When he walked with long strides along the garden walk of his little country parsonage, he would sometimes ask himself the question: “Why has God done this?” And he would dwell on this continually, putting himself in the place of God, and he almost invariably found an answer. He would never have cried out in an outburst of pious humility: “Thy ways, O Lord, are past finding out.” He said to himself: “I am the servant of God; it is right for me to know the reason of His deeds, or to guess it if I do not know it.”
Everything in nature seemed to him to have been created in accordance with an admirable and absolute logic. The “whys” and “becauses” always balanced. Dawn was given to make our awakening pleasant, the days to ripen the harvest, the rains to moisten it, the evenings for preparation for slumber, and the dark nights for sleep. The four seasons corresponded perfectly to the needs of agriculture, and no suspicion had ever come to the priest of the fact that nature has no intentions; that, on the contrary, everything which exists must conform to the hard demands of seasons, climates and matter.
But he hated woman — hated her unconsciously, and despised her by instinct. He often repeated the words of Christ: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” and he would add: “It seems as though God, Himself, were dissatisfied with this work of His.” She was the tempter who led the first man astray, and who since then had ever been busy with her work of damnation, the feeble creature, a dangerous and mysteriously affecting one. And even more than their sinful bodies, he hated their loving hearts. He had often felt their tenderness directed toward himself, and though he knew that he was invulnerable, he grew angry at this need of love that is always vibrating in them.
According to his belief, God had created woman for the sole purpose of tempting and testing man. One must not approach her without defensive precautions and fear of possible snares. She was, indeed, just like a snare, with her lips open and her arms stretched out to man.
He had no indulgence except for nuns, whom their vows had rendered inoffensive; but he was stern with them, nevertheless, because he felt that at the bottom of their fettered and humble hearts the everlasting tenderness was burning brightly — that tenderness which was shown even to him, a priest. He felt this cursed tenderness, even in their docility, in the low tones of their voices when speaking to him, in their lowered eyes, and in their resigned tears when he reproved them roughly. And he would shake his cassock on leaving the convent doors, and walk off, lengthening his stride as though flying from danger.
He had a niece who lived with her mother in a little house near him. He was bent upon making a sister of charity of her. She was a pretty, brainless madcap. When the abbé preached she laughed, and when he was angry with her she would give him a hug, drawing him to her heart, while he sought unconsciously to release himself from this embrace which nevertheless filled him with a sweet pleasure, awakening in his depths the sensation of paternity which slumbers in every man.
Often, when walking by her side, along the country road, he would speak to her of God, of his God. She never listened to him, but looked about her at the sky, the grass and flowers, and one could see the joy of life sparkling in her eyes. Sometimes she would dart forward to catch some flying creature, crying out as she brought it back: “Look, uncle, how pretty it is! I want to kiss it!” And this desire to “hug” or “kiss” flies or lilac blossoms disquieted, angered, and alarmed the priest, who saw, even in this, the ineradicable tenderness that is always budding in women’s hearts.
Then there came a day when the sexton’s wife, who kept house for Abbé Marignan, told him, with caution, that his niece had a lover. Almost suffocated by the fearful emotion this news aroused in him, he stood there, his face covered with soap, for he was in the act of shaving. When he had sufficiently recovered to think and speak he cried:
“It is not true; you lie, Melanie!” But the peasant woman put her hand on her heart, saying: “May our Lord judge me if I lie, Monsieur le Curé! I tell you, she goes there every night when your sister has gone to bed. They meet by the river side; you have only to go there and see, between ten o’clock and midnight.” He ceased scraping his chin, and began to walk up and down impetuously, as he always did when he was in deep thought. When he began shaving again he cut himself three times from his nose to his ear.
All day long he was silent, full of anger and indignation. To his clerical hatred of this irresistible love was added the exasperation of her spiritual father, of her guardian and pastor, deceived and tricked by a child, and the selfish emotion shown by parents when their daughter announces that she has chosen a husband without them, and in spite of them.
After dinner he tried to read a little, but could not, growing more and, more angry. When ten o’clock struck he seized his cane, a formidable oak stick, which he was accustomed to carry in his nocturnal walks when visiting the sick. And he smiled at the enormous club which he twirled in a threatening manner in his strong, country fist. Then he raised it suddenly and, gritting his teeth, brought it down on a chair, the broken back of which fell over on the floor.
He opened the door to go out, but stopped on the threshold, surprised by the splendid moonlight, of such brilliance as is seldom seen. And, as he was gifted with an emotional nature, one such as had all those poetic dreamers, the Fathers of the Church, he felt suddenly distracted and moved by all the grand and serene beauty of this pale night. In his little garden, all bathed in soft light, his fruit trees in a row cast on the ground the shadow of their slender branches, scarcely in full leaf, while the giant honeysuckle, clinging to the wall of his house, exhaled a delicious sweetness, filling the warm moonlit atmosphere with a kind of perfumed soul. He began to take long breaths, drinking in the air as drunkards drink wine, and he walked along slowly, delighted, marveling, almost forgetting his niece.
As soon as he was outside the garden, he stopped to gaze upon the plain all flooded with the caressing light, bathed in that tender, languishing charm of serene nights. At each moment was heard the short, metallic note of the cricket, and distant nightingales shook out their scattered notes — their light, vibrant music that sets one dreaming, without thinking, a music made for kisses, for the seduction of moonlight.
The abbé walked on again, his heart failing, though he knew not why. He seemed weakened, suddenly exhausted; he wanted to sit down, to rest there, to think, to admire God in His works.
Down below, following the undulations of the little river, a great line of poplars wound in and out. A fine mist, a white haze through which the moonbeams passed, silvering it and making it gleam, hung around and above the mountains, covering all the tortuous course of the water with a kind of light and transparent cotton. The priest stopped once again, his soul filled with a growing and irresistible tenderness. And a doubt, a vague feeling of disquiet came over him; he was asking one of those questions that he sometimes put to himself.
“Why did God make this? Since the night is destined for sleep, unconsciousness, repose, forgetfulness of everything, why make it more charming than day, softer than dawn or evening? And why does this seductive planet, more poetic than the sun, that seems destined, so discreet is it, to illuminate things too delicate and mysterious for the light of day, make the darkness so transparent? Why does not the greatest of feathered songsters sleep like the others? Why does it pour forth its voice in the mysterious night? Why this half-veil cast over the world? Why these tremblings of the heart, this emotion of the spirit, this enervation of the body? Why this display of enchantments that human beings do not see, since they are lying in their beds? For whom is destined this sublime spectacle, this abundance of poetry cast from heaven to earth?”