"At the moment of her death He stood by her, and restored her poor body to its former soundness. Her beauty, so long vanished, shone out again, the town was moved, the sick came in crowds, and all who drew near were healed.
"She is the true patroness of the sick," concluded the abbe, and, after a silence, he added,—
"From the point of view of the higher mysticism, Lidwine is wonderful, for in her we can verify that plan of substitution which was, and is, the glorious reason for the existence of convents."
And as, without answering, Durtal questioned him with a look, he went on,—
"You are aware, sir, that in all ages, nuns have offered themselves to heaven as expiatory victims. The lives of saints, both men and women, who desired these sacrifices abound, of those who atoned for the sins of others by sufferings eagerly demanded and patiently borne. But there is a task still more arduous and more painful than was desired by these admirable souls. It is not now that of purging the faults of others, but of preventing them, hindering their commission, by taking the place of those who are too weak to bear the shock.
"Read Saint Teresa on this subject; you will see that she gained permission to take on herself, and without flinching, the temptations of a priest who could not endure them. This substitution of a strong soul freeing one who is not strong from perils and fears is one of the great rules of mysticism.
"Sometimes this exchange is purely spiritual, sometimes on the contrary it has to do only with the ills of the body. Saint Teresa was the surrogate of souls in torment, Sister Catherine Emmerich took the place of the sick, relieved, at least, those who were most suffering; thus, for instance, she was able to undergo the agony of a woman suffering from consumption and dropsy, in order to permit her to prepare for death in peace.
"Well, Lidwine took on herself all bodily ills, she lusted for physical suffering, and was greedy for wounds; she was, as it were, the reaper of punishments, and she was also the piteous vessel in which everyone discharged the overflowings of his malady. If you would speak of her in other fashion than the poor hagiographies of our day, study first that law of substitution, that miracle of perfect charity, that superhuman triumph of Mysticism; that will be the stem of your book, and naturally, without effort, all Lidwine's acts graft themselves on it."
"But," asked Durtal, "does this law still take effect?"
"Yes: I know convents which apply it. Moreover, Orders like the Carmelites and the Poor Clares willingly accept the transfer to them of temptations we suffer; then these convents take on their backs, so to speak, the diabolical expiations of those insolvent souls whose debts they pay to the full."
"All the same," said Durtal, shaking his head, "if you consent to take on yourself the assaults intended for your neighbour, you must make pretty sure not to sink."
"The nuns chosen by our Lord," replied the abbe, "as victims of expiation, as whole burnt-offerings, are in fact few, and they are generally, especially in this age, obliged to unite and coalesce in order to bear without failing the weight of misdeeds which try them, for in order that a soul may bear alone the assaults of Satan, which are often terrible, it must be indeed assisted by the angels and elect of God." And after a silence the old priest added,—
"I believe I may speak with some experience in these matters, for I am one of the directors of those nuns who make reparation in their convents."
"And yet," cried Durtal, "the world asks what is the good of the contemplative Orders."
"They are the lightning conductors of society," said the abbe, with great energy. "They draw on themselves the demoniacal fluid, they absorb temptations to vice, preserve by their prayers those who live, like ourselves, in sin; they appease, in fact, the wrath of the Most High that He may not place the earth under an interdict. Ah! while the sisters who devote themselves to nursing the sick and infirm are indeed admirable, their task is easy in comparison with that undertaken by the cloistered Orders, the Orders where penance never ceases, and the very nights spent in bed are broken by sobs."
"This priest is far more interesting than his brethren," said Durtal to himself as they parted; and, as the abbe invited his visits, he had often called on him.
He had always been cordially welcomed. On several occasions he had warily sounded the old man on several questions. He had answered evasively in regard to other priests. But he did not seem to think much of them, if Durtal might judge by what he said one day in regard to Lidwine, that magnet of sorrows.
"Notice," he said, "that a weak and honest soul has every advantage in choosing a confessor, not from the clergy who have lost the sense of Mysticism, but from the monks. They alone know the effects of the law of substitution, and if they see that in spite of their efforts the penitent succumbs, they end by freeing him by taking his trials on themselves, or by sending them off to some convent in the country where resolute people can use them."
Another time the question of nationalities was discussed in a newspaper which Durtal showed him. The abbe shrugged his shoulders, putting aside the patriotic twaddle. "For me," he said calmly, "for me my country is that where I can best pray."
Durtal could not make out what this priest was. He understood from the bookseller, that the Abbe Gevresin on account of his great age and infirmity was incapacitated for the regular duties of the priesthood. "I know that, when he can, he still says his mass each morning in a convent; I believe also he receives a few of his brethren for confession in his own house;" and Tocane added with disdain, "He has barely enough to live on, and they do not look on him with favour at the archbishop's because of his mystical notions."
There ended all he knew about him. "He is evidently a very good priest," repeated Durtal; "his physiognomy declares it, and his mouth and eyes contradict each other; his eyes certainly declare his entire goodness, his lips, somewhat thick, purple and always moist, have on them an affectionate but somewhat sad smile, and to this his blue eyes give the lie—blue, childlike eyes which laugh out astonished under white eyebrows in a rather red face, touched on the cheeks like a ripe apricot, with little points of blood.
"In any case," said Durtal, waking from his meditations, "I am very wrong not to continue the relations into which I have entered with him.
"Yes, but then nothing is so difficult as to become really intimate with a priest; first by the very education he receives at the seminary the ecclesiastic thinks himself obliged to disperse his affections and not concentrate himself on particular friendships; then, like a doctor, he is a man harassed with business, who is never to be found. You can catch them now and then between two confessions or two sick calls. Nor even then are you quite certain that the eager welcome of the priest rings true, for he is just the same to all who come to him, and indeed, since I do not call on the Abbe Gevresin for his help or advice, I am afraid of being in his way, and of taking up his time, hence I am acting with discretion in not going to see him.
"Yet I am sorry; suppose I write, or go to him one morning, but what have I to say to him? I ought to know what I want before I allow myself to trouble him. If I go only to complain, he will answer I am wrong not to be a communicant, and I have nothing to answer. No: the better plan is to meet him as by chance, on the quays, where no doubt he sometimes looks over the book-stalls, or at Tocane's, for then I can talk to him more intimately, at least less officially, about my vacillations and regrets."
So Durtal searched the quays, and never once met the abbe. He went to the bookseller's, and pretended to look over his stock, but as soon as he pronounced the name Gevresin, Tocane exclaimed, "I have heard nothing of him, he has not been here for the last two months."
"I will not turn back, but just disturb him in his own house," said Durtal, "but he will wonder why I came back after so long an absence. Besides the awkwardness I feel in calling on people whom I have neglected, I am also troubled by thinking the abbe may suspect some interested object in my visit. That is not convenient; if I had but a good pretext; there is certainly that life of Lidwine which interests him, I might consult him on various points. Yes, but which? I have not concerned myself with that saint for a long time, and must read over again the meagre old books on her biography. After all, it will be simpler and better to be frank, and say, 'This is why I have come; I want to ask advice, which I have not determined to follow, but I have so much need of speaking, of giving the reins to my soul, that I beg you to be so kind as to lose an hour for my sake.'
"He will do it certainly and willingly.
"Then that is agreed on; suppose I go to-morrow?" But he checked himself at once. "There was nothing pressing; there was plenty of time; better take time and think; ah, yes, here is Christmas close upon us, I cannot decently trouble a priest who has his penitents to confess, for there are many communicants on that day. Let him get his hard work over, and then we will see."
He was at first pleased at having invented that excuse, then he had to admit in his heart that, after all, there was not much in it, for there was nothing to show that this priest, who was not attached to a parish, was busy in hearing confessions.
It was hardly probable, but he tried to convince himself that it might be so after all, and his hesitation began again. Angry at last with the discussion, he adopted a middle course. For greater certainty, he would not call on the abbe till after Christmas, but he would not be later than a given time; he took an almanack, and swore to keep his promise—three days after that feast.
Oh! that midnight mass! He had had the unfortunate idea of going to it at Christmas. He went to St. Severin, and found a young ladies' day school installed there, instead of the choir, who, with sharp voices like needles, knitted the worn-out skeins of the canticles. He had fled to St. Sulpice, and plunged into a crowd which walked and talked as if in the open air; had heard there choral-society marches, tea-garden waltzes, firework tunes, and had come away in a rage.
It had seemed to him superfluous to try St. Germain-des-Pres, for he held that church in horror. Besides the weariness inspired by its heavy, ill-restored shell, and the miserable paintings with which Flandrin loaded it, the clergy there were specially, almost alarmingly, ugly, and the choir was truly infamous. They were like a set of bad cooks, boys who spat vinegar, and elderly choir-men, who cooked in the furnace of their throats a sort of vocal broth, a thin gruel of sound.
Nor did he think of taking refuge in St. Thomas Aquinas, where he dreaded the barking and the choruses; there was indeed St. Clotilde, where the psalmody, at least, is upright, and has not, like that of St. Thomas, lost all shame. He went there, but again encountered dance music and profane tunes, a worldly orgie.
At last he went to bed in a rage, saying to himself, "In Paris, at any rate, a singular baptism of music is reserved for the New-Born."
Next day, when he woke, he felt he had no courage to face the churches; the sacrileges of last night would, he thought, continue; and as the weather was almost fine, he went out, wandered in the Luxembourg, gained the square of the Observatoire, and the Boulevard de Port Royal, and mechanically made his way along the interminable Rue de la Sante.
He knew that street of old, and had taken melancholy walks in it, attracted by its poor houses, like those of a provincial town; then it was fit for a dreamer, for it was bounded on the right by the Prison de la Sante and Sainte Anne's madhouse, and on the left by convents. Light and air circulated in the street, but, behind it, all was black; it was a kind of prison corridor, with cells on either side, where some were condemned to temporary sentences, and others, of their own free will, suffered lasting sorrows.
"I can imagine," thought Durtal, "how it would have been painted by an Early Flemish master; the long street paved by patient pencils, the stories open from top to bottom, and the cupboards the same; and on one side massive cells with iron bedsteads, a stoneware jug; little peepholes in the doors secured by strong bolts, inside, scoundrels and thieves, gnashing their teeth, turning round and round, their hair on end, howling like caged animals; on the other side little rooms, furnished with a pallet-bed, a stoneware jug, a crucifix, these also closed by doors iron-banded, and within nuns or monks, kneeling on the flags, their faces clean cut against the light of a halo, their eyes lifted to heaven, their hands joined, raised from the ground in ecstasy, a pot of lilies at their side."
Then at the back of the canvas, between these two rows of houses, rises a great avenue, at the end of which in a dappled sky sits God the Father with Christ on His right, choirs of Seraphim playing on guitar and viol; God the Father immovable under his lofty tiara, His breast covered by His long beard, holds scales which balance exactly, the holy captives expiating precisely by their penances and prayers the blasphemies of the rascals and the insane.
"It must be admitted," thought Durtal, "that this street is very peculiar, that there is probably none like it in Paris, for it unites in its course virtues and vices, which in other quarters, in spite of the efforts of the Church, trend apart as far as possible from each other."
Thus thinking he had come as far as St. Anne's, where the street grows lighter and the houses are lower, with only one or two stories, then, gradually, there is greater space between them, and they are only joined to each other by blank ends of walls.
"At any rate," thought Durtal, "if this street has no distinction, it is very private; here at least one need not admire the impertinent decoration of those modern shops which expose in their windows as precious commodities, chosen piles of firewood, and in glass sweetmeat jars, coal drops and coke lollipops."
And here is an odd lane, and he looked at an alley which led down a sharp decline into a main street, where was to be seen the tricolor flag in zinc on a washhouse; he read the name: Rue de l'Ebre.
He entered it, it was but a few yards long; the whole of one side was occupied by a wall, behind which were half seen some stunted buildings, surmounted by a bell. An entrance-gate with a square wicket was placed in the wall, which was raised higher as it sloped downwards, and at the end was pierced by round windows, and rose into a little building, surmounted by a clock-tower so low that its point did not even reach the height of the two-storied house opposite.
On the other side three hovels sloped down, closely packed together; zinc pipes ran everywhere, growing like vines, ramifying like the stalks of a hollow vine along the walls, windows gaped on rusty leaden hinges. Dim courts of wretched hovels could be seen; in one was a shed where some cows were reposing; in two others were coach-houses for wheel-chairs, and a rack behind the bars of which appeared the capsuled necks of bottles.
"But this must be a church," thought Durtal, looking at the little clock tower, and the three or four round bays, which seemed cut out in emery paper to look like the black rough mortar of the wall; "where is the entrance?"
He found it on turning out of the alley into the Rue de la Glaciere. A tiny porch gave access to the building.
He opened the door, and entered a large room, a sort of closed shed, painted yellow, with a flat ceiling, with small iron beams coloured grey, picked out with blue, and ornamented with gas-jets like a wine shop. At the end was a marble altar, six lighted tapers, and gilt ornaments, candelabra full of tapers, and under the tabernacle, a very small monstrance, which sparkled in the light of the tapers.
It was almost dark, the panes of the windows having been crudely daubed with bands of indigo and yellowish green; it was freezing, the stove was not alight, and the church, paved like a kitchen floor, had no matting or carpet.
Durtal wrapped himself up as best he could and sat down. His eyes gradually grew accustomed to the obscurity of the room, and what he saw was strange; in front of the choir on rows of chairs were seated human forms, drowned in floods of white muslin. No one stirred.
Suddenly there entered by a side door a nun equally wrapped from head to foot in a large veil. She passed along the altar, stopped in the middle, threw herself on the ground, kissed the floor, and by a sudden effort, without helping herself by her arms, stood upright, advanced silently into the church, and brushed by Durtal, who saw under the muslin a magnificent robe of creamy white, an ivory cross at her neck, at her girdle a white cord and beads.
She went to the entrance-door, and there ascended a little staircase into a gallery which commanded the church.
He asked himself what could be this Order so sumptuously arrayed, in this miserable chapel, in such a district?
Little by little the room filled, choir-boys in red with capes trimmed with rabbit's skin lighted the candelabra, went out, and ushered in a priest, vested in a grand cope, with large flowers, a priest tall and young, who sat down, and in a sonorous tone chanted the first antiphon of vespers.
Suddenly Durtal turned round. In the gallery an harmonium accompanied the responses of voices never to be forgotten. It was not a woman's voice, but one having in it something of a child's voice, sweetened, purified, sharpened, and something of a man's, but less harsh, finer and more sustained, an unsexed voice, filtered through litanies, bolted by prayers, passed through the sieves of adoration and tears.
The priest, still sitting, chanted the first verse of the unchanging psalm, "Dixit Dominus Domino meo."
And Durtal saw in the air, in the gallery, tall white statues, holding black books in their hands, chanting slowly with eyes raised to heaven. A lamp cast its light on one of these figures, which for a second leant forward a little, and he saw under the lifted veil a face attentive and sorrowful, and very pale.
The verses of the vesper psalms were now sung alternately, by the nuns above and by the congregation below. The chapel was almost full; a school of girls in white veils filled one side; little girls of the middle-class, poorly dressed brats who played with their dolls occupied the other. There were a few poor women in sabots, and no men.
The atmosphere became extraordinary. The warmth of the souls thawed the ice of the room; here were not the vespers of the rich, such as were celebrated on Sundays at St. Sulpice, but the vespers of the poor, domestic vespers, in the plain chant of the country side, followed by the faithful with mighty fervour in silent and singular devotion.
Durtal could fancy himself transported beyond the city, to the depths of some village cloister; he felt himself softened, his soul rocked by the monotonous amplitude of these chants, only recognizing the end of the psalms by the return of the doxology, the "Gloria Patri et Filio," which separated them from each other.
He had a real impulse, a dim need of praying to the Unknowable, penetrated to the very marrow by this environment of aspiration, it seemed to him that he thawed a little, and took a far-off part in the united tenderness of these bright spirits. He sought for a prayer, and recalled what St. Paphnutius taught Thais, when he cried, "Thou art not worthy to name the name of God, thou wilt pray only thus: 'Qui plasmasti me miserere mei;' Thou who hast formed me have mercy on me." He stammered out the humble phrase, prayed not out of love or of contrition, but out of disgust with himself, unable to let himself go, regretting that he could not love. Then he thought of saying the Lord's Prayer, but stopped at the notion that this is the hardest of all prayers to pronounce, when the phrases are weighed in the balance. For in it we declare to God that we forgive our neighbours' trespasses. Now how many who use these words forgive others? How many Catholics do not lie when they tell the All-knowing that they hate no one?
He was roused from these reflections by sudden silence; vespers were over. Then the organ played again, and all the voices of the nuns joined, those in the choir below and in the gallery above, singing the old carol "Unto us a child is born."
He listened, moved by the simplicity of the strain, and suddenly, in a minute, brutally, without understanding why, infamous thoughts filled his mind.
He resisted in disgust, wished to repulse the assault of these shameful feelings, and they were persistent. He seemed to see before him a woman whose perverse ways had long maddened him.
All at once this hallucination ceased; his eye was mechanically attracted towards the priest, who was looking at him, while speaking in a low voice to a beadle.
He lost his head, imagining that the priest guessed his thoughts and was turning him out, but this notion was so foolish, that he shrugged his shoulders, and more sensibly thought that men were not admitted to this convent of women, and that the abbe who had seen him was sending the beadle to beg him to leave.
The beadle came straight to him; Durtal was ready to take his hat, when in persuasive and gentle tones that functionary said that the procession was about to begin, that it was the custom for the gentlemen to follow the Blessed Sacrament, and that although he was the only man there, the abbe thought he would not refuse to follow the procession about to start.
Overwhelmed by this request, Durtal made a vague gesture, in which the beadle seemed to see assent.
"No," he thought as soon as he was left alone; "I will not meddle with the ceremony; first I know nothing about it, and I should spoil it all, and again I will not make a fool of myself." He prepared to slip away quietly, but he had no time to carry out his intention; the usher brought him a lighted candle and asked him to accompany him. He put the best face he could on the matter, and while thinking that he was blushing all over, he followed the beadle to the altar.
There the beadle stopped him and bid him not to move. The whole congregation was now standing, the girls' school divided into two files, preceded by a woman carrying a banner. Durtal came in front of the first rank of nuns.
Their veils lowered before the profane, even in church, were raised before the Blessed Sacrament, before God. Durtal was able to look at these sisters for a moment; at first his disillusion was complete. He had supposed them pale and grave like the nun he had seen in the gallery, and almost all of them were red, freckled, crossing their poor hands swelled and wounded by chilblains. Their faces were puffy and all seemed at the beginning or end of a cold; they were evidently country girls, and the novices, known by their grey robes under the white veil, were still more common looking; they had certainly been accustomed to farm labour, and yet on seeing them all turned to the altar, the poverty of their faces, the ugliness of their hands blue with cold, their broken nails, injured in the wash, disappeared; their eyes, modest and humble under their long lashes, changed their coarse features into pious simplicity. Lost in prayer, they did not even see his curious looks, and did not even suspect a man was there examining them.
Durtal envied the admirable wisdom of these poor girls who alone understood it was mad to wish to live. He thought: "Ignorance leads to the same result as knowledge. Among the Carmelites are rich and pretty women who have lived in the world and left it, wholly convinced of the vainness of its joys; and these nuns, who evidently know nothing, have had an intuition of that vacuity which it has needed years of experience for the others to gain. By different ways they have arrived at the same meeting-place. Then what clearness of thought is revealed by their entrance into an Order! for if indeed they had not been gathered by Christ, what would have become of these unhappy girls? Married to drunkards and hammered by beatings; or perhaps maids in taverns, ill-treated by their masters, brutalized by the other servants, destined to the scorn of the streets and the dangers of ill-usage. And without knowing anything they have avoided it all, have remained innocent, far from these perils, and far from this defilement, under an obedience which is not ignoble, disposed by their very way of life to experience, should they be worthy, the most powerful joys which the soul of a human creature can feel. They remain, perhaps, beasts of burthen, but at any rate God's beasts of burthen."
He had got so far in his reflections when the beadle beckoned to him. The priest, who had descended from the altar, held the little monstrance; the girls' procession was moving before him. Durtal passed in front of the line of nuns who did not take part in the ceremony, and torch in hand he followed the beadle, who carried behind the priest an open white silk parasol.
Then the harmonium in the gallery filled the church with its drawling tones, like an enlarged accordion, and the nuns standing beside it intoned the old chant, rhythmical as a march, the "Adeste Fideles," while below the novices and the faithful repeated after each stanza the sweet chorus of invitation, "Venite adoremus."
The procession went several times round the chapel, above the heads bowed in the smoke from the censers, which the choir boys swung, turning at each pause to face the priest.
"Well, after all, I have not come so badly out of it," said Durtal to himself, when they had returned to the altar. He thought his part was finished, but, this time without asking his permission, the beadle asked him to kneel at the communion rail in front of the altar.
He was ill at ease and annoyed, at knowing that the whole school and the whole convent was behind him, nor was he accustomed to kneel; it seemed as if wedges were thrust into his limbs, as if he were subjected to the tortures of the Middle Ages. Embarrassed by his taper, which was guttering, and threatened to cover him with spots, he shifted his position quietly, trying to make himself more comfortable by slipping the skirts of his great coat between his knees and the steps; but in moving he only increased the evil, his flesh was folded back between the bones, and his skin was chafed and burning. He sweated at last with the pain, and feared to distract the fervour of the community by falling; while the ceremony went on for ever, the nuns sang in the gallery, but he listened no more and deplored the length of the service.
At last the moment of Benediction approached.
Then in spite of himself, seeing himself there, so near to God, Durtal forgot his sufferings, and bowed his head, ashamed to be so placed, like a captain at the head of his company, in the first rank of this maiden troop; and when in a great silence, the bell tinkled, and the priest turning, lightly cut the air in the form of a cross, and, with the Blessed Sacrament, blessed the congregation kneeling at his feet, Durtal remained, his body bent, his eyes closed, seeking to hide himself, to make himself small, and not be seen there in front amid that pious crowd.
The psalm "Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes," rang out when the beadle came to take his taper. Durtal could hardly resist a cry, when he had to stand up; his benumbed knees cracked, and their joints would hardly work.
Yet he regained his place somehow; let the crowd pass, and approaching the beadle, asked him the name of the convent, and the order to which the nuns belonged.
"They are the Franciscan missionaries of Mary," answered the man, "but the chapel is not theirs as you seem to think; it is a chapel of ease for the parish of St. Marcel de la Maison Blanche: it is only joined by a corridor to the house those sisters occupy behind us there in the Rue de l'Ebre. They join in the offices, in fact, just as you and I may do, and they keep a school for the children of the district."
"It is a touching little chapel," thought Durtal, when he was alone. "It is well matched with the neighbourhood it shelters, with the gloomy brook of the tanners, which runs through the yards below the Rue de la Glaciere. It gives me the effect of being to Notre Dame de Paris what its neighbour the Bievre is to the Seine. It is the streamlet of the church, the pious pavement, the miserable suburb of worship.
"How poor and yet how exquisite are those nuns' voices, which seem non-sexual and mellow! God knows how I hate the voice of a woman in the holy place, for it still remains unclean. I think woman always brings with her the lasting miasma of her indispositions and she turns the psalms sour. Then, all the same, vanity and concupiscence rise from the worldly voice, and its cries of adoration accompanied by the organ are only cries of carnal desire, its very pleadings in the most sombre liturgical hymns are only addressed to God from the lips outward, for at bottom a woman only mourns the mediocre ideal of earthly pleasure to which she cannot attain. Thus I thoroughly understand that the Church has rejected woman from her offices, and that the musical robe of her sequences may not be contaminated she employs the voices of the boy and the man.
"Yet in convents of women, that is changed; it is certain that prayer, communion, abstinence and vows purify the body and the soul, as well as the vocal odour which proceeds from them. The emanations from them give to the voices of the nuns, however crude, however ill-trained they may be, their chaste inflexions, their simple caresses of pure love, they recall to it the ingenuous sounds of childhood.
"In certain orders, they seem even to prune it of the greater part of its branches, and concentrate the threads of sap which remain in a few twigs;" and he thought of a Carmelite convent to which he had gone from time to time, remembered their failing, almost expiring voices, where the little health that remained to them was concentrated in three notes, voices which had lost the musical colours of life, the tints of open air, keeping only in the cloister those of the costumes they seemed to reflect, white and brown, chaste and sombre tones.
Ah! those Carmelites, he thought of them now, as he descended the Rue de la Glaciere, and he called up the memory of a profession, the thought of which took entire possession of him every time he meditated on convents. He saw again in memory a morning in the little chapel in the Avenue de Saxe, a chapel, Spanish Gothic in style, with narrow windows glazed with panes so dark that the light which remained in their colours did not pass through them.
At the end rose the high altar in shade, raised on six steps; on the left a large iron grating in an arch was covered with a black curtain, and on the same side, but almost at the base of the altar, a little arch traced on the plain wall, like a lancet window, with an aperture in the middle, a sort of square, a frame, without a panel, empty.
That morning the chapel, cold and dark, sparkled, lighted by groves of candles; and the odour of incense, not adulterated as in other churches by spices and gums, filled it with a dull smoke; it was crammed with people. Crouched in a corner, Durtal had turned round, and like his neighbours looked at the backs of the thurifers and priests, who were going towards the entrance. The door opened suddenly, and he saw, in a burst of daylight, a red vision of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, passing up the nave, turning from side to side a horse-like head, in front of it a big spectacled nose, bending his tall form all on one side, blessing the congregation with a long twisted hand, like a crab's claw.
He and his suite ascended the altar steps, and knelt at a prie-Dieu, then they took off his tippet, and vested him in a silk chasuble with a white cross embroidered in silver, and the mass began. Shortly before the communion, the black veil was gently withdrawn; behind the high grating, and in a blueish light like that of the moon, Durtal faintly saw white phantoms gliding and stars twinking in the air, and close to the grating a woman's form, kneeling motionless on the ground, she too holding a star at the end of a taper. The woman did not move but the star shook; then when the moment of communion was at hand, the woman rose, then disappeared, and her head, as if decapitated, filled the square of the wicket opened in the arch.
Then as he leant forward he saw, for a second, a dead face, with closed lids, white, eyeless, like ancient marble statues. And all passed away, as the Cardinal bent above the grating, with the ciborium in his hand.
All was so rapid that he asked himself if he were not dreaming; the mass was over. Behind the iron grating resounded mournful psalms, slow chants drawn out, weeping, always on the same notes, wandering lights and white forms passed in the azure fluid of the incense. Monseigneur Richard was sitting, mitre on head, interrogating the postulant who had returned to her place, and was kneeling before him behind the grating.
He spoke in a low voice, and could not be heard. The whole congregation bent to listen to the novice as she pronounced her vows, but only a long murmur was heard. Durtal remembered that he had elbowed his way, and got near the choir, where, through the crossed bars of the grating, he saw the woman clad in white, prostrate on her face, in a square of flowers, while the whole convent filed past, bending over her, intoning the psalms for the dead, and sprinkling her with holy water, like a corpse.
"It is admirable," he cried, moved in the street by the memory of the scene, and he thought of what a life was that of these women! To lie on an hair mattress without pillow or sheets, to fast seven months out of the twelve, except on Sundays and feasts; always to eat, standing, vegetables and abstinence fare; to have no fire in winter, to chant for hours on ice-cold tiles, to scourge the body, to become so humble as, however tenderly nurtured, to wash up dishes with joy, and attend to the meanest tasks, to pray from morning to midnight even to fainting, to pray there till death. They must indeed pity us, and set themselves to expiate the imbecility of a world which treats them as hysterical fools, for it cannot even understand the joy in suffering of souls like these.
"We cannot be proud of ourselves, in thinking of the Carmelites, or even of those humble Franciscan Tertiaries, who are after all more vulgar. It is true they do not belong to a contemplative order, but all the same their rules are very strict, their existence is so hard that they too can atone by their prayers and good works for the crimes of the city they protect."
He grew enthusiastic in thinking of the convents. Ah! to be earthed up among them, sheltered from the herd, not to know what books appear, what newspapers are printed, never to know what goes on outside one's cell, among men—to complete the beneficent silence of this cloistered life, nourishing ourselves with good actions, refreshing ourselves with plain song, saturating ourselves with the inexhaustible joys of the liturgies.
Then, who knows? By force of good will, and by ardent prayer, to succeed in coming to Him, in entertaining Him, feeling Him near us, perhaps almost satisfied with His creature. And he called up before him the joys of those abbeys in which Jesus abode. He remembered that astonishing convent of Unterlinden, near Colmar, where in the thirteenth century not only one or two nuns, but the whole convent, rose distractedly before Christ with cries of joy, nuns were lifted above the ground, others heard the songs of seraphim, and their emaciated bodies secreted balm; others became transparent or were crowned with stars; all these phenomena of the contemplative life were visible in that cloister, a high school of Mysticism.
Thus wrapped in thought, he found himself at his own door, without remembering the road he had taken, and as soon as he was in his room, his whole soul dilated and burst forth. He desired to thank, to call for mercy, to appeal to someone, he knew not whom, to complain of he knew not what. All at once the need of pouring himself forth, of going out of himself, took shape, and he fell on his knees saying to Our Lady,
"Have pity on me, and hear me; I would rather anything than continue this shaken existence, these idle stages without an aim. Pardon me, Holy Virgin, unclean as I am, for I have no courage for the battle. Ah, wouldest thou grant my prayer! I know well that I am over bold in daring to ask, since I am not even resolved to turn out my soul, to empty it like a bucket of filth, to strike it on the bottom, that the lees may trickle out and the scales fall off, but ... but ... thou knowest I am so weak, so little sure of myself, that in truth I shrink.
"Oh, all the same I would desire to flee away, a thousand miles from Paris, I know not where, into a cloister. My God! yet this is very madness that I speak, for I could not stay two days in a convent; nor indeed would they take me in."
Then he thought,—
"Though this once I am less dry, less unclean than is my wont, I can find nothing to say to Our Lady but insanities and follies, when it would be so simple to ask her pardon, to beg her to have pity on my desolate life, to aid me to resist the demands of my vices, not to pay as I do the royalties on my nerves, the tax on my senses.
"All the same," he said, rising, "enough of this, I will at least do what little I can; without more delay I will go to the abbe to-morrow. I will explain the struggle of my soul, and we will see what happens afterwards."
He was really comforted when the servant said that Monsieur l'Abbe was at home. He entered a little drawing-room, and waited till the priest, whom he heard speaking to someone in the next chamber, was alone.
He looked at the little room, and marked that nothing was changed since his last visit. It was still furnished with a velvet sofa, of which the red, once crimson, had become the faded rose colour of raspberry jam on bread. There were also two tall arm-chairs on either side of the chimney, which was ornamented by an Empire clock, and some china vases filled with sand, in which were stuck some dry stalks of reed. In a corner against the wall, under an old wooden crucifix, was a prie-dieu, marked by the knees, an oval table in the centre, some sacred engravings on the walls; and that was all.
"It is like an hotel, or an old maid's lodging," thought Durtal. The commonness of the furniture, the curtains in faded damask, the panels hung with a paper covered with bouquets of poppies and field-flowers in false colours, were like lodgings by the month, but certain details, above all the scrupulous cleanliness of the room, the worked cushions on the sofa, the grass mats under the chairs, an hortensia like a painted cauliflower placed in a flower-pot covered with lace, looked on the other hand like the futile and icy room of a devout woman.
"Nothing was wanting but a cage of canaries, photographs in plush frames, shell-work and crochet mats."
Durtal had got so far in his reflections when the abbe came in with extended hand, gently finding fault with his long absence.
Durtal made what excuses he could, unusual occupations, long weariness.
"And our Blessed Lidwine, how do you get on with her?"
"Ah, I have not even begun her life; I am not in a state of mind which allows me to engage in it."
Durtal's accent of discouragement surprised the priest.
"Come, what is the matter? Can I be of any use to you?"
"I do not know, Monsieur l'Abbe. I am almost ashamed to talk to you about such troubles," and suddenly he burst out, telling his sorrows in any chance words, declaring the unreality of his conversion, his struggles with the flesh, his human respect, his neglect of religious practices, his aversion from the rites demanded of him, in fact from all yokes.
The abbe listened without moving, his chin on his hand.
"You are more than forty," he said, when Durtal was silent; "you have passed the age when without any impulse from thought, the awakening of the flesh excites temptations, you are now in that period when indecent thoughts first present themselves to the imagination, before the senses are agitated. We have then to fight less against your sleeping body than your mind, which stimulates and vexes it. On the other hand, you have arrears and prizes of affection to put out, you have no wife or children to receive them, so that your affections being driven back by celibacy, you will end by taking them there where at first they should have been placed; you try to appease your soul's hunger in chapels, and as you hesitate, as you have not the courage to come to a decision, to break once for all with your vices, you have arrived at this strange compromise; to reserve your tender feeling for the church and the manifestations of that feeling for women. That, if I do not mistake, is your correct balance-sheet. But, good heavens, you have not too much to complain of, for do you not see that the important thing is to care for woman only with your bodily senses? When Heaven has given you grace to be no longer taken captive by thought, all may be arranged with a little effort of will."
"This is an indulgent priest," thought Durtal.
"But," continued the abbe, "you cannot always sit between two stools, the moment will come when you must stick to the one, and push the other away."
And looking at Durtal, who looked down without answering,—
"Do you pray? I do not ask if you say your morning prayers, for not all those, who end by entering on the divine way, after wandering for years where chance might take them, call on the Lord so soon as they awake. At break of day the soul thinks itself well, thinks itself firmer, and at once takes occasion of this fleeting energy to forget God. It is with the soul as with the body when it is sick. When night comes our sensations are stronger, pain which was quieted awakes, the fever which slept blazes up again, filth revives and wounds bleed anew, and then it thinks of the divine Miracle-worker, it thinks of Christ. Do you pray in the evening?"
"Sometimes—and yet it is very difficult; the afternoon is tolerable, but you say truly when the daylight goes, evils spring up. A whole cavalcade of obscene ideas then pass through my brain; how can any one be recollected at such moments?"
"If you do not feel able to resist in the street or at home, why do you not take refuge in the churches?"
"But they are closed when one has most need of them; the clergy put Jesus to bed at nightfall."
"I know it, but if most churches are closed, there are a few which remain partly open very late. Ah, St. Sulpice is among the number, and there is one which remains open every evening, and where those who visit it are always sure of prayers and Benediction: Notre Dame des Victoires, I think you know it."
"Yes, Monsieur l'Abbe. It is ugly enough to cause tears, it is pretentious, it is in bad taste, and the singers churn up a margarine of rancid tones. I do not go there then as I go to St. Severin and St. Sulpice, to admire there the art of the old 'Praisers of God,' to listen, even if they are incorrectly given, to the broad, familiar melodies of plain chant. Notre Dame des Victoires is worthless from the aesthetic point of view, and yet I go there from time to time, because alone in Paris it has the irresistible attraction of true piety, it alone preserves intact the lost soul of the Time. At whatever hour one goes there people are praying there, prostrate in absolute silence; it is full as soon as it is open, and full at its closing, there is a constant coming and going of pilgrims from all parts of Paris, arriving from the depths of the provinces, and it seems that each one, by the prayers that he brings, adds fuel to the immense brazier of Faith whose flames break out again under the smoky arches like the thousands of tapers which constantly burn, and are renewed from morning till evening, before Our Lady.
"Well, I who seek the most deserted corners and the darkest places in the chapels, I who hate mobs, mix almost willingly with those I find there; because there everyone is isolated, no one is concerned with his neighbour, you do not see the human bodies which throng you, but you feel the breath of souls around. However refractory, however damp you may be, you end by taking fire at this contact, and are astonished to find yourself all at once less vile; it seems to me that the prayers which elsewhere when they leave my lips fall back to the ground exhausted and chilled, spring upwards in that place, are borne on by others, grow warm and soar and live.
"At St. Severin I have indeed experienced the sensation of a help spreading from the pillars and running through the arches, but, as I think, the aid is less strong. Perhaps since the Middle Ages that church makes use of, but cannot renew the celestial effluvia with which it is charged; while at Notre Dame the help which springs up from the very pavement is for ever vivified by the uninterrupted presence of an ardent crowd. In the one it is the impregnate stone, the church itself which brings consolation, in the other it is above all things the fervour of the crowds which fill it.
"And then I have the strange impression that the Virgin, attracted and retained by so great faith, only spends a little while in other churches, goes there as a visitor, but has made her home, and really resides in Notre Dame."
The abbe smiled.
"Come, I see that you know and love it; and yet the church is not on our left bank, beyond which, you said to me one day, there is no sanctuary worth having."
"Yes, and I am surprised at it, especially as it is placed in a thoroughly commercial quarter, two paces from the Exchange, whose ignoble shouts can be heard in it."
"It was itself an Exchange," said the abbe.
"In what way?"
"After having been baptized by the monks, and having served as a chapel for the discalced Augustinians, it was horribly desecrated in the Revolution, and the Exchange was set up within its walls."
"I was not aware of that detail," said Durtal.
"But," continued the abbe, "it was with it, as with those holy women, who, if we believe their biographers, recovered by a life of prayer the virginity they had formerly lost. Our Lady washed it from its violation, and though it is comparatively modern, it is at the present day saturated with emanations, infused by effluences of angels, penetrated with divine drugs, it is for sick souls what certain thermal springs are for the body. People keep their season there, make their novenas, and obtain their cure.
"Now to come back to our point; I tell you you will do wisely, if on your bad evenings you will attend Benediction in that church. I shall be surprised if you do not come out cleansed and at peace."
"If he have only that to offer me, it is little enough," thought Durtal. And after a disappointed silence he rejoined,
"But, Monsieur l'Abbe, even were I to visit that sanctuary, and follow the offices in other churches, when temptations assail me, even were I to confess and draw near the Sacraments, how would that advantage me? I should meet as I came out the woman whose very sight inflames my senses, and it would be with me as after my leaving St. Severin all unnerved; the very feeling of tenderness which I had in the chapel would destroy me, and I should fall back into sin."
"What do you know about it?" and the priest suddenly rose, and took long strides through the room.
"You have no right to speak thus, for the virtue of the Sacrament is formal, the man who has communicated is no longer alone. He is armed against others and defended against himself," and crossing his arms before Durtal he exclaimed,—
"To lose one's soul for the pleasure of momentary gratification! what madness. And since the time of your conversion, does not that disgust you?"
"Yes, I am disgusted with myself, but only after my swinish desires are satisfied. If only I could gain true repentance."
"Rest assured," said the abbe, who sat down again, "you will find it."
And, seeing that Durtal shook his head,
"Remember what Saint Teresa said: 'One trouble of those who are beginning is, that they cannot recognize whether they have true repentance for their faults; but they have it, and the proof is their sincere resolution to serve God.' Think of that sentence, for it applies to you; that repugnance to your sins which wearies you is witness to your regret, and you have a desire to serve the Lord, since you are in fact struggling to go to Him."
There was a moment of silence.
"Well, then, Monsieur l'Abbe, what is your advice?"
"I advise you to pray in your own house, in church, everywhere, as much as you can. I do not prescribe any religious remedy, I simply invite you to profit by some precepts of pious hygiene, afterwards we will see."
Durtal remained undecided, discontented, like those sick persons who find fault with doctors, who, to satisfy them, prescribe only colourless drugs.
The priest laughed.
"Confess," he said, looking him in the face, "confess that you are saying to yourself, 'It was not worth while to put myself out, for I am no further advanced, this good fellow, the priest, practises expectant medicine; instead of cutting short my crises with energetic remedies, he palters, advises me to go to bed early, not to catch cold—'"
"Oh, Monsieur l'Abbe," protested Durtal.
"Yet I do not wish to treat you like a child, or talk to you like a woman; now attend to me!
"The way in which your conversion has worked leaves me in no doubt whatever. There has been what Mysticism calls the divine touch, only—note this—God has dispensed with human intervention, even with the interference of a priest, to bring you back into the road you have left for more than twenty years.
"Now we cannot reasonably suppose that the Lord has acted lightly, and that He will now leave His work unaccomplished. He will carry it through if you put no obstacle in His way.
"In fact you are at this moment like a block in His hands; what will He do with it? I do not know, but since He has kept to Himself the conduct of your soul, let Him act; be patient, He will explain His action; trust in Him, He will help you; be content to protest with the Psalmist: 'Doce me facere voluntatem tuam, quia Deus meus es tu.'
"I tell you again I believe in the preventive virtue, the formal power of the Sacraments. I quite understand the system of Pere Milleriot, who obliged those persons to communicate whom he thought would afterwards fall again into sin. For their only penance he obliged them to communicate again and again, and he ended by purifying them with the Sacred Species, taken in large doses. It is a doctrine at once realistic and exalted.
"But reassure yourself," continued the abbe, looking at Durtal, who seemed wearied, "I do not intend to experiment on you in this way; on the contrary, my advice is that in the state of ignorance in which we are of God's will, you abstain from the Sacraments.
"For you should desire them, and it should come from you rather than from Him; be sure that sooner or later you will thirst for Penance, hunger for the Eucharist. Well, when unable to restrain yourself longer, you ask for pardon and entreat to be allowed to approach the Holy Table, we shall see, we will ask Him what way He will choose to take, in order to save you."
"But there are not, I presume, several ways of confessing and communicating?"
"Certainly not, that is just what I meant to say ... but ..."
And the priest hesitated, at a loss for words.
"It is quite certain," he began again, "that art has been the principal means which the Saviour has used to make you absorb the Faith. He has taken you on your weak side—or strong side, if you like that better. He has infused into your nature the chief mystical works; he has persuaded and converted you, less by the way of reason than the way of the senses; and indeed those are the special conditions you have to take into account.
"On the other hand your soul is not humble and simple, you are a sort of 'sensitive,' whom the least imprudence, the least stupidity of a confessor would at once repel.
"Therefore that you may not be at the mercy of a troublesome impression, certain precautions must be taken. In the state of weakness and feebleness in which you are, a disagreeable face, an unlucky word, antipathetic surroundings, a mere nothing would be enough to rout you—is it not so?"
"Alas!" sighed Durtal, "I am obliged to answer that you are right; but, Monsieur l'Abbe, I do not think I shall have to fear such disillusions if when the moment you predict has come you will allow me to make my confession to you."
The priest was silent for a while; then said,
"No doubt, since I have met you, I may probably be useful to you, but I have an idea that my part will be confined to pointing out the road to you; I shall be a connecting link, and nothing more, you will end as you have begun, without help, alone." The abbe remained in thought, then shook his head, and went on: "Let us leave the subject, however, for we cannot anticipate the designs of God; to sum up, try to stifle in prayer your attacks of the flesh, it is a less matter not to be overcome at the moment, than to direct all your efforts not to be so."
Then the priest added gently to rouse the spirits of Durtal, whom he saw to be depressed,
"If you fall do not despair, and throw the handle after the hatchet. Say to yourself, that, after all Lust is not the most unpardonable of faults, that it is one of two sins for which the human being pays cash, and which are consequently expiated in part at least before death. Say to yourself that wantonness and avarice refuse all credit and will not wait; and in fact, whoever unlawfully commits a fleshly act is almost always punished in his lifetime. For some there are bastards to provide for, sickly wives, low connections, broken careers, abominable deceptions on the part of those they have loved. On whichever side we turn when women are concerned we have to suffer, for she is the most powerful instrument of sorrow which God has given to man.
"It is the same with the passion for gain. Every being who allows himself to be overcome by that hateful sin, pays for it as a rule before his death. Look at the Panama business. Cooks, housekeepers, small proprietors who till then had lived in peace, seeking no inordinate gains, no illicit profit, threw themselves like madmen into that business. They had one only thought, to gain money; the chastisement of their cupidity was, as you know, sudden."
"Yes," said Durtal, laughing, "the de Lesseps were the agents of providence, when they stole the savings of fools, who had moreover got them probably by thieving."
"In a word," said the abbe, "I repeat my last advice: do not be at all discouraged if you sink. Do not despise yourself too much; have the courage to enter a church afterwards; for the devil catches you by cowardice, the false shame, the false humility he suggests, nourish, maintain, solidify your wantonness in some measure.
"Well! no good-bye; come and see me soon again."
Durtal found himself in the street a little confused. "It is evident," he murmured, as he stalked along, "that the Abbe Gevresin is a clever spiritual watchmaker. He has dexterously taken to pieces the movement of my passions, and made the hours of idleness and weariness strike, but, after all, his advice comes only to this: stew in your own juice and wait.
"Indeed he is right; if I had come to the point I should not have gone to him to chatter, but really to confess. What is strange is that he does not at all seem to think he will have to put me through the wash-tub; and to whom does he mean me to go—to the first comer who will wind about me his spool of commonplaces, and stroke me with his big hands without seeing clearly?
"Well, well ... what is the time?" He looked at his watch. "Six o'clock, and I do not care to go home. What shall I do till dinner?"
He was near St. Sulpice. He went in and sat down, to clear his thoughts a little, taking a place in the Chapel of Our Lady, which at that hour was almost empty.
He felt no wish to pray, and rested there, looking at the great arch of marble and gold, like a scene in a theatre, where the Virgin, the only figure in the light, advances towards the faithful, as from a decorated grotto, on plaster clouds.
Meanwhile two Little Sisters of the Poor came and knelt not far from him, and meditated, their heads between their hands.
He thought as he looked at them,—
"Those souls are to be envied who can thus be abstracted in prayer. How do they manage it? For, in fact, it is not easy, if one thinks of the sorrows of the world, to praise the vaunted mercy of God. It is all very fine to believe that He exists, to be certain that He is good; in fact, we do not know Him—we are ignorant of Him. He is, and, in fact, He can only be, immanent, permanent, and inaccessible. He is we know not what, and at most we know what He is not. Try to imagine Him, and the senses fail, for He is above, about, and in each one of us. He is three and He is one; He is each and He is all; He is without beginning, and He will be without end; He is above all and for ever incomprehensible. If we try to picture Him to ourselves and give Him a human wrappage, we come back to the simple conception of the early times, we represent Him under the features of an ancestor. Some old Italian model, some old Father Tourgeneff, with a long beard, and we cannot but smile, so childish is the likeness of God the Father.
"He is, in fact, so absolutely above the imagination and the senses, that He comes only nominally into prayer, and the impulses of humanity ascend especially to the Son, Who only can be addressed, because He became man, and is to us somewhat of an elder brother, because, having wept in human form, we think He will hear us more readily, and be more compassionate to our sorrows.
"As to the third Person, He is even more disconcerting than the first. He is especially the unknowable. How can we imagine this God formless and bodiless, this Substance equal to the two others, who, as it were, breathe Him forth? We think of Him as a brightness, a fluid, a breath; we cannot even lend to Him as to the Father the face of a man, since on the two occasions that He took to Himself a body, He showed Himself under the likenesses of a dove and of tongues of fire, and these two different aspects do not help to a suggestion of the new appearance He might assume.
"Certainly the Trinity is terrible, and makes the brain reel. Ruysbroeck has moreover said admirably, 'Let those who would know and study what God is, know that it is forbidden; they will go mad.'
"So," he continued, looking at the two Little Sisters, who were now telling their beads, "these good women are right not to try to understand, and to confine themselves to praying with all their heart to the Mother and the Son.
"Moreover, in all the lives of the saints which they have read, they have made certain that Jesus and Mary always appeared to the elect to console and strengthen them.
"In fact, how stupid I am. To pray to the Son is to pray to the two others, for in praying to one among them I pray at the same time to the three, since the three make but one. And the Substances are, however, special, because if the divine Essence is one and simple, it is so in the threefold distinction of the Persons; but, again, what is the use of fathoming the Impenetrable?
"Yet," he continued, remembering the interview he had just had with the priest, "how will all this end? If the abbe be right, I no longer belong to myself; I am about to enter the unknown, which frightens me. If only the sound of my vices consents to be silent, but I feel that they rise furiously within me. Ah, that Florence"—and he thought of a woman to whose vagaries he was riveted—"continues to walk about in my brain. I see her behind the lowered curtain of my eyes, and when I think of her I am a terrible coward."
He endeavoured once more to put her away, but his will was overcome at the sight of her.
He hated, despised, and even cursed her, but the madness of his illusions excited him; he left her disgusted with her and with himself; he swore he would never see her again, but did not keep his resolve.
He saw her now in vision extend her hand to him.
He recoiled, struggling to free himself; but his dream continued mingling her with the form of one of the sisters whose gentle profile he saw.
Suddenly he started, returned to the real world, and saw that he was at St. Sulpice, in the chapel. "It is disgusting that I should come here to soil the church with my horrible dreams; I had better go."
He went out in confusion, thinking, "Perhaps if I visit Florence once again, I may perhaps put an end to this haunting sense of her presence, seeing and knowing the reality."
And he was obliged to answer himself that he was becoming idiotic, for he knew by experience that past desire grows in proportion as it is nourished. "No, the abbe was right; I have to become and to remain penitent. But how? Pray? How can I pray, when evil imaginations pursue me even in church? Evil dreams followed me to La Glaciere; here they appear again, and smite me to the ground. How can I defend myself? for indeed it is frightful to be thus alone, to know nothing and have no proof, to feel the prayers which one tears out of oneself fall into the silence and the void without a gesture to answer, without a word of encouragement, without a sign. I do not even know if He be there, and if He listens. The abbe tells me to wait an indication, an order from on high; but, alas! they come to me from below."
Many months passed. Durtal continued his alternation of wanton and pious ideas. Without power to resist, he saw himself slipping. "All this is far from clear," he cried, one day, in a rage, when, less apathetic than usual, he forced himself to take stock. "Now, Monsieur l'Abbe, what does this mean? Whenever my sensual obsessions are weaker, so also are my religious impressions."
"That means," said the priest, "that your adversary is holding out to you the most treacherous of his baits. He seeks to persuade you that you will never attain to anything unless you will give yourself up to the most repugnant excesses. He tries to convince you that satiety and disgust of these acts alone will bring you back to God; he incites you to commit them that they may, so to speak, bring about your deliverance; he leads you into sin under pretext of delivering you from it. Have a little energy, despise these sophistries and resist him."
He went to see the Abbe Gevresin every week. He liked the patient discretion of the old priest, who let him talk when he was in a confidential humour, listened to him carefully, manifested no surprise at his frequent temptations and his falls. Only the abbe always returned to his first advice, insisted on regular prayer, and that Durtal should each day, if possible, visit a church. He also now said, "The hour is important for the success of these practices. If you wish that the chapels should be favourable to you, get up in time to be present at daybreak at the first mass, the servants' mass, and also be very often in the sanctuaries at nightfall."
The priest had evidently formed a plan; Durtal did not yet wholly understand it, but he was bound to admit that this discipline of temporizing, this constant call to thought always directed to God, by his daily visits to the churches, acted upon him at last, and little by little softened his soul. One fact proved it: that he who for so long a time had been unable to meditate in the morning, now prayed as soon as he awoke. Even in the afternoon he found himself on some days seized with the need of speaking humbly with God, with an irresistible desire to ask His pardon and implore His help.
It seemed then that the Lord knocked at his door with gentle touches, wishing so to recall his attention, and draw him to Him; but when, softened and troubled, Durtal would enter into himself to seek God, he wandered vaguely, not knowing what he said, and thinking of other things while speaking to Him.
He complained of these wanderings and distractions to the priest, who answered,—
"You are on the threshold of the probationary life; you cannot yet experience the sweet and familiar friendship of prayer. Do not sadden yourself because you cannot close behind you the gate of your senses. Watch and wait; pray badly if you can do nothing else, but pray all the same.
"Be very sure too that every one has experienced the troubles which distress you; above all, believe that we do not walk blindfold, that Mysticism is an absolutely exact science. It can foretell the greater part of the phenomena which occur in that soul which the Lord intends for a perfect life; it follows also spiritual operations with the same clearness as physiology observes the different states of the body. For ages and ages it has disclosed the progress of grace and its effects, now impetuous and now slow; it has even pointed out the modifications of material organs which are transformed when the soul entirely loses itself in God.
"Saint Denys the Areopagite, Saint Bonaventure, Hugh and Richard of Saint Victor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bernard, Ruysbroeck, Angela of Foligno, the two Eckharts, Tauler, Suso, Denys the Carthusian, Saint Hildegarde, Saint Catherine of Genoa, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Magdalen of Pazzi, Saint Gertrude, and others have set forth in a masterly way the principles and theories of Mysticism, and it has found at last an admirable psychologist to sum up its rules and their exceptions; a Saint who has verified in her own person the supernatural phases she has described—a woman whose lucidity was more than human—Saint Teresa. You have read her life, and her 'Castles of the Soul'!"
Durtal nodded assent.
"Then you have your information; you ought to know that before reaching the shores of Blessedness, before arriving at the fifth dwelling of the interior castle, at that prayer of union wherein the soul is awakened in regard to God, and completely asleep to all things of earth and to herself, she must pass through lamentable states of dryness, and the most painful strainings. Take heart therefore; say to yourself that this dryness should be a source of humility, and not a cause of disquietude; do, in fact, as Saint Teresa would have you: carry your cross, and not drag it after you."
"That magnificent and terrible Saint frightens me," sighed Durtal. "I have read her works, and, do you know, she gives me the idea of a stainless lily, but a metallic lily, forged of wrought iron; you will admit that those who suffer have scant consolations to expect from her."
"Yes; in the sense that she does not think of the creature except in the way of Mysticism. She supposes the fields already ploughed, the soul already freed from its more vehement temptations, and sheltered from crises; her starting-point is as yet too high and too distant for you, for, in fact, she is addressing nuns, women of the cloister, beings who live apart from the world, and who are consequently already advanced on those ascetic ways wherein God is leading them.
"But make an effort in the spirit to free yourself from this mud, cast away for a few moments the memory of your imperfections and your troubles, and follow her. See then how experienced she is in the domain of the supernatural, how, in spite of her repetitions and tediousness, she explains wisely and clearly the mechanism of the soul unfolding when God touches it. In subjects where words fail and phrases crumble away, she succeeds in making herself understood, in showing, making felt, almost making visible, the inconceivable sight of God buried in the soul, and taking His pleasure there.
"And she goes still further into the mystery, even to the end; bounds with a final spring to the very gates of heaven, but then she faints on adoration, and being unable to express herself further, she soars, describing circles like a frightened bird, wandering beyond herself, in cries of love."
"Yes, Monsieur l'Abbe, I recognize that Saint Teresa has explored deeper than any other the unknown regions of the soul; she is in some measure its geographer, has drawn the map of its poles, marked the latitudes of contemplation, the interior lands of the human sky. Other Saints have explored them before her, but they have not left us so methodical nor so exact a topography.
"But in spite of this I prefer those mystical writers who have less self-analysis, and discuss less, who always do throughout their works what Saint Teresa did at the end of hers—that is, who are all on fire from the first page to the last, and are consumed and lost at the feet of Christ. Ruysbroeck is among these. The little volume which Hello has translated is a very furnace; and, again, to quote a woman, take Saint Angela of Foligno, not so much in the book of her visions which may not be always effectual, as in the wonderful life which she dictated to Brother Armand, her confessor. She too explains, and much earlier than Saint Teresa, the principles and effects of Mysticism; but if she is less profound, less clever in defining shades, on the other hand she is wonderfully effusive and tender. She caresses the soul; she is a Bacchante of divine love, a Maenad of purity. Christ loves her, holds long conversations with her; the words she has retained surpass all literature, and are manifestly the most beautiful ever written. This is no longer the rough Christ, the Spanish Christ who begins by trampling on His creature to make him more supple; He is the merciful Christ of the Gospels, the gentle Christ of Saint Francis, and I like the Christ of the Franciscans better than the Christ of the Carmelites."
"What will you say, then," said the abbe, with a smile, "of St. John of the Cross? You compared Saint Teresa just now to a flower in wrought iron; he too is such, but he is the lily of tortures, the royal flower which the executioners were wont of old time to stamp on the heraldic flesh of convicts. Like red-hot iron, he is at the same time burning and sombre. As you turn over the pages, Saint Teresa now and then bends over and sorrows and compassionates us; he remains impenetrable, buried in his internal abyss, occupied, above all things, in describing the sufferings of the soul which, after having crucified its desires, passes through the 'Night obscure,' that is to say, through the renunciation of all which comes from the sensible and the created.
"He wills that we should extinguish our imagination—so lethargize it that it can no longer form images—imprison our senses, annihilate our faculties. He wills that he who desires to unite himself to God should place himself under an exhausted receiver, and make a vacuum within, so that, if he choose, the Pilgrim should descend therein, and purify himself, tearing out the remains of sins, extirpating the last relics of vice.
"Then the sufferings which the soul endures overpass the bounds of the possible, it lies lost in utter darkness, falls under discouragement and fatigue, believes itself for ever abandoned by Him to whom it cries, who now hides Himself and answers not again, happy still when in that agony, the pangs of the flesh are not added, and that abominable spirit which Isaias calls the spirit of confusion, and which is none other than the disease of scrupulousness pushed to its extreme.
"Saint John makes you shudder when he cries out that this night of the soul is bitter and terrible, and that the being who suffers it is plunged alive into hell. But when the old man is purged out, when he is scraped at every seam, raked over every face, light springs out, and God appears. Then the soul casts itself like a child into His arms, and the incomprehensible fusion takes place.
"You see Saint John penetrates more deeply than others into the depths of mystical initiation. He also, like Saint Teresa and Ruysbroeck, treats of the spiritual marriage, of the influx of grace, and its gifts; but he first dared to describe minutely the dolorous phases which till then had been but hinted at with trembling.
"Then if he is an admirable theologian, he is also a rigorous and clear-sighted saint. He has not those weaknesses which are natural to a woman; he does not lose himself in digressions, nor return continually on his own steps; he walks straight forward, but you often see him at the end of the road, blood-stained and terrible, with dry eyes."
"But, but," said Durtal, "surely not all souls whom Christ will lead in the ways of mysticism are tried thus?"
"Yes, almost always, more or less."
"I will confess that I thought the spiritual life was less arid and less complex. I imagined that by leading a pure life, praying one's best, and communicating, one would attain without much trouble, not indeed to taste the infinite joys reserved for the saints, but at last to possess the Lord, and live, at least, near Him, at rest.
"And I should be quite content with this middle class joy. The price paid in advance for the exaltation described by Saint John disconcerts me."
The abbe smiled, but made no answer.
"But do you know that if it be so," replied Durtal, "we are very far from the Catholicism that is taught us? It is so practical, so benign, so gentle, in comparison with Mysticism."
"It is made for lukewarm souls—that is to say, for almost all the pious souls which are about us; it lives in a moderate atmosphere, without too great suffering or too much joy; it only can be assimilated by the masses, and the priests are right to present it thus, since otherwise the faithful would cease to understand it, or would take flight in alarm."
"But if God judge that a moderate religion is amply sufficient—for the masses believe that he demands the most painful efforts on the part of those whom he deigns to initiate into the supremely adorable mysteries of His Person—it is necessary and just that he should mortify them before allowing them to taste the essential intoxication of union with Him."
"In fact, the end of Mysticism is to render visible, sensible, almost palpable, the God who remains silent and hidden from all."
"And to throw us into His deep, into the silent abyss of joy! But in order to speak correctly, we must forget the ordinary use of expressions which have been degraded. In order to describe this mysterious love, we are obliged to draw our comparisons from human acts, and to inflict on the Lord the shame of our words. We have to employ such terms as 'union,' 'marriage,' 'wedding feast'; but it is impossible to speak of the inexpressible, and with the baseness of our language declare the ineffable immersion of the soul in God."
"The fact is," murmured Durtal ... "but to return to Saint Teresa...."
"She too," interrupted the abbe, "has treated of this 'Night obscure' which terrifies you; but she only speaks of it in a few lines. She calls it the soul's agony—a sadness so bitter that she strove in vain to depict it."
"No doubt, but I prefer her to Saint John of the Cross, for she is not so discouraging as that inflexible saint. Admit that he belongs too much to the land of those large Christs who bleed in caverns."
"Of what nationality then was Saint Teresa?"
"Yes, I know she was a Spaniard, but so complex, so strange, that race seems obliterated in her, less clearly defined.
"It is clear she was an admirable psychologist, but also how strange is in her the mixture of an ardent mystic and a cool woman of business. For, in fact, she has a double nature; she is a contemplative outside the world, and at the same time a statesman, a female Colbert of the cloister. In fact, never was woman so consummate a skilled artisan and so powerful an organizer. When we consider that, in spite of incredible difficulties, she founded thirty-two nunneries, that she put them all under obedience to a rule which is a model of wisdom, a rule which foresees and rectifies the most ignored mistakes of the heart, it is astonishing to hear her treated by strong-minded people as an hysterical madwoman."
"One of the distinctive marks of the mystics," answered the abbe, with a smile, "is just their absolute balance, their entire common sense."
These conversations cheered Durtal; they planted on him seeds of reflection which sprang up when he was alone; they encouraged him to trust to the advice of this priest, and follow his counsels. He found himself all the better for this conduct, in that his visits to the churches, his prayers and readings occupied his objectless life, and he was no longer wearied.
"I have at least gained peaceable evenings and quiet nights," he said to himself.
He knew the soothing help of a pious evening.
He visited St. Sulpice at those times when, under the dull gleam of the lamps, the pillars opened out and threw long panels of darkness on the ground. The chapels which remained open were in shade, and in the nave before the high altar a single cluster of lamps, above in the darkness, shone out like a luminous bunch of red roses.
In the stillness no sounds were heard but the dull thud of a door, the creaking of a chair, the short paces of a woman, the hurried stride of a man.
Durtal was almost isolated in the obscure chapel which he had chosen; he kept himself there so far from all, so far from the city whose full pulse was beating only two paces from him. He knelt down and remained still, he prepared to speak, and had nothing to say, felt himself carried away by an impulse, but no words came. He ended by falling into a vague languor, experiencing that indolent ease, that dim sense of comfort, which the body feels in a medicated bath.
He fell a-dreaming of the lot of the women who were round about him here and there, in chairs. Ah! those poor little black shawls, those miserable pleated caps, those wretched tippets, those doleful seed rosaries they fingered in the shade.
Some in mourning, sobbed still inconsolable; others, overwhelmed, bent their backs and hung their heads on one side; others prayed, their shoulders shaking, their head in their hands.
The task of the day was over; those wearied of their life came to ask for mercy. Everywhere misfortune was kneeling, for the rich, the healthy, the happy hardly pray; all around in the church were women, widowed or old, without love, women deserted, women whose home was a torture, praying that existence might become more merciful, that the dissoluteness of their husbands might cease, the vices of their sons amend, the health of those they loved grow stronger.
A lamentable perfume went up like incense to Our Lady from a very sheaf of woes.
Few men came to this hidden meeting-place of trouble; still fewer young people, for these have not yet suffered enough; there were only a few old men, and a few sick who dragged themselves along by the backs of the chairs, and a little hunchback, whom Durtal saw coming there every evening, an outcast who could only be loved by Her who does not even see the body.
A burning pity seized on Durtal at the sight of those unhappy ones who came to beg from Heaven a little of the love refused them by men; and he who could not pray on his own account ended by joining himself to their pleadings, and praying for them.
So indifferent in the afternoon, the churches were truly persuasive, truly sweet, in the evening; they seemed to bestir themselves at nightfall, and to compassionate in their solitude the sufferings of those sick creatures whose complaints they heard.
And their first mass in the morning, the mass of working women and servant maids was no less touching; there were there no bigots nor curious persons, but poor women who came to seek in communion strength to live their hours of onerous tasks and servile needs. They knew as they left the church that they were the living custodians of a God, of Him who was ever while on earth the Poor Man, who took pleasure only in souls who had scarce where to lay their head; they knew themselves His chosen, and did not doubt that when He entrusted to them under the form of bread the memorial of His suffering, He demanded of them in exchange that they should live in sorrow and humility. And what harm then could do to them the cares of a day spent in the salutary shame of base occupations?
"I now understand," thought Durtal, "why the abbe made such a point of my seeing the churches early or late; those are, in fact, the only times in which the soul expands."
But he was too idle to be often present at early mass; he was content to take his relaxation after dinner in the chapels. He came out with a feeling of peace, even if he had prayed badly or not prayed at all. On other evenings, on the contrary, he felt tired of solitude, tired of silence, tired of darkness, and then he abandoned St. Sulpice and went to Notre Dame des Victoires.
In this well-lighted sanctuary there was no longer that depression, that despair of poor wretches who dragged themselves to the nearest church and sat down in the shade. The pilgrims to Notre Dame des Victoires brought a surer confidence, and that faith softened their sorrows, whose bitterness was dissipated in the explosions of hope, the stammering adoration, which spouted up all around. There were two currents in that refuge, that of people who asked for favours, and that of those who, having gained them, were profuse in thankfulness and in acts of gratitude. Therefore, that church had its especial physiognomy, more joyous than sad, less melancholy, more ardent under all circumstances than that of other churches.
It had, moreover, the peculiarity of being much frequented by men, but less by hypocrites, who will not look you in the face, or with upturned eyes, than by men of all classes whose features were not degraded by false piety. There alone were to be seen clear expressions and clean faces; there, above all, was not that horrible grimace of the working man of the Catholic clubs—that hideous creature in a blouse, whose breath belies the ill-defined unction of his features.
In that church, covered with ex votos, plastered even above the arches with inscriptions on marble celebrating the joy for prayers granted and benefits received, before that altar of Our Lady where hundreds of tapers pierced the air blue with incense with the gilded blades of their lances, there were public prayers every evening at eight. A priest in the pulpit said the rosary, sometimes the Litany of Our Lady was sung to a singular air, a sort of musical cento, but it was impossible to say whence it was constructed, very rhythmical, and continually changing its tone, now fast, now slow, bringing with it, for a moment, a vague recollection of seventeenth-century airs, then turning sharply at a tangent, to a barrel-organ tune, a modern, almost vulgar, melody.
Yet, after all, there was something taking in this singular confusion of sounds after the "Kyrie eleison" and the opening invocations. The Virgin came upon the scene to a dance measure like a ballet girl; but when certain of her attributes were paraded, and certain of her symbolical names declared, the music became singularly respectful; it became lower, halting and solemn, thrice repeating, on the same motive, some of her attributes, the "Refugium Peccatorum" among others; then it went on again, and began her graces again with a skip.
When by chance there was no sermon, the Benediction took place immediately afterwards.
Then with raspings of the choir, a bass with a cold, and two boys who snivelled began their liturgical chants: "Inviolata," that languishing and plaintive Sequence, with its clear and drawling tune so weak, so frail, that it would seem as if it should only be sung by voices in a hospital; then the "Parce Domine," that antiphon so suppliant and so sad; lastly, that scrap, detached from the "Panga Lingua," the "Tantum ergo," humble and thoughtful, attentive and slow.
When the organ sounded out the first chords, and that plain chant melody began, the choir had only to cross their arms and hold their tongues. As tapers which are lighted by threads of fulminate attached one to the other, the faithful caught fire, and, accompanied by the organs, struck up for themselves the humble and glorious strains. They were then kneeling on the chairs, prostrate on the pavement, and when, after the exchange of antiphons and responses, after the "oremus," the priest ascended to the altar, his shoulders and hands enfolded in the white silk scarf, to take the monstrance, then, at the shrill and hurried sounds of the bells, a wind passed which at once bent every head like the mowing of grass.
In these groups of souls on fire there was a fulness of devotion, a complete and absolute silence, till the bells again rang out, and invited human life which had been interrupted to wrap itself in a great sign of the Cross and resume its course.
The "Laudate" was not ended when Durtal left the church, before the crowd began to move.
"Verily," he said, as he entered his lodgings, "the fervour of that congregation, who do not come as in other churches from the districts, but are pilgrims from everywhere and one knows not where, is out of tune with the blackguardism of this foolish age."
Then at Notre Dame at least one hears curious singing, and he bethought him of those strange litanies which he had heard nowhere else, and yet he had experienced all kinds, in churches. At St. Sulpice, for example, it was recited to two tunes. When the choir sang it was set to a plain chant melody, bellowed by the gong of a bass to which the sharp fife of the boys made answer; but during Rosary month, on every day except Thursday the task of singing it was entrusted to young ladies; then in the evening round a wheezy old harmonium, a troup of young and old geese, made Our Lady run round on her litanies as on hobby horses to the music of a fair.
In other churches, at St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, where they were also dropped out by women, the litanies were sprinkled with powder and perfumed by bergamot and ambergris. They were, in fact, adapted to a minuet tune, and therefore did not disagree with the operatic architecture of the church, where they presented a Virgin walking with mincing steps, pinching her petticoat with two fingers, bending in beautiful curtseys, and recovering herself with a fine bow. This has evidently nothing to do with church music, but it was none the less disagreeable to hear. It would have made the whole performance complete if the harpsichord had been substituted for the organ.
Far more interesting than this lay quavering was the plain chant, given more or less badly, as it was moreover given, but yet given, when there was no special ceremony at Notre Dame.
It was not arranged there as at St. Sulpice and the other churches where the "Tantum ergo" is almost always dressed up in foolish flourishes, tunes for military ceremonials or public dinners.
The Church has not allowed the actual text of Saint Thomas Aquinas to be altered, but she has let any and every choirmaster suppress the plain chant in which it has been wrapped from its birth, which has penetrated to its marrow, has clung to each of its phrases, and become with it one body and one soul.
It was monstrous, and it must really be that these cures have lost, not the sense of art, for that they never had, but the most elementary sense of the liturgy, to accept such heresies, and tolerate such outrages in their churches.
These thoughts enraged Durtal, but he returned little by little to Notre Dame des Victoires and grew calmer. It was well he should examine it under all aspects, but it remained none the less mysterious nor the less unique in Paris.
At La Salette, at Lourdes, there have been apparitions. "Whether these have been authentic or controverted matters little," he thought. "For even supposing Our Lady were not there at the moment her coming was announced, she was attracted there, and dwells there now, retained there by the tide of prayer and the emanations cast up by the faith of crowds. Miracles have happened there; it is therefore not astonishing that pious crowds flock thither. But here at Notre Dame des Victoires has been no apparition; no Melanie, no Bernadette, have seen and described the luminous appearance of a 'beautiful Lady.' There are no piscinas, no medical staff, no public cures, no mountain top, no grotto, nothing. One fine day in 1836 the cure of the parish, the Abbe Dufriche Des Genettes, declared that while he was celebrating mass Our Lady manifested to him her desire that the sanctuary should be specially consecrated to her, and that alone was enough. The church, then a desert, has never since been empty, and thousands of ex votos declare the graces which since that day the Madonna has accorded to the visitors."
"Yes, but in fact," concluded Durtal, "all these suppliants are not specially extraordinary souls, for indeed the most part of them are like me, they come in their own interests, for themselves and not for Her."
And he remembered the answer of the Abbe Gevresin, to whom he had already made the observation.
"You must be singularly far advanced on the road to perfection if you go there for Her only."
Suddenly, after so many hours spent in the chapels, there was a reaction; the flesh extinguished under the cinders of prayers took fire, and the conflagration, springing up from below, became terrible.
Florence seemed present, to Durtal's imagination, at his lodgings, in the churches, in the street, everywhere, and he was constantly on the watch against her recurrent attractions.
The weather was mixed up with it all; the heaven broke up, a stormy summer raged, shattering the nerves, enfeebling the will, letting the awakened troop of vices loose in their gloomy moisture. Durtal blenched before the dread of long evenings and the abominable melancholy of days that never ended. At eight o'clock in the evening the sun had not set, and at three in the morning it seemed to wake again; the week was only one uninterrupted day, and life was never arrested.
Oppressed by the ignominy of this angry sunshine and these blue skies, disgusted at bathing in Niles of sweat, and feeling Niagaras run from his hat, he did not stir from home, and then, in his solitude, foul thoughts assailed him.
It was an obsession by thought, by vision, in all ways, and the haunting was all the more terrible that it was so special, that it never turned aside, but concentrated itself always on the same point, the face and figure of Florence.
Durtal resisted, then in distraction, took to flight, tried to tire himself out by long walks, and to divert his mind by excursions, but the ignoble desire followed him in his course, sat before him in the Cafe, came between his eyes and the newspaper he strove to read, becoming ever more definite. He ended, after hours of struggle, by giving way and going to see this woman; he left her overwhelmed, half dead with disgust and shame, almost in tears.
Nor did he thus find any solace in his struggle, but the contrary; far from escaping it, the hateful charm took more violent and tenacious possession of him. Then Durtal thought of and accepted a strange compromise, to visit another woman he knew, and in her society to break this nervous state, to put an end to this possession, this weariness and remorse; and in doing so he strove to persuade himself that in thus acting he would be more pardonable, less sinful.
The clearest result of this attempt was to bring back the memory of Florence, and her vicious charm.
He continued therefore his intimacy with her, and then he had, during a few days, such a revolt from his slavery, that he extricated himself from the sewer, and stood on firm ground.
He succeeded in recovering and pulling himself together, and he loathed himself. During this crisis he had somewhat neglected the Abbe Gevresin, to whom he dared not avow his foulness, but since certain indications warned him of new attacks, he took fright, and went to see him.
He explained his crises in veiled words, and he felt so unnerved, so sad, that tears stood in his eyes.
"Well, are you now certain that you have that repentance which you assure me you have not experienced up to this time?"
"Yes, but what is the good of it, if one is so weak, that in spite of all efforts one is certain to be overthrown at the first assault?"