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THE COUNTRY DOCTOR


By Honore De Balzac



Translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell




"For a wounded heart - shadow and silence."


To my Mother





INTRODUCTION


In hardly any of his books, with the possible exception of _Eugenie
Grandet_, does Balzac seem to have taken a greater interest than in _Le
Medecin de Campagne_; and the fact of this interest, together with the
merit and intensity of the book in each case, is, let it be repeated, a
valid argument against those who would have it that there was something
essentially sinister both in his genius and his character.

_Le Medecin de Campagne_ was an early book; it was published in 1833, a
date of which there is an interesting mark in the selection of the name
"Evelina," the name of Madame Hanska, whom Balzac had just met, for the
lost Jansenist love of Benassis; and it had been on the stocks for
a considerable time. It is also noteworthy, as lying almost entirely
outside the general scheme of the _Comedie Humaine_ as far as
personages go. Its chief characters in the remarkable, if not absolutely
impeccable, _repertoire_ of MM. Cerfberr and Christophe (they have,
a rare thing with them, missed Agathe the forsaken mistress) have no
references appended to their articles, except to the book itself; and
I cannot remember that any of the more generally pervading _dramatis
personae_ of the Comedy makes even an incidental appearance here. The
book is as isolated as its scene and subject - I might have added, as
its own beauty, which is singular and unique, nor wholly easy to give a
critical account of. The transformation of the _cretin_-haunted desert
into a happy valley is in itself a commonplace of the preceding century;
it may be found several times over in Marmontel's _Contes Moraux_, as
well as in other places. The extreme minuteness of detail, effective
as it is in the picture of the house and elsewhere, becomes a little
tedious even for well-tried and well-affected readers, in reference to
the exact number of cartwrights and harness-makers, and so forth; while
the modern reader pure and simple, though schooled to endure detail,
is schooled to endure it only of the ugly. The minor characters and
episodes, with the exception of the wonderful story or legend of
Napoleon by Private Goguelat, and the private himself, are neither of
the first interest, nor always carefully worked out: La Fosseuse, for
instance, is a very tantalizingly unfinished study, of which it is
nearly certain that Balzac must at some time or other have meant to make
much more than he has made; Genestas, excellent as far as he goes, is
not much more than a type; and there is nobody else in the foreground at
all except the Doctor himself.

It is, however, beyond all doubt in the very subordination of these
other characters to Benassis, and in the skilful grouping of the whole
as background and adjunct to him, that the appeal of the book as art
consists. From that point of view there are grounds for regarding it as
the finest of the author's work in the simple style, the least indebted
to super-added ornament or to mere variety. The dangerous expedient of
a _recit_, of which the eighteenth-century novelists were so fond, has
never been employed with more successful effect than in the confession
of Benassis, at once the climax and the centre of the story. And
one thing which strikes us immediately about this confession is the
universality of its humanity and its strange freedom from merely
national limitations. To very few French novelists - to few even of those
who are generally credited with a much softer mould and a much purer
morality than Balzac is popularly supposed to have been able to
boast - would inconstancy to a mistress have seemed a fault which could
be reasonably punished, which could be even reasonably represented as
having been punished in fact, by the refusal of an honest girl's love in
the first place. Nor would many have conceived as possible, or have
been able to represent in lifelike colors, the lifelong penance which
Benassis imposes on himself. The tragic end, indeed, is more in their
general way, but they would seldom have known how to lead up to it.

In almost all ways Balzac has saved himself from the dangers incident
to his plan in this book after a rather miraculous fashion. The Goguelat
myth may seem disconnected, and he did as a matter of fact once publish
it separately; yet it sets off (in the same sort of felicitous manner of
which Shakespeare's clown-scenes and others are the capital examples
in literature) both the slightly matter-of-fact details of the
beatification of the valley and the various minute sketches of places
and folk, and the almost superhuman goodness of Benassis, and his
intensely and piteously human suffering and remorse. It is like the red
cloak in a group; it lights, warms, inspirits the whole picture.

And perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is the way in which Balzac
in this story, so full of goodness of feeling, of true religion (for if
Benassis is not an ostensible practiser of religious rites, he avows his
orthodoxy in theory, and more than justifies it in practice), has almost
entirely escaped the sentimentality _plus_ unorthodoxy of similar work
in the eighteenth century, and the sentimentality _plus_ orthodoxy of
similar work in the nineteenth. Benassis no doubt plays Providence in
a manner and with a success which it is rarely given to mortal man to
achieve; but we do not feel either the approach to sham, or the more
than approach to gush, with which similar handling on the part of
Dickens too often affects some of us. The sin and the punishment of the
Doctor, the thoroughly human figures of Genestas and the rest, save the
situation from this and other drawbacks. We are not in the Cockaigne of
perfectibility, where Marmontel and Godwin disport themselves; we are in
a very practical place, where time-bargains in barley are made, and
you pay the respectable, if not lavish board of ten francs per day for
entertainment to man and beast.

And yet, explain as we will, there will always remain something
inexplicable in the appeal of such a book as the _Medecin de Campagne_.
This helps, and that, and the other; we can see what change might have
damaged the effect, and what have endangered it altogether. We must, of
course, acknowledge that as it is there are _longueurs_, intrusion of
Saint Simonian jargon, passages of _galimatias_, and of preaching.
But of what in strictness produces the good effect we can only say one
thing, and that is, it was the genius of Balzac working as it listed and
as it knew how to work.

The book was originally published by Mme. Delaunay in September 1833
in two volumes and thirty-six chapters with headings. Next year it was
republished in four volumes by Werdet, and the last fifteen chapters
were thrown together into four. In 1836 it reappeared with dedication
and date, but with the divisions further reduced to seven; being those
which here appear, with the addition of two, "La Fosseuse" and "Propos
de Braves Gens" between "A Travers Champs" and "Le Napoleon du Peuple."
These two were removed in 1839, when it was published in a single volume
by Charpentier. In all these issues the book was independent. It became
a "Scene de la Vie de Campagne" in 1846, and was then admitted into the
_Comedie_. The separate issues of Goguelat's story referred to above
made their appearances first in _L'Europe Litteraire_ for June 19,
1833 (_before_ the book form), and then with the imprint of a sort of
syndicate of publishers in 1842.

George Saintsbury





CHAPTER I. THE COUNTRYSIDE AND THE MAN


On a lovely spring morning in the year 1829, a man of fifty or
thereabouts was wending his way on horseback along the mountain road
that leads to a large village near the Grande Chartreuse. This village
is the market town of a populous canton that lies within the limits of a
valley of some considerable length. The melting of the snows had filled
the boulder-strewn bed of the torrent (often dry) that flows through
this valley, which is closely shut in between two parallel mountain
barriers, above which the peaks of Savoy and of Dauphine tower on every
side.

All the scenery of the country that lies between the chain of the two
Mauriennes is very much alike; yet here in the district through which
the stranger was traveling there are soft undulations of the land, and
varying effects of light which might be sought for elsewhere in
vain. Sometimes the valley, suddenly widening, spreads out a soft
irregularly-shaped carpet of grass before the eyes; a meadow constantly
watered by the mountain streams that keep it fresh and green at all
seasons of the year. Sometimes a roughly-built sawmill appears in a
picturesque position, with its stacks of long pine trunks with the bark
peeled off, and its mill stream, brought from the bed of the torrent in
great square wooden pipes, with masses of dripping filament issuing
from every crack. Little cottages, scattered here and there, with their
gardens full of blossoming fruit trees, call up the ideas that are
aroused by the sight of industrious poverty; while the thought of ease,
secured after long years of toil, is suggested by some larger houses
farther on, with their red roofs of flat round tiles, shaped like the
scales of a fish. There is no door, moreover, that does not duly exhibit
a basket in which the cheeses are hung up to dry. Every roadside and
every croft is adorned with vines; which here, as in Italy, they train
to grow about dwarf elm trees, whose leaves are stripped off to feed the
cattle.

Nature, in her caprice, has brought the sloping hills on either side
so near together in some places, that there is no room for fields, or
buildings, or peasants' huts. Nothing lies between them but the torrent,
roaring over its waterfalls between two lofty walls of granite that rise
above it, their sides covered with the leafage of tall beeches and
dark fir trees to the height of a hundred feet. The trees, with their
different kinds of foliage, rise up straight and tall, fantastically
colored by patches of lichen, forming magnificent colonnades, with a
line of straggling hedgerow of guelder rose, briar rose, box and arbutus
above and below the roadway at their feet. The subtle perfume of this
undergrowth was mingled just then with scents from the wild mountain
region and with the aromatic fragrance of young larch shoots, budding
poplars, and resinous pines.

Here and there a wreath of mist about the heights sometimes hid and
sometimes gave glimpses of the gray crags, that seemed as dim and vague
as the soft flecks of cloud dispersed among them. The whole face of the
country changed every moment with the changing light in the sky; the
hues of the mountains, the soft shades of their lower slopes, the very
shape of the valleys seemed to vary continually. A ray of sunlight
through the tree-stems, a clear space made by nature in the woods, or a
landslip here and there, coming as a surprise to make a contrast in the
foreground, made up an endless series of pictures delightful to see amid
the silence, at the time of year when all things grow young, and when
the sun fills a cloudless heaven with a blaze of light. In short, it was
a fair land - it was the land of France!

The traveler was a tall man, dressed from head to foot in a suit of blue
cloth, which must have been brushed just as carefully every morning
as the glossy coat of his horse. He held himself firm and erect in the
saddle like an old cavalry officer. Even if his black cravat and doeskin
gloves, the pistols that filled his holsters, and the valise securely
fastened to the crupper behind him had not combined to mark him out as a
soldier, the air of unconcern that sat on his face, his regular features
(scarred though they were with the smallpox), his determined manner,
self-reliant expression, and the way he held his head, all revealed
the habits acquired through military discipline, of which a soldier can
never quite divest himself, even after he has retired from service into
private life.

Any other traveler would have been filled with wonder at the loveliness
of this Alpine region, which grows so bright and smiling as it becomes
merged in the great valley systems of southern France; but the officer,
who no doubt had previously traversed a country across which the French
armies had been drafted in the course of Napoleon's wars, enjoyed the
view before him without appearing to be surprised by the many changes
that swept across it. It would seem that Napoleon has extinguished in
his soldiers the sensation of wonder; for an impassive face is a sure
token by which you may know the men who served erewhile under the
short-lived yet deathless Eagles of the great Emperor. The traveler was,
in fact, one of those soldiers (seldom met with nowadays) whom shot
and shell have respected, although they have borne their part on every
battlefield where Napoleon commanded.

There had been nothing unusual in his life. He had fought valiantly in
the ranks as a simple and loyal soldier, doing his duty as faithfully
by night as by day, and whether in or out of his officer's sight. He had
never dealt a sabre stroke in vain, and was incapable of giving one
too many. If he wore at his buttonhole the rosette of an officer of the
Legion of Honor, it was because the unanimous voice of his regiment had
singled him out as the man who best deserved to receive it after the
battle of Borodino.

He belonged to that small minority of undemonstrative retiring natures,
who are always at peace with themselves, and who are conscious of a
feeling of humiliation at the mere thought of making a request, no
matter what its nature may be. So promotion had come to him tardily, and
by virtue of the slowly-working laws of seniority. He had been made
a sub-lieutenant in 1802, but it was not until 1829 that he became a
major, in spite of the grayness of his moustaches. His life had been so
blameless that no man in the army, not even the general himself, could
approach him without an involuntary feeling of respect. It is possible
that he was not forgiven for this indisputable superiority by those who
ranked above him; but, on the other hand, there was not one of his men
that did not feel for him something of the affection of children for a
good mother. For them he knew how to be at once indulgent and severe. He
himself had also once served in the ranks, and knew the sorry joys and
gaily-endured hardships of the soldier's lot. He knew the errors that
may be passed over and the faults that must be punished in his men - "his
children," as he always called them - and when on campaign he readily
gave them leave to forage for provision for man and horse among the
wealthier classes.

His own personal history lay buried beneath the deepest reserve. Like
almost every military man in Europe, he had only seen the world through
cannon smoke, or in the brief intervals of peace that occurred so seldom
during the Emperor's continual wars with the rest of Europe. Had he
or had he not thought of marriage? The question remained unsettled.
Although no one doubted that Commandant Genestas had made conquests
during his sojourn in town after town and country after country where
he had taken part in the festivities given and received by the officers,
yet no one knew this for a certainty. There was no prudery about him;
he would not decline to join a pleasure party; he in no way offended
against military standards; but when questioned as to his affairs of
the heart, he either kept silence or answered with a jest. To the words,
"How are you, commandant?" addressed to him by an officer over the wine,
his reply was, "Pass the bottle, gentlemen."

M. Pierre Joseph Genestas was an unostentatious kind of Bayard. There
was nothing romantic nor picturesque about him - he was too thoroughly
commonplace. His ways of living were those of a well-to-do man. Although
he had nothing beside his pay, and his pension was all that he had to
look to in the future, the major always kept two years' pay untouched,
and never spent his allowances, like some shrewd old men of business
with whom cautious prudence has almost become a mania. He was so little
of a gambler that if, when in company, some one was wanted to cut in
or to take a bet at ecarte, he usually fixed his eyes on his boots; but
though he did not allow himself any extravagances, he conformed in every
way to custom.

His uniforms lasted longer than those of any other officer in his
regiment, as a consequence of the sedulously careful habits that
somewhat straitened means had so instilled into him, that they had come
to be like a second nature. Perhaps he might have been suspected
of meannesss if it had not been for the fact that with wonderful
disinterestedness and all a comrade's readiness, his purse would be
opened for some harebrained boy who had ruined himself at cards or by
some other folly. He did a service of this kind with such thoughtful
tact, that it seemed as though he himself had at one time lost heavy
sums at play; he never considered that he had any right to control the
actions of his debtor; he never made mention of the loan. He was the
child of his company; he was alone in the world, so he had adopted the
army for his fatherland, and the regiment for his family. Very rarely,
therefore, did any one seek the motives underlying his praiseworthy turn
for thrift; for it pleased others, for the most part, to set it down to
a not unnatural wish to increase the amount of the savings that were
to render his old age comfortable. Till the eve of his promotion to the
rank of lieutenant-colonel of cavalry it was fair to suppose that it was
his ambition to retire in the course of some campaign with a colonel's
epaulettes and pension.

If Genestas' name came up when the officers gossiped after drill,
they were wont to classify him among the men who begin with taking the
good-conduct prize at school, and who, throughout the term of
their natural lives, continue to be punctilious, conscientious, and
passionless - as good as white bread, and just as insipid. Thoughtful
minds, however, regarded him very differently. Not seldom it would
happen that a glance, or an expression as full of significance as the
utterance of a savage, would drop from him and bear witness to past
storms in his soul; and a careful study of his placid brow revealed a
power of stifling down and repressing his passions into inner depths,
that had been dearly bought by a lengthy acquaintance with the perils
and disastrous hazards of war. An officer who had only just joined the
regiment, the son of a peer of France, had said one day of Genestas,
that he would have made one of the most conscientious of priests, or the
most upright of tradesmen.

"Add, the least of a courtier among marquises," put in Genestas,
scanning the young puppy, who did not know that his commandant could
overhear him.

There was a burst of laughter at the words, for the lieutenant's father
cringed to all the powers that be; he was a man of supple intellect,
accustomed to jump with every change of government, and his son took
after him.

Men like Genestas are met with now and again in the French army; natures
that show themselves to be wholly great at need, and relapse into their
ordinary simplicity when the action is over; men that are little mindful
of fame and reputation, and utterly forgetful of danger. Perhaps there
are many more of them than the shortcomings of our own characters
will allow us to imagine. Yet, for all that, any one who believed that
Genestas was perfect would be strangely deceiving himself. The major was
suspicious, given to violent outbursts of anger, and apt to be tiresome
in argument; he was full of national prejudices, and above all things,
would insist that he was in the right, when he was, as a matter of fact,
in the wrong. He retained the liking for good wine that he had acquired
in the ranks. If he rose from a banquet with all the gravity befitting
his position, he seemed serious and pensive, and had no mind at such
times to admit any one into his confidence.

Finally, although he was sufficiently acquainted with the customs
of society and with the laws of politeness, to which he conformed as
rigidly as if they had been military regulations; though he had real
mental power, both natural and acquired; and although he had mastered
the art of handling men, the science of tactics, the theory of sabre
play, and the mysteries of the farrier's craft, his learning had been
prodigiously neglected. He knew in a hazy kind of way that Caesar was a
Roman Consul, or an Emperor, and that Alexander was either a Greek or
a Macedonian; he would have conceded either quality or origin in both
cases without discussion. If the conversation turned on science or
history, he was wont to become thoughtful, and to confine his share in
it to little approving nods, like a man who by dint of profound thought
has arrived at scepticism.

When, at Schonbrunn, on May 13, 1809, Napoleon wrote the bulletin
addressed to the Grand Army, then the masters of Vienna, in which he
said that _like Medea, the Austrian princes had slain their children
with their own hands_; Genestas, who had been recently made a captain,
did not wish to compromise his newly conferred dignity by asking who
Medea was; he relied upon Napoleon's character, and felt quite sure that
the Emperor was incapable of making any announcement not in proper form
to the Grand Army and the House of Austria. So he thought that Medea
was some archduchess whose conduct was open to criticism. Still, as the
matter might have some bearing on the art of war, he felt uneasy about
the Medea of the bulletin until a day arrived when Mlle. Raucourt
revived the tragedy of Medea. The captain saw the placard, and did
not fail to repair to the Theatre Francais that evening, to see the
celebrated actress in her mythological role, concerning which he gained
some information from his neighbors.

A man, however, who as a private soldier had possessed sufficient
force of character to learn to read, write, and cipher, could clearly
understand that as a captain he ought to continue his education. So from
this time forth he read new books and romances with avidity, in this way
gaining a half-knowledge, of which he made a very fair use. He went
so far in his gratitude to his teachers as to undertake the defence of
Pigault-Lebrun, remarking that in his opinion he was instructive and not
seldom profound.

This officer, whose acquired practical wisdom did not allow him to make
any journey in vain, had just come from Grenoble, and was on his way to
the Grande Chartreuse, after obtaining on the previous evening a week's
leave of absence from his colonel. He had not expected that the journey
would be a long one; but when, league after league, he had been misled
as to the distance by the lying statements of the peasants, he thought
it would be prudent not to venture any farther without fortifying the
inner man. Small as were his chances of finding any housewife in her
dwelling at a time when every one was hard at work in the fields, he
stopped before a little cluster of cottages that stood about a piece of
land common to all of them, more or less describing a square, which was
open to all comers.

The surface of the soil thus held in conjoint ownership was hard and
carefully swept, but intersected by open drains. Roses, ivy, and tall
grasses grew over the cracked and disjointed walls. Some rags were
drying on a miserable currant bush that stood at the entrance of the
square. A pig wallowing in a heap of straw was the first inhabitant
encountered by Genestas. At the sound of horse hoofs the creature
grunted, raised its head, and put a great black cat to flight. A young
peasant girl, who was carrying a bundle of grass on her head, suddenly
appeared, followed at a distance by four little brats, clad in rags, it
is true, but vigorous, sunburned, picturesque, bold-eyed, and riotous;
thorough little imps, looking like angels. The sun shone down with an
indescribable purifying influence upon the air, the wretched cottages,
the heaps of refuse, and the unkempt little crew.

The soldier asked whether it was possible to obtain a cup of milk. All
the answer the girl made him was a hoarse cry. An old woman suddenly
appeared on the threshold of one of the cabins, and the young peasant
girl passed on into a cowshed, with a gesture that pointed out the


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