"What am I to say, Miss Innes? I shall think of this day when I am an old woman. But you'll sing again before you leave?"
"Yes, sister, whenever you like."
"When I like? That would be all day. But I did follow you in the duet, I was so anxious. I hope I did not spoil it?"
"I was never better accompanied. You made no mistake."
As they passed by her the other nuns thanked her under their breath. She could see that they looked upon her as a providence sent by God to save them from being cast back upon the world they dreaded, the world from which they had fled. But all this extraordinary drama, this intensity of feeling, remained inarticulate. They could only say, "Thank you, Miss Innes; it was very good of you to come to sing for us." It was their very dumbness that made them seem so wonderful. It was the dumbness of these women—they could only speak in prayer—it was that that overcame her. But the Reverend Mother was different. Evelyn listened to her, thinking of nothing but her, and when the Reverend Mother left her, Evelyn moved away, still under the spell of the authoritative sweetness which her presence and manner exhaled. But the Reverend Mother was only a part of a scheme of life founded on principles the very opposite to those on which she had attempted to construct her life. Even in singing the "Ave Maria," she had not been able to subdue her vanity. Her pleasure in singing it had in a measure sprung out of the somewhat mean desire to proclaim her superiority over those who had attained the highest plane by renouncing all personal pride. They had proclaimed their superiority in their obeisance. It was in giving, not in receiving, praise that we rise above ourselves. This was the lesson that every moment of her convent life impressed upon her. Her thoughts went back to the Reverend Mother, and Evelyn thought of her as of some woman who had come to some terrible crisis in her worldly life—some crisis violent as the crisis that had come in her own life. The Reverend Mother must have perceived, just as she had done, as all must do sooner or later, that life out of the shelter of religion becomes a sort of nightmare, an intolerable torture. Then she wondered if the Reverend Mother were a widow—that appeared to her likely. One who had suffered some great disaster—that too seemed to her likely. She had been an ambitious woman. Was she not so still? Is a passion ever obliterated? Is it not rather transformed? If she had been personally ambitious, she was now ambitious only for her convent: her passion had taken another direction. And applying the same reasoning to herself, she seemed to see a future for herself in which her love passions would become transformed and find their complete expressions in the love of God.
The Reverend Mother again addressed her, and Evelyn considered what age she might be. Between sixty and seventy in point of years, but she seemed so full of intelligence, wisdom and sweetness that she did not suggest age; one did not think of her as an old woman. Her slight figure still retained its grace, and though a small woman, she suggested a tall one; and the moment she spoke there was the voice which drew you like silk and entangled you as in a soft winding web. Evelyn smiled a little as she listened, for she was thinking how the Reverend Mother as a young woman must have swayed men. Presumably at one time it had pleased her to sway men's passion, or at least it pleased Evelyn's imagination to think it had. Not that she thought the Reverend Mother had ever been anything but a good woman, but she had been a woman of the world, and Evelyn attributed no sin to that. Even the world is not wholly bad; the Reverend Mother and Monsignor owed their personal magnetism to the world. Without the world they would have been like Father Daly and Mother Philippa—holy simplicities. She looked at the quiet nun, and her simple good nature touched her. Evelyn went toward her. Sister Mary John broke into the conversation so often that the Reverend Mother had once to check her.
"Sister Mary John, we hope that Miss Innes will sing to-morrow and every day while she is with us. But she must do as she likes, and these musical questions are not what we are talking about now."
But Sister Mary John was hardly at all abashed at this reproof. She was clearly the only one who stood in no awe of the Reverend Mother.
They were sitting on the terrace, and a mauve sunset faded in the grey sky. There was a strange wistfulness in the autumn air and in the dim garden where the gentle nuns were taking their recreation. There was a subtle harmony in the grey habits and floating veils; they blended and mingled with the blue mist that was rising among the trees. And a pale light fell across the faded lawns, and Evelyn looked into the light, and felt the pang that the passing of things brings into the heart. This spectacle of life seemed to her strangely pathetic, and it seemed to mean something which eluded her, and which she would have given a great deal to have been able to express. Music alone could express the yearning that haunted her heart, the plaint of the Rhine Maidens was the nearest to what she felt, and she began to sing their song. Sister Mary John asked her eagerly what she was singing. She would have told her, but the Reverend Mother grew impatient with Sister Mary John.
"You must be introduced to Mother Mary Hilda, our novice mistress, then you will know all the mothers except our dear Mother Christina, who is quite an invalid now, and rarely leaves her cell."
On St. Peter's path a little group of nuns were walking up and down, pressing round a central figure. They were faint grey shadows, and their meaning would not be distinguished in the violet dusk. It was like a half-effaced picture in which the figures are nearly lost in the background; their voices, however, sounded clear, and their laughter was mysterious and far distant, yet distinct in the heart. Evelyn again began to hum the plaint of the Rhine Maidens. But the voices of the novices were more joyous, for they, Evelyn thought, have renounced both love and gold. The Reverend Mother clapped her hands to attract attention, and one of the novices, it was Sister Veronica, ran to them.
"Ask Mother Mary Hilda to come and speak to me, Veronica."
"Yes, Reverend Mother;" and Veronica ran with the message without once looking at Evelyn. Mother Mary Hilda crossed the lawn toward them, and Evelyn noticed her gliding, youthful walk. She was younger than the prioress or even the sub-prioress. And she had that attractive youthfulness of manner which often survives in the cloister after middle age.
"Here is Miss Innes," said the prioress; "I know you wished to make her acquaintance."
Evelyn noticed the bright eyes and the small, clearly cut nose and the pointed chin, but her liveliest sensation was of Mother Hilda's hand; so small was it and soft that it seemed like a little crushed bird in Evelyn's hand, and Evelyn did not think that hers was a large hand.
"I am sure, Miss Innes, you feel that you have been thanked sufficiently for all you have done for us, but you'll forgive us if we feel that we cannot thank you often enough. Your singing at Benediction to-day was a great pleasure to us all. Whose 'Ave Maria' was it, Miss Innes?"
Evelyn told them, and thinking it would interest the nuns, she admitted that her father would not allow it to be sacred music. This led the conversation on to the question of Palestrina, and how the old music had rescued the Jesuits from their pecuniary embarrassments. A casual mention of Wagner showed her that the Reverend Mother was interested, and she said that she might sing them Elizabeth's prayer. Evelyn spoke of the Chorale in the first act of the "Meistersinger," and this led her into quite a little account of the music she sang on the stage. It pleased her to notice the different effect of her account of her art on the four nuns. The conversation, she could see, carried the prioress back into the past, but she put aside these memories of long ago and affected a polite interest in the stage. Mother Philippa listened as she might to a story, too far removed from her for her to be more than vaguely interested; Sister Mary John listened in the hopes that Evelyn would illustrate her experience with some few bars of the music—with her it was the music and nothing else; Mother Mary Hilda listened very prettily, and Evelyn noticed that it was she who asked the most questions. Mother Mary Hilda was the most fearless, and showed the least dread in the conversation. Yet for no single moment did Evelyn think that she was the worldliest of the four nuns. Evelyn thought that probably she was the least. Her trivial utterances were the necessity of the unimportant moment, and she seemed to bring to them the enlightenment of her own vivid faith. The holiness that shone out of her eyes inspired the calm, tender smile, and was in her whole manner. "She speaks," Evelyn thought, "of worldly things without affectation, but how clear it is that they lie outside, far outside, of her real life."
Evelyn was saying that it was a long while since she had sung any sacred music, and, referring to the difference of the rule in France and in England, she mentioned that in Paris the opera singers frequently sang in the churches.
"It must be hard on Catholics with beautiful voices like yours that they may not be allowed to sing in church choirs, for there can be nothing so delightful as to bring a great gift to God's service."
It was the prioress who broke off the conversation, to Evelyn's regret.
"Mother Hilda, I am afraid we are forgetting your young charges."
"Yes, indeed, I must run back to my children. Good-bye, Miss Innes, I am so glad that you have come to us;" and the warm, soft clasp of the little hand was to Evelyn a further assurance of friendly welcome.
She was ashamed not to be able to follow the Office in chapel, so at the Reverend Mother's suggestion she consented to employ part of her long convent leisure in taking lessons in Latin. Mother Mary Hilda was to be her instructress.
The library was a long, rather narrow room, once the drawing-room of the Georgian mansion. Only a carved Adams' chimney-piece, now painted over in imitation of oak remained of its former adornment; the tall windows were eighteenth century, and with that air they looked upon the terrace. The walls had been lined by the nuns with plain wooden shelves, and upon them were what seemed to be a thousand books, every one in a grey linen wrapper, with the title neatly written on a white label pasted on the back. Evelyn's first thought was of the time it must have taken to cover them, but she remembered that in a convent time is of no consequence. If a thing can be done better in three hours than in one, there is no reason why three hours should not be spent upon it. She had noticed, too, that the sisters regarded the library with a little air of demure pride. Mother Mary Hilda had told her that the large tin boxes were filled with the convent archives. There were piles of unbound magazines—the Month and the Dublin Review. There was a ponderous writing-table, with many pigeon-holes; Evelyn concluded it to be the gift of a wealthy convert, and she turned the immense globe which showed the stars and planets, and wondered how the nuns had become possessed of such a thing, and how they could have imagined that it could ever be of any use to them. She grew fond of this room, and divided her time between it and the garden. It had none of the primness of the convent parlour, which gave her a little shiver every time she entered it. In the further window there stood a deep-seated, venerable arm-chair, covered in worn green leather, the one comfortable chair, Evelyn often thought, in the convent. And in this chair she spent many hours, either learning to construe the Office with Mother Mary Hilda, or reading by herself. The investigation of the shelves was an occupation, and the time went quickly, taking down book after book, and she seemed to penetrate further into the spirit of the convent through the medium of the convent books.
The light literature of the convent were improving little tales of conversion, and edifying stories of Catholic girls who decline to enter into mixed marriages, and she thought of the novices reading this artless literature on Sunday afternoons. There were endless volumes of meditations, mostly translations from the French, full of Gallicisms and parenthetical phrases, and Evelyn often began a paragraph a second time; but in spite of her efforts to control her thoughts they wandered, and her eyes, lost in reverie, were fixed on the sunny garden.
She returned the volumes to the shelves, and remembering Mother Mary Hilda's recommendation, she took down a volume of Faber's works. She found his effusive, sentimental style unendurable; and had turned to go to her room for one of the books she had brought with her when her eyes lighted upon Father Dalgairn's Frequent Communion. The father's account of the various customs of the Church regarding the administration of the Sacrament—the early rigorism of the African fathers, and the later rigorism of the Jansenists at once interested her, and, lifting her eyes from the book, she remembered that the Sacrament had always been the central light around which the spiritual belief of the church had revolved. Her instinctive religion had always been the Sacrament. When Huxley and Darwin and Spencer had undermined the foundations of her faith, and the entire fabric of revelation was showering about her, her belief in the Divine Presence had remained, burning like a lamp, inviolate among the debris of a temple. She had never been able to resist the Sacrament. She had put her belief in the mystery of transubstantiation to the test, and when the sanctus bell rang, her head had solemnly bowed; softer than rose leaves or snowflakes, belief had rained down upon her choked heart. She had never been able to reason about the Divine Presence—she felt it. She had believed whether she willed it or not. Owen's arguments had made no difference. Her desire of the Sacrament had more than once altered the course of her life, and that she should have unconsciously wandered back to the Passionist Convent, a convent vowed to Perpetual Adoration, seemed to her to be full of significance.
Father Dalgairn's book had made clear to her that wherever she went and whatever she did she would always believe in the Divine Presence. His book had discovered to her the instinctive nature of her belief in the Sacrament, but it had not widened her spiritual perceptions, still less her artistic: the delicious terror and irresistible curiosity which she experienced on opening St. Teresa's Book of Her Life she had never experienced before. It was like re-birth, being born to a new experience, to a purer sensation of life. It was like throwing open the door of a small, confined garden, and looking upon the wide land of the world. It was like breathing the wide air of eternity after that of a close-scented room. She knew that she was not capable of such pure ecstasy, yet it seemed to her very human to think and feel like this; and the saint's holy rapture seemed as natural—she thought for a moment—even more natural, even more truly human than the rapture which she had found in sinful love.
Before she had read a dozen pages, she seemed to know her like her own soul, though yet unaware whether the saint lived in this century or a dozen centuries ago. For all she said about the material facts of her life St. Teresa might be alive to-day and in England. She lived in aspiration, out of time and place; and like one who, standing upon a hill top, sees a bird soaring, a wild bird with the light of the heavens upon its wings, Evelyn seemed to see this soul waving its wings in its flight towards God. The soul sang love, love, love, and heaven was overflowed with cries for its Divine Master, for its adorable Master, for its Bridegroom-elect.
The extraordinary vehemence and passion, the daring realism of St. Teresa reminded Evelyn of Vittoria. She found the same unrestrained passionate realism in both; she thought of Belasquez's early pictures, and then of Ribera. Then of Ulick, who had told her that the great artist dared everything. St. Teresa had dared everything. She had dared even to discriminate between the love of God the Father and God the Son. It was God the Father that inspired in her the highest ecstasy, the most complete abandonment of self. In these supreme moments the human form of Jesus Christ was a hindrance, as in a lower level of spiritual exaltation it was a help.
"The moment my prayer began to pass from the natural to the supernatural, I strove to obliterate from my soul every physical obstacle. To lift my soul up, to contemplate, I dared not; aware of my imperfection it seemed over bold. Nevertheless I knew the presence of God to be about me, and I tried to gather myself in him. And nothing could then induce me to return to the sacred humanity of the Saviour."
But how touching is the saint's repentance for this infidelity to the Divine Bridegroom.
"O Lord of my soul, of all my goods, Jesus crucified, I shall never remember without pain that I once thought this thing. I shall think of it as a great treason, and I stand convicted before the Good Master; and though it proceeded from my ignorance, I shall never expiate it with tears."
Just as every variation of habit, of fashion is noticeable to those who live outside themselves, so the changes and complexities in the life of the soul are perceived by them who live within themselves. The saint relates how for many months she refrained from prayer, and as we know that prayer was the source of all her joy, a joy touching ecstasy, often above the earth and resplendent with vision, we can imagine the anguish that these abstinences must have caused her.
"To destroy confidence in God the Demon spread a snare, his most insidious snare. He persuaded me that owing to my imperfections I could not, without being wanting in humility, present myself in prayer to God. This caused me such anguish that for a year and a half I refrained. For at least a year, for the six months following I am not sure of my memory. Unfortunate one, what did I do! By my own act I plunged myself in hell without demons being about to drag me there."
This scruple is followed by others. The saint suspects the entire holiness of her joy in prayer, and she asks if these transports, these ravishments, these moments in which she lies exhausted in the arms of the Beloved Bridegroom, were contrived by the Demon or if they were granted to her by God. Her anxiety is great, and men learned in holy doctrine are consulted. They incline to the belief that her visions proceed from God, and encourage her to persevere. Then she cries to her Divine Master, to the Lord of her soul, to her adorable Master, to the adorable Bridegroom.
"Cannot we say of a soul to whom God extends this solicitude and these delicacies of love that the soul has made for our Lord a bed of roses and lilies, and that it is impossible that this adorable Master will not come, though he may delay, and take his delight with her."
This saint, in whom religion was genius, was one of Ulick's most unqualified admirations. He never spoke of her that his voice did not acquire an accent of conviction, or without alluding to the line of an old English poet, who had addressed her:
'Oh, thou undaunted daughter of desires.'
She recalled with a smile his contempt of the Austins and the Eliots, those most materialistic writers, he would say, whose interest in humanity and whose knowledge of it is limited to social habits and customs. But St. Teresa he placed among the highest writers, among the great visionaries. "Her desire sings," he said, "like the sea and the winds, and it breaks like fire about God's feet." He had said that the soul that flashed from her pages was more intense than any soul in Shakespeare or Balzac. "They had created many, she but one incomparable soul—her own, and in surging drift of vehement aspiration, and in recession of temporal things we hear the singing of the stars, the beating of the eternal pulse."
On Friday she had finished the autobiography, and before going into the garden she took down another of the saint's works, The Way of Perfection, intending to look through it in some sunny corner.
She had slipped easily into the early hours of the convent. After breakfast she had the morning to herself, and she divided it between the library and the garden. The leaves were beginning to fall, and in the thinning branches there seemed to be an appearance of spring. From St. Peter's walk she strolled into the orchard, and then into the piece of uncultivated ground at the end of it. Some of the original furze bushes remained, and among these a streamlet trickled through the long grasses, and following it she found that it led her to the fish pond in the shrubbery, at the back of St. Peter's walk. There was there a pleasant, shady place, where she could sit and read. She stood for a moment watching the fish. They were so tame that they would take the bread from the novices' hands. She had brought some bread, but she had to throw it to them. She divided it amongst them, not forgetting to favour the little ones, and she thought it strange that they could distinguish her from the novices. That much they knew of the upper air. The fish watched her out of their beady eyes, stirring in their dim atmosphere with a strange, finny motion.
At that hour of the day the sun was warm enough to sit out; the little shiver in the air was not unpleasant; and sitting on the garden bench, she opened her book in a little tremor of excitement. Her thoughts fluttered, and she strove to imagine what book the saint could have written to justify so beautiful a title. Her expectations were realised. The character of the book is clearly defined in the first pages: she perceived it to be a complete manual of convent life, a perfect compendium of a nun's soul. On its pages lay that shadowy, evanescent and hardly apprehensible thing—the soul of a nun, only the soul, not a word regarding her daily life: any mother-abbess could have written such a materialistic book: St. Teresa, with the instinct of her genius, addressed herself to the task which none but she could fulfil—the evolution of a nun's soul. And as Evelyn read she marked the passages that specially caught her attention.
"Do not imagine, my daughters, that it is useless to pray, as you are constantly praying, for the defenders of the Church: Have a care lest you should share the opinion of certain folk to whom it seems hard that they should not pray much oftener for themselves. Believe me that no prayer is better or more profitable than that of which I am speaking. Perhaps you fear that it will not go to diminish the pains which you will suffer in purgatory: I answer that such prayer is too holy and too pleasing to God to be useless. Even if the time of your expiation should be a little longer—well, let it be so."
"Oh, to be good like that," she thought. And her soul raised its eyes in a little shy emulation.... A few pages further on she read—
"That all may take heed. For neglect of this counsel a nun may find herself in an entanglement from which she may not find strength to free herself. And then, great God! What feebleness, what puerile complaisances this particular friendship may not be the source. It is impossible to say what number, none but an eye-witness may believe. They are but trifles, and I see no reason for specifying them here. I merely add: in whosoever it is found it is an evil, in a superior it is a plague spot....
"An excellent remedy is to be together only at those times enjoined by the rule, on other occasions to refrain from speech, as is now our custom, and to live separately each in her cell as the rule ordains. And, although it be a praiseworthy custom to unite for work in a community room, I desire that the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph shall be freed from this custom, for it is much easier to keep silence if each works in her cell. Moreover, it is of the first importance to accustom oneself to solitude, in order to advance oneself in prayer; and as prayer should be the mortar of this monastery, we should cherish all that which increases the spirit in us."
Glancing down the pages, her eyes were arrested by a passage of even more subtle, more penetrating wisdom.
"Would you know a certain sign, my daughters, by which you may judge of your progress in virtue? Let each one look within herself and discover if she believes herself to be the unworthiest of you all, and if for the benefit of the others she makes it visible by her actions that she really thinks that this is so, that is the certain sign of spiritual advancement, and not delight in prayer, nor ravishment, nor visions, and such like favours which God grants to souls when he is so pleased. We shall only know the value of such favours in the next world. It is not so with humility—humility is a money which is always current, it is safely invested capital, a perpetual income; but extraordinary favours are money which is lent for a time and may at any moment be called in. I repeat, our true treasure is profound humility, great mortification, and an obedience which, seeing God in the superior, submits to his every order."
The saint's delicate yet virile perception, and her power of expressing the shadowy and evanescent, filled Evelyn with admiration; and the saint appeared to her in the light of a great novelist; she wondered if Balzac had ever read these pages.
"The best remedy, in my opinion, that a nun can employ to conquer the imperfect affection which she still bears her parents, is to abstain from seeing them until by patient prayer she has obtained from God the freedom of her soul; when she is so disposed that their visit is a cross, let her see them by all means. For then she will bring good to their souls, and do no harm to her own."
This seemed not a little grim. But how touching is the personal confession which appears on the following page.
"My parents loved me extremely, according to what they said, and I loved them in a way that did not allow them to forget me. Nevertheless I have seen from what has happened to me, and what has happened to other nuns, how little we may count upon their affection for us."
The unselfishness of such conduct seemed open to doubt. But unselfishness is a word that none may speak without calling into question the entire conduct of his or her life. Evelyn remembered that she had left her father for the sake of her voice, and that she had refused to marry Owen because marriage, especially marriage with Owen, did not seem compatible with her soul's safety. Looked at from a certain side, her life did seem self-centred, but allowance, she thought, must be made for the difficulties—the entanglements in which the first false step had involved her. But in any case she must not question the efficacy of prayer, that was a dogma of the Church. The mission of the contemplative orders is to pray for those who do not pray for themselves, and if we believe in the efficacy of prayer, we need not scruple to leave our parents to live in a monastery where, by our prayers, we held them to eternal salvation. We leave them for a little while, but only that we may live with them for ever.
"Believe me, my dear sisters, if you serve him well you will not find better parents than those the Divine Master sends you. I know that it is even so."
"What beauty there is in her sternness," Evelyn thought.
"I repeat that those whose trend is toward worldly things and who do not make progress in virtue, shall leave this monastery; should she persist in remaining a nun let her enter another convent; for if she doesn't she will see what will happen to her. Nor must she complain about me; nor accuse me of not having make known to her the practical life of the monastery I founded. If there is an earthly paradise it is in this house, but only for souls who desire nothing but to please God, who have no thought for themselves; for these the life here is infinitely agreeable."
This passage is one of the very few in which appears the wise, practical woman, the founder of an order and of many monasteries, who lived side by side in the same body, the constant associate of the lyrical saint. Evelyn tried to picture her to herself, and two pictures alternated in her thoughts. She saw deep, eager, passionate eyes, and a frail, exhausted body borne along easily by the soul, and doing the work of the unconquerable soul. In the second picture, there were the same consuming eyes, the same wasted body, but the expression was quite different. The saint's manner was the liveliest, happiest manner, and Evelyn thought of the privilege of such companionship, and she envied those who had walked with her, hearing her speak.
The little pond at her feet was full of fair reflections of the sky and trees, and the idea of convent life lay on the pages of the book even as fair. In itself it was disparate and vague, but on the pages of the book it floated clear and distinct. She asked if any of the Wimbledon nuns lived a life of that intense inward rapture which St. Teresa deemed essential if a sister were to be allowed to remain in the convent of St. Joseph at Avila, and the coincidence of the names gave her pause. This convent's patron saint was St. Joseph, and she sought for some resemblance between the Reverend Mother and St. Teresa. She wondered if she, Evelyn, were a nun, towards which of the nuns would her personal sympathies incline: would she love better Sister Veronica or Sister Mary John? It might be Mother Mary Hilda. It would be one of the three. There was not one among the others likely to interest her in the least. She tried to imagine this friendship: it assumed a vague shape and then dissolved in the distance. But would the Reverend Mother tolerate this friendship, or would it be promptly cut down to the root according to the advice of St. Teresa?
Her thoughts pursued their way, now and then splashing as they leaped out of the soul's dimness. Only the splashing of the fish broke the stillness of the garden, and startled at a sudden gurgling sound, she rose, in time to see a shadowy shape sinking with a motion of fins amid the weeds. That she should be living in a convent, that she should have repented of her sins, that the fish should leap and fall back with strange, gurgling sound, filled her with wonderment. The vague autumn blue expressed some vague yearning, some indistinct aspiration; the air was like crystal, the leaves were falling.... We have perceptions of the outer forms of things, but that is all we know of them. The only thing we are sure of is what is in ourselves. We know the difference between right and wrong. She stood for a long time at the edge of the fish pond, gazing into the vague depths. Then she walked, exalted, overcome by the mystery of things. She seemed to walk upon air, the world was a-thrill with spiritual significances, all was symbol and exaltation. Her past life shrank to a tiny speck, and she knew that she had been happy only since she had been in the convent. Ah, that little chapel, haunted by prayers! it breathed prayer, in that chapel contemplation was never far off. She had prayed there as she had never prayed before, and she wondered if she should attribute the difference in her prayers to the chapel or to herself. She had always felt, in a dumb, instinctive way, that to her at least everything depended on her chastity.... She had been chaste now a long while. The explanation seemed to have come to her. Yes, it is by denial of the sexual instinct that we become religious.
As she passed through the orchard she caught sight of the strange little person whom she had seen in chapel with a pile of prayer books beside her, and who always wore something startlingly blue, whether skirt, handkerchief or cloak. She had met her in the garden before, but she had hurried away, her eyes fixed on the ground. Mother Philippa had spoken of a Miss Dingle, a simple-minded person who had been sent by her family to the convent to be looked after by the nuns, and Evelyn concluded that it must be she. But at that moment other thoughts engaged her attention; and she lingered in the orchard, returning slowly by St. Peter's walk. As she passed the Georgian temple or summer-house, she was taken by a desire to examine it, and there she found Miss Dingle. She was seated on the floor, engaged, so Evelyn thought, in a surreptitious game of Patience. That was only how she could account for Miss Dingle's consternation and fear at seeing her. But what she had taken for cards were pious pictures. Evelyn stood in the doorway, and for the first time had an opportunity of seeing what Miss Dingle was really like. It was difficult to say whether her face was ugly or pretty; the features were not amiss—it was the expression, vague and dim like that of an animal, that puzzled Evelyn.
"Please let me help you to pick up your pictures." Miss Dingle did not answer, and Evelyn feared for a moment that she had offended her. "Won't you let me help you to pick up your pictures?"
"Yes," she said, "you may help me to pick them up, but you must be very quick."
"But why must I be quick? Are you in such a very great hurry?"
Miss Dingle seemed uncertain of her own thoughts, and to reassure her, Evelyn asked her if she would not like to walk with her in the orchard.
"Oh," she said, looking at Evelyn shyly—it was a sort of child-like curiosity, "I dare not go into the orchard to-day.... I brought these pictures to keep him from me. I know that he is about."
"Who is about?"
"I'm afraid he might hurt me."
"But who would hurt you?"
"Well," she said cautiously, "perhaps he'd be afraid to come near me to-day," and she glanced at her frock. "But I'm sure he's about. Did you see any one as you came through the furze bushes?"
"No," Evelyn answered; and trying to conceal her astonishment, she said, "I'm sure there's no one there."
"Ah, he knows it would be useless." She glanced again at her frock. "You see my blue skirt, that has perhaps frightened him away."
"But who has gone away?"
"Oh, the devil is always about."
"But you don't think he would hurt you?"
Miss Dingle looked suspiciously at Evelyn, and some dim thought whether Evelyn was the devil in disguise must have crossed her mind. But whatever the thought was, it was but a flitting thought; it passed in a moment, and Miss Dingle said—"But the devil is always trying to hurt us. That is what he comes for."
"So that is why you surrounded yourself with pious pictures—to keep him away?"
Miss Dingle nodded.
"What a nice dress you have on. I suppose you like blue. I always notice you wear it."
"I wear blue, as much blue as I can, for blue is the colour of the Virgin Mary, and he dare not attack me while I have it on. But I wear sometimes only a handkerchief, sometimes only a skirt, but now that he is about so frequently, I have to dress entirely in blue."
Evelyn asked her if she had lived in the convent long, and Miss Dingle told her she had lived there for the last three or four years, but she would give no precise answer when Evelyn asked if she hoped to become a nun, or whether she liked her home or the convent the better.
"Now," she said, "I must really go and say some prayers in the church."
Evelyn offered to accompany her, but she said she was well armed, and showed Evelyn several rosaries, which in case of need she would wave in his face.
Sister Mary John was digging in the kitchen garden, and Evelyn told her how she had come upon Miss Dingle in the summer-house surrounded by pious pictures. Leaning on her spade, Sister Mary John looked across the beds thinking, and Evelyn wondered of what. She said at last that Miss Dingle thought too much of the devil.
"We should not waste thoughts on him, all our thoughts should be for God; there is much more pleasure and profit in such thoughts."
"But it does seem a little absurd to imagine that the devil is hiding behind gooseberry bushes."
"The devil is everywhere, temptation is always near."
Evelyn saw that the nun did not care for discussion on the subject of the devil's objectivity, and in the pause in the conversation she noticed Sister Mary John's enormous boots. They looked like a man's boots, and she had a full view of them, for Sister Mary John wore her skirt very short, so that she might be able to dig with greater ease.
"One of the disadvantages of convent life are the few facilities it affords for exercise and for music," she added, with her beautiful smile. "I must have exercise, I can't live without it.... It is extraordinary how differently people are constituted. There is Mother Mary Hilda, she had never been for what I should call a good sharp walk in her life, and she does not know what an ache or a pain is."
The nun pointed with admiration to the bed which she had dug up that morning, and complained of the laziness of the gardener: he had not done this nor that, but he was such a good man—since he became a Catholic.
"He and I used to talk about things while we were at work: he said that he had never had it properly explained to him that there should only be one true religion.
"Since he became a Catholic, has he not done as much work as he used to do?"
"No, I'm afraid he has not," Sister Mary John answered. "Indeed, we have been thinking of sending him away, but it would be difficult for him to get another Catholic situation, and his faith would be endangered if he lived among Protestants."
At this moment they were interrupted by a loud caw, and looking round, Evelyn saw the convent jackdaw. The bird had hopped within a few yards, cawing all the while, evidently desirous of attracting their attention. With grey head a-slanted, the bird watched them out of sly eyes. "Pay no attention to him; you'll see what he'll do," said Sister Mary John, and while Evelyn waited, a little afraid of the bird who seemingly had selected her for some purpose of his own, she listened to the story of his domestication. He had been hatched out in the hen-house, and had tamed himself; he had declined to go wild, preferring a sage convent life to the irregularity of the world. The bird hopped about, feigning an interest in the worms, but getting gradually nearer the two women. At last, with a triumphant caw caw, he flew on to Sister Mary John's shoulder, eyeing Evelyn all the while, clearly bent on making her acquaintance.
"He'll come on your shoulder presently," said Sister Mary John, and after some plausive coquetting the bird fluttered on to Evelyn's shoulder, and Sister Mary John said—
"You wait; you'll see what he will do."
Evelyn remained quite still, feeling the bird's bill caressing her neck. When she looked round she noticed a wicked expression gathering in his eyes.
"Pretend," said Sister Mary John, "not to see him."
Evelyn did as she was bidden, and, satisfied that he was no longer observed, the bird plunged his beak into Evelyn's hair, pulled at it as hard as he could, and then flew away, cawing with delight.
"That is one of his favourite tricks. We are so fond of him, and so afraid that one day a cat will take him. But there is Mother Mary Hilda coming to fetch you for your lesson."
Evelyn bade Sister Mary John good-bye, and went forward to meet her instructress.
The morning seemed full of adventure. There were Miss Dingle, her pious pictures, and the devil behind the gooseberry bushes. There was the picturesque figure of Sister Mary John, digging, making ready for the winter cabbages. There was the jackdaw, his story and his humours, and there was her discovery of the genius of St. Teresa. All these things had happened that morning, and Evelyn walked a little elated, her heart full of spiritual enthusiasm. The project was already astir in her for the acquisition of an edition in the original Spanish, and she looked forward to a study of that language as a pleasant and suitable occupation when she returned to London. She questioned Mother Mary Hilda regarding the merits of the English translation; the French, she said, she could read no longer. She described the worthy father's prose as asthmatic; she laughed at his long, wheezy sentences, but Sister Mary Hilda seemed inclined to set store on the Jesuit's pious intentions. The spirit was more essential than the form, and it was with this argument on their lips they sat down to the Latin lesson. The nun had opened the book, and Evelyn was about to read the first sentence, when, raising her eyes and voice, she said—
"Oh! Mother Mary Hilda, you've forgotten ... this is my last lesson, I am going away to-morrow."
"Even so it need not be the last lesson; you will come and see us during the winter, if you are in London. I don't remember that you said that you are going abroad to sing."
"Mother Mary Hilda, I'm thinking of leaving the stage."
The nun turned the leaves of the breviary, and it seemed to Evelyn that she dreaded the intrusion on her thoughts of a side of life the very existence of which she had almost succeeded in forgetting; and, feeling a little humbled, Evelyn applied herself to the lesson. And it was just as Mary Hilda's hand closed the books that the door opened and the Reverend Mother entered, bringing, it seemed, a new idea and a new conception of life into the room. Mother Mary Hilda gathered up her books, and having answered the Reverend Mother's questions in her own blithe voice, each word illuminated by the happy smile which Evelyn thought so beautiful, withdrew like an apparition.
The Reverend Mother took the place that Mother Mary Hilda had left, and by her very manner of sitting down, showed that she had come on some special intention.
"Miss Innes, I have come to ask you not to leave to-morrow. If you are not already tired of our life, it would give us great pleasure if you would stay with us till Monday."
"It is very good of you to ask me to stay, I have been very happy; indeed, I dread returning; it is difficult to return to the life of the world after having seen what your life is here."
"We should only be too happy if you will prolong your stay. You are free to remain as long as you please."
"Thank you, Reverend Mother, it is very good of you, but I cannot live here in idleness, walking about the garden. What should I do if it were to rain?"
"It looks like rain to-day. We have had a long term of fine weather."
The nun's old white hand lay on the table, a little crippled, but still a nervous, determined hand, and the pale, sparkling eyes looked so deep into the enigma of Evelyn's soul that she lost her presence of mind; her breath came more quickly, and she hastily remembered that this retreat now drawing to a close had solved nothing, that the real solution of her life was as far off as ever.
"Then I may take it that you will stay with us till Monday. I will not weary you with our repeated thanks for what you have done for us. You know that we are very grateful, and shall never forget you in our prayers, but you will not mind my thanking you again for the pleasure your singing has given us. You have sung every day. You really have been very kind."
"I beg of you not to mention it, Reverend Mother; to sing for you and all the dear sisters was a great pleasure to me. I never enjoyed singing in a theatre so much."
"I am glad you have enjoyed your stay, Miss Innes. Your room will always be ready. I hope you will often come to see us."
"It will be a great advantage for me to come and stay with you from time to time." Neither spoke for a time, then Evelyn said, "Reverend Mother, is it not strange that I should have come back to this convent, my old convent? I never forgot it. I often wondered if I should come here again. When I was here before, it was just as now; it was in a great crisis of my life. It was just before I left home, just before I went to Paris to learn singing. I don't know if Monsignor has told you that I have decided to leave the stage."
"Monsignor has entrusted you to me, and I should like to count you as one of my children. All the nuns tell me their little troubles. Though I have guessed there must be some great trouble in your life, I should like you to feel that you can tell me everything, if to do so can be the least help to you."
Evelyn's eyes brightened, and, trembling with emotion, she leaned across the table; the Reverend Mother took her hand, and the touch of that old benign hand was a delight, and she felt that she must confide her story.
"I have been several times on the point of speaking to you on the subject of my past, for if I am to come here again I feel that you should know something about me. But how to tell it. I had thought of asking Father Daly to tell you. To-day is your day for confession, but last week I confessed to Monsignor, and do not like to submit myself to another director. Do you understand?"
"Father Daly is an excellent, worthy man, the convent is under the greatest obligations to him, but I could not recommend him as a very enlightened director of souls. That is why the nuns tell me all their troubles. I should like you to feel that you can tell me everything."
"Reverend Mother, if you did not pass from the schoolroom to the convent like Veronica, you will have heard, you must know, that the life of an opera singer is generally a sinful life. I was very young at the time, only one-and-twenty. I knew that I had a beautiful voice, and that my father could not teach me to sing. But it was not for self-interest that I left him; I was genuinely in love with Sir Owen Asher. He was very good to me; he wanted to marry me; from the world's point of view I was very successful, but I was never happy. I felt that I was living a sinful life, and we cannot go on doing what we feel to be wrong and still be happy. Night after night I could not sleep. My conscience kept me awake. I strove against the inevitable, for it is very difficult to change one's life from end to end, but there was no help for it."
Her story, as she told it, seemed to her very wonderful, more wonderful than she had thought it was, and she would have liked to have told the Reverend Mother all the torment and anguish of mind she had gone through. But she felt that she was on very thin ice, and trembled inwardly lest she was shocking the nun.
It was exciting to tell that it was her visit to the convent that had brought about her repentance; how that very night her eyes had opened at dawn, and she had seen clearly the wickedness of her life, and she could not refrain from saying that it was Owen Asher's last letter, in which he said that at all hazards he would save her from losing herself in religion, that had sent her to Monsignor for advice. She noticed her omission of all mention of Ulick, and it seemed to her strange that she could still be interested in her sins, and at the same time genuinely determined to reform her life. The nun sat looking at her, thinking what answer she should make, and Evelyn wondered what that answer would be.
"We shall pray for you.... You will not fall into sin again; it is our prayers that enable men to overcome their passions. Were it not for our prayers, God would have long ago destroyed the world. Think of the times of persecution and sacrilege, when prayer only survived in the monasteries."
Evelyn could not but acquiesce: a world without prayer would be an intolerable world, as unendurable to man as to God. But if the Reverend Mother's explanation were a true one! If these poor forsakers of the world were in truth the saviours of the world, without whose aid the world would have perished long since!
When she had gone, Evelyn sat thinking, her head leaned on her hand, her eyes fixed on the distant garden, seeing life from afar, strange and distant, like reflections in still waters. She could see distant figures in St. Peter's walk, tending the crosses and the statues of the Virgin placed in nooks, or hanging on the branches. Some four or five nuns were playing at ball on the terrace, and in the plaintive autumn afternoon, there was something extraordinarily touching in their simple amusement; and she had, perforce, to feel how much wiser was their childishness than the vanity of the world.
Ulick had said that their adventure was the same, only their ways were different. He had said that he sought God in art, while she sought him in dogma. But if she accepted dogma, it was only as a cripple accepts a crutch, Catholicism was essential to her, without it she could not walk; but while conforming to dogma, it seemed possible to transcend its narrowness, and to attach to every petty belief a spiritual significance. It is right that we should acquiesce in these beliefs, for they are the symbols by which the faith was kept alive and handed down. God leads us by different ways, and though we may prefer to worship God in the open air, we should not despise him who builds a house for worship. The Real Being is all that we are sure of, for He is in our hearts, the rest is as little shadows. Ulick had quoted an Eastern mystic—'He that sees himself sees God, and in him there is neither I nor thou.'
And, reflecting on the significance of these words, she turned with pensive fingers the leaves of The Way of Perfection.
But she was going back to London on Monday! In London she would meet Owen and all her former life. She knew in a way how she was going to escape him. But her former life was everywhere. She got up and walked about the room, then she stood at the window, her hands held behind her back. She was sorely tried, and felt so weak in spirit that she was tempted, or fancied that she was tempted, to go away with Owen in the Medusa. Or she might tell him that she would marry him, and so end the whole matter. But she knew that she would do neither of these things. She knew that she would sacrifice Owen and her career as an opera singer so that she might lead a chaste life. Yet a life of prayer and chastity was not natural to her; her natural preferences were for lovers and worldly pleasures, but she was sacrificing all that she liked for all that she disliked. She wondered, quite unable to account for her choice to herself. Her life seemed very mad, but, mad or sane, she was going to sacrifice Owen and her career. She might sing at concerts, but she did not think such singing would mean much to her and she thought of the splendid successful life that lay before her if she remained on the stage. Again she wondered at her choice, seeking in herself the reason that impelled her to do what she was doing. She could not say that she liked living with her father in Dulwich, nor did she look forward to giving singing lessons, and yet that was what she was going to do. She strove to distinguish her soul; it seemed flying before her like a bird, making straight for some goal which she could not distinguish. She could distinguish its wings in the blue air, and then she lost sight of them; then she caught sight of them again, and they were then no more than a tremulous sparkle in the air. Suddenly the vision vanished, and she found herself face to face with herself—her prosaic self which she had known always, and would know until she ceased to know everything. She was here in the Wimbledon Convent, and Owen was in London waiting for her. She knew she never would live with him again. But how would she finally separate herself from him? How would it all come about? She could imagine herself yielding, but if she did, it would not last a week. Her life would be unendurable, and she would have to send him away. For it is not true that Tannhaeuser goes back to Venus. He who repents, he who had once felt the ache and remorse of sin, may fall into sin again, but he quickly extricates himself; his sinning is of no long duration! It was the casual sin that she dreaded; at the bottom of her heart she knew that she would never live a life of sin again. But she trembled at the thought of losing the perfect peace and happiness which now reigned in her heart, even for a few hours. Her face contracted in an expression of terror at the thought of finding herself again involved in the anguish, revolt and despair which she had endured in Park Lane. She recalled the moments when she saw herself vile and loathsome, when she had turned from the image of her soul which had been shown to her. Then, to rid herself of the remembrance, she thought of the joy she had experienced that morning at hearing in the creed that God's kingdom shall never pass away. Her soul had kindled like a flame, and she had praised God, crying to herself, "Thy kingdom shall last for ever and ever." It had seemed to her that her soul had acquired kingship over all her faculties, over all her senses, for the time being it had ruled her utterly; and so delicious was its subjection that she had not dared to move lest she should lose this sweet peace. Her lips had murmured an Our Father, but so slowly that the Sanctus bell had rung before she had finished it. Nothing troubled her, nothing seemed capable of troubling her, and the torrent of delight which had flowed into and gently overflowed her soul had intoxicated and absorbed her until it had seemed to her that there was nothing further for her to desire.
She remembered that when Mass was over she had risen from her knees elated, feeling that she had prayed even as the nuns prayed, and she had retired to her room, striving to restrain her looks and thoughts so that she might prolong this union with God.
To remember this experience gave her courage. For she could not doubt that the intention of so special a favour was to convince her that she would not be lacking in courage when the time came to deny herself to Owen Asher. At the same time she was troubled, and she feared that she was not quite sincere with herself. She would easily resist him now; but in six months' time, in a year? Besides, she would meet other men; her thoughts even now went out towards one. Ah! wretched weakness, abominable sin! She was filled with contempt for herself, and yet at the bottom of her heart, like hope at the bottom of Pandora's box, there was tolerance. Her sins interested her; she would not be herself without them, and this being so, how could she hope to conquer herself?
Saturday and Sunday were monotonous and anxious days. She had begun to wonder what was in the newspapers, and she had written to say that her carriage was to come to fetch her on Monday at three o'clock.
There had not been a gleam of light since early morning, only a gentle diffused twilight, and the foliage in the garden was almost human in its listlessness; a flat grey sky hung about the trees like a shroud. Mother Philippa and Mother Mary Hilda were walking with her about the grass-grown drive. They were waiting for the Reverend Mother, who had gone to fetch a medal for Evelyn. She heard her chestnuts champing their bits ready to take her back to London, and she could not listen to Mother Philippa's conversation, for she had been suddenly taken with a desire to say one last prayer in the chapel. She must say one more prayer in the presence of the Sacrament. So, excusing herself, she ran back, and, kneeling down, she buried her face in her hands. At once all her thoughts hushed within her; it was like bees entering a hive to make honey. Prayer came to her without difficulty, without even asking, and she enjoyed almost five minutes' breathless adoration.
The three nuns kissed her, and as the Reverend Mother hung the medal round her neck, she told her that prayers would be constantly offered up for her preservation. The chestnuts plunged at starting.... If she were killed now it would not matter. But the horses soon settled down into their long swinging trot of ten miles an hour, and all the way to London she reflected. The Reverend Mother had said that the prayers of nuns and monks were the wall and bastion tower which saved a sinful world from the wrath of God, and she thought of the fume of prayer ascending night and day from this convent as from a censer. Men had always prayed, since the beginning of things men had prayed, and as Ulick had said, wisdom was not invented yesterday. He agreed with the naturalistic philosophers that force is indestructible, only objecting that the naturalistic philosophers did not go far enough, the theory of the indestructibility of force being equally applicable to the spiritual world. The world exists not in itself, but in man's thought.... Often an intense evocation has brought the absent one before the seer's eyes, and that there are sympathies which transcend and overrule the laws of time and space hardly admits of doubt. Life is but a continual hypnotism; and the thoughts of others reach us from every side, determining in some measure our actions. It was therefore certain that she would be influenced by the prayers that would be offered up for her by the convent. She imagined these prayers intervening between her and sin, coming to her aid in some moment of perilous temptation, and perhaps in the end determining the course of her life.
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