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   Chapter 48 No.48

Abbe Mouret's Transgression By Emile Zola Characters: 15146

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


That morning there was great commotion in the yard at the parsonage. The Artaud butcher had just slaughtered Matthew, the pig, in the shed. Desiree, quite enthusiastic about it all, had held Matthew's feet, while he was being bled, kissing him on the back that he might feel the pain of the knife less, and telling him that it was absolutely necessary that he should be killed, now that he had got so fat. No one could cut off a goose's neck with a single stroke of the hatchet more unconcernedly than she could, or gash open a fowl's throat with a pair of scissors. However much she loved her charges, she looked upon their slaughter with great equanimity. It was quite necessary, she would say. It made room for the young ones who were growing up. And that morning she was very gay.

'Mademoiselle,' grumbled La Teuse every minute, 'you will end by making yourself ill. There is no sense in working yourself up into such a state, just because a pig has been slaughtered. You are as red as if you had been dancing a whole night.'

But Desiree only clapped her hands and turned away and bustled about again. La Teuse, for her part, complained that her legs were sinking under her. Since six o'clock in the morning her big carcass had been perpetually rolling between the kitchen and the yard, for she had black puddings to make. It was she who had whisked the blood in two large earthenware pans, and she had thought that she would never get finished, since mademoiselle was for ever calling her away for mere nothings.

It must be admitted that, at the very moment when the butcher was bleeding Matthew, Desiree had been thrilled with wild excitement, for Lisa, the cow, was about to calve. And the girl's delight at this had quite turned her head.

'One goes and another comes!' she cried, skipping and twirling round. 'Come here, La Teuse! come here!'

It was eleven o'clock. Every now and then the sound of chanting was wafted from the church. A confused murmur of doleful voices, a muttering of prayers could be heard amidst scraps of Latin pronounced in louder and clearer tones.

'Come! oh, do come!' repeated Desiree for the twentieth time.

'I must go and toll the bell, now,' muttered the old servant. 'I shall never get finished really. What is it that you want now, mademoiselle?'

But she did not wait for an answer. She threw herself upon a swarm of fowls, who were greedily drinking the blood from the pans. And having angrily kicked them away, and then covered up the pans, she called to Desiree:

'It would be a great deal better if, instead of tormenting me, you only came to look after these wretched birds. If you let them do as they like there will be no black-pudding for you. Do you hear?'

Desiree only laughed. What of it, if the fowls did drink a few drops of the blood? It would fatten them. Then she again tried to drag La Teuse off to the cow, but the old servant refused to go.

'I must go and toll the bell. The procession will be coming out of church directly. You know that quite well.'

At this moment the voices in the church rose yet more loudly, and a sound of steps could be distinctly heard.

'No! no!' insisted Desiree, dragging La Teuse towards the stable. 'Just come and look at her, and tell me what ought to be done.'

La Teuse shrugged her shoulders. All that the cow wanted was to be left alone and not bothered. Then she set off towards the vestry, but, as she passed the shed, she raised a fresh cry:

'There! there!' she shrieked, shaking her fist. 'Ah! the little wretch!'

Matthew was lying at full length on his back, with his feet in the air, under the shed, waiting to be singed.* The gash which the knife had made in his neck was still quite fresh, and was beaded with drops of blood. And a little white hen was very delicately picking off these drops of blood one by one.

* In some parts of France pigs, when killed, are singed, not scalded,

as is, I think, the usual practice in England.-ED.

'Why, of course,' quietly remarked Desiree, 'she's regaling herself.' And the girl stooped and patted the pig's plump belly, saying: 'Eh! my fat fellow, you have stolen their food too often to grudge them a wee bit of your neck now!'

La Teuse hastily doffed her apron and threw it round Matthew's neck. Then she hurried away and disappeared within the church. The great door had just creaked on its rusty hinges, and a burst of chanting rose in the open air amidst the quiet sunshine. Suddenly the bell began to toll with slow and regular strokes. Desiree, who had remained kneeling beside the pig patting his belly, raised her head to listen, while still continuing to smile. When she saw that she was alone, having glanced cautiously around, she glided away into the cow's stable and closed the door behind her.

The little iron gate of the graveyard, which had been opened quite wide to let the body pass, hung against the wall, half torn from its hinges. The sunshine slept upon the herbage of the empty expanse, into which the funeral procession passed, chanting the last verse of the Miserere. Then silence fell.

'Requiem ternam dona ei, Domine,' resumed Abbe Mouret, in solemn tones.

'Et lux perpetua luceat ei,' Brother Archangias bellowed.

At the head walked Vincent, wearing a surplice and bearing the cross, a large copper cross, half the silver plating of which had come off. He lifted it aloft with both his hands. Then followed Abbe Mouret, looking very pale in his black chasuble, but with his head erect, and without a quiver on his lips as he chanted the office, gazing into the distance with fixed eyes. The flame of the lighted candle which he was carrying scarcely showed in the daylight. And behind him, almost touching him, came Albine's coffin, borne by four peasants on a sort of litter, painted black. The coffin was clumsily covered with too short a pall, and at the lower end of it the fresh deal of which it was made could be seen, with the heads of the nails sparkling with a steely glitter. Upon the pall lay flowers: handfuls of white roses, hyacinths, and tuberoses, taken from the dead girl's very bed.

'Just be careful!' cried Brother Archangias to the peasants, as they slightly tilted the litter in order to get it through the gateway. 'You will be upsetting everything on to the ground!'

He kept the coffin in its place with one of his fat hands. With the other-as there was no second clerk-he was carrying the holy-water vessel, and he likewise represented the choirman, the rural guard, who had been unable to come.

'Come in, too, you others,' he exclaimed, turning round.

There was a second funeral, that of Rosalie's baby, who had died the previous day from an attack of convulsions. The mother, the father, old mother Brichet, Catherine, and two big girls, La Rousse and Lisa, were there. The two last were carrying the baby's coffin, one supporting each end.

Suddenly all voices were hushed again, and there came another interval whilst the bell continued tolling in slow and desolate accents. The funeral procession crossed the entire burial-ground, going towards the corner which was formed by the church and the wall of Desiree's poultry-yard. Swarms of grasshoppers leaped away at the approaching footsteps, and lizards hurried into their holes. A heavy warmth hung over this corner of the loamy cemetery. The crackling of the dry grass beneath the tramp of the mourners sounded like choking sobs.

'There! stop where you are!' cried the Brother, barring the way before the two big girls who were carrying

the baby's coffin. 'Wait for your turn. Don't be getting in our legs here.'

The two girls laid the baby on the ground. Rosalie, Fortune, and old mother Brichet were lingering in the middle of the graveyard, while Catherine slyly followed Brother Archangias. Albine's grave was on the left hand of Abbe Caffin's tomb, whose white stone seemed in the sunshine to be flecked with silvery spangles. The deep cavity, freshly dug that morning, yawned amidst thick tufts of grass. Big weeds, almost uprooted, drooped over the edges, and a fallen flower lay at the bottom, staining the dark soil with its crimson petals. When Abbe Mouret came forward, the soft earth crumbled and gave way beneath his feet; he was obliged to step back to keep himself from slipping into the grave.

'Ego sum-' he began in a full voice, which rose above the mournful tolling of the bell.

During the anthem, those who were present instinctively cast furtive glances towards the bottom of the empty grave. Vincent, who had planted the cross at the foot of the cavity opposite the priest, pushed the loose earth with his foot, and amused himself by watching it fall. This drew a laugh from Catherine, who was leaning forward from behind him to get a better view. The peasants had set the litter on the grass and were stretching their arms, while Brother Archangias prepared the sprinkler.

'Come here, Voriau!' called Fortune.

The big black dog, who had gone to sniff at the coffin, came back sulkily.

'Why has the dog been brought?' exclaimed Rosalie.

'Oh! he followed us,' said Lisa, smiling quietly.

They were all chatting together in subdued tones round the baby's coffin. The father and mother occasionally forgot all about it, but on catching sight of it again, lying between them at their feet, they relapsed into silence.

'And so old Bambousse wouldn't come?' said La Rousse. Mother Brichet raised her eyes to heaven.

'He threatened to break everything to pieces yesterday when the little one died,' said she. 'No, no, I must say that he is not a good man. Didn't he nearly strangle me, crying out that he had been robbed, and that he would have given one of his cornfields for the little one to have died three days before the wedding?'

'One can never tell what will happen,' remarked Fortune with a knowing look.

'What's the good of the old man putting himself out about it? We are married, all the same, now,' added Rosalie.

Then they exchanged a smile across the little coffin while Lisa and La Rousse nudged each other with their elbows. But afterwards they all became very serious again. Fortune picked up a clod of earth to throw at Voriau, who was now prowling about amongst the old tombstones.

'Ah! they've nearly finished over there, now!' La Rousse whispered very softly.

Abbe Mouret was just concluding the De profundis in front of Albine's grave. Then, with slow steps, he approached the coffin, drew himself up erect, and gazed at it for a moment without a quiver in his glance. He looked taller, his face shone with a serenity that seemed to transfigure him. He stooped and picked up a handful of earth, and scattered it over the coffin crosswise. Then, in a voice so steady and clear that not a syllable was lost, he said:

'Revertitur in terrain suam unde erat, et spiritus redit ad Deum qui dedit illum.'

A shudder ran through those who were present. Lisa seemed to reflect for a moment, and then remarked with an expression of worry: 'It is not very cheerful, eh, when one thinks that one's own turn will come some day or other.'

But Brother Archangias had now handed the sprinkler to the priest, who took it and shook it several times over the corpse.

'Requiescat in pace,' he murmured.

'Amen,' responded Vincent and the Brother together, in tones so respectively shrill and deep that Catherine had to cram her fist into her mouth to keep from laughing.

'No, indeed, it is certainly not cheerful,' continued Lisa. 'There really was nobody at all at that funeral. The graveyard would be quite empty without us.'

'I've heard say that she killed herself,' said old mother Brichet.

'Yes, I know,' interrupted La Rousse. 'The Brother didn't want to let her be buried amongst Christians, but Monsieur le Cure said that eternity was for everybody. I was there. But all the same the Philosopher might have come.'

At that very moment Rosalie reduced them all to silence by murmuring: 'See! there he is, the Philosopher.'

Jeanbernat was, indeed, just entering the graveyard. He walked straight to the group that stood around Albine's grave; and he stepped along with so lithe, so springy a gait, that none of them heard him coming. When he was close to them, he remained for a moment behind Brother Archangias and seemed to fix his eyes, for an instant, on the nape of the Brother's neck. Then, just as the Abbe Mouret was finishing the office, he calmly drew a knife from his pocket, opened it, and with a single cut sliced off the Brother's right ear.

There had been no time for any one to interfere. The Brother gave a terrible yell.

'The left one will be for another occasion,' said Jeanbernat quietly, as he threw the ear upon the ground. Then he went off.

So great and so general was the stupefaction that nobody followed him. Brother Archangias had dropped upon the heap of fresh soil which had been thrown out of the grave. He was staunching his bleeding wound with his handkerchief. One of the four peasants who had carried the coffin, wanted to lead him away, conduct him home; but he refused with a gesture and remained where he was, fierce and sullen, wishing to see Albine lowered into the pit.

'There! it's our turn at last!' said Rosalie with a little sigh.

But Abbe Mouret still lingered by the grave, watching the bearers who were slipping cords under Albine's coffin in order that they might let it down gently. The bell was still tolling; but La Teuse must have been getting tired, for it tolled irregularly, as though it were becoming a little irritated at the length of the ceremony.

The sun was growing hotter and the Solitaire's shadow crept slowly over the grass and the grave mounds. When Abbe Mouret was obliged to step back in order to give the bearers room, his eyes lighted upon the marble tombstone of Abbe Caffin, that priest who also had loved, and who was now sleeping there so peacefully beneath the wild-flowers.

Then, all at once, even as the coffin descended, supported by the cords, whose knots made it strain and creak, a tremendous uproar arose in the poultry-yard on the other side of the wall. The goat began to bleat. The ducks, the geese, and the turkeys raised their loudest calls and flapped their wings. The fowls all cackled at once. The yellow cock, Alexander, crowed forth his trumpet notes. The rabbits could even be heard leaping in their hutches and shaking their wooden floors. And, above all this lifeful uproar of the animal creation, a loud laugh rang out. There was a rustling of skirts. Desiree, with her hair streaming, her arms bare to the elbows, and her face crimson with triumph, burst into sight, her hands resting upon the coping of the wall. She had doubtless climbed upon the manure-heap.

'Serge! Serge!' she cried.

At that moment Albine's coffin had reached the bottom of the grave. The cords had just been withdrawn. One of the peasants was throwing the first shovelful of earth into the cavity.

'Serge! Serge!' Desiree cried, still more loudly, clapping her hands, 'the cow has got a calf!'

THE END

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