AT Chartres, as you turn out of the little market-place, which is swept in all weathers by the surly wind from the flats, a mild air as of a cellar, made heavy by a soft, almost smothered scent of oil, puffs in your face on entering the solemn gloom of the sheltering forest.
Durtal knew it well, and the delightful moment when he could take breath, still half-stunned by the sudden change from a stinging north wind to a velvety airy caress. At five every morning he left his rooms, and to reach the covert of that strange forest he had to cross the square; the same figures were always to be seen at the turnings from the same streets; nuns with bowed heads, leaning forward, the borders of their caps blown back and flapping like wings, the wind whirling in their skirts, which they could hardly hold down; and shrunken women, in garments they hugged round them, struggling forward with bent shoulders lashed by the gusts.
Never at that hour had he seen anybody walking boldly upright, without straining her neck and bowing her head; and these scattered women gathered by degrees into two long lines, one of them turning to the left, to vanish under a lighted porch opening to a lower level than the square; the other going straight on, to be swallowed up in the darkness by an invisible wall.
Closing the procession came a few belated priests, hurrying on, with one hand gathering up the gown that ballooned behind them, and with the other clutching their hats, or snatching at the breviary that was slipping from under one arm, their faces hidden on their breast, to plough through the wind with the back of their neck; with red ears, eyes blinded with tears, clinging desperately, when it rained, to umbrellas that swayed above them, threatening to lift them from the ground and dragging them in every direction.
The passage had been more than usually stormy this morning; the squalls that tear across the district of La Beauce, where nothing can check them, had been bellowing for hours; there had been rain, and the puddles splashed under foot. It was difficult to see, and Durtal had begun to think that he should never succeed in getting past the dim mass of the wall that shut in the square, by pushing open the door behind which lay that weird forest, redolent of the night-lamp and the tomb, and protected from the gale.
He sighed with satisfaction, and followed the wide path that led through the gloom. Though he knew his way, he walked cautiously in this alley, bordered by enormous trunks, their crowns lost in shadow. He could have fancied himself in a hothouse roofed with black glass, for there were flagstones under foot, and no sky could be seen, no breeze could stir overhead. The few stars whose glimmer twinkled from afar belonged to our firmament; they quivered almost on the ground, and were, in fact, earth-born.
In this obscurity nothing was to be heard but the fall of quiet feet, nothing to be seen but silent shades visible against the twilight like shapes of deeper darkness.
Durtal presently turned into another wide walk crossing that he had left. There he found a bench backed by the trunk of a tree, and on this he leaned, waiting till the Mother should awake, and the sweet interview interrupted yesterday by the close of the day should begin again.
He thought of the Virgin, whose watchful care had so often preserved him from unexpected risk, easy slips, or greater falls. Was not She the bottomless Well of goodness, the Bestower of the gifts of good Patience, the Opener of dry and obdurate hearts? Was She not, above all, the living and thrice Blessed Mother?
Bending for ever over the squalid bed of the soul, she washed the sores, dressed the wounds, strengthened the fainting weakness of converts. Through all the ages She was the eternal supplicant, eternally entreated; at once merciful and thankful; merciful to the woes She alleviated, and thankful to them too. She was indeed our debtor for our sins, since, but for the wickedness of man, Jesus would never have been born under the corrupt semblance of our image, and She would not have been the immaculate Mother of God. Thus our woe was the first cause of Her joy; and this supremest good resulting from the very excess of Evil, this touching though superfluous bond, linking us to Her, was indeed the most bewildering of mysteries; for Her gratitude would seem unneeded, since Her inexhaustible mercy was enough to attach Her to us for ever.
Thenceforth, in Her immense humility, She had at various times condescended to the masses; She had appeared in the most remote spots, sometimes seeming to rise from the earth, sometimes floating over the abyss, descending on solitary mountain peaks, bringing multitudes to Her feet, and working cures; then, as if weary of wandering to be adored, She wished — so it had seemed — to fix the worship in one place, and had deserted Her ancient haunts in favour of Lourdes.
That town was the second stage of Her progress through France in the nineteenth century. Her first visit was to La Salette.
This was years ago. On the 19th of September, 1846, the Virgin had appeared to two children on a hill; it was a Saturday, the day dedicated to Her, which, that year, was a fast day by reason of the Ember week. By another coincidence, this Saturday was the eve of the Festival of Our Lady of Seven Dolours, and the first vespers were being chanted when Mary appeared as from a shell of glory just above the ground.
And she appeared as Our Lady of Tears in that desert landscape of stubborn rocks and dismal hills. Weeping bitterly, She had uttered reproofs and threats; and a spring, which never in the memory of man had flowed excepting at the melting of the snows, had never since been dried up.
The fame of this event spread far and wide; frantic thousands scrambled up fearful paths to a spot so high that trees could not grow there. Caravans of the sick and dying were conveyed, God knows how, across ravines to drink the water; and maimed limbs recovered, and tumours melted away to the chanting of canticles.
Then, by degrees, after the sordid debates of a contemptible lawsuit, the reputation of La Salette dwindled to nothing; The were few, miracles were less often proclaimed. The Virgin, it would seem, was gone; She had ceased to care for this spring of piety and these mountains.
At the present day few persons climb to La Salette but the natives of Dauphiné, tourists wandering through the Alps, or invalids following the cure at the neighbouring mineral springs of La Mothe. Conversions and spiritual graces still abound there, but bodily healing there is next to none.
"In fact," said Durtal to himself; "the vision at La Saette became famous without its ever being known exactly why. It may be supposed to have grown up as follows: the report, confined at first tc the village of Corps at the foot of the mountain, spread first throughout the department, was taken up by the adjacent provinces, filtered over all France, overflowed the frontier, trickled through Europe, and at last crossed the seas to land in the New World which, in its turn, felt the throb, and also came to this wilderness to hail the Virgin.
"And the circumstances attending these pilgrimages were such as might have daunted the determination of the most persevering. To reach the little inn, perched on high near the church, the lazy rumbling of slow trains must be endured for hours, and constant changes at stations; days must be spent in the diligence, and nights in breeding-places of fleas at country inns; and after flaying your back on the cardingcombs of impossible beds, you must rise at daybreak to start on a giddy climb, on foot or riding a mule, up zigzag bridlepaths above precipices; and at last, when you are there, there are no fir trees, no beeches, no pastures, no torrents; nothing — nothing but total solitude, and silence unbroken even by the cry of a bird, for at that height no bird is to be found.
"What a scene!" thought Durtal, calling up the memories of a journey he had made with the Abbé Gévresin and his housekeeper, since leaving La Trappe. He remembered the horrors of a spot he had passed between Saint Georges de Commiers and La Mure, and his alarm in the carriage as the train slowly travelled across the abyss. Beneath was darkness increasing in spirals down to the vasty deeps; above, as far as the eye could reach, piles of mountains invaded the sky.
The train toiled up, snorting and turning round and round like a top; then, going into a tunnel, was swallowed by .the earth; it seemed to be pushing the light of day away in front, till it suddenly came out into a clearing full of sunshine; presently, as if it were retracing its road, it rushed into another burrow, and emerged with the strident yell of a steam whistle and deafening clatter of wheels, to fly up the winding ribbon of road cut in the living rock.
Suddenly the peaks parted, a wide opening brought the train out into broad daylight; the scene lay clear before them, terrible on all sides.
"Le Drac!" exclaimed the Abbé Gévresin, pointing to a sort of liquid serpent at the bottom of the precipice, writhing and tossing between rocks in the very jaws of the pit.
For now and again the reptile flung itself up on points of stone that rent it as it passed; the waters changed as though poisoned by these fangs; they lost their steely hue, and whitened with foam like a bran bath; then the Drac hurried on faster, faster, flinging. itself into the shadowy gorge; lingered again on gravelly reaches, wallowing in the sun presently it gathered up its scattered rivulets and went on its way, scaly with scum like the iridescent dross on boiling lead, till, far away, the rippling rings spread and vanished, skinned and leaving behind them on the banks a white granulated cuticle of pebbles, a hide of dry sand.
Durtal, as he leaned out of the carriage window, looked straight down into the gulf; on this narrow way with only one line of rails, the train on one side was close to the towering hewn rock, and on the other was the void. Great God! if it should run off the rails! "What a hash!" thought he.
And what was not less overwhelming than the appalling depth of the abyss was, as he looked up, the sight of the furious, frenzied assault of the peaks. Thus, in that carriage, he was literally between the earth and sky, and the ground over which it was moving was invisible, being covered for its whole width by the body of the train.
On they went, suspended in mid-air at a giddy height, along interminable balconies without parapets; and below, the cliffs dropped avalanche-like, fell straibt, hare, without a patch of vegetation or a tree. In places they looked as if they had been split down by the blows of an axe — huge growths of petrified wood; in others they seemed sawn through shaley layers of slate.
And all round lay a wide amphitheatre of endless mountains, hiding the heavens, piled one above another, barring the way to the travelling clouds, stopping the onward march of the sky.
Some made a good show with their jagged grey crests, huge masses of oyster shells; others, with scorched summits, like burnt pyramids of coke, were green half-way up. These bristled with pine woods to the very edge of the precipices, and they were scarred too with white crosses-the high roads, dotted in places with Nuremberg dogs, redroofed hamlets, sheepfolds that seemed on the verge of tumbling headlong, clinging on-how, it was impossible to guess, and flung here and there on patches of green carpet glued on to the steep hill-sides; while other peaks towered higher still, like vast calcined hay-cocks, with doubtfully dead craters still brooding internal fires, and trailing smoky clouds which, as they blew off, really seemed to be coming out of their summits.
The landscape was ominous; the sight of it was strangely discomfiting; perhaps because it impugned the sense of the infinite that lurks within us. The firmament was no more than a detail, cast aside like needless rubbish on the desert peaks of the hills. The abyss was the all-important fact; it made the sky look small and trivial, substituting the magnificence of its depths for the grandeur of eternal space.
The eye, in fact, turned away with disappointment from the sky, which had lost its infinitude of depth, its immeasurable breadth, for the mountains seemed to touch it, pierce it, and uphold it; they cut it up, sawing it with the jagged teeth of their pinnacles, showing mere tattered skirts of blue and rags of cloud.
The eye was involuntarily attracted to the ravines, and the head swam at the sight of those vast pits of blackness. This immensity in the wrong place, stolen from above and cast into the depths, was horrible.
The Abbé had said that the Drac was one of the most formidable torrents in France; at the moment it was dormant, almost dry; but when the season of snows and storms comes it wakes up and flashes like a tide of silver, hisses and tosses, foams and leaps, and can in an instant swallow up villages and dams.
"It is hideous," thought Durtal. "That bilious flood must carry fevers with it; it is accursed and rotten with its soapy foam-flakes, its metallic hues, its scrap of rainbowcolour stranded in the mud."
Durtal now thought over all these details; as he closed his eyes he could see the Drac and La Salette.
"Ah!" thought he, "they may well be proud of the pilgrims who venture to those desolate regions to pray where the vision actually appeared, for when once they are there they are packed on a little plot of ground no bigger than the Place Saint Sulpice, hemmed in on one side by a church of rough stone daubed with cement of the colour of Valbonnais mustard, and on the other by a graveyard. The horizon is a circle of cones, of dry scori, like pumice, or covered with short grass; above them, the glassy slope of perpetual ice and snow; to walk on, a scanty growth of grass moth-eaten by sand. In two words, to sum up the scene, it was nature’s scab, the leprosy of the earth.
"From the artistic point of view, on this microscopic grand parade, close to the spring whose waters are caught in pipes with taps, three bronze statues stand in different spots. One, a Virgin, in the most preposterous garments, her headgear a sort of pastry-mould, a Mohican’s bonnet, is on her knees weeping, with her face hidden in her hands. Then the same Woman, standing up, her hands ecclesiastically shrouded in her sleeves, looks at the two children to whom she is speaking; Maximin, with hair curled like a poodle, twirling a cap like a raised pie, in his hand; Mélanie buried in a cap with deep frills and accompanied by a dog like a paper-weight — all in bronze. Finally the same Person, once more alone, standing on tip-toe, her eyes raised to heaven with a melodramatic expression.
"Never has the frightful appetite for the hideous that disgraces the Church in our day been so resolutely displayed as on this spot; and if the soul suffered in the presence of the obtrusive outrage of this degrading work — perpetrated by one Barréme of Angers and cast in the steam foundries of Le Creusot — the body too had something to endure on this plateau under the crushing mass of hills that shut in the view.
"And yet it was hither that thousands of sick creatures had had themselves hauled up to face the cruel climate, where in summer the sun burns you to a cinder while, two yards away, in the shade of the church, you are frozen.
"The first and greatest miracle accomplished at La Salette was that of bringing such an invasion to this precipitous spot in the Alps, for everything combines to forbid it.
"But crowds came there year after year, till Lourdes took possession of them; for it is since the apparition of the Virgin there that La Salette has fallen into disrepute.
"Twelve years after the vision at La Salette, the Virgin showed herself again, not in Dauphin this time, but in the depths of Gascony. After the Mother of Tears, Our Lady of Seven Dolours, it was Our Lady of Smiles, of the Immaculate Conception, the Sovereign Lady of Joy in Glory, who appeared; and here again it was to a shepherdess that she revealed the existence of a spring that healed diseases.
"And here it is that consternation begins. Lourdes may be described as the exact opposite to La Salette; the scenery is magnificent, the hills in the foreground are covered with verdure, the tamed mountains permit access to their heights; on all sides there are shady avenues, fine trees, living waters, gentle slopes, broad roads devoid of danger and accessible to all; instead of a wilderness, a town, where every requirement of the sick is provided for. Lourdes may be reached without adventures in warrens of vermin, without enduring nights in country inns, or days of jolting in wretched vehicles, without creeping along the face of a precipice; and the traveller is at his destination when he gets out of the train.
"This town then was so admirably chosen for the resort of crowds, that it did not seem necessary that Providence should intervene with such strong measures to attract them.
"But God, who forced La Salette on the world without availing Himself of the means of fashionable notoriety, now changed His tactics; with Lourdes, advertisement appeared on the scene.
"This it is that confounds the mind: Jesus condescending make use of the wretched arts of human commerce; adopting the repulsive tricks which we employ to float a manufacture or a business.
"And we wonder whether this may not be the sternest lesson in humility ever given to man, as well as the most vehement reproof hurled at the American abominations of our day — God reduced to lowering Himself once more to our level, to speaking our language, to using our own devices that He may make Himself heard and obeyed; God no longer even trying to make us understand His purpose through Himself, or to uplift us to that height.
"In point of fact, the way in which the Lord set to work to promulgate the mercies peculiar to Lourdes is astounding. To make them known He is no longer content to spread the report of its miracles by word of mouth; no, and it might be supposed that in His eyes Lourdes is harder to magnify than La Salette — He adopted strong measures from the first. He raised up a man whose book, translated into every language, carried the news of the vision to the most distant lands, and certified the truth of the cures effected at Lourdes.
"To the end that this work should stir up the masses, it was necessary that the writer destined to the task should be a clever organizer, and at the same time a man devoid of individuality of style and of any novel ideas. In a word, what was needed was a man devoid of talent; and that is quite intelligible, since from the point of view of appreciating art the Catholic public is still a hundred feet beneath the profane public. And our Lord did the thing well; he selected Henri Lasserre.
"Consequently the mine exploded as required, rending souls and bringing crowds out on to the road to Lourdes.
"Years went by. The fame of the sanctuary is an established fact. Indisputable cures are effected by supernatural means and certified by clinical authorities, whose good faith and scientific skill are above suspicion. Lourdes has its fill; and yet, little by little, in the long run, though pilgrims do not cease to flow thither, the commotion about the Grotto is diminishing. It is dying out, if not in the religious world, at any rate in the wider world of the careless or the doubting, who must be convinced. And our Lord thinks it desirable to revive attention to the benefits dispensed by His Mother.
"Lasserre was not such an instrument as could renew the half-exhausted vogue enjoyed by Lourdes. The public was soaked in his book; it had swallowed it in every vehicle and in every form; the end was achieved; this budding-knife of miracles was a tool that might now be laid aside.
"What was now wanted was a book entirely unlike his; a book that would influence the vaster public, whom his homely prosiness would never reach. Lourdes must make its way through denser and less malleable strata, to a public of higher class, and harder to please. It was requisite, therefore, that this new book should be written by a man of talent, whose style nevertheless should not be so transcendental as to scare folks. And it was an advantage that the writer should be very well known, so that his enormous editions might counterpoise those of Lasserre.
"Now in all the realm of literature there was but one man who could fulfil these imperative conditions: Emile Zola. In vain should we seek another. He alone with his battering push, his enormous sale, his blatant advertisement, could launch Lourdes once more.
"It mattered little that he would deny supernatural agency and endeavour to explain inexplicable cures by the meanest hypotheses; it mattered little that he mixed mortar of the medical muck of a Charcot to make his wretched theory hold together; the great thing was that noisy debates should arise about the book of which more than a hundred and fifty thousand copies proclaimed the name of Lourdes throughout the world.
"And then the very disorder of his arguments, the poor resort to a ’breath that heals the people,’ invented in contradiction to all the data of positive science on which he prided himself, with the purpose of making these extraordinary cures intelligible — cures which he had seen, and of which he dared not deny the reality or the frequency — were admirable means of persuading unprejudiced and candid inquirers of the authenticity of the recoveries effected year after year at Lourdes.
"This avowed testimony to such amazing facts was enough to give a fresh impetus to the masses. It must be remarked, too, that the book betrays no hostility to the Virgin, of whom it speaks only in respectful terms on the whole; so is it not very credible that the scandal to which this work gave rise was profitable?
"To sum up: it may be asserted that Lasserre and Zola were both useful instruments; one devoid of talent, and for that very reason penetrating to the very lowest strata of the Catholic methodists; the other, on the contrary, making himself welcome to a more intelligent and cultivated public, by those splendid passages where the flaming multitude of processions moves on, and amid a cyclone of anguish, the triumphant faith of the white ranks is exultant.
"Oh, yes! She is fond of Her Lourdes, is Our Lady, and pets it. She seems to have centred all Her powers there, all Her favours; Her other sanctuaries are perishing that this one may live!
"Why, above all, have created La Salette and then sacrificed it, as it were?
"That She should have appeared there is quite intelligible," thought Durtal, answering himself. "The Virgin is more highly venerated in Dauphiné than in any other province; chapels dedicated to Her worship swarm in those parts, and She meant perhaps to reward their zeal by Her gracious presence.
"On the other hand, She appeared there with a special and very definite end in view: to preach repentance to mankind, and especially to priests. She ratified by certain miracles the evidence of this mission which She confided to Mélanie, and then, that being accomplished, She could desert the spot where She had, no doubt, never intended to remain.
"And after all," he went on, after a moment’s reflection, "may we not admit an even simpler solution, namely, this:-
"Mary vouchsafes to appear under various aspects to satisfy the tastes and cravings of each soul. At La Salette, where She descended in a distressful spot, all in tears, She revealed Herself no doubt to certain persons, more especially to the souls in love with sorrow, the mystical souls that delight in reviving the anguish of the Passion and following the Mother in Her heart-breaking way to the Cross. She would thus seem less attractive to the vulgar who do not love woe or weeping; it maybe added that they still less love reproof and threats. The Virgin of La Salette could not become popular, by reason of Her aspect and address, while She of Lourdes, who appeared smiling, and prophesied no catastrophes, was easy of access to the hopes and gladness of the crowd.
"She was, in short, in that sanctuary, the Virgin of the world at large, not the Virgin of mystics and artists, the Virgin of the few, as at La Salette.
"What a mystery is this direct intervention of the Christ’s Mother on earth !" thought Durtal.
And he went on: "It is clear, on reflection, that the churches founded by Her may be classed in two very distinct groups.
"One group where She has revealed Herself to certain persons, where waters spring and bodily ills are healed: La Salette and Lourdes.
"The, other, where She has never been gazed on by human beings, or where Her appearance occurred in immemorial times, in forgotten centuries, the dead ages. In those chapels prayer alone is in force, and Mary answers it without the help of any waters. Indeed, She effects more moral than physical cures. Notre Dame de Fourvières at Lyon, Notre Dame de Sous-Terre at Chartres, Notre Dame des Victoires at Paris, to mention only three.
"Wherefore this difference? None can understand, and probably none will ever know. At most may we suppose that in compassion for the everlasting craving of our hapless souls wearied with prayer without sight, She would fain confirm our faith and help to gather in the flock by showing Herself.
"In all this obscurity," Durtal went on, "is it at least possible to discern some dim landmarks, some vague law?
"As we gaze into the darkness, two spots of light appear," he replied to himself.
"In the first place, this: She appears to none but the poor and humble; She addresses the simple souls who have in a way handed down the primitive occupation, the biblical function of the Patriarchs; She unveils herself to the children of the soil, to the shepherds, to girls as they watch the flock. Both at La Salette and at Lourdes She chose little pastors for Her confidants, and this is intelligible, since, by acting thus, she confirms the known will of Her Son; the first to behold the infant Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem were in fact shepherds, and it was from among men of the lowest class that Christ chose His apostles.
"And is not the water that serves as a medium of cure prefigured in the Sacred Books — in the Old Testament by the River Jordan, which cleansed Naaman of his leprosy; and in the New by the probationary pool stirred by an angel?
"Another law seems no less probable. The Virgin is, as far as possible, considerate of the temperament and individual character of the persons She appears to. She places Herself on the level of their intellect, is incarnate in the only material form that they can conceive of. She assumes the simple aspect these poor creatures love, accepting the blue and white robes, the crown and wreaths of roses, the trinkets and garlands and frippery of a first Communion, the ugliest garb.
"There is not indeed a single case where the shepherd maids who saw Her described Her otherwise than as a ’beautiful lady’ with the features of the Virgin of a village altar, a Madonna of the Saint-Sulpice shops, a street-corner queen.
"These two rules are more or less universal," said Durtal to himself. "As to the Son, it would seem that He never now will reveal Himself in human form to the masses. Since His appearance to the Blessed Mary Margaret, whom He employed as a mouthpiece to address the people, He has been silent. He keeps in the background, giving precedence to His Mother.
"He, it is true, reserves for Himself a dwelling in the secret places, the hidden regions, the strongholds of the soul, as Saint Theresa calls them; but His presence is unseen and His words spoken within us, and generally not apprehended by means of the senses."
Durtal ceased speaking, confessing to himself how inane were these reflections, how powerless the human reason to investigate the inconceivable purposes of the Almighty; and again his thoughts turned to that journey to Dauphin which haunted his memory.
"Ah! but the chain of the High Alps and the peaks of La Salette," said he to himself; "that huge white hotel, that church coloured with dirty yellow lime-wash, vaguely Byzantine and vaguely Romanesque in its architecture, and that little cell with the plaster Christ nailed to a flat black wooden Cross — that tiny Sanctuary plainly white-washed, and so small that one could step across it in any direction — they were pregnant with her presence, all the same!"
"Surely She revisited that spot, in spite of Her apparent desertion, to comfort all corners; She seemed so close at hand, so attentive and so grieving, in the evening as one sat alone by the light of a candle, that the soul seemed to burst open like a pod shedding the fruit of sin, the seeds of evil deeds; and repentance, that had been so tardily evolved, and sometimes so indefinite, became so suddenly despotic and unmistakable that the penitent dropped on his knees by the bed, and buried his head sobbing in the sheets. Ah, those were evenings of mortal dulness and yet sweetly sad ! The soul was rent, its very fibres laid bare, but was not the Virgin at hand, so pitiful, so motherly, that after, the worst was over She took the bleeding soul in her arms and rocked it to sleep like a sick child.
"Then, during the day, the church afforded a refuge from the frenzy of giddiness that came over one; the eye, bewildered by the precipices on every side, distracted by the sight of the clouds that suddenly gathered below and steamed off in white fleece from the sides of the rocks, found rest under the shelter of those walls.
"And finally, to make up for the horrors of the scene and of the statues, to mitigate the grotesqueness of the innservants, who had beards like sappers and clothes like little boys — the caps, and holland blouses with belts, and shiny black breeches, like cast iron, of the children at the Saint Nicolas school in Paris — extraordinary characters, souls of divine simplicity expanded there."
And Durtal recollected the admirable scene he had watched there one morning.
He was sitting on the little plateau, in the icy shade of the church, gazing before him at the graveyard and the motionless swell of mountain tops. Far away, in the very sky, a string of beads moved on, one by one, on the ribbon of path that edged the precipice. And by degrees these specks, at first merely dark, assumed the bright hues of dresses, assumed the form of coloured bells surmounted by white knobs, and at last took shape as a line of peasant women wearing white caps.
And still in single file they came down the square.
After crossing themselves as they passed the cemetery, they went each to drink a cup of water at the spring and then turned round; and Durtal, who was watching them, saw this:
At their head walked an old woman of at least a hundred, very tall and still upright, her head covered by a sort of hood from which her stiff, wavy hair escaped in tangled grey locks like iron wire. Her face was shrivelled like the peel of an onion, and so thin that, looking at her in profile, daylight could be seen through her skin.
She knelt down at the foot of the first statue, and behind her, her companions, girls of about eighteen for the most part, clasped their hands and shut their eyes; and slowly a change came over them.
Under the breath of prayer, the soul, buried under the ashes of worldly cares, flamed up, and the air that fanned it made it glow like an inward fire, lighting up the thick cheeks, the stolid, heavy features. It smoothed out the crackled surface of wrinkles, softened in the younger women he vulgarity of chapped red lips, gave colour to the dull brown flesh, overflowed in the smile on lips half parted in silent prayer, in timid kisses offered with simple good faith, and returned no doubt in an ineffable thrill by the Holy Child they had cherished from His birth, who, since the martyrdom of Calvary, had grown to be the Spouse of Sorrows.
They felt, perhaps, something of the raptures of the Blessed Virgin who is Mother and Wife and at the same time the beatified Handmaid of God.
And in the silence a voice as from the remotest ages arose, and the ancestress said, "Pater Noster," and they all repeated the prayer, and then dragged themselves on their knees up the steps of the way of crosses, where the fourteen upright posts, each with its cast metal bas-relief, bordered a serpentine path, dividing the statues from the groups. Thus they went forward, stopping long enough to recite an Ave on each step they climbed, and then, helping themselves with their hands, they mounted to the next. And when the rosary was ended the old woman rose, and they solemnly followed her into the church, where they all prayed a long time, prostrate before the altar; and the grandmother stood up, gave each holy water at the door, led her flock to the spring where they all drank again, and then they went away, without speaking a word, one after another up the narrow path, ending as black specks just as they had come, and vanishing on the horizon.
"Those women have been two days and two nights crossing the mountains," said a priest, coming up to Durtal. "They started from the depths of Savoy, and have travelled almost without rest to spend a few minutes here; they will sleep to night in a cow-house or a cave, as chance may direct, and to-morrow by daybreak they will start again on their weariful way."
Durtal was overpowered by the radiant splendour of such faith.
It was possible, then, to find souls ever young, souls ever new, souls as of undying children, watching where absolute solitude was not, outside cloister walls, in the waste places of these peaks and gorges, and amid this race of stern and rugged peasants. Here were women who, without knowing it even, lived the contemplative life in union with God, while they dug the barren slopes of a little plot at some prodigious elevation. They were Leah and Rachel, Martha and Mary in one; and these women believed guilelessly, entirely, as man believed in the middle ages. These beings, with their rough-hewn feelings, their shapeless ideas, hardly able to express themselves, hardly knowing how to read, wept with love in the presence of the Inaccessible, whom they compelled by their humility and single-heartedness to appear, to become actual to their mind.
"Yes, it was but just that the Virgin should cherish them and choose them above all others to be Her vessels of election.
"Yes. For they are unburdened with the dreadful weight of doubt, they are endowed with almost total ignorance of evil.
And yet are there not some souls too experienced, alas! in the culture of wrong-doing, who nevertheless find mercy Her feet? Has not the Virgin other sanctuaries less frequented, less well known, which yet have outlived the wear of time, the various caprice of the ages; very ancient churches where She welcomes you if you love Her in solitude and silence?"
And Durtal, coming back to Chartres once more, looked about him at the persons who were waiting in the warm shade of the indefinite forest till the Virgin should awake, and worship Her.
With dawn, now beginning to break, this forest of the church under whose shade he was sitting became absolutely unintelligible. The shapes, faintly sketched, were transformed in the gloom which blurred every outline as it slowly faded. Below, in the vanishing mist, rose the immemorial trunks of fabulous white trees, planted as it seemed in wells that held them tightly in the rigid circle of their margin; and the night, now almost diaphanous on the level of the ground, was thicker as it rose, cutting them off at the spring of the branches, which were still invisible.
Durtal, as he raised his head, gazed into deep obscurity unlighted by moon or star.
Looking up still, but straight before him, he saw in the air, through the hazy twilight, sword-blades already bright, gigantic blades without hilts or handles, thinner towards the point; and these blades, standing on end at an immense height, appeared in the gloom they cut, to be patterned with vague intaglios or in ill-defined relief.
As he peered into space to the right and left, he was aware of a gigantic panoply on each side at a vast height, resting on blocks of darkness, and consisting of a colossal shield riddled with holes, hanging above five broader swords, without hilts, but damascened on their flat blades with indefinite designs of bewildering niello.
Little by little the tentative sun of a doubtful winter’s day pierced the fog, which vanished in blueness; the shield that hung to the left of Durtal, the north, was the first to come to life; rosy fires and the lurid flames of punch gleamed in its hollows, while below, in the middle blade, there started forth in the steel-grey arch, the gigantic image of a negress robed in green with a brown mantle. Her head, wrapped in a blue kerchief, was set in a golden glory, and she stared out, hieratic and wild-looking with white, wide-open eyes.
And this engimatical Ethiop had on her knees a black infant whose eyes, in the same way, stood out like snowballs from the dusky face.
All about her, very gradually, the other swords, still so dim, began to glow, blood rippling from their crimsoned points as if from recent slaughter; and this trickling red formed a setting for the shapes of beings come, no doubt, from the distant shores of Ganges: on one side a king playing on a golden harp; on the other a monarch wielding a sceptre ending in the turquoise-blue petals of a fabulous lily.
Then, to the left of the royal musician there was another man, bearded, with a walnut-stained face, the eye-sockets vacant and covered by round spectacles; on his head were a diadem and a tiara, in his hands a chalice and a paten, a censer and a loaf; while to the right of the other sovereign who held the sceptre, a still more harassing shape came forth against the blue background of the sword — a sort of oriental brigand, escaped perhaps from the prison cells of Persepolis or Susa, a bandit as it seemed, wearing a little scarlet cap edged with yellow, in shape like an inverted jam-pot, and a tan-coloured gown with white stripes on the skirt; and this clumsy and ferocious personage bore a green palm and a book.
Durtal turned away to sound the depths of darkness, and before him, at a giddy height on the horizon, more swordblades gleamed. The scrawls which might have been mistaken in the darkness for patterns embossed or incised on the surface of the steel, developed into figures draped in long, straight, pleated robes; and at the highest point of the firmament there hovered amid a sparkle of rubies and sapphires a woman crowned, pale of face, dressed like the Moorish mother of the northern side in Carmelite-brown and green; and she too held an infant, a child, like herself, of the white race, clasping a globe in one hand, and extending the other in benediction.
Last of all, the still dark side, the late side, to Durtal’s right hand and further south, till now wrapped in the halfdispelled morning haze, was lighted up; the shield opposite to that on the north caught the blaze, and beiow it, against the polished metal of the broad blade facing that which presented the negress queen, appeared a woman of somewhat olive hue, in raiment like the others, of myrtle-green and brown, holding a sceptre, and with her, too, there was a child. And round her again emerged images of men piled up one above the other, shouldering each other in the narrow field they filled.
For a quarter of an hour nothing was clearly defined then; the real things asserted themselves. In the middle of the swords, which were in fact mosaic of glass, the figures stood out in broad daylight. In the field of each window with its pointed arch bearded faces took form, motionless in the midst of fire; and on all sides, in the thicket of flames, as it were the burning bush of Horeb where God showed His glory to Moses, the Virgin was seen in an unchangeable attitude of imperious sweetness and pensive grace, mute and still, and crowned with gold.
She was, indeed, many; She came down from the empyrean to lower levels, to be closer to Her flock, and at last found a place where they might almost kiss Her feet, at the corner of an aisle that was always in gloom; but there She wore a different aspect.
She stood forth in the middle of a window, like a tall, blue plant, and the garnet-red foliage was supported by black iron rods.
Her colour was slightly coppery, almost Chinese, with a long nose and rather narrow eyes; on the head there was a black coif, and She looked steadily before Her, while the lower part of the face with its short chin, the mouth rather I rawn by two grave lines, gave it an expression of suffering I fiat was even a little morose. And here again, under the immemorial name of Notre Dame de la belle Verrière, she field an infant in a dress of raisin-purple, a child barely visible in the mixture of dark hues all about it.
In short, She to whom all appealed was there; everywhere under the forest roof of this cathedral the Virgin was present. She seemed to have come from all the ends of the earth, under the semblance of every race known in the Middle Ages: black as an African, tawny as a Mongolian, pale coffee colour as a half-caste, and white as an European, thus declaring that, as mediator for the whole human race, She was everything to each, everything to all; and promising by the presence of Her Son, whose features bore the character of each race, that the Messiah had come to redeem all men without distinction.
And it seemed as though the sun, as it mounted higher, followed the growth of the Virgin, taking its birth in the window where She was still a babe in that northern transept where Saint Anne, her mother, of the black face, sat between David, the king of the golden harp, anc’ Solomon, the bearer of the blue-hued sceptre, each against a background of purple, to prefigure the royal birth of the Son between Meichisedek, the mitred patriarch, holding the censer, and Aaron, in the curious red cap bordered with lemon yellow, representing prophetically the Priesthood of Christ.
And at, the end of the apse, quite high up, there was another Mary — triumphant, looking down the sacred grove, supported by figures from the Old Testament and by Saint Peter. It was She again who in the south transept faced Saint Anne, She, now a woman and herself a mother, amid four enormous men bearing pick-a-back on their shoulders four smaller figures; these were the four Greater Prophets who had foretold the coming of the Messiah-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, bearing the four Evangelists, and thus artlessly expressing the parallelism of the Old and New Testaments, and the support given by the Old Covenant to the New.
And then, as though Her presence were not fully ubiquitous, as though She desired that, turn where they might, Her worshippers should ever see Her, the Virgin was to be found on a smaller scale in less important positions; enthroned in the centre of the shields, in the heart of the great rose-windows, and finally, ceasing to appear as a mere picture, took shape, materialized as a statue of black wood standing on a pedestal in a full hooped skirt like a silver bell.
The sheltering forest had vanished with the darkness the tree-trunks remained, but rose with giddy flight from the ground, unbroken pillars to the sky, meeting at a vast height under the groined vault; the forest was seen as an immense church blossoming with roses of fire, pierced with glowing glass, crowded with Virgins and apostles, patriarchs and saints.
The genius of the middle ages had devised the skilful and pious lighting of this edifice, and harmonized the ascending march of day to some extent with its windows. The walls and the aisles were very dark, the daylight creeping, mysteriously subdued, along the body of the church. It was lost in the stained glass, checked by dark bishops, and opaque saints completely filling the dusky-bordered windows with the dead hues of a Persian rug; the panes absorbed the sun’s rays, refracting none, arrested the powdered gold of the sunbeams in the dull violet of purple egg-fruit, the tawny browns of tinder or tan, the too-blue greens, and the wine-coloured red stained with soot, like the thick juice of mulberries.
As it reached the chancel, the light came in through brighter and clearer colours, through the blue of translucent sapphires, through pale rubies, brilliant yellow, and crystalline white. The gloom was relieved beyond the transepts near the altar. Even in the centre of the cross the sun pierced clearer glass, less storied with figures, and bordered with lmost colourless panes that admitted it freely.
At last, in the apse, forming the top of the cross, it poured in, symbolical of the light that flooded the world from I e top of the Tree; and the pictures were diaphanous, just lightly covered with flowing lines and aerial tints, to frame in a sheaf of coloured sparks the image of a Madonna, less hieratic and barbaric than the others, and a fairer Infant, bIessing the earth with uplifted hand.
By this time the Cathedral of Chartres was alive with the clatter of wooden shoes, the rustle of petticoats, and the tinkle of mass-bells.
Durtal left the corner of the transept where he had been sitting with his back to a pillar, and turned to the left, towards a bay where there was a frame-work ablaze with lighted tapers before the statue of the Virgin.
And schools of little girls under the guidance of Sisters, troops of peasant women and countrymen, poured out of cveryaisle, knelt in front of the image, and then came up to kiss the pedestal.
The appearance of these folks suggested to Durtal that their prayers were not like those that are sobbed out at evening twilight, the supplications of women worn and dismayed by the weary hours of day. These peasant souls prayed less as complaining than as loving; these people, kneehng on the flags, had come for Her sake rather than for their own. There was here and now a pause from grieving, a sort of reprieve from tears; and this attitude was in harmony with the special aspect adopted by Mary in this cathedral; She was seen there, in fact, under the form of a child and of a young mother; She was the Virgin of the Nativity, rather than our Lady of Dolour. The old artists of the Middle Ages seemed to have feared to sadden Her by reminding Her of memories too painful, to have striven to prove by this delicate reserve, their gratitude to Her who in this sanctuary had ever shown Herself to be the Dispenser of Mercies, the Lady Bountiful of Grace.
Durtal felt in himself an answering thrill, the echo of the prayers chanted all round him by these loving souls; and he let himself melt away in the soothing sweetness of the hymns, asking for nothing, silencing his ungratified desires, smothering his secret repining, thinking only of bidding an affectionate good-morning to the Mother to whom he had returned after such distant wanderings in the land of sin, after such a long absence.
And now that he had seen Her, that he had spoken to Her, he withdrew, making room for others who came in greater numbers as the day grew. He went home to get some food; and as he cast a last sweeping glance at the beautiful church, remembering the warlike imagery of its details, the buckler-shape of tie rose-windows, the swordblades of the lower lights, the casque and helmet forms of the ogee, the resemblance of some grisaille glass with its network of lead to a warrior’s shirt of mascled mail; as, outside, he gazed at one of the two belfries carved into scales like a pine cone — like scale-armour — he said to himself that the "Builders for God" must have borrowed their ideas from the military panoply of the knights; that thus they had endeavoured to perpetuate the memory of their exploits by representing the magnified image of the armour with which the Crusaders girt themselves when they sailed to win back the Holy Sepulchre.
And the interior of the church seemed, as a whole, to impress the same idea and complete the symbolical images of the details by its vaulted nave, of which the groined roof was so like the reversed hull of a vessel, suggesting the graceful form of the ships that made sail for Palestine.
Only, in the present day, such memories of heroic times were vain. In this city of Chartres, where Saint Bernard preached the second crusade, the vessel was stranded for ever, her hull overset, her anchor out.
And looking down on the unthinking city, the Cathedral kept watch alone, beseeching pardon for the inappetency for suffering, for the inertia of faith that her sons displayed, uplifting her towers to the sky like two arms, while the spires mimicked the shape of joined hands, the ten fingers all meeting and upright one against another, in the position which the image-makers of old gave to the dead saints and warriors they carved upon tombs.
DURTAL had already been living at Chartres for three months.
On his return to Paris from La Trappe he had fallen into a fearful state of spiritual anemia. His soul kept its room, rarely rose, lounged on a couch, was torpid with the tepid langour still lulled by the sleepy mutter of mere lip-service, and prayers reeled off as by a worn-out machine of which the spring releases itself, so that it works all alone with no result, and without a touch to start it.
Sometimes, however, in a rebellious mood he managed to check himself, to stop the ill-regulated clockwork of his prayers, and then he would try to examine himself, to get above himself, and to see in a comprehensive glance the puzzling perspective of his nature.
And facing these chambers of the soul, dim with mist, he was struck by a strange association of the Revelations of Saint Theresa and a tale by Edgar Poe.
Those chambers of the inner man were empty and cold, and like the halls of the House of Usher, surrounded by a moat whence the fog rose, forcing its way in at last and cracking the worn shell of wall. Alone and uneasy, he prowled about the ruined cells, with closed doors that refused ever to open again; thus his walks about his own mind were very limited, and the panorama he could see was strangely narrowed, shrunk close and near to him, almost nothing. And he knew full well that the ruins surrounding the central cell, the Master’s Room, were bolted and fastened with rivets that could not be unscrewed, and triple bars — inaccessible. So he restricted himself to wandering in the halls and passages.
At Notre Dame de l’Atre he had ventured further; he had gone into the enclosure round about the abode of Christ; he had seen in the distance the frontiers of Mysticism, and, too weak to go on his road, he had fallen; and now this was to be lamented, for, as Saint Theresa truly remarks, "in the spiritual life, if we do not go forward, we go back." He had, in fact, retraced his steps, and lay half paralyzed, -no longer even in the vestibule of his mansion, but in the outer court.
Till this time the phenomena described by the matchless Abbess had been exactly repeated. In Durtal, the Chambers of the Soul were deserted as after a long mourning; but in the rooms that had remained open, phantoms of sins confessed, of buried evil-doing, wandered like the sister of the tormented Usher.
Durtal, like Edgar Poe’s unhappy sufferer, listened with horror to the rustle of steps on the stairs, the piteous weeping behind the doors.
And yet these ghosts of departed crimes were no more than indefinite shapes; they never consolidated nor took a definite form. The most persistent miscreant of them all, which had tormented him so long, the sin of the flesh, at last was silenced, and left him in peace. La Trappe had rooted up the stock of those debaucheries. The memory of them, indeed, haunted him still, on his most distressing, most ignoble side; but he could see them pass, his heart in his mouth, wondering that he could so long have been the dupe of such foul delusions, no longer understanding the power of those mirages, the illusions of those carnal oases as he met them in the desert of a life shut up in seclusion, in solitude, and in books.
His imagination could still put him on the rack; still, without merit, without a struggle, by the help of divine grace, he had escaped a fall ever since his return from the monastery.
On the other hand, though he had, to some extent, emasculated himself, though he was exempt from his chief torment, he discerned, flourishing within him, another crop of tares, of which the spread had till now been hidden behind the sturdier growth of other vices. In the first instance, he had believed himself to be less enslaved by sin, less utterly vile; and he was nevertheless as closely bound to evil as ever, only the nature and character of the bonds were different, and no longer the same.
Besides that dryness of the heart which made him feel as soon as he entered a church or knelt down in his room, that a cold grip froze his prayers and chilled his soul, he detected the covert attacks, the mute assaults of ridiculous pride.
In vain did he keep watch; he was constantly taken by surprise without having time even to look round him.
It began under the most temperate guise, the most benign reflections.
Supposing, for instance, that he had done his neighbour a service at some inconvenience to himself, or that he had refrained from retaliating on anybody against whom he believed he had a grievance, or for whom he had no liking, a certain self-satisfaction stole, sneaked into his mind, a certain vain-glory, ending in the senseless conclusion that he was superior to many another man; and then, on this feeling of petty vanity, pride was engrafted-the pride of a virtue he had not even struggled to acquire, the arrogance of chastity, so insidious that most of those who indulge it do not even suspect themselves.
And he was never aware of the end of these assaults till too late, when they had become definite, and he had forgotten himself and succumbed; and he was in despair at finding that he constantly fell into the same snare, telling himself that the little good he could do must be wiped out of the balance of his life by the outrageous extravagance of this vice.
He was frenzied, he reasoned with the old mad arguments, and cried out at his wits’ end,-
"La Trappe crushed me! It cured me of sensuality, but only to load me with disorders of which I knew nothing before I submitted to that treatment! It is humble itself, but it puffed up my vanity and increased my pride tenfold-then it set me free, but so weak, so wearied, that I have never since been able to conquer that inanition, never have been fit to enjoy the Mystical Nourishment which I nevertheless must have if I am not to die to God!"
And for the hundredth time he asked himself,-
"Am I happier than I was before I was converted?"
And to be truthful to himself he was bound to answer "Yes." He lived on the whole a Christian life, prayed but badly, but at any rate prayed without ceasing; only — only — Alas! How worm-eaten, how arid were the poor recesses of his soul! He wondered, with anguish, whether they would not end like the Manor in Edgar Poe’s tale, by crumbling suddenly, one fatal day, into the dark waters of the pool of sin which was undermining the walls.
Having reached this stage of his round of meditations, he was compelled to throw himself on the Abbé Gévresin, who required him, in spite of his coldness, to take the Corn,nunion. Since his return from Notre Dame de I’Atre his It iendship with the Abbé had become much closer, altogether intimate.
He knew now the inner man of this priest, who, in the midst of modern surroundings, led a purely mediaeval life. Formerly, when he rang at his bell, he had paid no heed to the housekeeper, an old woman, who curtsied to him without a word when she opened the door.
Now he was quite friendly with this singular and loving creature.
Their first conversation had arisen one day when he called to see the Abbé, who was ill. Seated by the bedside, with spectacles on the alert at the tip of her nose, she was kissing, one by one, the pious prints that illustrated a book wrapped in black cloth. She begged him to be seated, and then, closing the volume, and replacing her spectacles, she had joined in the conversation; and he had left the room quite amazed by this woman, who addressed the Abbé as "Father," and spoke quite simply of her intercourse with Jesus and the Saints as if it were a natural thing. She seemed to live in perfect friendship with them, and spoke of them as of companions with whom she chatted without any embarrassment.
Then the countenance of this woman, whom the priest introduced to him as Madame Céleste Bavoil, was, strange to say, the least of it. She was thin and upright, but short In profile, with her strong Roman nose and set lips, she had the fleshless mask of a dead Caesar; but, seen in front, the sternness of the features was softened into a familiar peasant’s lace, and melted into the kindliness of an old nun, quite out of keeping with the solemn strength of her features.
It seemed as though with that clean-cut, imperious nose, small white teeth, and black eyes sparkling with light busy and inquisitive as those of a mouse, under fine long lashes, the woman ought, notwithstanding her age, to have been handsome; it seemed at least as though the combination of these details would have given the face a stamp of distinction. Not so; the conclusion was false to the premises; the whole betrayed the combined effect of the details.
"This contradiction," thought he," evidently is the result of other peculiarities which nullify the harmony of the more important features; in the first place the thinness of the cheeks and their hue of old wood dotted here and there with freckles, calm stains of the colour of stale bran; then the flat braids of white hair drawn smooth under a frilled cap, and finally the modest dress, a black dress clumsily made, dragging across the bosom, and showing the lines of her stays stamped in relief on the back.
"And perhaps, in her, it is not so much incongruity of features, as a crying contrast between the dress and the face, the head and the body," thought he.
Altogether, as he summed her up, she was equally suggestive of the chapel and the fields. Thus she had something of the Sister and something of the peasant.
"Yes," he went on to himself; "that is very near the mark; but that is not all, for she is both less dignified and less common, inferior and yet more worthy. Seen from behind she is more like a woman who hires out the chairs in church than like a nun; seen in front she is conspicuously superior to the natives of the soil. Also it may be noted that when she speaks of the saints she is loftier, quite different; she soars up in a flame of the spirit. But all these hypotheses are in vain," he concluded, "for I cannotjudge of her from one brief impression, one rapid view. What is quite certain is that, though she is not in the least like the Abbé, she too is in two halves — two persons in one. He, with the innocent gaze, the pure eyes of a girl at her first Communion, has the sometimes bitter mouth cf an old man; she is proud of feature and humble of heart; they both, though by different outward signs and acts, achieve the same result, an identical semblance of paternal indulgence and mature goodness."
And Durtal had gone again and again to see them. His reception was always the same; Madame Bayou greeted him with the invariable formula: "Here is our friend," while the priest’s eyes smiled as he grasped his hand. Whenever he saw Madame Bavoil she was praying: over her stove, when she sat mending, while she was dusting the furniture, as she opened the door, she was always telling her rosary, without pause.
The chief delight of this rather silent woman consisted in talking of the Virgin to whom she had vowed worship; on the other hand she could quote by memory long passages from a mystic and somewhat eccentric writer of the end of the sixteenth century: Jeanne Chézard de Matel, the foundress of the Order of the Incarnate Word, an Institution of which the Sisters display a conspicuous costume — a white dress held round the waist by a belt of scarlet leather, a red cloak and a blood-coloured scapulary on which the name of Jesus is embroidered in blue silk, with a crown of thorns, a heart pierced with three nails, and the words Amor Meus.
At first Durtal thought Madame Bayou slightly crazy, and while she poured out a passage by Jeanne de Matel on Saint Joseph, he looked at the priest — who gave no sign.
"Then Madame Bavoil is a saint?" he asked one morning when they were alone.
"My dear Madame Bavoil is a pillar of prayer," replied the Abbé gravely.
And one afternoon, when Gévresin was away in his turn, Durtal questioned the woman.
She gave him an account of her long pilgrimages across Europe, pilgrimages that she had spent years in making on foot, begging her way by the roadside.
Wherever the Virgin had a sanctuary, thither she went, a bundle of clothing in one hand, an umbrella in the other, an iron Crucifix on her breast, a rosary at her waist. By a reckoning which she had kept from day to day she had thus travelled ten thousand five hundred leagues on foot.
Then old age had come on, and she had "lost her old powers," as she said; Heaven had formerly guided her by inward voices, fixing the dates of these expeditions; but journeying was no longer required of her. She had been sent to live with the Abbé that she might rest; but her manner of life had been laid down for her once for all: her bed a straw mattress on wooden planks; her food such rustic and monastic fare as beseemed her, milk, honey and bread, and at seasons of penance she was to substitute water for milk.
"And you never take any other nourishment?"
"Never." And then she would add, -
"Aha! our friend, you see I am in disgrace up there!" and she would laugh cheerfully at herself and her appearance. "If you had but seen me when I came back from Spain, where I went to visit Our Lady of the Pillar at Saragoza! I was a negress. With my large Crucifix on my breast, my gown looking like a nun’s — every one asked: ’What can that woman be?’ I looked like a charcoalburner out for a holiday; no white to be seen but my cap, collar and cuffs; all the rest — face, hands and petticoats — quite black."
"But you must have been very dull travelling about alone?"
"Not at all, our friend, the Saints kept me company on the way; they told me at which house I should find a lodging for the night, and I was sure of being well received."
"And you never were refused hospitality?"
"Never. To be sure I did not ask for much; when I was wandering I only begged for a piece of bread and a glass of water, and to rest on a truss of straw in the cowhouse."
"And Father Gévresin — how did you first know him?"
"That is quite a long story. Fancy! Heaven, as a punishment, deprived me of the Communion for a year and three months to a day. When I confessed to a priest, I owned to my intercourse with Our Saviour, and the Virgin and the Angels; then he at once treated me as a mad woman, unless he accused me of being possessed by the devil; to conclude, he refused me absolution, and I thought myself happy if he did not slam the little wicket of the confessional roughly in my face at my very first words.
"I believe I should have died of grief if the Lord had not at last had pity on me. One Saturday, when I was in Paris, He sent me to Notre Dame des Victoires, where the Father was in the confessional. He listened to me, he put me through long and severe tests, and then he granted me Communion. I often went to him again as a penitent, and then the niece who kept house for him retired into a convent, and I took her place; and I have been his housekeeper near on ten years now-"
She told her story with many breaks. Since she had cased to wander about the country, she followed the pilgrimages in Paris in honour of the Blessed Virgin, and he had a list of the most popular sanctuaries: Notre-Dame des Victoires, Notre-Dame de Paris; Our Lady of Good Hope at SaintSéverin, of Ever-present Help at L’Abbaye au Bois, of Peace at the convent in the Rue Picpus, of the Sick at the church of Saint-Laurent, of Happy Deliverance — a black Virgin from the church of Saint-Etienne des Grès — in the care of the Sisters of Saint-Thomas de Villeneuve, Rue de Sèvres; and outside Paris the shrines in the suburbs: Our Lady of Miracles at SaintMaur, of the Angels at Bondy, of the Virtues at Aubervilliers, of Good Keeping at Long Pont, and those of Notre-Dame at Spire, at Pontoise, &c.
On another occasion, as he seemed suspicious of the severity of the rule imposed on her by Christ, she replied,-
"Remember, our friend, what happened to an illustrious handmaid of the Lord, Maria d’Agreda; being very ill, she yielded to the wishes of her daughters in the faith and sucked a mouthful of chicken, but she was forthwith reproved by Jesus, who said to her: ’I will not have my Spouses dainty.’
"Well, and I should run the risk of a similar reproof; if I attempted to touch a morsel of meat or to drink a drop of coffee or wine."
"And yet," said Durtal to himself as he came away, "it is quite evident that the woman is not mad. She has nothing the matter with her, either hysterical or mental: he is fragile and very thin, but she is scarcely nervous, and in spite of the laconic character of her meals she is in very good health, indeed is never ailing; nay more, she is a woman of good sense and an admirable manager. Up by daybreak, after Communion she soaps and washes all the linen herself, makes the sheets and shirts, mends the Abbé’s gowns, and lives with amazing economy, while taking care that her master wants for nothing. Such a sagacious Apprehension of the conduct of life has no connection with lunacy or delirium."
He knew too that she would never take any wages. It is true that in the sight of a world which gives its whole mind to legalized larceny this woman’s disinterestedness might be enough to prove her insanity; but Durtal, in contradiction to received ideas, did not think that a contempt for money was necessarily allied with madness, and the more he thought of it the more was he convinced that she was a saint, and not a strait-laced saint, but indulgent and cheerful.
What he could positively assert was that she was very good to him; ever since his return from La Trappe she had helped him in every way, encouraging his spirits when she saw him depressed, and going, in spite cf his protesting, to look over his wardrobe when she suspected that there might be sutures to operate upon, and buttons to replace.
This intimacy had become even closer since their life in common, all three together, on the occasion of Durtal’s accompanying them, at their entreaty, to La Salette. And then suddenly their affectionate familiarity was endangered, for the Abbé Gévresin left Paris.
The Bishop of Chartres died, and his successor was one of Gévresin’s oldest friends. On the very day when the Abbe Le Tilloy des Mofflaines was promoted to the episcopal throne, he begged Gvresin to accompany him to Chartres. There was an anxious struggle in the old priest’s mind. He was ailing, weary, good for nothing, and at the bottom of his heart longed only never to move; but on the other hand he had not the courage to refuse his poor support to Monseigneur des Mofflaines. He tried to mollify the prelate by his advanced age, but the Bishop would not listen; all he would concede was that, instead of being appointed Vicar-general, the Abbé should be no more than a Canon. Still Gévresin mildly shook his head. Finally the prelate had his way, appealing to his friend’s charity, and declaring that he ought to accept the post, in the last resort as a mortification and penance.
And when his departure was decided on, it became the Abbé’s turn to circumvent Durtal and persuade him to leave Paris and come to settle near him at Chartres.
Although he was deeply grieved at this move, which he had done his utmost to hinder, Durtal was refractory, and refused to bury himself in a country town.
"But why, our friend," said Madame Bavoil, "I wonder why you are so obstinately bent on remaining here; you live in perfect solitude at home with your books. You can do the same if you come with us."
And when, his arguments exhausted, after a vehement diatribe against provincial life, Durtal ended by saying,-
"Then at Paris there are the quays, Saint Séverin, Notre Dame; there are delightful convents-"
"You would find equally good things at Chartres," answered the Abbé. "You will have one of the finest cathedrals in the world, monasteries such as you love, and as for books, your library is so well furnished that I can hardly think that you can add to it by wandering along the quays. Besides, as you know even better than I, no work of the class you seek is ever to be disinterred from the boxes of second-hand books. Their titles figure only in the catalogues of sales, and there is nothing to hinder their being sent to you at Chartres."
"I do not deny it — but there are other things on the quays besides old books; there are curiosities to be seen, and the Seine — a landscape-"
"Well, if you are homesick for that particular walk, you have only to take a train, and spend a whole afternoon lounging by the parapet over the river; it is easy to get from Chartres to Paris; there are express trains morning and evening which make the journey in less than two hours."
"And besides," cried Madame Bayou, "what does all that matter? The great thing is that you leave a town just like any other town, to inhabit the very home of the Virgin. Just think! Notre Dame de Sous-Terre is the most ancient chapel to Mary in all France; think! you will live near Her, with Her, and She will load you with mercies!"
"And after all," the Abbé went on, "this exile cannot interfere with any of your schemes in art. You talk of writing the Lives of Saints; will you not work at them far better in the silence of the country than in the uproar of Paris?"
"The country-the provinces! The mere idea overpowers me," exclaimed Durtal. "If you could but imagine the impression it suggests to me, the sort of atmosphere, the kind of smell it presents to my brain. You know the huge cupboards you find in old houses, with double doors, and lined within with blue paper that is always damp. ’Well, at the mere name of the provinces I feel as if one of these were opened in my face, and I got a full blast of the stuffiness that comes out of it! — And to put the finishing touch to the vision by combining taste and smell, I have only to bite one of the biscuits they make nowadays of Lord knows what, reeking the moment you tas:e them, of fish glue and plaster that has been rained upon I have only to eat that cold, insipid paste and sniff at a musty closet, and at once the lugubrious picture rises before me of some Godforsaken place! — Your Chartres will no doubt smell like that — Pah!"
"Oh, oh! "cried Madame Bayou "But you cannot know much about it, since you have never been to the place."
"Let him be! " said the Abbé, laughing. "He will get over his prejudices." And he went on,-
"Just explain this inconsistency: here is a Parisian who likes his city so little that he seeks out the most deserted nook to live in, the quietest, the least frequented, the spot that is’ most like a provincial retreat. He has a horror of the Boulevards, of public promenades, and of theatres; he buries himself in a hole, and stops his ears that he may not hear the noises around him; but, when he has a chance of improving on this scheme of existence, of ripening in real silence far from the crowd, when he can invert the conditions of life, and, instead of being a provincial Parisian, can become a Parisian of the provinces, he shies and kicks!"
"It is a fact," Durtal admitted when he was alone," a positive fact that the capital is unprofitable to me. I never see anybody now, and shall be reduced to still more utter solitude when these friends are gone. I shall, for all purposes, be quite as well off at Chartres; I can study at my ease amid peaceful surroundings, within reach of a cathedral of far greater interest than Notre Dame de Paris. And besides — besides — there is another question of which the Abbé Gévresin says nothing, but which disturbs me greatly. If I remain here, alone, I shall have to find a new confessor, to wander through the churches, just as I wander through work-a-day life in search of dining-places and tables d’hôte. No, no; I have had enough at last of this day-by-day diet, spiritual and material! I have found a boarding-house for my soul where it is content, and it may stay there!
"And there is yet another argument. I can live more inexpensively at Chartres, and, without spending more than I spend here, I can settle myself once for all, dine with my feet on my own fender, and be waited on!"
So he had ended by deciding to follow his two friends, and had secured fairly spacious rooms facing the Cathedral; and then he, who had always lived cramped in tiny apartments, at last understood the provincial comfort of vast spaces and books ranged against the walls, with ample elbow-room.
Madame Bayou had found him a servant, familiar and voluble indeed, but a good and pious woman. And he had begun his new existence lost in constant amazement at that wonderful Cathedral, the only one he had never before seen, probably because it was so near Paris, and, like all Parisians, he never took the trouble to set out on any but longer journeys. The town itself seemed to him devoid of interest, having but one secluded walk, a little embankment where, below the suburbs and near the old Guillaume Gate washerwomen sang while they soaped the linen in a stream that blossomed, as they rubbed, with flecks of iridescent bubbles.
Hence he determined to walk out only very early in the morning or in the evening; then he could dream alone in the town, which by the afternoon was already half dead.
The Abbe and his housekeeper were lodged in the episcopal palace, under the shadow of the Cathedral apse. They occupied a first floor, with nothing over it, above some empty stables; a row of cold, tiled rooms which the Bishop had had redecorated.
Some time after their arrival at Chartres the Abbé had replied to Durtal, who had remarked that he was anxious:
"Yes, I am certainly going through a difficult time; I have had to live down certain prejudices — but indeed I was prepared for them. And that was another reason why I did not wish to leave Paris. But the Blessed Virgin is good! Everything is coming right-"
And when Durtal persisted:
"As you may suppose," said the priest, "the appointment of a Canon from another diocese was not looked upon with indifferent eyes by the clergy of Chartres. Such suspicions with regard to an unknown priest brought by a new Bishop are not after all unnatural; it is inevitably feared that he may play the part of a ruler without a robe; each one is on his guard, and they sift his least word and pick over his least action."
"And then," said Durtal, "is it not another mouth to feed out of the wretched pittance allowed by the State?"
"So far as that goes, no. I draw no stipend, and damage no man’s interest in fact I would not accept it. The only pecuniary advantage I derive from being about the Bishop’s person is that I have no rent to pay, since I am lodged for nothing in the episcopal building.
"I could not in any case have drawn a stipend, for the allowance granted to Canons by the Government has ceased to be given, since a measure was passed, on March 22nd, 1885, decreeing the suppression of such emoluments as the incumbents died off. Hence only those who held such benefices before the passing of the law now draw on the funds devoted to the maintenance of the Church; and they are dying off one by one, so that the time is fast approaching when there will not be a single Canon left who is salaried by the State. In some dioceses these lapsed benefices are compensated for by the revenues from some religious foundation, or, as you may call it, a prebend. But there are none at Chartres. The Chapter has at the utmost the use of a varying income which it divides among those who have no benefice, giving them, good years with bad, a sum of about three hundred francs each, and that is all."
"And the Canons have no perquisites?"
"Then I wonder how they live."
"If they have no private fortune they live more penuriously than the poorest labourers in Chartres. Most of them simply vegetate; some perform Mass for Sisterhoods, or are convent chaplains, but that brings in very little, two hundred or two hundred and fifty francs perhaps. Another holds the post of secretary to the diocese, by which he gets rooms and as much, perhaps, as six hundred francs. Yet another conducts the services of the holy week known as the Voice of Our Lady of Chartres, and acts as precentor; and some find employment as the Bishop’s officials. Each one, in short, has a struggle to earn his food and lodging."
"What exactly is a Canon; what are his functions, and he origin of his office?"
"The origin? It is lost in the night of ages. It is supposed that Colleges of Canons existed in the time of Pépin le Bref; it is at any rate certain that during his reign Saint Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz, assembled the clerks of his cathedral and obliged them to live together, in a house in common, as though it were a convent, under a rule of which Charlemagne makes mention in his Capitularies. — A Canon’s functions? They consist in the solemn celebration of the Canonical services, and the direction of all processions. As a matter of conscience every Canon is required in the first place to reside in the town where the church is situated to whose service he is attached; then to be present at the Canonical hours when Mass is said; finally to sit on the meetings of the Chapter on certain fixed days. But to tell the truth, their part has almost faIlen into desuetude. The Council of Trent speaks of them as the ’Senatus Ecclesiae,’ the Senate of the Church, and they then formed the necessary Council of the Bishop. In these days the prelates do not even consult them.
"They only exercise a small part of their lost prerogai yes when the See is vacant. At that time the Chapter ,As in the place of the Bishop, and even then its rights are greatly restricted. As it has not Episcopal Orders, it can exercise none of the powers inherent in them. It cannot onsequently ordain or confirm."
"And if the See remains long vacant?"
"Then the Chapter requests the Bishop of a neighbouring diocese to ordain its seminarists, and confirm the children it presents to him. In short, as you see, a Canon is not a very important gentleman.
"I am not speaking, of course, of Honorary Canons, or Titular Canons. They have no duties to fulfil; they merely enjoy an honorary title which allows them to wear the Canon’s hood, by permission of their own Bishop when as frequently happens, they belong to another diocese.
"The Chapter of this Cathedral of Chartres is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Lubin. It then consisted of seventy-two Canons, and the number was added to, for when the Revolution broke out it amounted to seventy-six, and included seventeen dignitaries: the Dean, the sub-Dean, the Precentor, the sub-Precentor, the chief Archdeacon of Chartres, the Archdeacons of Beauceen-Dunois, of Dreux, of Le Pincerais, of Vendrne, and of Blois the gatekeeper, the Chancellor, the Provosts of Normandy, of Mezangey, of Ingre, and of Auvers; and the Chancel Warden. These priests, most of them men of family and wealth, were a nursery ground of Bishops; they owned all the houses round the Cathedral and lived independently in their cloister, devoting themselves to history, theology, and the Canon law-they are now indeed fallen!"
The Abbé was silent, shaking his head. Then he went on,-
"To return to my subject — I was naturally somewhat hurt by the coldness I met with on my arrival at Chartres. As I told you, I had to allay many apprehensions. But I think I have succeeded. And I thank God, too, for having given me a valuable supporter in the person of a subordinate priest of the Cathedral, who has done me invaluable service with my colleagues — the Abbé Plomb; do you know him?"
"He is a highly intelligent priest, very learned, a passionate mystic, thoroughly acquainted with the Cathedral, of which he has examined every corner."
"Ah ha! I am interested in that priest! Perhaps he is one of those I have already noticed. What is he like?"
"Short, young, pale, slightly marked with the small-pox, with spectacles that you may recognize by this peculiarity; the arch which rests on the nose is shaped like a loop, or, if you choose to say so, like a horseman’s legs astride in the saddle."
"That man! " — and Durtal, left to himself, thought about the priest whom he had repeatedly seen in the church or the square.
"Certainly," said he to himself, "there is always the risk of a mistake when we judge of people by appearances; but how startling is the truth of that commonplace remark when applied to the clergy! This Abbé Plomb looks like a scared sacristan; he goes about gaping at invisible crows, and he seems so ill at ease, so loutish, so awkward — and this is our learned man and devoted mystic, in love with his Cathedral! Certainly it is not safe to judge of an Abbé from appearances. Now that it is to be my fate to live in this clerical world, I must begin by throwing prejudice overboard, and wait till I know all the priests of the diocese, before allowing myself to form an opinion of them."