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Honore De Balzac - The Country Doctor (1833)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(Le Medecin de Champagne)

This study belongs to the Scenes of Country Life, which Balzac did not live to finish. He wrote: "I had to delineate certain exceptional live, which comprehend the interests of many persons, or of everybody, and are in a degree outside the general law. Hence we have Scenes of Political Life. This vast picture of society being finished and complete, was if not needful to display it in its most violent phase, beside itself, as it were, either in self-defense or for the sake of conquest? Hence the Scenes of Military Life. . . Finally, the Scenes of Country Life are, in a way, the evening of this long day." Several editions of this work appeared, and in 1839 it was published in its final form. The story of Napoleon's career, told by the old soldier and postman, Goguelat, in the barn to his rustic audience, has always been admired as an independent composition. It appeared in L'Europe Litteraire in June, 1833, before the book was published. In his list of "irreproachable figures," to use his own words, created by him, the great novelist includes Dr. Benassis, Genestas, and the peculiar La Fosseuse. The work, dedicated to his mother, bears the legend: "Fora wounded heart—shadow and silence."

ON a lovely spring morning, a man of about fifty was riding along the mountain road that led to a large village near the Grande Chartreuse. His impassive face showed no admiration of the beautiful Alpine scenery, for he was one of Napoleon's soldiers, and, therefore, a stoic. He wore the rosette of an officer of the Legion of Honor. Pierre Joseph Genestas was an unostentatious kind of Bayard. He had served on every battle-field where Napoleon had commanded. He was one of those natures that are great at need and that relapse into their ordinary simplicity when the action is over. Genestas had just come from Grenoble, having obtained leave of absence. Stopping at a squalid hovel to get refreshment, he found its poor mistress taking care of charity children, and was greatly touched by her assumption of the duties of motherhood. In his conversation with her, she spoke of Monsieur Benassis with reverent affection. It was to M. Benassis's house that Genestas wished to go. He inquired the way thither, and set off. Soon he caught a glimpse through the trees of the little town's first cluster of houses, and noticed a general air of prosperity as he rode along. A child showed him the way to the house, and the soldier was astonished at the neglected appearance of the premises. Perhaps he should have to relinquish his ideal of Dr. Benassis ! An old servant took his horse and told him that the master had gone to the flour-mill. Genestas decided to follow him. The miller's boy redirected him to a hovel, "more wretched even than a moujik's hut in Russia," a very dog-kennel indeed. Here was a dying man attended by an old peasant woman and Dr. Benassis, who turned suddenly when he heard a footstep and the unusual clank of spurs.

Dr. Benassis was of ordinary height, broad-shouldered and deep-chested. He wore a capacious green overcoat buttoned up to the chin, and his dark figure served as a strong relief to his face, which was illumined by the firelight. The face was not unlike that of a satyr. His slightly protruding forehead was full of prominences, his nose was turned up; his cheek-bones were high; the lines of his mouth were crooked; his lips were thick and red; his chin was sharp; his brown eyes were alert and expressed passions now subdued; his hair was iron-gray; his face was deeply wrinkled; his eyebrows were bushy, and his face was covered with red blotches. Dr. Benassis was about fifty. Genestas, who was accustomed to those men of energetic natures sought out by Napoleon, suspected, as he surveyed this man, that there must be some mystery in this life of obscurity.

"Why is he still a country doctor?" he asked himself.

Next he studied the wholly animal face of the old dying cretin. He had never seen a cretin before and had an instinctive feeling of repulsion. In a few moments, this poor creature died; and not long afterward the passing-bell tolled and the rustic religious procession filed in. The doctor and the soldier took their leave. As they walked along, the doctor described the condition of the cretin and the superstitions regarding him; also the story of his settling in this district and the opposition he encountered at first, when he was even stoned. Then he told of the results of his philanthropic and economic schemes.

As they reached the doctor's house, Genestas said that having heard of the miraculous recovery of Monsieur Gravier of Grenoble, he desired to place himself under Dr. Benassis's care. Benassis accepted him as a patient; and when he insisted on paying a fee said that it should go to the chemist in Grenoble to pay for medicines for the poor.

Jacquotte, the doctor's housekeeper, managed everything for him. She loved the house: she had lived there twenty-two years. After the cure's death, Benassis, who had just come into the country, bought it with the plate, wine, furniture, sun-dial, poultry, horse, and woman-servant, the very type of a working housekeeper. Jacquotte was a tyrant by this time.

While strolling in the garden, Dr. Benassis explained more fully to his guest how the population had increased from seven hundred to two thousand souls in ten years and the means he had employed to develop the country and promote various industries. Then they went to dinner.

"My name is Pierre Bluteau," answered Genestas; "I am a captain stationed at Grenoble." This was in reply to the doctor's request for his name, as he led the way to the guest-chamber, a luxuriously furnished apartment, though Genestas was astonished to find the doctor's room simple and bare. The astonishment of his guest caused the doctor to explain his ideas of hospitality and to emphasize how utterly he be-longed, body and soul, to the peasants, who were at liberty to come to his house at all times and seasons.

They bade each other good night; but before the soldier slept he mentally reviewed the doctor, who hour by hour grew greater in his eyes.

The next morning Genestas, at the doctor's invitation, accompanied him upon his rounds. The two horsemen visited homes of sorrow and death; they encountered an old soldier, Gondrin, and some old laborers contented with their lot; visited several of the doctor's patients, and, above all, the strange, sensitive, and peculiar La Fosseuse, a young girl, a sort of charge of Dr. Benassis, who lived in a rustic dwelling embowered with roses.

"I can love her in no other way than as a sister or a daughter; my heart is dead," said Benassis, when Genestas questioned him about La Fosseuse. Then Dr. Benassis told the story of La Fosseuse, whose father, Le Fosseur, was a grave-digger and whose mother died at her birth. A neighbor took care of the child till she was nine, and then she was sent out to beg.

They arrived home late. Jacquotte was annoyed, for dinner had been delayed. There were guests, too : Monsieur Dufau, justice of the peace; Monsieur Cambon, a timber-merchant; Monsieur Janvier, the cure; and Monsieur Tonnelet, the mayor. Jacquotte announced dinner.

Invited by Benassis, who summoned each in turn so as to avoid questions of precedence, the doctor's five guests went into the dining-room; and after the cure, in low and quiet tones, had repeated a blessing, they took their places at table. The linen was of dazzling whiteness, and fragrant with the scent of the thyme that Jacquotte always put into her wash-tubs. The dinner-service was of white porcelain, edged with blue, and was in perfect order. The decanters were of the old-fashioned octagonal kind still in use in the provinces, though they have disappeared elsewhere. Grotesque figures had been carved on the horn handles of the ancient knives.

Society itself seemed to be represented by the types gathered here; and the long conversation was devoted to a discussion of social and economic questions.

After accompanying the cure home, Dr. Benassis proposed to Genestas that they should go to the barn and hear the peasants talk. They climbed a ladder into the hay-loft and looked down on the scene, keeping quiet so as not to be seen or heard. Quite a large audience of both sexes were listening to a grotesque story related by a peasant—The Courageous Hunchback Woman was its title.

La Fosseuse called for Napoleon's adventures; and Goguelat, the postman, got up from his truss of hay and yielded to the wishes of his audience. He had served under the Emperor, and gave an impassioned survey of Napoleon's career. It was the Napoleon of the People that he described, the hero, the demigod—the Napoleon who bore the Sword of God in his scabbard, Napoleon the Lion of the Desert, father of the soldier, father of the people! When describing the infantry he was interrupted. "How about the cavalry?" cried Genestas, dropping into the midst of the astonished group. The two soldiers then had a talk; and the crowd screamed: "Long live the Emperor!" "Hush!" said the officer, concealing his deep sorrow. "He is dead!" But this the crowd would not believe.

"What do you think of our Goguelat?" said Benassis to Genestas, as they went homeward.

"So long as such stories are told in France, sir, she will always find the fourteen armies of the Republic within her at need; and her cannon will be perfectly able to keep up a conversation with the rest of Europe. That is what I think."

Sitting beside the dying fire, Genestas with apologies asked the doctor the reason for his retired existence.

"Captain," answered Dr. Benassis; "for these twelve years I have lived in silence, and now as I wait at the brink of the grave for the stroke that will cast me into it, I will candidly own to you that this silence begins to weigh heavily upon me:"

Dr. Benassis, careless of the judgments of man and full of hope in God, told his story. He was born in Languedoc; and after ten years of the almost monastic discipline of the Oratorians, he was sent to Paris. He studied at the Ecole de Medecin; and, notwithstanding the precautions taken by his father to guard him, he was drawn into the dissipated life of the capital. He had a craze for the stage, actors and acting, and all pleasures. "I became a Parisian," said the doctor, "and to be brief, I led the aimless, drifting life of a young provincial thrown into the heart of a great city." At last he formed a secret connection with a young girl. His father died and left him a fortune and he deserted the girl to live the gay life of Parisian society. After two years, she wrote and asked him to come to see her. She was dying; and she begged him to take care of their child. Love returned to the young man's heart, and he devoted himself to the little boy. He was both father and Mother to him. After a time, he met a young girl with whom he fell in love, and offered his hand. When Evelina's parents learned the past history of their future son-in-, law and the existence of his son, they broke the engagement. Evelina wrote him a tender farewell, which Benassis showed Genestas with deep emotion, and also his reply in which he said: "Farewell forever. There still remains to me the proud humility of repentance; I will find some sphere of life where T can expiate the errors to which you, the mediator between Heaven and me, have shown no mercy. Perhaps God may be less inexorable. My sufferings, full of the thought of you, shall be the penance of a heart which will never be healed, which will bleed in silence. For a wounded heart shadow and silence."

Another grief fell upon Benassis : his child died. "Nothing was left to me here on earth," said the country doctor sadly; "I raised my eyes to heaven and beheld God."

He had eighty thousand francs, and meant to live a solitary life in some remote country. Drawn to the rule of Saint Bruno, he made the journey to the Grande Chartreuse on foot, absorbed in solemn thoughts. He saw the Grande Chartreuse and walked beneath the vaulted roofs of the ancient cloisters. An inscription over the door of a cell impressed him—" Fuge, late, tace." Discerning an undercurrent of egotism in the dead life of the cloister, Benassis determined to give his life to the suffering poor in the countryside. "When I remembered," he said, "that my first serious thoughts had inclined me to the study of medicine, I resolved to settle here as a doctor. Be-sides, I had another reason. For a wounded heart—shadow and silence; so I had written in my letter; and I meant to fulfil the vow which I had made to myself. So I have entered into the paths of silence and submission. The fuge, late, lace of the Carthusian brother is my motto here, my death to the world is the life of this canton, my prayer takes the form of the active work to which I have set my hand, and which I love—the work of sowing the seeds of happiness and joy, of giving to others what I myself have not."

Genestas now gave his true name to Dr. Benassis. The latter had long known of Commandant Genestas. Genestas swore eternal friendship and begged the doctor to accept a new patient—a boy. No, not the son of Genestas, but the son of her he loved; and the soldier told his sad story. To this child Genestas was devoted. Overstudy had developed a weak chest, and Genestas had come to learn Dr. Benassis and his ways before placing the boy under his care. Dr. Benassis forgave the deception; and Genestas soon brought the delicate lad of sixteen to Dr. Benassis, who pronounced him curable. He left the boy with the doctor. Eight months later, Genestas received a letter from Benassis, telling him of the marvelous improvement in his adopted son. "I will go to see Benassis to-morrow," said Genestas. A few hours later he received another letter, this time from Adrien, his son, announcing the sudden death of the beloved doctor. He was taken ill on re-turning from visiting a patient and just after receiving a letter, Adrien said, addressed in a lady's handwriting and post-marked Paris. " It is all over with me!" he cried. "Adrien, burn this letter."

When Genestas arrived, he found the whole countryside in sorrow. With the cure he visited the grave. La Fosseuse was weeping there.

"As soon as I have my pension," he said to the cure, "I will come to end my days here among you."

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