to the whole countryside as the Solitaire.

'It's full of lizards,' added Vincent, looking at the cracks of the church-wall. 'One could have a fine lark-'

But he sprang out with a bound on seeing the Brother lift his foot. The latter proceeded to call the priest's attention to the dilapidated state of the gate, which was not only eaten up with rust, but had one hinge off, and the lock broken.

'It ought to be repaired,' said he.

Abbe Mouret smiled, but made no reply. Addressing Vincent, who was romping with the dog: 'I say, my boy,' he asked, 'do you know where old Bambousse is at work this morning?'

The lad glanced towards the horizon. 'He must be at his Olivettes field now,' he answered, pointing towards the left. 'But Voriau will show your reverence the way. He's sure to know where his master is.' And he clapped his hands and called: 'Hie! Voriau! hie!'

The big black dog paused a moment, wagging his tail, and seeking to read the urchin's eyes. Then, barking joyfully, he set off down the slope to the village. Abbe Mouret and Brother Archangias followed him, chatting. A hundred yards further Vincent surreptitiously bolted, and again glided up towards the church, keeping a watchful eye upon them, and ready to dart behind a bush if they should look round. With adder-like suppleness, he once more glided into the graveyard, that paradise full of lizards, nests, and flowers.

Meantime, while Voriau led the way before them along the dusty road, Brother Archangias was angrily saying to the priest: 'Let be! Monsieur le Cure, they're spawn of damnation, those toads are! They ought to have their backs broken, to make them pleasing to God. They grow up in irreligion, like their fathers. Fifteen years have I been here, and not one Christian have I been able to turn out. The minute they quit my hands, good-bye! They think of nothing but their land, their vines, their olive-trees. Not one ever sets foot in church. Brute beasts they are, struggling with their stony fields! Guide them with the stick, Monsieur le Cure, yes, the stick!'

Then, after drawing breath, he added with a terrific wave of his hands:

'Those Artauds, look you, are like the brambles over-running these rocks. One stem has been enough to poison the whole district. They cling on, they multiply, they live in spite of everything. Nothing short of fire from heaven, as at Gomorrha, will clear it all away.'

'We should never despair of sinners,'

said Abbe Mouret, all inward peacefulness, as he leisurely walked on.

'But these are the devil's own,' broke in the Brother still more violently. 'I've been a peasant, too. Up to eighteen I dug the earth; and later on, when I was at the Training College, I had to sweep, pare vegetables, do all the heavy work. It's not their toilsome labour I find fault with. On the contrary, for God prefers the lowly. But the Artauds live like beasts! They are like their dogs, they never attend mass, and make a mock of the commandments of God and of the Church. They think of nothing but their plots of lands, so sweet they are on them!'

Voriau, his tail wagging, kept stopping and moving on again as soon as he saw that they still followed him.

'There certainly are some grievous things going on,' said Abbe Mouret. 'My predecessor, Abbe Caffin-'

'A poor specimen,' interrupted the Brother. 'He came here to us from Normandy owing to some disreputable affair. Once here, his sole thought was good living; he let everything go to rack and ruin.'

'Oh, no, Abbe Caffin certainly did what he could; but I must own that his efforts were all but barren in results. My own are mostly fruitless.'

Brother Archangias shrugged his shoulders. He walked on for a minute in silence, swaying his tall bony frame, which looked as if it had been roughly fashioned with a hatchet. The sun beat down upon his neck, shadowing his hard, sword-edged peasant's face.

'Listen to me, Monsieur le Cure,' he said at last. 'I am too much beneath you to lecture you; but still, I am almost double your age, I know this part, and therefore I feel justified in telling you that you will gain nothing by gentleness. The catechism, understand, is enough. God has no mercy on the wicked. He burns them. Stick to that.'

Then, as Abbe Mouret, whose head remained bowed, did not open his mouth, he went on: 'Religion is leaving the country districts because it is made over indulgent. It was respected when it spoke out like an unforgiving mistress. I really don't know what they can teach you now in the seminaries. The new priests weep like children with their parishioners. God no longer seems the same. I dare say, Monsieur le Cure, that you don't even know your catechism by heart now?'

But the priest, wounded by the imperiousness with which the Brother so roughly sought to dominate him, looked up and dryly rejoined:

'That will do, your zeal is very praiseworthy. But haven't you something to tell me? You came to the parsonage this morning, did you not?'

Thereupon Brother Archangias plumply answered: 'I had to tell you just what I have told you. The Artauds live like pigs. Only yesterday I learned that Rosalie, old Bambousse's eldest daughter, is in the family way. It happens with all of them before they get married. And they simply laugh at reproaches, as you know.'

'Yes,' murmured Abbe Mouret, 'it is a great scandal. I am just on my way to see old Bambousse to speak to him about it; it is desirable that they should be married as soon as possible. The child's father, it seems, is Fortune, the Brichets' eldest son. Unfortunately the Brichets are poor.'

'That Rosalie, now,' continued the Brother, 'is just eighteen. Not four years since I still had her under me at school, and she was already a gadabout. I have now got her sister Catherine, a chit of eleven, who seems likely to become even worse than her elder. One comes across her in every corner with that little scamp, Vincent. It's no good, you may pull their ears till they bleed, the woman always crops up in them. They carry perdition about with them and are only fit to be thrown on a muck-heap. What a splendid riddance if all girls were strangled at their birth!'

His loathing, his hatred of woman made him swear like a carter. Abbe Mouret, who had been listening to him with unmoved countenance, smiled at last at his rabid utterances. He called Voriau, who had strayed into a field close by.

'There, look there!' cried Brother Archangias, pointing to a group of children playing at the bottom of a ravine, 'there are my young devils, who play the truant under pretence of going to help their parents among the vines! You may be certain that jade of a Catherine is among them.... There, didn't I tell you! Till to-night, Monsieur le Cure. Oh, just you wait, you rascals!'

Off he went at a run, his dirty neckband flying over his shoulder, and his big greasy cassock tearing up the thistles. Abbe Mouret watched him swoop down into the midst of the children, who scattered like frightened sparrows. But he succeeded in seizing Catherine and one boy by the ears and led them back towards the village, clutching them tightly with his big hairy fingers, and overwhelming them with abuse.

The priest walked on again. Brother Archangias sometimes aroused strange scruples in his mind. With his vulgarity and coarseness the Brother seemed to him the true man of God, free from earthly ties, submissive in all to Heaven's will, humble, blunt, ready to shower abuse upon sin. He, the priest, would then feel despair at his inability to rid himself more completely of his body; he regretted that he was not ugly, unclean, covered with vermin like some of the saints. Whenever the Brother had wounded him by some words of excessive coarseness, or by some over-hasty churlishness, he would blame himself for his refinement, his innate shrinking, as if these were really faults. Ought he not to be dead to all the weaknesses of this world? And this time also he smiled sadly as he thought how near he had been to losing his temper at the Brother's roughly put lesson. It was pride, it seemed to him, seeking to work his perdition by making him despise the lowly. However, in spite of himself, he felt relieved at being alone again, at being able to walk on gently, reading his breviary, free at last from the grating voice that had disturbed his dream of heavenly love.

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