Back to Green Integer Review
Alain-Fournier’s Colombe Blanchet
by Ed Ford
Although he is relatively unknown in the United States, Alain-Fournier (pen name of Henri Fournier who chose it to distinguish himself from an admiral and from a race car driver who both had the same name) is giant of French letters thanks to his unique novel Le grand Meaulnes which has variously been translated into English as The Wanderer, The Land of Lost Content, or The End of Youth. This classic of world literature has been translated into 32 languages, been made into a major film in 1966 by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, and even inspired sketches for a ballet by Ravel. The novel has inspired writers such as John Fowles and Jack Kerouac who once stated "I feel a strange affinity with his work" and numerous French writers such as Julien Gracq and Simone de Beauvoire. Fournier worked as T.S. Eliot's French tutor, and ghost wrote a book with a future president of France, his unrequited love for Yvonne de Quievrecourt was legendary, he romanced one of the great actresses of his day, and he experienced numerous personal adventures such as flying when airplanes were still quite new and working in London in the summer of 1905. Slain early in World War I Fournier's name was inscribed on the Pantheon of France's most illustrious dead, and when his body was at last discovered in 1992 almost 80 years of rumors about a possible disappearance were finally put to rest.
Yet for all of these accolades, for all of the many biographies that have examined his life in close detail, there have been comparatively few literary studies of his novel which has been consistently criticized as being "flawed" by critics such as Robert Gibson. In my 1999 study of the novel I gave the first explanation of the novel's coherent structure, and examined just some of the Russian sources that helped inspire it. In a 2005 article I elaborated on Thomas Hardy's influence on the novel, and I hope to soon publish a bold revisioning of the entire novel which will expand on a forthcoming book of mine which establishes Fournier's influence on F. Scott Fitzgerald.
However, Fournier was not the man of only one novel. His letters to his best friend, brother-in-law, and noted literary critic Jacques Rivière are a charming portrait of two young men discovering the wonders of literature together. His collected short stories, Miracles, has been translated into English, and if some of it is juvenilia, some of the stories are veritable gems of small town life.
Then there is the draft of his unfinished second novel Colombe Blanchet which was to have told of small town politics in a fictionalized version of Mirande—the southwestern town near Tarbes in which Fournier spent some of his military service reading Dostoevsky and the Bible. The novel was also to have told of a quest for a pure love—such as Fournier's love for Yvonne de Quièvrecourt—but the sketches which I have not translated indicate that he was moving towards an acceptance of women, and hence himself, as flawed creatures with conflicted desires but who are somehow able to accept and inspire the beauty of love nonetheless.
The six and some chapters which follow are clearly a very early draft of the novel which Fournier never got a chance to weave into the layered richness of his more successful novel. Still, there are signs that such a weaving was going to take place. First of all, we notice the characters' names. The name of the hero "Autissier" combines the word "auteur''(author with the verb "to weave"[tisser]) so that his hero was apparently going to be the dreamweaver of the text controlling all the other characters as they bobbed in and out of the mists of his mind. Another character is Big Voyle whose name is a homonym of "Big Vowel" which makes it likely that he would be a figment of the author's imagination. He is a clear version of Big Meaulnes from Fournier's great novel. Both the names of Marazano and Amanda would seem to derive from that of Mirande which again was the real name of the village that Fournier had lived in.
Fournier would continue to draw on the English novels that he loved so much because he has his hero read an English Bible:
Only a few paintings remained on the walls. A few chosen books were placed on the pedestal table; a pile of student notebooks on the desk; and in the bedroom, on his nightstand, opened carelessly, an English Bible such as are read at night, by the heroes of novels...This is a line that was used to describe Meaulnes as "the hero of a novel." He comes back to the Bible a short while later when Autissier shows the other teachers his room:
This comment reflects the fact that French schoolteachers were supposed to be secular civil servants. Fournier himself underwent bouts of religiosity such as during the time when he was living in Mirande. Thus, it is highly likely that his novel would have had a very spiritual dimension to it and that it would have also incorporated his wrestlings with Dostoevsky which he engaged in at that time.
Fournier’s first novel was about schoolboys and this second novel was to be about schoolteachers. Since his father was a schoolteacher it is likely that he would have woven his father's anecdotes into the novel as well. They are both basically homo-social novels in which women are idealized or disdained, but Fournier's extended affair with the great actress Madame Simone would probably have led him to revise his youthful view of love. He did, however, never get a chance to outgrow this youthful view of love, and perhaps this is what readers cherish most in him: the fact that he is perpetually young at heart, ever questing, ever venturing towards the new and exciting discoveries of maturity.
I want to personally thank Green Integer Books for making this important document available at last in English which I hope will help spread the word about this brilliant author who deserves to be better known in America.
Colombe Blanchet (1914)
1 Colombe's Bedroom
Villeneuve-sur-Allier has always been one of those appointments that is seldom requested by functionaries. It is too small a town - not even a subprefecture. At the time of our story - that is to say in 1892 - they have stationed a battalion there at the request of the voters: not of the soldiers. They have also assembled a school group—five adjuncts and a school principal—for the roughly rural population of which Villeneuve is the hub and marketplace. But for the twenty officers, and for the six teachers whom she coveted for so long, Villeneuve has neglected to offer the least entertainment. No theater, no music hall, no promenade. A very long road—in reality the departmental road bordered by closed houses without signs of life, a paved square where a few groups walk purposelessly through the evening, that is the entire town, and its suburbs are just little one story houses scattered among the gardens and the vineyards. Villeneuve only awakens on market days and on election night. But politics is a distraction that is forbidden the teachers. Ask, without preparation, a teacher face to face if he bothers himself with politics, and all conversation will cease, all intimacy will be broken; you will be considered a dangerous fool or to be one of the prefecture’s spies. There are, you would say, other distractions than the music hall and the intrigues of the cabaret. But which? Even the name Villeneuve-sur-Allier is a red herring for young fisherman, and why sun-Allier? The only river which has designed to approach Villeneuve is the Aumanee which is five kilometers from there snaking between the willows and the meadows: but there is no question of calling a river—not even a stream—the narrow gully filled with hartstongue and reinettes where the men of Villeneuve, on summer nights at the back of their gardens, come to fill their watering cans.
To the bored young men there would remain the opportunity of sneaking off to the regional capital, an hour's train ride away. But there is no night service to Villeneuve: six trains a day, the last passes through at seven o'clock. Just late enough so that it is impossible to leave in the evening after exercises or class—which is enough to cause them to live in perpetual fear of having the colonel, the general, or the inspector, land on their back...
All this made Villeneuve-sur-Allier a post that was disdained by hardened veterans in mid-career, the old nomadic adjuncts who at ten years of service had almost buckled their tour of the department. If The town is inscribed in their memory as in a directory with this mention: "At one hour from the inspector, and the old Blanchet for mayor... It is more than enough to put people who know what talking means to put them on their guard." Also, there are only first year men who would willing let themselves go to Villeneuve-sur-Allier. The first year men are, in effect, at an age where one likes to proclaim loudly in a third class car that one does not care about politics, and the inspectors and the prefect and even more the deputy, that one will go to mass when one wants, even at Villeneuve-stir-Allier, and that it is for the director to arrange things with the municipality. When the fifth adjunct's post was created at the school for boys in February 1892 one expected to see one of these poorly raised young fowls to whom ten months of boredom and small humiliations would generally teach fear and silence. In fact, there arrived a man whose name no one had yet read in the directory, a certain Jean-Gilles Autissier, who came from the Cher and who had found himself superfluous at the Ecole Normale in Bourges. He appeared less informed than anybody about what boredom and an adjunct's life in a small town were like. He spoke of preparing for his pedagogical exam with // a certain disingenuous faith which made his colleagues smile imperceptibly because they were four apprentices without ambition, He had searched with a look of interest and curiosity for an apartment in town, because there was not an adjunct's room for him in the schoolhouse. The community gave him an indemnity for lodging, and despite the generally opposed advice, he installed himself on the second floor of the little house of Monsieur Marazano, on the road to Graveron, at the exit to the town. He was a boy who had nothing to say and who got along well with his colleagues. His face was pleasant to look at, a long face and brown hair, lightly curled. After staying there two weeks, he still spoke of Villeneuve with a rather puerile and disconcerting curiosity, because one knew from experience that there was nothing to discover, nor to do in this place which was not T., the local capital, or Paris. in addition, hardly talkative - not that he was taciturn or a dreamer, but rather, it seemed to him because he lacked competence in discussions of politics or school affairs - he lived a little too closed up in his room, and on Thursday mornings. rather than going to take a ten o'clock aperitif at the Hotel Didier, he stayed on Graveron Road and played the flute or the ocarina.//
This peaceful existence of the future schoolmaster with slightly antiquated tastes, did not come without a certain singularity. And at first they had greatly dissuaded him from taking the apartment, they said, because two years earlier a woman of poor reputation, a reader of fortunes, Madame Josepha, had lived there; but to tell the truth, because the owner, Marazano, an old chef in retirement, worked with the curate, cultivated the nun's garden, and rendered small services to the church, around the time of the great festivals, as an arranger of chairs or by taking away faded bouquets. But Autissier had paid for the lodging. The corridor on the ground floor where the stairs descended, went out the back, crossing a cellar which did not close on a little, unfrequented path. The sole door of the apartment of Marazano and his wife led into the corridor. But from the first day the teacher had demanded that it be locked from five to six o'clock. For more security it was he himself who locked the old couple in each day at this time. What could he be expecting in this land where he was still a stranger'? One can well imagine that the Marazano couple was greatly intrigued and a little distraught. They watched for a long time, ear against the door, always imagining that some woman would pass by. But it was wasted trouble. Not this evening, nor the following days, did anybody come. Or at least she made such little noise that no one could hear her. And when the old Marazano put his head in at the teacher's door to offer his services which were always refused, he only saw the young man seated at his desk, correcting his students’ notebooks or wielding a thick book which must have been a Bible or a dictionary.//
The first Thursday of his stay, a day of tenacious rain and deep boredom, after having played melancholy airs on his flute for some time, Jean-Gilles Autissier, towards ten o'clock in the morning, began pacing back and forth in the string of three rooms and looking around. There followed a whole series of changes in the arrangement and the decoration of his lodging.
In the dining room, the calendars of Madame Josepha and her paper wreaths disappeared. Only a few paintings remained on the walls. A few chosen books were placed on the pedestal table; a pile of student notebooks on the desk; and in the bedroom, on his nightstand, opened carelessly, an English Bible such as are read at night, by the heroes of novels... Nonetheless whoever would venture into this place would be informed at a glance about the work, the feelings, and the tastes of the young man who lived there.
One lone window of the apartment looked out on the little path to the station. It was a window condemned to the bathroom. Towards the end of the morning Autissier succeeded in opening it, and in the monotone drone of the passing shower one could hear the shutters clack. Leaning on the crossbar of the window, the instructor looked for an instant with a dreamy air at the door with two white flaps of the cellar below him, then in the distance to the deserted path which wound through the gardens of the town drowned in rain...
For one supposing that Autissier really lived in the expectation of someone and was now ready to watch for and to receive this // unknown visitor. This day too would have been a disappointment.
After lunch, when at the hotel they had succeeded in drawing out the dessert, then coffee until three o'clock and a game of billiards for two hours more, one noticed that the weather had lifted, that it was a true spring day and that it was not raining anymore. What to do? Autissier and Bonnin the two youngest adjuncts, standing by a window, looked with boredom on the square and asked themselves how to escape the boredom of this smoky place.
"I," said Big Voyle as he approached them, he being an old man at thirty, slightly round shouldered, with curly locks on his forehead, "propose that we go and see what has become of Amanda. Autissier does not know her. We will introduce him."
Amanda was a relative of Marazano's old renter, and the only person of easy morals that there officially was in the town. Be it that the proposition actually amused him, or that he did not dare back out, Autissier accepted. One after another, Bonnin, Voyle, and he slipped discretely away leaving the two older adjuncts and Monsieur Faurel, the director, engaged in a game of cards. A moment later, they met up with one another at the top of the road where Amanda had her little house.
It was purely a ceremonial visit. // The lady, who was a brunette with a still lovely face, was at first very correct and discrete, offering liqueurs, holding conversation with the two young adjuncts and, scrupulously respecting the secret of her profession, behaved towards Voyle and Bonnin as if she were seeing them for the first time. From time to time, she turned around while speaking to Autissier, who with his black felt hat in his hand, in the dark corner where he was sitting, watched her with attentive eyes while smiling slightly. Night was falling when they stepped out into the vestibule. Dolores went to prepare her dinner. The two men were standing in the corridor, giving the impression of a pleasurable party halted early. One did not know exactly what to say. It was Autissier who spoke and for the first time surprised his colleagues with his rather strange audacity.
"And when can we see you again? Aren't you free this evening, Mademoiselle?" he said with a likeable and hardy air which surprised his friends.
Dolores was enchanted. They would have to come back after dinner and have coffee with her. Or rather, there was in the gardens above the town, a seldom frequented bar to which it was no longer stylish to go to. One could have a splendid time there because it was warm this evening like the middle of summer.
In the evening, with the slight excitement of a slightly clandestine pleasure, they met her at her door. She had a great shawl over her shoulders, which covered her flapped dress and made her simply a young woman going out into the fresh air. Right away she took the arm // of Autissier, who let her do it, and that of Voyle, who without gallantry asked first in a thick, drawling voice for permission to light a cigarette. In crossing the town, they began to laugh and joke, but there was between them a certain ceremoniousness and the lack of reserve that seemed to be dictated by the presence of the new assistant, lending a certain grace to the jokes, In the gardens, in the moonlight, while they had lemonades and coffees, Autissier made several gymnastic passes under the trees. Several times they saw him with his head low, his hair falling in a long swath and, when he finally came and seated himself at the garden table slightly out of breath, Josepha, excusing herself, with the flat of her hand put his hair back in order. Voyle, on the rings, made several dangerous separations. Then the moon rose. Dolores suggested that they go for a walk on the road. This time she took Bonnin by the arm and once again Autissier pressing herself against him. The three black shadows on the road passed between the shadows of the poplars while Voyle in back lagged behind and they saw, turning around, the spark of his cigarette shining in the night. It was one of the most beautiful evenings that it was given to those young people to experience. When they finally arrived on a little bridge that passed over a small tributary of the Aumance, they began to hear two nightingales call and answer one another. But due to the fact that their companion was a fallen woman, it was a dead evening for the walkers, and they would have feared to speak of the beauty of the landscape: it would have seemed as ridiculous to be moved by it as by cardboard scenery.
Also, after a moment of silence, they began to speak again. Voyle wanted to ask Dolores about her old lovers. But she responded that on such a beautiful night it was inappropriate to tell off-color stories.
They joked about this saying that her most agreeable adventures must have come beautiful nights, under the moon, among the poplars.
She conceded that she had at least one memory of this so a very old memory, from the time when she had not yet done stupid things.
"And who was it that abused a young girl like that dragging her out onto the lawn?" said Bonnin.
"An old sword," said Voyle. "That is always how women. start out." "No," she said.
"At least a married man?" said Voyle with a skeptical air as he drew a few puffs on his cigarette.
"Not at all," said Josepha.
"Then who was it?" asked Bonnin.
"Who was it?" repeated Autissier.
"A young man like yourself," said Josepha simply.
And it seemed to Autissier that she looked at him through the darkness with sort of emotion.
"He was a lucky duck," concluded Voyle.
And they made a half circle in silence to return to Villeneuve passing this time by the road to Graveron. Josepha shivered and pressed the two men against her.
"School is at eight o'clock tomorrow," said Autissier slightly awkwardly.
Josepha did not dare insist.
Arrived before Marazano's house with its tunnel trellis, the group halted to see how to end the evening.
Voyle made a proposition which amused them without really bothering Autissier, "Let's go up and make some noise at Autissier's to annoy Marazano."
"So," said Josepha, "you live in the same house that my aunt once did. You are well situated to receive women. There is the passage through the cellar is there not? I bet that you chose it for that reason. Right away now what we have here is a young man takes care of himself."
"Why not?" said Autissier happily.
And he turned the key to the corridor door where the moonlight east the shadow of a vine branch. One behind another, stumbling in the dark night, they climbed the stairs.
"Everything is changed," said Josepha, as soon as the lamp was lit. "I do not recognize the place any longer. You allow people to visit. //
"I assume there is no one in the bedroom?" said Bonnin. "We will not find that a half naked woman from Villeneuve is waiting for you?"
"We will see in a minute," said Voyle as he pushed with precaution, as if the lady was about to jump out in his face, the glass door to the narrow bedroom.
"There is only a Bible," he said with disappointment.
"And an English Bible," said one of them. "You've kept up your English after the Ecole Normale?"
"My mother was English. I speak it rather well," he said slightly annoyed. "And you read the Bible," repeated Voyle with a growing astonishment.
"Oh! It is an old book that I have had since childhood. It is not out of devotion," said Autissier smiling.
Slightly troubled, a little unable to reply, he led them into the back of the apartment.
The others followed him, and crossing the narrow bedroom, they intently proceeded to the end of the apartment.
"Here is a window," said Josepha after a moment, "which did not used to open." And she leaned against it like the instructor had that very morning.
"From here you can see," she continued, "an entire side of the town. Look there are the nuns' gardens."
Certain syllables sounded more clear and more distant, pronounced outside in the great silence of the night. And for a long time thereafter, Jean-Gilles, when he recalled that night, still heard the strange ring of her voice.
"Look carefully," she said. "Maybe we will see Mademoiselle Blanchet go by. They say that she walks in the alleys at night, at the time when the sisters get up and pray in the chapel." //
"That's just a myth," said Bonnin.
Pressed against the window like men who are watching, they all tried nonetheless to see.
"My word I think I see her," said Bonnin trying to search with his eyes, the dark mass of the great garden under the trees in the distance.
"No, that is just the reflection of moonlight off the sand of the alley," said Josepha. "It is too far from here for you to be able to make anything out at night."
Meanwhile, back home again, Autissier thoughtfully put his apartment in order. He thought of this beautiful garden in the night which a fallen woman, come into his lodgings, had shown him out the window. And he felt on his arm the weight of this woman whom he had pleased. (And the charm of the night intoxicated him once more. And he also thought about that strange, chaste, admirable young woman who wandered alone in the house of the nuns.)
Before going to bed he spent a long time examining.
But he also made a note for Grapeton, the boy who did his cleaning, that he would have to buy a flask of grenadine.//
A few more sentences were exchanged on this subject.
"A strange character that Colombe is," said Volye finally when then came back into the little room.
It was not the first time that people had spoken in front of Autissier about this rich young woman (who had) sought refuge with the nuns of Villeneuve as if in a convent. His lodger, one Saturday night, coming back from the garden of Saint-Joseph school had already spoken about her: "I have to find a carriage for young lady Colombe," he had said to one of his neighbors. (He certainly must have pronounced the name of Colombe, but it had seemed so rude to Jean-Gilles, that in reflecting upon it in the evening he thought that he had misunderstood.) She wants to leave tomorrow morning after low mass to spend the day with her father just like every Sunday. And the horse of the Blanchet chateau is sick.
"What time is the nun's mass? Five o'clock..." The rest of the conversation was lost. But now, little by little, Jean-Gilles reviewed and coordinated the diverse information gathered about the young lady. She was pious and matinal. She was seventeen years old.
One thing, one thing alone had shocked her in her father's house - he did not know what - and she had decided to leave. To reunite the different scraps of conversation that he had gathered up on the subject of her, she mast be a young lady of perfect beauty. Surely she paid her lodging with the nuns by teaching the little girls. It required a strange decision and a great amount of energy, to suddenly change her life like that because something in her father's house had shocked her—but who knows what—; because in reflecting carefully on all that had been said, Jean-Gilles arrived at the evident and yet unrealistic conclusion: she was one of the daughters of the old politician Blanchet, the mayor. //
They leave her at her door. Autissier and Bonnin remind Voyle that school is at eight o'clock on the morrow. But Voyle had passed his hour (midnight—the extreme limit); he declared that he would hang around until daylight and that first he would go investigate the cellar of father Bravard to see if anyone was there, because politics after ten o'clock in the evening began to amuse him.
They abandoned him. //
And he put back in his room a rather austere woman's face which he had rejected at
He had left on the walls of the dining room a series of old paintings which extended from the Engagement to the Wedding Night passing through the Happy Family. He decided to only keep the Engagement. //
On the walls of this long ruined room that had been transformed into an inn room, the plaster was detached in patches and the saltpeter glistened among the uncovered stones. One sat there, before two long wooden tables, on cabaret benches and one only had the uncovered and filthy stones to lean one's back against. On the left, after the corridor that ran along under a gallery of wood, an interior courtyard filled with abandoned plants opened out leading to the other portion of the building along the principle road of Villeneuve. To the right, between two enormous casks—red wine and white wine—Bravard sat on a garden chain it was he who by a special favor of the proprietors of this empty house installed there on festive occasions and elections this sort of wine shop which he called his cellar. So he disposed of at retail his harvest of a small vineyard proprietor. And his profits allowed him to live like an old, well to do person at the other end of the town, in a little one story house, amid gardens; to play the wise man and to wear golden spectacles; to maintain a sort of dusty museum in which defeathered storks mixed with Prussian rifles; and above all, an old fighter from 1848, to make war on enemies of the Republic. His niece Marie was an adjunct at the school in Villeneuve. In the evening, after the adult class, she stopped by to find him in the cellar, because she lived with him. She sat beside him and at times even she helped the server, who did not appear to mind, because the cellar was not an inn, but rather a rendezvous for Bravard's old friends. Also, at times, she came with her sister Laurence who lived in T. with her parents, little employees who were rather poor, come from the Basses-Pyrénées some ten years ago to live in T. in a situation that Bravard had found for them. Laurence had not had the schooling that Marie had, counting rather on her beauty to be able to marry early. But she was already 20, she had missed two marriages, and she lead a rather indecisive life in T., at times starting an apprenticeship in fashion or sewing, at times working with her mother and spending in the interim the fortnight or the month of vacations with her uncle helping him.//
When, that night, Big Voyle, with his eternally weary disposition, pushed the studded door at the Halle square everyone in the cellar was full and they were talking seriously. The great Marie, with her overly long horse's face, her demolished teeth, her beautiful black eyes and her sullen air, was reading. Laurence was beside her circulating among the drinkers and signaling to the waitress what they wanted. She had all the charm and all the perfection of a certain beauty which one imagined upon looking at her sister, but of which Marie was but a failed image. It was a young mountaineer with a long face, but perfectly sketched, a face of a very pure oval, a complexion of astonishing whiteness, surely lightly powdered, in which shone two beautiful black eyes that were slightly ringed. One sensed a violent and juvenile desire in her to laugh and to make merry. But this overly bright appearance seemed tempered by two bands of very feminine flattened hair which came to rest gently on her temples, Her hair was so black and shiny that one would have thought that it was oiled. This evening she wore a summer outfit with white shoes. She appeared svelte and lively, with slightly heavy haunches. She liked to stand with one foot in front of the other, a hand on her hip, in a rather vulgar pose.
And at times she tilted back her head suddenly to toss her hair back. At the entrance of Voyle, on the request of the drinkers, she heartily brought them a bottle of white wine in each hand, and how they thanked her amid the smoke, the conversations, and the noise!
"Eh! Didn't I come here to help my uncle?" she repeated with a light meridional accent.
Voyle sat down like a sleepwalker, fired, disgusted with life and distrusting humanity, at the extreme end //of the great table that was almost empty and, while they served him, discovered with a dull and threatening and apparently indifferent eye, that all of the men of the town who displeased him the most, all those whom he obscurely felt were his enemies were united there. He began to count them and already he had felt Jonquieres' gaze cross his, this blond and almost bald boy, both flabby and stocky, who was an insurance agent and a salesman of who knows what, who called himself a noble and yet was anticlerical, an enemy of the cures and the reactionaries and their friends and who Voyle, with a growing irritation found constantly in his way. "There he is," said Voyle to himself, "because the little teacher is there"—that is how he designated Laurence—"Ah! If I could tell her about it Ah! If I could only find someone to tell her about it" But here amid the conversations raised a voice which was not Laurence's and which appeared to Voyle to be singularly less agreeable, and which he found himself forced to listen to. It was the drawling, obstinate and, so to speak, viscous voice of old Bravard.
"We will not permit," he said, separating each word-and even each-syllable, we will not permit anyone to prevent our children from shouting Long Live the Republic." "What is this new story?" Vault asked himself
And he recalled that, since the opening of the electoral campaign which set the partisans of Blanchet against those of Fougeres, the overexcitement of the parties had been passed down to the children, one heard them// in the squares and in the alleys, in the evening after class, shouting out very noisily, for fun, the cries of the campaign meetings. The young director of the school, Ducluzel, a nice man, but without judgment or prudence, had heard the cries of the poorly raised children and had made them be quiet. The morning after, several friends of Blanchet, who considered the director to be a hidden ally of the Fougeres brothers and who desired his post as secretary of the mayor's office, had heard of this story. And now there was Bravard, in his cellar, all worked up:
"We will not permit," he repeated standing with a hand leaning on the edge of one the tables as in a campaign meeting, "we will not permit them to gag our children. We have been gagged ourselves long enough."
And he turned towards Voyle who, alone at his end of the table, looked very closely, with a dreamy expression, at the cracker that he was soaking in his wine.
It could not be said that Voyle and the four adjuncts were partisans of the Fougeres. The Fougeres brothers were two debonair, bearded hunters (of which the elder had married a rich widow) who, desperate at not being noble and not being able to gain access to high society in T., did all that they could do in their position of chatelaines entirely steeped in devotion. On the sly, to be sure, they contributed to the maintenance of the nuns' school. And one asked oneself at times why they had not had the idea bringing in the Brothers of Christian Schools which would have competed with the laic school for boys. All this was not designed to entice the very liberated young adjuncts, and it is certain that they would not have agreed with the Fougeres brothers either on polities or on the subject of religion. But to tell the truth, conversations between them never touched on anything of the sort, the Fougeres were two nice chaps // that they encountered at the hotel or the cafe. Sometimes they went hunting with them at their property in the valley of the Aumance, and when evening came, when one heard the cracked bell of Fougerolles, it was impossible to, decline their dinner invitation. And then, whoever had presented himself against the old Blanchet would have appeared sympathetic to all the functionaries at Villeneuve.
It was in the same fortuitous and forced manner that Voyle and his colleagues found themselves in this small town battle on the same side as their director, Ducluzel was too instable a soul, too whimsical, simultaneously too weak and too violent for one to ever seriously take his side. From his time at the Ecole Normale, he had worried his parents by looking for another job than school director for which he had been naturally made. The impossibility of staying in one place gnawed at his life. This frizzy youth, then suddenly bald at twenty-four years old, short and violent, whom his comrades called little horse, was made to live among children. In the presence of adults he lost all composure and all resolution. Had he not gotten mixed up with the Fougeres brothers, at the time of his first falling out with Blanchet, when the old mayor had tried to get him to leave, by making him lose the salary by the creation of the fifth adjunct's position which augmented his director's income by 200 francs? What chimerical agreement had he made with them at that time? One shudders to think about it. One feared that it would be divulged during this period of conflict. One would have preferred to get rid of this clown, this constantly compromised man. But what to do? He was nice and stolid. His young wife was a charming blond personality, serious and charitable, with as much character as he was lacking: One spoke with her about the situation in the evening, in a lowered voice, on the doorstep. She had two young children, Lucien and Lucienne, whom everybody loved. And above all, the old Blanchet had become // the enemy of Ducluzel.
That is why Voyle felt personally targeted by the accusations of the man of '48, had stretched out his legs completely under the table, and he appeared so occupied with catching in his fingers the pieces of cracker that the wine had soaked through, detached and caused to fall to the bottom of his glass, that the men at the other table believed, some that he was overwhelmed with shame, the others that nothing could get at this nut, this imbecile, this original.
Several men came to the help of the old winemaker who began to lose himself in his sentences. They spoke of the mayor's seal that the secretary kept in the desk at his school. A lockman at the canal pretended that in all the personal of the school there was not one true republican. Meanwhile, big Marie, finding the situation difficult, had disappeared, trying in vain to bring her sister with her. Laurence had stayed there, continuing to pass among the tables, gliding in her white shoes. Jonquieres, a moment, stopped her cordially, by putting his hand on her area and drawing her against himself. He spoke to her in a low voice and she began to laugh in a charming voice revealing her striking, glistening teeth.
Then, having what seemed to be a recovery of his self assurance, he advanced his two elbows on the table and leaned his ram's head on his two closed fists.
"It must be assumed," he said, "that the teachers here do not like the Republic, because they would prefer for the clerics to pay them."
And, leaning on his two elbows, he raised his head.// The others showed their approbation without knowing why.
"Monsieur Ducluzel, will he give us lessons in a public session? There is a certain interview between the director and the younger Fougeres and the holy brother superior of the holy brothers of the Christian schools of T., about which we will end up knowing the last word." But at this moment something unexpected stopped him in the middle of his sentence and made father Bravard sit down—after he had remained standing ready to begin his discourse again - and made an intolerable silence slip over the entire audience: something had just happened to Voyle and his wrangling with his cracker must have taken a comic turn because, his head leaning on his glass, he began laughing quite loudly, in a high tone, a laugh all his own, a jeering, incoercible laugh made of Ah! Ah! which he seemed to address to himself. In front of the entire assembly, the insolence of this solitary man's laugh, who one had thought to be very bored in his isolation, quite tormented by what had just been said, was an annoying and odious thing. One wanted to ask him what he was doing laughing like that. It seemed that it was some strange and sudden idea that was completely foreign to the debate which put him in such a state.//
At first one thought that a comical accident had happened to him with his cracker. And that was no longer insolent, that this big idiot must be thinking of something else at the moment that one had imagined him listening intently. Each person wanted his neighbor to go and demand an explanation from this annoyance. But no one knew how to do it.
Nothing is possible with an original of that sort, they said. Nothing matters. It is better to speak of something else. And while this laugh of Big Voyle calmed itself little by little and was no longer perceptible but through light shoulder movements, one began speaking of other things.
And while the conversation got off onto other topics which politics had nothing to do with and which became general, big Voyle set on the table with the gesture of a big nobleman, the price of his glass of wine and went out completely cheered up. Meanwhile someone, who knew his character and manners well, would have understood at this strange tactic that Jonquieres had touched him on a sensitive spot, and that he left there very annoyed, very uneasy.
Several peculiarities of his childhood contributed-to making Jean-Gilles into this novelesque young man, whom we have seen all occupied by a singular wait: at age ten he lost his mother, a very young English woman full of charm and whimsy, who spent entire afternoons with other young women of B. laughing wholeheartedly as they tried on him ravishing costumes which they had composed themselves. His father, who was a substitute judge at the tribunal of B., had paid little attention to him after that. He had begun to forget about the death of his wife in an unusual manner. One saw him about everywhere for summer outings with party friends and women, while the child remained shut up during long boring afternoons behind the courtyard gate awaiting his return. His education was neglected; and when his father had died almost in ruins he was two years behind the children of his age. Courageously, under the lead of his tutor, who was the poorest of his uncles, he had renounced all shining stations in life, he had prepared for the Ecole Normale for teachers and that sort of life until his twentieth birthday, until after his military service had appeared to him as a long series of work, of jobs, of efforts. Only at times, did he dream of what his life would be like once the exams were finished, when he was no longer a // charge to anybody and unconsciously he imagined an existence that resembled the tender lost paradise of his earliest childhood. There also would be a young woman, come who knows how, but certainly in some strange, charming, and unexpected manner. Often, during the long period during which he worked for her, he had imagined this strange arrival. Once he had finally arrived at Villeneuve, in a situation which was for others boring and banal, with colleagues and for a job for which he must have felt very superior, he only said one thing: here is the town where she cannot fail to be. And Villeneuve had become for him a land filled with charm and mystery.
In the same way, the night of the watch with Josepha, as impoverished as this adventure was for the others, as lamentable as it was to all appearances, had had for him this same mysterious charm. For the first time, from the outside someone had spoken of his wait as about a human and possible thing that was not hopeless.
One had joked about it again...
And so to a young man who had never spoken to a young lady that he loved, but who did not mind being teased on the subject, as if it were a reality.
And so at the Hotel Didier, the next night, he waited with a certain impatience and a secret pleasure to find himself alone with his two companions of the night before. In the long, narrow room, decorated with calendars and posters of agricultural machines that were sullied by the flies from the preceding summer, Molly and Sugar were waiting smoking cigars. They spoke about everything in a tone that was superior and blasé. One felt that the world for them extended from the School to the Square, with a few excursions to the regional capital and that there was no room left for anything unpredictable. Sucre had the annoying habit of forty year olds who imagine that all that has happened to them will fatally happen to all young men and that he can tell them everything in advance.
"Take care of your laundry, my children," he said when he saw them // leave the room mysteriously. "At your age I had only one principle: take care of my laundry."
It was a common and educated way of telling them not to frequent women of too poor a reputation, as certainly, he thought, they did not fail to do.
As for Molly, he was a chap whom an excess of fat made disformed and grotesque, but who had studied, who had been rich but suffered a change of fortune.
There were a few miscalculations with the women of the area. And he did not look without unease and bitterness on these newcomers with their mysterious allures. On the contrary he would have preferred to imagine that their excursions did not go any farther than the house of Josepha. And as long as he was so persuaded he showed himself cordial and happy with them:
"You will see, you will see," he said during the first days to Autissier who defended himself, "you arrive from the city, you act disgusted, but in a year you will be happy to find her and to pass you evenings with her."
Sugar, this very evening, ended up dragging him into the cafe though he would have preferred to stay with people.
At the Hotel Didier, the next night, after dinner, when the two oldest submasters had finally decided to depart, Voyle, Bonnin and Autissier consulted with their eyes for an instant then tacitly decided to stay and talk around the disordered table. While arranging it Voyle, the first, recounted the end of the evening in Bravard's cellar.
"There was nothing to say," said Bonnin in the end. "It is always better to remain silent. And you would have done even better not to have gone to Bravard's."
"All that is allowed us," said Voyle bitterly, "is to keep quiet. And if we want to enjoy ourselves, it is by passing our evenings with Madame Josepha, the reject of the town, the reject of all those same men, to take her out walking, to offer her a lemonade. That is it for our distractions and that is it for our loves."
At this point Bonnin grew quiet and seemed annoyed. As for Autissier he blushed slightly. It was hard for him to hear such frank and raw talk about the night before and about Josepha. And he blushed because it was hard on him. Was he so stupid as to always imagine women to be different than they were? And he recalled the correct manners of Josepha and the way that she had tried to appear in return for what she was getting, and he blushed for her at seeing her treated like this. Am I really so stupid as to believe on a simple inference that she has the least manners? I am drawn to the first woman whom I have pleased, who looks at me and admires me. I do not ask myself to believe all that she says. He was wounded without really knowing why about what they had just said about Josepha. Did I let myself get taken in by her correct mannerisms? Am I wounded by knowing precise details about her? Is it because it seems to me that I pleased her? Now he blushed all the way to his ears. //
What do you want to do here?" said Bonnin. You know very well that there is nothing to do. There are no women. Do you still yearn after adventures, huh?" And he began to laugh; then he got up from the table, horrified.
The two others followed him. In the wide street before the church, old Mademoiselle Perinaud, painfully, lowered the iron curtain of her dusty shop. In the interior, a lone candle lit the sad display of jars and pieces of material.
"That is the only woman that I have ever seen here," said Bonnin.
"I have come to believe that they are being hidden from us," said Big Voyle with discouragement.
They arrived at the Square. There was some light there and the light animation of the first days of warmth; the turning, hoarse some of phonograph in a cafe. Men sitting on their doorsteps chatted while looking at the stars. A few young men walked around smoking. On the first floor of the Glacier Cafe, the room in which the teachers ordinarily met was lit up and the shadows of billiard players were to be seen.
Were they going to rejoin them, while the beautiful country night was so near at hand? On the side of the horse ponds the toads were heard croaking. The moon shone on the gravel between the trees of the Great Alleys. One imagined promenades, meetings.
But this time the young men were forbidden by their words even the overly easy adventure of an meeting with Josepha. On the one side there was this cafe, this square, this functionary's life, on the other there was the insidious, romantic night. And Autissier felt like those children who are sent to bed on summer nights just when the most beautiful part of the evening is beginning.
"If we walk around again," he proposed.
The old men up there, the director with holy and Leboucher are going to find themselves abandoned," said Bonnin.
"They must find it natural," said Voyle peevishly, "that the young men are taken in the evenings. And if we did// what we should have done, then we would have our evenings taken."
"You will show us where to spend them," said Bonnin alone but all the same he followed the two others.
Now they walked down the wide road which the large flat shoulders separated from the two lines of houses with the wide doors with knockers which almost all opened at ground level without a step for the threshold. The entire village was there, unknown, already asleep. Behind these facades which seemed so closed, so boring, there were dark gardens and courtyards under great trees. Will I spend the time of our stay here, said Jean-Gilles to himself, without a rendezvous being given to me some night in one of these gardens; without a door opening secretly on the other side of the gardens, over there, in one of these long walls which enclose the property on the side of the stream?
"There is only one thing to be done here," said Bonnin, "and you know full well what. I do not see what you have got against Josepha. As for me, I finished off last night with her."
At this moment Autissier felt piqued and irritated. And it seemed such a stupid feeling to him, that he was annoyed at his own indignation and he was precipitated in completely another sense and he felt enough authority to say:
"Very well! I am sorry for you. You are better than that."
"May I remind you that there is nothing to do here," said Bonnin again, both piqued and flattered by what Autissier had just said.
"Nothing to do, that has not been established," said Autissier, with the excitement and the light emotion of seeing that his own preoccupations and those of these chaps who found themselves as his friends could translate into the same rather vulgar and virile language: there is or there is not anything to do in this country.
For an instant he had authority over the others // that could be had by a handsome man who knows it and who could carry off a victory where the others had failed.
"If one tried seriously," said Voyle; "if instead of shutting ourselves up in the cafe and renouncing all heartfelt happiness every evening, we tried to mingle with the local folk, and make acquaintances."
"But it was you yourself who did not want to go out before Autissier got here, you were only happy in the cafe, you were insisting that I play along."
"Do not bother yourself about what I did last year. Let me say... If we did what I suggest, seriously, within a month, we three, we would have something to show Jonquieres and we would not be exposed to going into his cellar to watch the little instructress tease us while we are there pulling our tongues like sheep."
"Very well! We will see. In a month," said Bonnin skeptically.
"Naturally," said Voyle, "we won't accomplish anything. Because we will think about it for two days and on the third we will go drink beers. We must arrange something else. We must make an extension, make a bet."
"Yes. Why not," said Autissier, interested. "We have to have some kind of understanding between the three of us."
"But how do we do it? How do we have such an alliance?" Voyle asked. him half joking, half serious. //
That is how with questions and responses while chatting away they came to bet who would be the first to bring a young lady from Villeneuve into his bedroom. To the victor the others would offer a sumptuous dinner at the Didier Hotel with champagne. They would invite the young lady if the happy winner knew how to put his hand on a sufficiently emancipated person. Then, since it was above all important that this bet be won—it mattered little by whom—they agreed that each of the three, as soon as he had fixed his choice on a woman, would have claim to the aid and absolute devotion of the other two.
You should have seen the faces of these three young men with their understanding. Animated at the game and serious like corsairs organizing a campaign, at night, in a house of ill repute. Bonnin, distrusting women, but slightly awkward when it came to young ladies. Voyle, cynical and naive. The least serious was Autissier. In joking rather rudely, in the ordinary manner of his companions he tried to throw them off the trail of the deep and particular interest that this affair had raised in him.
And yet, to look at them you would not have said three adventurers. There was in their comportment a certain something of correctness and artlessness which would have made you take them for timid: the straight and low collars that were slightly too large and which allowed their Adam's apples to be seen; dress ties, narrow like the laces on starched shirt fronts. Big Voyle had on a fisherman's vest with large pockets and canvas pants; Bonnin a tired jacket and wide, checked pants which hid his short, bowed legs. As for Autissier, you always saw him in a slightly tight black sports coat which must have been his uniform at the Ecole Normale where they had unsewn the silver palms.
It was Bonnin who asked for the final details about the bet.
"It is all arranged like that," Big Voyle had said. "Whoever welcomes a young lady into his bedroom first, he will have won the bet."
"Welcomes?" asked Bonnin. "Nothing more? There is nothing else to the bet."
"Nothing more," responded Voyle after having looked at Autissier, and all three of them began to laugh.
"A young lady? Or a woman?" asked Bonnin placidly again.
"A young lady, a young lady," repeated Autissier insisting, as if there could not be any question about it.
And, with it all arranged, they continued walking. Four steps later they took up the same question again, but more freely, like men who have just drafted and signed a difficult contract with the notary.
"As for me," said Voyle with a thoughtful air, "I think that I will have to look in the countryside." And he took on a thoughtful, closed air of someone concocting a plan.
"Each to his own," approved Autissier. "After all there are some pretty peasant girls."
"Big Blanchet for example," muttered Bonnin.
And he began laughing his rasping laugh. Autissier asked for an explanation.
"She's," he replied, "the eldest daughter of the Mayor. She is even more greedy than her father. She drove the wagons of stones and manure herself to avoid paying the drivers. She has muscles like a man, she is tanned like an Indian, and she is wearing shirts of canvas bags."
"You are not serious," said Autissier and he made as if to linger behind. But the others slowed their step to stay and talk with him and all three stopped. It was certainly with the newcomer that the other two joked. The fact that he came from afar, that he had lived in the city, he must be, it seemed to them, more advanced than they were, more audacious than they were, even though he was younger. And his prestige, thanks to his ignorance as to what he truly was, remained.
"I hear you ceaselessly repeating that there are not any women here," he said. "And yet you complain that city men have their mistresses. Who is that little instructress about whom you spoke a moment ago?"
"It is not an instructress," responded Bonnin...
At this moment, the moon showed itself and the young men, stopped before the narrow facade of a one-story house whose door contained a niche with a Saint-Joseph, found themselves in a pool of light. So this decor, after eleven o'clock, seemed unreal, so these small townhouses appeared closed and uninhabited // that the young men did not dream of moving away or that their voices could trouble the sleep of whoever was in the neighborhood. Jean-Gilles was standing on the road, his face turned in the direction of the road, and soon the other two were sitting on each side of the threshold with such little uncomfortableness that Voyle even drummed mechanically lightly with his fist of the wooden door. And he spoke with this taste, this precision, and this application of men who have passed the reasonable hour for sleep and who want to make the pleasure last as long as possible.
"She is not an instructress," said Bonnin, "and I cannot affirm that she has never been anybody's mistress. We call her the little instructress, but in reality it is Marie's sister, the adjunct of the girls' school. As for her private life, they say that she lived it up in T. As for me, I do not believe a word of it. Those are babblers like Voyle. As for me, I have always seen her hold herself well."
"Then ask about her from the officers at T. and from Jonquieres."
"Why not? 1 have a relative at T. whom I will ask."
"We will see," continued Voyle. "Naturally, here, she acts hostile because of her sister."
"After all," said Autissier, "you cannot say anything specific about her?"
"That is also true," said Voyle. "But that is because I have never really addressed the question. I just remember this one time"//
"We waited for her with big Molly, the elder of the submasters. He had just brought in his horse from riding. He still had his boots on. He thought that anything was allowed. - 'Wouldn't you like to pay me a visit, mademoiselle,' he said. 'I will offer you candy.' - 'Oh! no, monsieur.' - 'Cakes.' - 'No, monsieur.' - 'Champagne.' 'No monsieur.' She moved her head... He hesitated a moment. 'Twenty franc pieces.' I said to myself, he is going to get slapped. It is true that he acted as if he had just made a great joke. 'Oh! no monsieur,' she said, 'thank you,' and she left. That is honest, if you wish. But all the same such honesty does not give a good impression."//
"As for me, I don't believe," said Bonnin who did not dream any longer of angering Voyle, "that she ever did anything for money. But even so she has the air of someone who has had adventures. She must have been taken young. Now I recall that the attorney said abominations about her when she was seventeen and braids in back. She is a person whom adventures tempted at a young age."
"Does she have a pretty face?" asked Autissier.
At this moment on the second floor there was //
For a moment, at this unexpected word and overly occasional phrase, Autissier's two companions stood speechless.
Autissier stood in profile, immobile and thoughtful awaiting their response, and he himself presented at the nun's house a very handsome face, a candid and young profile with hair turned down at a part on the side, the profile of a flute player or a biblical goatherd. But this unexpected word and occasional phrase, the two others, looking at one another began smiling at this overly distinguished young man, then laughing out loud.
Autissier, abashed, began walking once more, while the other two followed him repeating with amusement this occasional phrase. The moon was hidden once more. The curtain, on the second floor, was lowered.
As it happens after one has made a firm resolution, nothing striking occurred for several days, Madame Cluzeaux gave a dinner to which only the youngest adjuncts were invited. The others still did not cease lending her a hand after class, sawing wood for the kitchen, drawing different wines, installing extensions in the table, etc. tasks which two women alone would have difficulty accomplishing, while Monsieur Cluzeaux whom they waited for until eight o'clock never did return from a great fishing trip at the pond from which he pretended that he was going to bring back a fish in time for dinner.
While they shuttled back and forth from the courtyard to the dining room to the courtyard with the school children who had stayed after, there were two incidents worth repeating here.
First, Voyle made use of a moment in which he found himself alone in the dining room with Madame Cluzeaux, to ask her half-aloud:
"What is the story about an interview between Monsieur Cluzeaux and the brothers of T.? They are beginning to talk about it in town."
She was abashed and dismayed. For a moment she stopped setting out Nevers plates and brocaded napkins on the great white tablecloth. And she looked fixedly with her eyes that were prematurely wounded and blinded, by mechanically raising with her hand a lock of blond hair that had fallen on her forehead.
"I do not know a thing. It could only be an invention of the Blanchet partisans," she said, immediately on the defensive.
"I would like," said Voyle to gain her confidence, "for it to be a lie. But they have a very sure feeling about it. Besides, I cannot understand what interest Monsieur Cluzeaux could have in doing so. Try to find out for yourself, madame, above all try to find out if there is any proof anywhere, and if there is still time to dispose of it."
That was all. Voyle knew that Madame Cluzeaux would not disarm herself in front of him, that she would not break solidarity with her husband, no matter how inconsistent he was, and that thanks to her one would never see any more of her house than a facade that was agreeable to look at. At least she had been warned. And it was she who was the wisest of them all.
For the moment, even though deep down inside her the day's pleasure was ruined, she became the busy housewife once more. And the desire to arrange everything for the best gave her back her spirit, with that flower of youth and happiness which all the troubles and the worries of life had not yet extinguished// in this woman who people on the outside were suspicious of because she was a smart woman and slightly haughty, but whom familiars found charming.
She would not have served dinner late for anything in the world, and that is what Voyle, despite all of his admiration, seeing what little case was made of his revelations, was in the midst of telling himself, when Monsieur Henry arrived. The three doors, from the dining room, from the kitchen, and from the office being open, Monsieur Henry presented himself in the kitchen door. Monsieur Henry, municipal counselor and rich merchant of wholesale wood, one of the most respected men of Villeneuve, married to a strong little woman who was gifted and slightly galling, father of five fine and wild children, was a sort of old fogey, half woodsman, have cabaret pillar, and even worse a stuttering old fogey, pretentious and suspicious of refined language, putting a foot in his mouth when a sentence did not come quickly enough to him, always distancing, as if betraying his thought, the phrase furnished him by his interlocutor, and, to finish off, tormented by the secret ambition to become mayor in turn, an ambition which he was constantly afraid was going to become apparent and which helped make his discourse cloudy and yet more embarrassed. This evening he was invited to Madame Cluzeaux's with a variety of other characters from Villeneuve, in particular Monsieur Ollivier, this old republican boy who was an atheist whom Blanchet watched with suspicion as his influence waxed relative to his own—and he had decided to come about six o'clock to chat with the mistress of the house while waiting for dinner.
He was polite for two minutes, then leaned his back against the door and began insinuating what he wanted to say to Madame Cluzeaux, consternated, immobilized, her fish tray in hand, her table a quarter set, stumbled over her first sentence, agitated her legs and arms, finally turned her back on the kitchen, and, more at ease looking out at the courtyard, forced herself to extract her hard-won confidence.
That is when Madame Cluzeaux had a stroke of genius, about which they joked for a long time in Villeneuve. Why should I not, in these conditions, continue setting my table? Slipping behind him, on twenty trips from the dining room to the office // she succeeded in arranging everything without his noticing. From time to time, she stopped for a moment behind him, and with a well chosen word renewed his desire to talk and set him off on some new expatiation and went off calmly.
At six-thirty, taking a little break, she finally learned the secret that Monsieur Henry did not want her to know and about which even so he would have been happy to have her advice.
"...A man who comes to tell you one morning—no one has ever said anything like it to me - but just suppose that someone takes you by the shoulder and says to you: He I think that you have a foothold in the house, it seems to me that it is something to cause you to reflect."
You're fooling yourself, my good man, thought Mme Cluzeaux. Blanchet expects to be elected councilor, but it is not certain that his side will be in the majority, and he does not want at any price the Fougeres brothers who are against him, nor Ollivier who is excluded by him, but more sympathetic as he is more honest and a friend from school, he reserves along with you an escape hatch, he proposes for you to be mayor to annoy us all if you were, and in any case, so that you campaign for him in advance, just in case.
"I believe," she said, "Monsieur Henry that it is a word without foundation and in your place I would not build anything upon it."
For a long minute he tried to stammer out a suitable response and then became, shaking his arms, speaking to himself, undecided and irritated.
From afar, not finding himself mixed up in anything, Jean-Gilles had followed this entire afternoon and the evening dinner. He knew that Madame Cluzeaux, in the evening, had had a discussion with Monsieur Ollivier on this theme.
"How can you, Monsieur Ollivier, such a nice man, can you be an atheist?"
"That I am, Madame," had responded the old chap proudly. "I only believe in what I see."
And, moving his arm, he spread the odor of his vest which had just the odor of an old man's bedroom that is poorly aired out, when they entered early in the morning to have him sign papers, because he was the mayor's adjunct.
He already felt a true sympathy for this big young wife who was the head of this assembled company. He was indignant at the others.
At each election all of the votes of the voters were registered except for one, hers, and he could never convince her to vote for him.
Blanchet, the mayor, was also invited. Because war had not been openly declared between the school and him. Apparently everybody was keeping up appearances. There had not yet been, as they say, "explanations." The war was a cold one, made up of jabs and it was the partisans of Blanchet rather than Blanchet himself, all the little ambitious folk of the village, who tried to wound or to jab openly at the director. As for himself, Blanchet, he arrived at the end of the dinner, just, as he said, for coffee. In a blue shirt, like always, with his donkey cart, leaving the horses to his girls, he in the opening of the door suddenly showed his village tyrant's face with its mobile eyes under shaggy eyebrows and his arched and broken nose like a bird of prey's beak. He was cordial and nice. Hello Madame Cluzeaux, hello Monsieur Cluzeaux and he sat between two candelabras with candles with their paper holders and his long and crooked hands seized his cup of coffee while telling stories from fifteen years ago. He was especially cordial with the director of the girls school, he told her stories, with that affectation of political men of speaking openly, congratulated her on the active competition which she was holding at the girls' school, affecting to spread out before them his domestic troubles like a true proletarian and public man:
"Ah! I would rather that my youngest was with you than with the nuns! But what can I do? She is hardy and has a famous head on her shoulders. I am not the master in my own house."
And he laughed a false laugh. Because it was a terrible joke that he had made about Colombe. In reality he had never done anything to retain her. Because the young woman only had to command in effect for the old vulture to obey. And such was the power of his tyranny over this little land that he could carry on his republican politics with impunity while his partisans made him out to be a victim of his own family.
Autissier had understood that he was talking about Colombe. But he failed to understand when the old man took up again:
"As for the oldest, Mademoiselle, soon I am going to ask you to give her lessons for her advanced degree. After everything that has happened to her)/ the morning wants to get busy, and not remain inactive. She is right... she is right..."
Who was this wise young woman about whom Blanchet spoke with such little reserve while making everybody else uneasy? Autissier recalled that he had been told about Blanche, the oldest, as about a bizarre character. And he began to suspect that the father was doing that horrible thing of no longer counting her among his daughters and speaking about the second as if she were really the oldest.
When in the evening he recounted to his comrades who were waiting for him at the gate, the story of the dinner and Blanchet's propositions:
"Ah! That is Emilie," said Voyle. She made a mistake which will hang over her head for the rest of her life. She wanted to become interested in the son Duprat d'Ainay-le-Viel an unlucky man who is not good for anything except to get married, to ruin his parents, and to construct factories which the entire countryside calls Panamas. She thought that she could temper him, evangelize him. She had been his fiancée, probably his mistress. Finally she compromised herself with him; his parents were ecstatic and received her. At the moment when the bans were already announced, she learned that he had spent an entire night in the houses of T., she understood that there was nothing to be done with him, and she returned to her house. It was at this moment that Colombe left the house and I think it must be because of her disapproval of her sister's conduct. She was quite right."
"How was that?" said Bonnin. "She was right not to stay in that barrack that the people around here call the chateau Blanchet with its broken down lightning rod. She was right not to remain with witches."
"Emilie is not a witch."
"Nor is she a woman. What is with her way of becoming interested in young men without loving them, her idea of resurrecting debauchees. She should leave the debauchees alone, they would rather have the least bar maid than her." //
"You do not like Emilie," said Mouriès, "we know why. You have a taste for illiterates."
"I do not like brunettes, those wise women, who have the air of knowing everything and loving nothing. That is not the way of a girl. With that immense circumflex accent of eyebrows above the eyes and the rest of her face gathered up like a little owl. Pallas-Athena-Sainte-Heloise. Soon she is going to pass her advanced degree. When will they teach her Latin?"
"I would really like," said Mouriès, "to be the seminarian who teaches her."
"Pouh!" said Voyle. "There is nothing to hope for from her, she's a character who is only interested in entomology. Look, I prefer little Marie," he said stretching his long body of a great, resolved lazy man. "If we were to make a little noise at night by the gate of the instructresses. // The day after in the morning, in bringing in the classes at eleven o'clock, as each of the adjuncts did in turn, Jean-Gilles passed before the two nuns at the corner of the crossroad which separated the top of the town from the gardens where Bravard lived and which lead to the station. They waited a moment for the children to separate so that they could pass. They had traveling bags in hand. Jean-Gilles recognized Marie the instructress whom he had seen once and understood the resemblance that the fine and simple and pretty young woman who accompanied her was her sister. It was only a rather rapid glance, they did not notice him at all, he did not greet them and he did not think about it at the moment. Later, as he tried to dredge up this memory, he recalled that he had been struck by her beauty, the whiteness of her skin, and by those black hairs on her forehead like a crow's wing. He recalled what they said about her. For a moment he envisaged what could have been a great tragic and romantic love with a woman of low life (who came from the town with all of her adventures and her mysterious loves). But it was only a vague, romantic notion with him. He did not think about what that would really be like.
There were still several nights where they dragged themselves through the unoccupied and solitary streets, persuaded that none of them would even try to win their fantastical bet. Bonnin lead them again to Josepha's house one evening at nightfall. They drank with her. And they were a little upset to find themselves there after their bet. Josepha tried to lead the conversation onto the subject of the village folk, because her one glory was to see herself as slightly involved in their intrigues, thanks to a few old boys who visited her. They informed her, but they affected to speak of their life at school and in town in a hasty and extremely serious fashion as if it were about different people. With the same gravity, they agreed on the perfect honesty of certain women. They spoke of Madame Cluzeaux with veneration... Josepha was improved upon. It seemed that their conversation, if not their own characters, were elevated. By contrast, Josepha took pleasure in executing other women whose conduct gave the least grounds for reproach. There was no middle ground with her. One was a saint, and she prostrated her forehead in her own stream, or one hid one's game and was a hundred yards below her who did not hide and who made it a profession.
That is how she put in the same sack little Bravard with whom the attorney pretended to have joked easily when she still had braids down her back, and the niece of the subprefect of T. whose chambermaid she had known and who lit each night around eleven o'clock a lamp to alert a young man hidden in the gardens and the wife of the commandant T. who went to the remaining post office to look for letters and a thousand stories.
Autissier, while hearing her talk distractedly of these women whom he did not know, watched a cat suckling her young, in a basket in the middle of the corridor, that one saw through the open door.
"Do not touch her,"// said Josepha to him, as he acted like he was going to approach it, "she will scratch you. She only lets herself be petted by me. When one of her little ones is sick she comes to me and meows and pulls my dress with her paw so that I help her."
It was strange to think that this woman who was the castoff and the shame of the men of the little town was for this beast both God and Providence. Autissier was moved for a moment. He wondered if he would not come back and speak to Josepha alone the next day. He forced himself to believe that all was not lost with her.
And maybe on the morrow he would have come back alone if different events had not turned him away from this overly easy path.
"I am missing my notebooks," Voyle told him the next day, about nine o'clock, "do you want to go with me to the instructresses' from whom I will get some?"
And they left.
The instructresses were seldom frequented because of the open way in which they had declared themselves for Blanchet, who supported his concurrence against the nuns, but at least there were between the schools official and distantly friendly relations.
To tell the truth. they hardly knew each other. When Voyle arrived with Autissier in the vestibule of the younger classrooms, he felt rather embarrassed. A lamp was lit there, coats and shawls stuck on the hooks, and a young girl, head inclined under her great hat, read, while one heard in the neighboring classroom the sound of a dictation being corrected. //
It is the first day of the great vacations. Sister Saint-Benoist and sister Clothilde have been gone since morning on the six o'clock train for a retreat in Bourges. It is understood that Colombe will remain alone until the time when Monsieur Blanchet can come get her in the carriage, that is to say, the end of the afternoon.
It is two o'clock. It is warm. The great sun shines fully on the little recreational courtyard out back and obliquely on the window panes of the empty classroom that has been freshly washed where the sound of a step, of an open door, of a cabinet closing resonates for a long time. Not a sound is heard in the deserted town. A great wind blows without cease, burning, desolate, romantic...
In the apartment, where the sisters have put on in the morning the wooden shutters, the freshness and darkness of abandoned houses reigns. The papers and the straw that lies here and there speak of the great haste of the departure this morning. It is so dark in the dining room that it would take one a long moment to distinguish, seated on one of the four chairs set along the wall, immobile with a small packet in hand, Colombe Blanchet.
She is dressed, all ready. She is wearing her straw hat. She has wrapped her belongings in a newspaper tied with belt this packet which she holds in her hand like a traveling necessity. Her suitcase is ready. And she is waiting]/ She is waiting for Monsieur Blanchet who should come get her around five o'clock. He will come by the great road. She will hear the harness bell of the horse stopped at the gate.
But she is also watching, silently, all caught up in herself, the cracking of the little wooden gate that opens from the recreational courtyard into the garden. That is the way by which Henry Chaumet will come if he comes. There would be a great gate on the path by the stream with another carriage waiting for her. She is watching, she is observing, a whistle, a call... nothing yet.
Where will they take her? She does not know. What land, what house is waiting for her, over there, very far, at the other end of this immense deserted afternoon, at the hour when night will begin to fall?
She does not know. She is imagining. She imagines the town where the nuns have already passed the threshold of their mother's house and repose austerely in the chapel among their old time companions. She imagines a city like Bourges, the city where she has to change when she goes on vacation each year. Meanwhile, one goes to the doctor's, to the dentist's, into the stores. In hidden sections of town, behind the drapes of the great sombre room where one waits for her speaking low, one heard clacking from farther and farther away on the pavement the hoofs of a horse and the rolling of a carriage. A strange and distant sound, muffled, the sound of a city... Is that where we are going?
But why are we going?
Her heart is simultaneously swollen and constrained. Is it from great desire or great anguish? Here she has left the pension and today is the first day of her life. She had imagined it more wisely, more meditatively. But at last, because it is like that, he says, that a woman must give her love to her fiancé, voluntarily she offers him all that she has: her great young girl's prudery. He himself, is he not abandoning today all of his life as a young man?
She asks herself why happiness is not something simpler. Monsieur Blanchet would have driven them both together.
She decides to walk around the classrooms where the sound of a rack falling. where never again
And that is when //
—Translated by Ed Ford
English language translation copyright ©2006 by Ed Ford and Green Integer. Introduction copyright ©2006 by Ed Ford.
Ed Ford is the translator of the forthcoming Green Integer title, The Vicar’s Passion, a previously untranslated novel by Balzac. Green Integer will also publish a second Balzac novel he has translated as well as
Le Grand Meaulnesby Alain-Fournier.