“ YES, Madame la Comtesse,” said Monsieur le Cure, a mild glow of enthusiasm lighting up his irregular features, “ I have saved five hundred and fifty francs.”
M. le Cure had come to make a visit of ceremony at the grand chateau. Monsieur was scrupulously exact about his visits of ceremony to Madame de Mirouet, the sole remaining representative of the great family in his parish. His deference to madame was perhaps all the more marked because of her misfortunes. The family estates had in great part passed into the hands of strangers ; and, in the France-Prussian war, her husband and her two sons had given themselves for their country. She was alone in the world now, this stately old lady; but the sense of her own dignity kept her from loneliness. She heard the discussions of her servants concerning the details of her little farm with the same well-bred interest which she had formerly shown in listening to the intrigues of statesmen ; and, in her gray alpaca gown, she received the calls of M. le Curé with the same serene grace with which, in her youth, attired in satins and laces, she had entertained a royal duke. She was an impressive old lady, as she sat in a straight-backed chair in the midst of the dignified and shabby magnificence of the grand salon. She seemed to belong to the present no more than did the ancestral portraits on the wall ; and one felt that she shared in their stern, though mute, protest against the degeneracy of the times. “ The world is indeed in a sad way,” thought madame, “in these days, when all the traditions of the noblesse are overthrown. It is a comfort to find here and there, a man who has not lost the proper spirit of deference to his superiors ; ” and she bowed her head with courtly condescension to the remarks of 51. le Curé, who sat before her, a trifle ill at ease, the angles in his lank figure rather displayed than concealed by his shabby soutane.
Poor M. le Curé ! Did he remember, as he talked to the faded figure in gray alpaca, a day, forty years ago, — a day when the clear sun of Normandy had shone down on the rose-garden of the château as it was shining this afternoon ; and the young girl, gathering roses for her marriage fête, caught sight of a shy boy peeping over the hedge ? Did he remember how she had smiled frankly at him, and tossed him a rose with a gay “ Good-by, Antoine ; you will be a learned man before I see you again ; ” and how the poor fellow had stammered out his thanks, and run away from the beautiful vision? Had there, perhaps, been a little romance in M. le Curé’s life, — a romance none the less pathetic because unknown to the world and hardly acknowledged even to himself? At all events, there were no signs of sentiment visible now in the middle-aged man, with somewhat coarse features and patient face, who sat talking to the shadowy old lady. M. Antoine was thinking far more of his five hundred and fifty francs than of the bright young girl whom a hard destiny had sent back, in her old age, to live, desolate and alone, in her father’s house.
“It is a large sum, M. le Curé,” said madame.
“ Ah, yes, madame, a sum immense, which it has required much patience to save. For two years I have fasted and pinched. I can hardly believe that my long waiting is at last rewarded, and that to-morrow the altar will be mine. Could you but see it! ” M. le Curé went on, his monotonous voice trembling with emotion. “ The wood is oak, rich and mellowed by age. The altar must date back to the twelfth century at least; and the carving — ah, we see no such work to-day ! At the corners stand as pillars the four Evangelists ; the space between is filled with reliefs, but reliefs of a delicacy and richness ! They represent the life of the Holy Mother, and are surrounded by mystical symbols. And this gem has lain hidden for years in an obscure Norman town ! It was reserved for me, —for me, madame, — to discover it. Fancy my joy as I pictured to myself that I might become the owner of this treasure, and my terror lest some rival should bear it away before I could save the required sum! But no one has discovered it, and our little church will be enriched by a relic unequaled in France.”
As M. le Curé took his leave, and strode home through the gathering dusk, his unwonted excitement died away, and left on his face the placid, dreamy expression which was often interpreted as stupidity, lie was, in fact, by no means a clever man. He had disappointed his friends, who had hoped much from the shy, studious boy, by an utter lack of ambition. Yielding to their entreaties, he had studied for a couple of years at Paris ; but he felt out of place amid the bustle and glitter of the great city, and after taking orders returned, contented to live and die as priest in his small native village of Crèvecœur. Perhaps some early disappointment had taken from him all desire for worldly honor; perhaps a certain fastidiousness of feeling, lying beneath his rough exterior, had caused him to shrink from pushing himself forward. M. Antoine was quite satisfied with the life he had chosen. He was a very happy man this evening, as he strolled home through the lane, sweet with the fragrance of honeysuckle. The evening star was just visible in the west, and the hedgerows were alive with the soft twittering of birds and the fluttering of downy night-moths. The Angelus was ringing, and in the little village at the foot of the hill a few twinkling lights appeared, one after another. A peasant woman, in white cap and large wooden sabots, dropped a courtesy to M. le Cure as she passed, crooning softly to her baby.
M. Antoine felt as peaceful as the scene. He thought of the little gray church to which he was going, — the church which had been to him what wife and children are to other men; and he was filled with joy as he remembered the beautiful altar that he should soon be able to present to it. His two years in Paris had made him able to appreciate the severe but fine architecture of the church, which the peasants described apologetically, as “old, — very old;” and all his innate love of the beautiful was lavished upon it. The thought never occurred to M. le Cure that his church was not alive. Not alive, when he had lived with it for years, and knew every stone in its gray walls! Not alive! Had he not felt the gratitude of the building for the ivies that he had trained round its porch, and the beautiful wax candles that he burnt within ? M. le Cure’s happiest hours were spent in the little church. Often he would rise in the night, and slipping through the tiny garden of the presbytère, would let himself into the building, and there the morning would find him, kneeling before the altar. He gained a great reputation for sanctity from these midnight vigils ; but I fear that if the truth were told M. le Cure’s religious sense was somewhat vague, He would have been horrified had any one hinted that he was not “ bon Catholique ; ” he crossed himself at the mention of a heretic; but in his practical life all the devotion and enthusiasm of his nature went out to the church, which was never cold, never unsympathetic, never uncongenial, — which was always ready to receive confidences, and never needed tiresome explanations. The adornment of the church was the aim of M. Antoine’s life. Already he had gained several prizes, such as a singularly beautiful font for holy water, and some fine brass candlesticks ; but never had he dreamed of possessing anything so unique as this twelfth-century altar. He paused, and clasped his hands, and his breath came faster as he thought of the honor which would be done his beloved church.
He did not sleep much that night through excitement, and early the next morning he started for Lisieux, to complete his bargain.
As he was passing through the village, the peasant woman whom he had seen the night before ran out from her house, and stopped him.
“ Ah, M. le Curé, what good Providence sends you into the town at this early hour ? My little Jeanne is ill, and I was just wishing I could see you. The doctor says she must have nourishing food, soups and jellies, and where is the money to come from ? ”
M. le Curé hesitated. He entered the house, and all the time that he was uttering the commonplaces of sympathy he was performing a mental calculation. Yes, at least forty francs would be necessary to furnish the sick child with the comforts she needed. Somehow, the money in M. Antoine’s pocket seemed very heavy just then. And yet — and yet, forty francs represented at least two mouths of saving; and in those two months what might not happen ?
At that moment, pale little Jeanne opened her eyes, smiled at the cure, and nestled confidingly against the big brown hand which he had laid on her cheek.
M. Antoine coughed, fumbled in his pocket, and drew out a piece of money. “There, Mere Suzanne,” said he awkwardly ; “ with that you can buy some trifles for the child,” and hastily taking his leave, to avoid her thanks, he hurried home.
Mère Suzanne found in her hand a five-franc piece. She was overcome with gratitude and delight, for she had seldom so much money in her possession at once. “ Ah, the saintly man ! ” she murmured. “ With this I can buy thee soup and meat for several days, my little Jeanne.”
M. le Curé went home in a discontented frame of mind. He was cross to old Babette, his housekeeper, when she expressed surprise at his sudden return, and spent the morning pacing up and down the pleached alley in his garden. He put aside without looking at them his five hundred and forty-five francs ; he hated the sight of them, and wished them either more or less. If he were to be deprived of the pleasure of buying his altar for the present, he wished that he might at least have the privilege of feeling generous. However, he consoled himself as best he might, and turned his attention to the quickest method of making up the missing five francs.
He succeeded so well that in less than a week he was on his way to Lisieux. This time, nothing happened to interrupt his bargain, and he returned in triumph, with a joyful sense of security. No one could take the altar from him now! lie spent most of the ensuing day in preparing the church to receive its new treasure. Poor Babette had to scrub off every speck of dust from the stone floor; and the curé felt quite impatient with two old women in muddy sabots who came in to pray for a few minutes. But at last all was ready. M. Antoine had even tried to adorn the chancel with ivy and sprigs of honeysuckle; and the result, although rather clumsy, served its purpose of affording him pleasure.
Towards evening, the altar arrived. It jarred a little on M. Antoine that two sturdy countrymen in blue blouses should carry it to its place; he would have felt it more suitable had an invisible band of angels gently lowered the altar, while chanting the most solemn of music. However, the work was at last ended, and the countrymen left the church. But he was not yet allowed to enjoy his new possession in peace; it was the hour of vespers, and the peasants, who had heard from Babette the rumor of a new acquisition, came to the church in larger numbers than usual. M. le Curé was not sorry to have, as it were, a little fête in honor of the altar. He had bought six new wax candles when at Lisieux ; and now he placed them upon the altar, and lighted them proudly. In the dim twilight, the rich shades of the wood were brought out by the yellow light, and M. le Curé thought the effect even finer than he had anticipated. When service was over and the people had dispersed, he smiled scornfully, as he remembered how old Mère Bichon had muttered that this altar might be very well, but it was nothing to the one at Fleumont, which had a white cloth with gilt fringe, and was ornamented with two large vases of paper flowers. As he left the church, it seemed to him that its gray walls looked more friendly and protecting than ever, and he gave it a friendly nod of understanding, and murmured aloud, “ Adieu.”
M. Antoine did not return to the altar for several hours ; he was an epicure in his pleasures, and liked to enjoy by anticipation. At last, however, when Babette supposed him fast asleep, he stole through the little garden, and entered the church. He walked straight to the altar, with a trembling sense that it might have vanished. But no ; as lie lighted his wax candles, one after the other, the four Evangelists at the corners grew more and more distinct, and seemed to smile on him. Already he felt that he knew them as friends. The altar was certainly a wonderful piece of work ; the candle-light brought out more clearly the delicate, low relief, and each instant M. le Curé discovered some new beauty. The church had never looked so fair as in this dim light. The honeysuckle in the chancel mingled its odor with that of the incense ; behind, the nave stretched away into the darkness ; and through the little rose-window at the end there shone a friendly star. M. Antoine fell on his knees, with clasped hands, on the chancel steps. He would have made a fine study for some mediæval saint, as he knelt there in his black robe, the light striking full on his pale, uplifted face. But M. le Curé’s meditations were far from religious ; what he was feeling was an ecstasy of delight over his new treasure. It seemed to him that he was taking part in a grand service, of which the altar was the central point. Processions of white-robed boys passed, swinging censers; priests in gorgeous robes chanted the mass, and lifted the Host before the adoring crowd; and M. le Curé was there in the midst of it all!
Suddenly, breaking in upon his reverie, came a harsh whisper : “ Monsieur! Monsieur Antoine ! ” The voice came from old Babette, who did not dare to speak aloud.
The cure roused himself, with a sigh. “ What is it ? ” said he, going to the door. “ Why do you call me ? I am engaged.”
Beside Babette stood a dark figure, patting his horse’s neck. “ Ah, M. le Curé,” said the figure. “ Old Jean of the Mill is dying, and he bade me tell you to come as quick as you can to administer the last sacraments.”
Such calls were not uncommon, but it seemed unjust to M. Antoine that one should have come on this particular night; and I fear that he felt rather indifferent to old Jean’s spiritual welfare. However, he mounted his nag. and started on his journey, calling to Babette to extinguish the candles in the church. But the old woman was either too deaf or too sleepy to hear him, and went straight to bed, muttering crossly to herself.
M. le Curé returned to Crèvecœur in the gray dawn of the following morning. He had had a hard night, for old Jean was long about dying, and the scene had worn upon M. Antoine, who was not so young as he had once been. As be rode through the fields in the dewy morning, he tried to think of the peaceful little gray church and the beautiful altar within ; but he could not bring them vividly before his mind: the distorted features of the dying man and little Jeanne’s pale face insisted on presenting themselves to him. Passing through the village, he was surprised to see several women out, in spite of the early hour ; and noticed, with a certain dreamy wonder, that they shook their heads as they looked at him. He did not stop, although one woman started to speak to him ; he was in haste to reach his beloved church. Ah ! here was the turn in the road where he should first catch a glimpse of its ivy-covered walls. But no, he must be wrong ; it was farther on. . . . The church not yet visible? What did it mean ? And what was this sound of voices that came to him across the quiet meadows? M. le Curé stopped his horse for an instant, his heart sinking, and then rode furiously on to the presbytère gate.
The church was gone; and in its place were a few ruined walls and a heap of smouldering ashes.
M. le Curé dismounted mechanically, and in spite of the crowd that tried to prevent him walked into the midst of the ruins. A little black object caught his eye, and he stooped and picked it up. It was the head of the Apostle John, which, charred by the fire, had lost its former expression of friendly benevolence, and looked up at M. le Curé with a malevolent grin.
Three weeks later, Babette was standing in the midst of a little group of village cronies. They had been talking fast, and were much excited.
“ And you say he has never even asked about the fire, Mere Babette?”
“ Not a word; and he does not seem to hear, though I tell him again and again how I waked with the smell of smoke, and how I rushed to the church and found that precious altar of his all in a blaze. He does not know that the church is burned. He will sit still for hours, smiling to himself; and then he will go out and stand among the ruins, repeating the service. Madame la Comtesse came to see him this afternoon, and she says ” — here the old woman tapped her forehead significantly — “ that we must have the doctor from Lisieux.”
“ Ah, poor man ! ” murmured the old women. “ I wonder whom we shall have in his place;” and, shaking their heads dismally, they separated.
It was even as Babette had hinted. When the doctor came, he said that M. le Curé’s mind, already weakened by his monotonous life, had yielded under the influence of the shock. The form which his insanity took was that of living in the past rather than in the present; he might die if he were moved from his familiar surroundings.
So M. le Curé and Babette lived on together, and he was very gentle and submissive to the discipline that she sometimes saw fit to administer: but when her voice grew unusually rasping, he would slip out, and pass through the little garden to the ruins. Sometimes he would poke among the ashes with his stick, a bewildered expression on his face, as if he had lost something; but more often he would stand in his accustomed place, and chant the service solemnly. Sometimes he would fall on his knees, look rapturously at the empty spot where the altar had been, and remain for hours in that position, quite content and happy.
So passed M. le Curé’s life. And there is a new priest in the village of Crèvecæur, a burly, red-faced man, who intones the service with a nasal twang; and there is a little church all freshly whitewashed, and within it an altar covered by a white cloth with gilt fringe, and upon the cloth three large vases of paper flowers.