Eight days after the date on which this history began, the new arrangements of the household and the relations which grew up between the Abbe Birotteau and Mademoiselle Gamard revealed to the former the existence of a plot which had been hatching for the last six months.
As long as the old maid exercised her vengeance in an underhand way, and the vicar was able to shut his eyes to it and refuse to believe in her malevolent intentions, the moral effect upon him was slight. But since the affair of the candlestick and the altered clock, Birotteau would doubt no longer that he was under an eye of hatred turned fully upon him. From that moment he fell into despair, seeing everywhere the skinny, clawlike fingers of Mademoiselle Gamard ready to hook into his heart. The old maid, happy in a sentiment as fruitful of emotions as that of vengeance, enjoyed circling and swooping above the vicar as a bird of prey hovers and swoops above a field-mouse before pouncing down upon it and devouring it. She had long since laid a plan which the poor dumbfounded priest was quite incapable of imagining, and which she now proceeded to unfold with that genius for little things often shown by solitary persons, whose souls, incapable of feeling the grandeur of true piety, fling themselves into the details of outward devotion.
The petty nature of his troubles prevented Birotteau, always effusive and liking to be pitied and consoled, from enjoying the soothing pleasure of taking his friends into his confidence,—a last but cruel aggravation of his misery. The little amount of tact which he derived from his timidity made him fear to seem ridiculous in concerning himself with such pettiness. And yet those petty things made up the sum of his existence,—that cherished existence, full of busyness about nothings, and of nothingness in its business; a colorless barren life in which strong feelings were misfortunes, and the absence of emotion happiness. The poor priest's paradise was changed, in a moment, into hell. His sufferings became intolerable. The terror he felt at the prospect of a discussion with Mademoiselle Gamard increased day by day; the secret distress which blighted his life began to injure his health. One morning, as he put on his mottled blue stockings, he noticed a marked dimunition in the circumference of his calves. Horrified by so cruel and undeniable a symptom, he resolved to make an effort and appeal to the Abbe Troubert, requesting him to intervene, officially, between Mademoiselle Gamard and himself.
When he found himself in presence of the imposing canon, who, in order to receive his visitor in a bare and cheerless room, had hastily quitted a study full of papers, where he worked incessantly, and where no one was ever admitted, the vicar felt half ashamed at speaking of Mademoiselle Gamard's provocations to a man who appeared to be so gravely occupied. But after going through the agony of the mental deliberations which all humble, undecided, and feeble persons endure about things of even no importance, he decided, not without much swelling and beating of the heart, to explain his position to the Abbe Troubert.
The canon listened in a cold, grave manner, trying, but in vain, to repress an occasional smile which to more intelligent eyes than those of the vicar might have betrayed the emotions of a secret satisfaction. A flame seemed to dart from his eyelids when Birotteau pictured with the eloquence of genuine feeling the constant bitterness he was made to swallow; but Troubert laid his hand above those lids with a gesture very common to thinkers, maintaining the dignified demeanor which was usual with him. When the vicar had ceased to speak he would indeed have been puzzled had he sought on Troubert's face, marbled with yellow blotches even more yellow than his usually bilious skin, for any trace of the feelings he must have excited in that mysterious priest.
After a moment's silence the canon made one of those answers which required long study before their meaning could be thoroughly perceived, though later they proved to reflecting persons the astonishing depths of his spirit and the power of his mind. He simply crushed Birotteau by telling him that "these things amazed him all the more because he should never have suspected their existence were it not for his brother's confession. He attributed such stupidity on his part to the gravity of his occupations, his labors, the absorption in which his mind was held by certain elevated thoughts which prevented his taking due notice of the petty details of life." He made the vicar observe, but without appearing to censure the conduct of a man whose age and connections deserved all respect, that "in former days, recluses thought little about their food and lodging in the solitude of their retreats, where they were lost in holy contemplations," and that "in our days, priests could make a retreat for themselves in the solitude of their own hearts." Then, reverting to Birotteau's affairs, he added that "such disagreements were a novelty to him. For twelve years nothing of the kind had occurred between Mademoiselle Gamard and the venerable Abbe Chapeloud. As for himself, he might, no doubt, be an arbitrator between the vicar and their landlady, because his friendship for that person had never gone beyond the limits imposed by the Church on her faithful servants; but if so, justice demanded that he should hear both sides. He certainly saw no change in Mademoiselle Gamard, who seemed to him the same as ever; he had always submitted to a few of her caprices, knowing that the excellent woman was kindness and gentleness itself; the slight fluctuations of her temper should be attributed, he thought, to sufferings caused by a pulmonary affection, of which she said little, resigning herself to bear them in a truly Christian spirit." He ended by assuring the vicar that "if he stayed a few years longer in Mademoiselle Gamard's house he would learn to understand her better and acknowledge the real value of her excellent nature."
Birotteau left the room confounded. In the direful necessity of consulting no one, he now judged Mademoiselle Gamard as he would himself, and the poor man fancied that if he left her house for a few days he might extinguish, for want of fuel, the dislike the old maid felt for him. He accordingly resolved to spend, as he formerly did, a week or so at a country-house where Madame de Listomere passed her autumns, a season when the sky is usually pure and tender in Touraine. Poor man! in so doing he did the thing that was most desired by his terrible enemy, whose plans could only have been brought to nought by the resistant patience of a monk. But the vicar, unable to divine them, not understanding even his own affairs, was doomed to fall, like a lamb, at the butcher's first blow.
Madame de Listomere's country-place, situated on the embankment which lies between Tours and the heights of Saint-Georges, with a southern exposure and surrounded by rocks, combined the charms of the country with the pleasures of the town. It took but ten minutes from the bridge of Tours to reach the house, which was called the "Alouette," —a great advantage in a region where no one will put himself out for anything whatsoever, not even to seek a pleasure.
The Abbe Birotteau had been about ten days at the Alouette, when, one morning while he was breakfasting, the porter came to say that Monsieur Caron desired to speak with him. Monsieur Caron was Mademoiselle Gamard's laywer, and had charge of her affairs. Birotteau, not remembering this, and unable to think of any matter of litigation between himself and others, left the table to see the lawyer in a stage of great agitation. He found him modestly seated on the balustrade of a terrace.
"Your intention of ceasing to reside in Mademoiselle Gamard's house being made evident—" began the man of business.
"Eh! monsieur," cried the Abbe Birotteau, interrupting him, "I have not the slightest intention of leaving it."
"Nevertheless, monsieur," replied the lawyer, "you must have had some agreement in the matter with Mademoiselle, for she has sent me to ask how long you intend to remain in the country. The event of a long absence was not foreseen in the agreement, and may lead to a contest. Now, Mademoiselle Gamard understanding that your board—"
"Monsieur," said Birotteau, amazed, and again interrupting the lawyer, "I did not suppose it necessary to employ, as it were, legal means to—"
"Mademoiselle Gamard, who is anxious to avoid all dispute," said Monsieur Caron, "has sent me to come to an understanding with you."
"Well, if you will have the goodness to return to-morrow," said the abbe, "I shall then have taken advice in the matter."
The quill-driver withdrew. The poor vicar, frightened at the persistence with which Mademoiselle Gamard pursued him, returned to the dining-room with his face so convulsed that everybody cried out when they saw him: "What is the matter, Monsieur Birotteau?"
The abbe, in despair, sat down without a word, so crushed was he by the vague presence of approaching disaster. But after breakfast, when his friends gathered round him before a comfortable fire, Birotteau naively related the history of his troubles. His hearers, who were beginning to weary of the monotony of a country-house, were keenly interested in a plot so thoroughly in keeping with the life of the provinces. They all took sides with the abbe against the old maid.
"Don't you see, my dear friend," said Madame de Listomere, "that the Abbe Troubert wants your apartment?"
Here the historian ought to sketch this lady; but it occurs to him that even those who are ignorant of Sterne's system of "cognomology," cannot pronounce the three words "Madame de Listomere" without picturing her to themselves as noble and dignified, softening the sternness of rigid devotion by the gracious elegance and the courteous manners of the old monarchical regime; kind, but a little stiff; slightly nasal in voice; allowing herself the perusal of "La Nouvelle Heloise"; and still wearing her own hair.
"The Abbe Birotteau must not yield to that old vixen," cried Monsieur de Listomere, a lieutenant in the navy who was spending a furlough with his aunt. "If the vicar has pluck and will follow my suggestions he will soon recover his tranquillity."
All present began to analyze the conduct of Mademoiselle Gamard with the keen perceptions which characterize provincials, to whom no one can deny the talent of knowing how to lay bare the most secret motives of human actions.
"You don't see the whole thing yet," said an old landowner who knew the region well. "There is something serious behind all this which I can't yet make out. The Abbe Troubert is too deep to be fathomed at once. Our dear Birotteau is at the beginning of his troubles. Besides, would he be left in peace and comfort even if he did give up his lodging to Troubert? I doubt it. If Caron came here to tell you that you intended to leave Mademoiselle Gamard," he added, turning to the bewildered priest, "no doubt Mademoiselle Gamard's intention is to turn you out. Therefore you will have to go, whether you like it or not. Her sort of people play a sure game, they risk nothing."
This old gentleman, Monsieur de Bourbonne, could sum up and estimate provincial ideas as correctly as Voltaire summarized the spirit of his times. He was thin and tall, and chose to exhibit in the matter of clothes the quiet indifference of a landowner whose territorial value is quoted in the department. His face, tanned by the Touraine sun, was less intellectual than shrewd. Accustomed to weigh his words and measure his actions, he concealed a profound vigilance behind a misleading appearance of simplicity. A very slight observation of him sufficed to show that, like a Norman peasant, he invariably held the upper hand in business matters. He was an authority on wine-making, the leading science of Touraine. He had managed to extend the meadow lands of his domain by taking in a part of the alluvial soil of the Loire without getting into difficulties with the State. This clever proceeding gave him the reputation of a man of talent. If Monsieur de Bourbonne's conversation pleased you and you were to ask who he was of a Tourainean, "Ho! a sly old fox!" would be the answer of those who were envious of him—and they were many. In Touraine, as in many of the provinces, jealousy is the root of language.
Monsieur de Bourbonne's remark occasioned a momentary silence, during which the persons who composed the little party seemed to be reflecting. Meanwhile Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix was announced. She came from Tours in the hope of being useful to the poor abbe, and the news she brought completely changed the aspect of the affair. As she entered, every one except Monsieur de Bourbonne was urging Birotteau to hold his own against Troubert and Gamard, under the auspices of the aristocractic society of the place, which would certainly stand by him.
"The vicar-general, to whom the appointments to office are entrusted, is very ill," said Mademoiselle Salomon, "and the archbishop has delegated his powers to the Abbe Troubert provisionally. The canonry will, of course, depend wholly upon him. Now last evening, at Mademoiselle de la Blottiere's the Abbe Poirel talked about the annoyances which the Abbe Birotteau had inflicted on Mademoiselle Gamard, as though he were trying to cast all the blame on our good abbe. 'The Abbe Birotteau,' he said, 'is a man to whom the Abbe Chapeloud was absolutely necessary, and since the death of that venerable man, he has shown'—and then came suggestions, calumnies! you understand?"
"Troubert will be made vicar-general," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, sententiously.
"Come!" cried Madame de Listomere, turning to Birotteau, "which do you prefer, to be made a canon, or continue to live with Mademoiselle Gamard?"
"To be a canon!" cried the whole company.
"Well, then," resumed Madame de Listomere, "you must let the Abbe Troubert and Mademoiselle Gamard have things their own way. By sending Caron here they mean to let you know indirectly that if you consent to leave the house you shall be made canon,—one good turn deserves another."
Every one present applauded Madame de Listomere's sagacity, except her nephew the Baron de Listomere, who remarked in a comic tone to Monsieur de Bourbonne, "I would like to have seen a fight between the Gamard and the Birotteau."
But, unhappily for the vicar, forces were not equal between these persons of the best society and the old maid supported by the Abbe Troubert. The time soon came when the struggle developed openly, went on increasing, and finally assumed immense proportions. By the advice of Madame de Listomere and most of her friends, who were now eagerly enlisted in a matter which threw such excitement into their vapid provincial lives, a servant was sent to bring back Monsieur Caron. The lawyer returned with surprising celerity, which alarmed no one but Monsieur de Bourbonne.
"Let us postpone all decision until we are better informed," was the advice of that Fabius in a dressing-gown, whose prudent reflections revealed to him the meaning of these moves on the Tourainean chess-board. He tried to enlighten Birotteau on the dangers of his position; but the wisdom of the old "sly-boots" did not serve the passions of the moment, and he obtained but little attention.
The conference between the lawyer and Birotteau was short. The vicar came back quite terrified.
"He wants me to sign a paper stating my relinquishment of domicile."
"That's formidable language!" said the naval lieutenant.
"What does it mean?" asked Madame de Listomere.
"Merely that the abbe must declare in writing his intention of leaving Mademoiselle Gamard's house," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, taking a pinch of snuff.
"Is that all?" said Madame de Listomere. "Then sign it at once," she added, turning to Birotteau. "If you positively decide to leave her house, there can be no harm in declaring that such is your will."
"That is true," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, closing his snuff-box with a gesture the significance of which it is impossible to render, for it was a language in itself. "But writing is always dangerous," he added, putting his snuff-box on the mantelpiece with an air and manner that alarmed the vicar.
Birotteau was so bewildered by the upsetting of all his ideas, by the rapidity of events which found him defenceless, by the ease with which his friends were settling the most cherished matters of his solitary life, that he remained silent and motionless as if moonstruck, thinking of nothing, though listening and striving to understand the meaning of the rapid sentences the assembled company addressed to him. He took the paper Monsieur Caron had given him and read it, as if he were giving his mind to the lawyer's document, but the act was merely mechanical. He signed the paper, by which he declared that he left Mademoiselle Gamard's house of his own wish and will, and that he had been fed and lodged while there according to the terms originally agreed upon. When the vicar had signed the document, Monsieur Caron took it and asked where his client was to send the things left by the abbe in her house and belonging to him. Birotteau replied that they could be sent to Madame de Listomere's,—that lady making him a sign that she would receive him, never doubting that he would soon be a canon. Monsieur de Bourbonne asked to see the paper, the deed of relinquishment, which the abbe had just signed. Monsieur Caron gave it to him.
"How is this?" he said to the vicar after reading it. "It appears that written documents already exist between you and Mademoiselle Gamard. Where are they? and what do they stipulate?"
"The deed is in my library," replied Birotteau.
"Do you know the tenor of it?" said Monsieur de Bourbonne to the lawyer.
"No, monsieur," said Caron, stretching out his hand to regain the fatal document.
"Ha!" thought the old man; "you know, my good friend, what that deed contains, but you are not paid to tell us," and he returned the paper to the lawyer.
"Where can I put my things?" cried Birotteau; "my books, my beautiful book-shelves, and pictures, my red furniture, and all my treasures?"
The helpless despair of the poor man thus torn up as it were by the roots was so artless, it showed so plainly the purity of his ways and his ignorance of the things of life, that Madame de Listomere and Mademoiselle de Salomon talked to him and consoled him in the tone which mothers take when they promise a plaything to their children.
"Don't fret about such trifles," they said. "We will find you some place less cold and dismal than Mademoiselle Gamard's gloomy house. If we can't find anything you like, one or other of us will take you to live with us. Come, let's play a game of backgammon. To-morrow you can go and see the Abbe Troubert and ask him to push your claims to the canonry, and you'll see how cordially he will receive you."
Feeble folk are as easily reassured as they are frightened. So the poor abbe, dazzled at the prospect of living with Madame de Listomere, forgot the destruction, now completed, of the happiness he had so long desired, and so delightfully enjoyed. But at night before going to sleep, the distress of a man to whom the fuss of moving and the breaking up of all his habits was like the end of the world, came upon him, and he racked his brains to imagine how he could ever find such a good place for his book-case as the gallery in the old maid's house. Fancying he saw his books scattered about, his furniture defaced, his regular life turned topsy-turvy, he asked himself for the thousandth time why the first year spent in Mademoiselle Gamard's house had been so sweet, the second so cruel. His troubles were a pit in which his reason floundered. The canonry seemed to him small compensation for so much misery, and he compared his life to a stocking in which a single dropped stitch resulted in destroying the whole fabric. Mademoiselle Salomon remained to him. But, alas, in losing his old illusions the poor priest dared not trust in any later friendship.
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 dunken 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 receivng 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.