Pater on Ferdinand Fabre

A FRENCH novelist who, with much of Zola’s undoubted power, writes always in the interest of that high type of Catholicism which still prevails in the remote provinces of France, of that high type of morality of which the French clergy have nobly maintained the ideal, is worth recommending to the more serious class of English readers. Something of the gift of François Millet, whose peasants are veritable priests, of those older religious painters who could portray saintly heads so sweetly and their merely human protégés so truly, seems indeed to have descended to M. Ferdinand Fabre. In the Abbé Tigrane, in Lucifer, and elsewhere, he has delineated, with wonderful power and Patience, a strictly ecclesiastical portraiture? shrewd, passionate, somewhat melancholy heads, which, though they are often of peasant origin, are never by any chance undignified. The passions he treats of in priests are, indeed, strictly clerical, most often their ambitions? not the errant humours of the there man in the priest, but movements of spirit properly incidental to the clerical type itself. Turning to the secular brothers and sisters of these peasant ecclesiastics, at first sight so strongly contrasted with them, M. Fabre shows a great acquaintance with the sources, the effects, of average human feeling; but still in contact?in contact, as its conscience, its better mind, its ideal?with the institutions of religion. What constitutes his distinguishing note as a writer is the recognition of the religious, the Catholic, ideal, intervening masterfully throughout the picture he presents of life, as the only mode of poetry realizable by the poor; and although, of course, it does a “real deal more beside, certainly doing the high work of poetry effectively. For his background he has chosen, has made his own and conveys very vividly to his readers, a district of France, gloomy, in spite of its almonds, its oil and wine, but certainly grandiose. The large towns, the sparse hamlets, the wide landscape of the Cevennes, are for his books what the Rhineland is to those delightful authors, Messrs. Erckmann-Chatrian. In Les Courbezon, the French Vicar of Wakefield, as Sainte-Beuve declared, with this imposing background, the Church and the world, as they shape themselves in the Cevennes, the priest and the peasant, occupy about an equal share of interest. Sometimes, as in the charming little book we wish now to introduce, unclerical human nature occupies the foreground almost exclusively; though priestly faces will still be found gazing upon us from time to time. In form, the book is a bundle of letters from a Parisian littérateur to the friend of his boyhood, now thecuré of one of those mountain villages. He is refreshing himself, in the midst of dusty, sophisticated Paris, with memories of their old, delightful existence?vagabonde, line, agreste, pastorale?in their upland valley. He can appeal safely to the aged curé’s friendly justice, even in exposing delicacies of sentiment which most men conceal:? ” As for you, frank, certain of your own mind, joyous of heart, methinks scarce under standing those whose religion makes their souls tremble instead of fortifying them?you, I am sure, take things by the large and kindly side of human life.” The story our Parisian has to tell is simple enough, and we have no intention of betraying it, but only to note some of the faces, the scenes, that peep out in the course of it. The gloom of the Cevennes is the impression M. Fabre most commonly conveys. In this book it is rather the cheerful aspect of summer, those upland valleys of the Cevennes presenting then a symphony in red, so to call it?as in a land of cherries and goldfinches; and he has a genial power certainly of making you really feel the sun on the backs of the two boys out early for a long ramble, of old peasants resting themselves a little, with spare enjoyment, ere the end:? “As we turned a sharp elbow of the stream the aspect of the country changed. It seemed to me entirely red. Cherries in enormous bunches were hanging everywhere over our heads. . . . ” It was a hut, rather low, rather dark. A log of chestnut was smouldering in a heap of ashes. Every object was in its place: the table, the chairs, the plates ranged on the dresser. A fairy, in truth, reigned there, and, by the touch of her wand, brought cleanliness and order on every side. ” ‘ Is it you, Norine ? ‘ asked a voice from a dark corner, three steps from the fireplace. ” ‘ Yes, mon grand, it is I ! The heat was growing greater every moment, and I have taken in the goats.’ “Norine unclosed the window. A broad light spread over the floor of beaten earth, like a white cloth. The cottage was illuminated. I saw an old man seated on a wooden stool in a recess, where an ample serge curtain concealed a bed. He held himself slightly bent, the two hands held forth, one over the other, on the knob of a knotty staff, highly polished. In spite of eighty years, Norine’s grandfather?le grand, as they say up there?had not lost a hair: beautiful white locks fell over his shoulders? crisp, thick, outspread. I thought of those fine wigs of tow or hemp with which the distaff of our Prudence was always entangled. He was close shaved, after the manner of our peasants; and the entire mask was to be seen disengaged, all its admirable lines free, commanded by a full-sized nose, below which the good, thick lips were smiling, full of kindness. The eyes, however, though still clear and soft in expression, had a certain fixity which startled me. He raised himself. His stature seemed to me beyond proportion. He was really beautiful, with the contentment of his face, straight as the trunk of a chestnut, his old velvet coat thrown back, his shirt of coarse cloth open at the breast, so that one saw the play of the ribs. ” ‘Monsieur le neveu ! ‘ he cried; ‘where are you ! Come to me ! I am blind.’ ” I approached. He felt me, with ten fingers, laying aside his staff. “‘And you would not take offence if a poor peasant like me embraced you ?’ ” ‘ Quick, Jalaguier ! ‘ I cried, throwing myself into his arms. ‘Quick !’ He pressed me till the joints started. Leaned upon his broad chest, I heard the beating of his heart. It beat under my ears with a burden like our bell at Camplong. What powerful vitality in Norine’s grand ! ‘ It does an old man good:?a good hug ! ‘ he said, letting me go.” The boyish visitors are quite ready to sit down there to dinner:? ” With the peasant of the Cevennes (M. Fabre tells us) the meal is what nature meant it to be?a few moments for self-recovery after fatigue, a short space of silence of a quite elevated character, almost sacred. The poor human creature has given the sweat of his brow to extort from an ungrateful soil his daily bread; and now he eats that well- savoured bread in silent self-respect. ” ‘ It is a weary thing to be thinking always of one’s work (says thegrand to the somewhat sparing Norine). We must also think of our sustenance. You are too enduring, my child ! it is a mistake to demand so much of your arms. In truth, le bon Dieu has cut you out after the pattern of your dead father. Every morning, in my prayers, I put in my complaint thereanent. My poor boy died from going too fast. He could never sit still when it was a question of gathering a few sous from the fields; and those fields took and consumed him.’ ” The boy fancies that the blind eyes are turned towards a particular spot in the landscape, as if they saw:? “‘I often turn my eyes in that direction (the old man explains) from habit. One might suppose that a peasant had the scent of the earth on which he has laboured. I have given so much of the sweat of my brow?there?towards Rocaillet ! Angelique, my dead wife, was of Rocaillet; and when she married me, brought a few morsels of land in her apron. What a state they’re in now !?those poor morsels of land we used to weed and rake and hoe, my boy and I ! What superb crops of vetches we mowed then, for feeding, in due time, our lambs, our calves ! All is gone to ruin since my blindness, and especially since Angelique left me for the churchyard, never to come back.’ He paused to my great relief. For every one of those phrases he modulated under the figtrees more sadly than the Lamentations of Jeremiah on Jeudi Saint overset me?was like death.” That is good drawing, in its simple and quiet way ! The actual scene, however, is cheerful enough on this early summer day?a symphony, as we said, in cherries and goldfinches, in which the higher valleys of the Cevennes abound. In fact, the boys witness the accordailles, the engagement, of Norine and Justin Lebasset. The latter is calling the birds to sing good luck to the event:? ” He had a long steady look towards the fruit-trees, and then whistled, on a note at once extremely clear and extremely soft. He paused, watched awhile, recommenced. The note became more rapid, more sonorous. What an astounding man he was, this Justin Lebasset ! Upright, his red beard forward, his forehead thrown back, his eyes on the thick foliage of the cherry-trees, his hands on his haunches, in an attitude of repose, easy, superb, he was like some youthful pagan god, gilded with red gold, on his way across the country?like Pan, if he chose to amuse himself by charming birds. You should have seen the enthusiastic glances with which Norine watched him. Upright? she too, slim, at full height, inclining from time to time towards Justin with a movement of irresistible fascination, she followed the notes of her mate; and sometimes, her lips half opening, added thereto a sigh?something of a sigh, an aspiration, a prayer, towards the goldfinch, withdrawn into the shadows. ” The leaves were shaken in the clear, burning green; and, on a sudden, a multitude of goldfinches, the heads red in the wind, the wings half spread, were fluttering from branch to branch. I could have fancied, amid the quivering of the great bunches of fruit, that they were cherries on the wing. Justin suffered his pipe to die away: the birds were come at his invitation, and performed their prelude.” It is forty years afterwards that the narrator, now a man of letters in Paris, writes to his old friend, with tidings of Justin and Norine:? ” In 1842 (he observes) you were close on fifteen; I scarcely twelve. In my eyes your age made you my superior. And then, you were so strong, so tender, so amiteux, to use a word from up there?a charming word. And so God, Who had His designs for you, whereas I, in spite of my pious childhood, wandered on my way as chance bade me, led you by the hand, attached, ended by keeping you for Himself. He did well truly when He chose you and rejected me ! ” His finding the pair in the wilds of Paris is an adventure, in which, in fact, a goldfinch again takes an important part?a goldfinch who is found to understand the Cevenol dialect:? ” The goldfinch (escaped from its cage somewhere, into the dreary court of the Institute) has seen me: is looking at me. If he chose to make his way into my apartment, he would be very welcome. I feel a strong impulse to try him with that unique patois word, which, whistled after a peculiar manner, when I was a boy never failed to succeed in the mountains of Orb?Béni! Béni ! Viens ! Viens ! I dare not ! He might take fright and fly away altogether.” In effect, the Cevenol bird, true to call, introduces Norine, his rightful owner, whose husband Justin is slowly dying, Towards the end of a hard life, faithful to their mountain ideal, they have not lost their dignity, though in a comparatively sordid medium: ” As for me, my dear Arribas, I remained in deep agitation, an attentive spectator of the scene; and while Justin and Norine, set both alike in the winepress of sorrow, le pressoir de la douleur, as your good books express it’ murmured to each other their broken consoling words, I saw them again, in thought, young, handsome, in the full flower of life, under the cherry-trees, the swarming goldfinches, of blind Barthélemy Jalaguier. Ah me ! It was thus that, five-and- forty years after, in this dark street of Paris, that festive day was finishing, blessed, in the plenitude of nature, by that august old man, celebrated by the alternate song of all the birds of Rocaillet.” Justin’s one remaining hope is to go home to those native mountains, if it may be, with the dead body of his boy, dead ” the very morning on which he should have received the tonsure from the hands of Mgr. l’Archevêque,” and buried now temporarily at the cemetery of Montparnasse:? “‘Theodore calls me. I saw him distinctly to-night. He gave me a sign. After all said, life is heavy, sans le fillot, and but for you it were well to be released from it.’ … ” I have seen Justin Lebasset die, dear Arribas, and was touched, edified, to the bottom of my soul. God grant, when my hour comes, I may find that calm, that force, in the last struggle with life. Not a complaint ! not a sigh ! Once only he gave Norine a sorrowful, heartrending look; then, from lips already cold, breathed that one word, ‘Theodore ! ‘ Marcus Aurelius used to say: ‘A man should leave the world as a ripe olive falls from the tree that bore it, and with a kiss for the earth that nourished it.’ Well ! the peasant of Rocaillet had the beautiful, noble, simple death of the fruit of the earth, going to the common receptacle of all mortal beings, with no sense that he was torn away. Pardon, I pray, my quotation from Marcus Aurelius, who persecuted the Christians. I give it with the same respect with which you would quote some holy writer. Ah ! my dear Arribas ! not all the saints have received canonization.” It is to the priestly character, in truth, that M. Fabre always comes back for tranquillizing effect; and if his peasants have something akin to Wordsworth’s, his priests may remind one of those solemn ecclesiastical heads familiar in the paintings and etchings of M. Alphonse Legros. The reader travelling in Italy, or Belgium perhaps, has doubtless visited one or more of those spacious sacristies, introduced to which for the inspection of some more than usually recherché work of art, one is presently dominated by their reverend quiet: simple people coming and going there, devout, or at least on devout business, with half-pitched voices, not without touches of kindly humour, in what seems to express like a picture the most genial side, midway between the altar and the home, of the ecclesiastical life. Just such interiors we seem to visit under the magic of M. Fabre’s welltrained pen. He has a real power of taking one from Paris, or from London, to places and people certainly very different from either, to the satisfaction of those who seek in fiction an escape.

Originally published in the Guardian — June 12, 1888