Book 9 Chapter 5
Summary: Latour recalls the beginning of his missionary life with Father Vaillant, news of whose death has reached him. He remembers how a bishop from Ohio came to Clermont seeking missionary volunteers, and how he and Vaillant responded. For Vaillant, the separation from his home and family was a painful one: Vaillant’s father did not approve of his son’s decision. Latour resolved the issue by declaring that, once the two arrived in the New World, they could get the bishop to release Vaillant from his oath. This turn of events, of course, did not come to pass; both men rendered long and faithful service to the Church as missionaries. Indeed, Vaillant’s land speculation, an attempt to grow the physical territory of the Church, led him into financial disrepute and trouble with his ecclesiastical superiors. Latour attends Vaillant’s funeral, but cannot quite believe that his longtime friend and companion has died.
Analysis: Vaillant “always said that if Jean Latour had not supported him in that hour of torment”—the struggle to decide which of his two conflicting loyalties to honor—“he would have been a parish priest in the Puy-de-Dôme for the rest of his life” (p. 284). We have had several indications in the novel of Vaillant’s importance to Latour; this chapter gives us one of the clearest indications of Latour’s importance to Vaillant. Had Latour not strengthened Vaillant’s resolve when the time came to embark on their missionary career, Vaillant might never have discovered his true vocation: the questing across the frontier for lost Catholics which he so relished. He was also, we are reminded in this chapter, more than a missionary: he was “a promoter… who saw a great future for the Church in Colorado” (p. 285). Vaillant was unafraid even to take great risks for the cause of the Church, as his disastrous land dealings illustrate. Surely, throughout her text, Cather has painted Vaillant as an almost larger-than-life figure; little wonder, then, that Latour thinks of Vaillant’s nickname “Trompe-la-Mort” (one who defies or miraculously escapes death; p. 285), and has trouble reconciling himself to the fact that this man lives no more—as he himself will soon die. Even though the chapter brings Latour (and readers) ever closer to death, then, we are left with a sense of the defiance of death: not so much by virtue of the priests’ Christian faith in resurrection, but by virtue of the ways in which they have both so fully and so vigorously lived their lives. Once again, we see that Latour’s monument will be a cathedral, while Vaillant’s will be the lives of the people with whom he ministered: “For two days before [Vaillant’s funeral], the populations of villages and mining camps had been streaming down the mountains; they slept in wagons and tents and barns; they made a throng like a National Convention in the convent square” (p. 286). Even Vaillant’s own, dying vicar, Father Revardy, manages to attend the funeral to pay his respects. He dies only a few days after Vaillant—“one more instance of the extraordinary personal devotion that Father Joseph had so often aroused and retained so long,” in all manner of people (p. 287).