"We were all virtuous in the fifties, now licence has reached its prime, and we shall fall back soon into decadence."
Harding, who was something of an historian, was able to illustrate this prophecy by reference to antiquity. When the life of the senses and understanding reached its height, as it did in the last stages of the Roman Empire, a reaction came. St. Francis of Assisi was succeeded by Alexander VI.; Luther soon followed after. "And in twenty years hence we shall all become moral again. Good heavens! the first sign of it has appeared—Evelyn."
Piccadilly flowed past, the stream of the season, men typical of England in their age as in their youth, typical of their castles, their swards, and lofty woods, of their sports and traditions, hunting, shooting, racing, polo playing; the women, too, typical of English houses and English parks, but not so typical; only recognisable by a certain reflected light; an Englishman makes woman according to his own image and likeness, taking clay often from America. The narrow pavements of Bond Street were thronged, women getting out of their carriages, intent on their shopping, bowing to the men as they ran into the shops, making amends for the sombre black of the men's coats by a delirium of feathers, skirts, and pink ankles. And nodding to their friends, bowing to the ladies in the carriages, Harding and Owen edged their way through the crowd.
"The street at this hour is like a ballroom, isn't it?" Owen said. "I want to get some cigars." And they turned into a celebrated store, where half a dozen assistants were busily engaged in tying up parcels of five hundred or a thousand cigars, or displaying neatly-made paper boxes containing a hundred cigarettes.
"When will men give up smoking pipes, I should like to know?"
"I thought you were a pipe smoker?"
"So I was, but I can t bear the smell any longer."
"Yet you smoke cigars?"
"Cigars are different."
"How was it the change came?"
"I don't know." Owen ordered a thousand cigars to be sent to Berkeley Square.
It was late for tea, and still too early for dinner.
"I am sorry to ask you to dine at such an early hour, but I daresay we shan't have dinner till half-past seven."
But Harding remembered his tailor: some trousers. And he led Owen towards Hanover Square, wondering if Owen would approve of his choice?
"It was like you to choose that grey."
Now what was there to find fault with in the grey he had chosen? They turned over the tailor's pattern sheet. Daring, in the art of dressing, is the prescriptive right of the professional just as it is in writing. Owen was a professional dresser, whereas he, Harding, was but an amateur; and that was why he had chosen a timid, insignificant grey. At once Owen discovered a much more effective cloth; and he chose a coat for Harding, who wanted one—the same rough material which Harding had often admired on Owen's shoulders. But would such a dashing coat suit him as well as it did its originator, and dare he wear the fancy waistcoats Owen was pressing upon him?
"They suit you, Asher, but you still go in at the waist, and brown trousers look well on legs as straight as billiard cues."
"Is there nothing we can do for you, Sir Owen?"
Owen spoke about sending back a coat which he was not altogether satisfied with.
"Every suit of clothes I have, Harding, costs me fifty pounds."
Harding raised his thick eyebrows, and Owen explained that only one suit in six was worth wearing.
"There is more truth in what you say than appears. I once wore a suit of clothes for six years! And they were as good as new when—"
But Owen refused to be interested in Harding's old clothes. "If I'm not married to-morrow I shall never marry. You don't believe me, Harding? Now, of what are you thinking? Of that suit of clothes which you have had for six years or of my marriage—which?"
At the moment that Owen interrupted him Harding was thinking that perhaps a woman who had attempted suicide to escape from another man would not drift as easily into marriage as Owen thought; but, of course, he did not dare to confess such an opinion.
"You don't mind dining at half-past seven?"
"Not in the least, my good friend, not in the least." Going towards Berkeley Square they continued to speak about Evelyn.... She would have to refuse Owen to-night or accept him: so he would know his fate to-night.
"Just fancy," he said, "to-morrow I am either going to be married or—" And he stared into the depths of a picture about which he thought he would like to have Harding's opinion, but it did not matter what anybody thought of pictures until he knew what Evelyn was going to do. None had any interest for him; but they could not talk of Evelyn during dinner, the room being full of servants, and he was forced to listen to Harding, who was rather tiresome on the subject of how a collection of pictures had better be formed, and the proposal to go to France to seek for an Ingres did not appeal to him.
"I hope you don't mind my smoking a pipe," Harding said as they rose from table.
"No," he said, "smoke what you like, I don't care; smoke in my study, only raise the window. But you'll excuse me, Harding. My appointment is for eight."
As he was about to leave the room a footman came in, saying that Miss Innes' maid would like to see him, and, guessing that something had happened, Owen said:
"It is to tell me I'm not to go to see her; something disagreeable always—" And he left the room abruptly.
"I have shown the maid into the morning-room, Sir Owen."
"Now, what is the matter, Merat?"
"Perhaps you had better read the letter first, Sir Owen, and then we can talk."
"I can't read without my glasses; do you read it, Merat." Without waiting for her to answer he returned to the dining-room. "I have forgotten my glasses, Harding, that is all; you will wait for me." His hand trembled as he tried to fix the glasses on his nose.
"MY DEAR OWEN,—I am afraid you will be disappointed, and I am disappointed too, for I should like to see you; but I think it would be better, and Monsignor, who was here to-day, thinks it would be better, that we should not see each other... for the present. I have recovered a good deal, but am still far from well; my nerves are shattered. You know I have been through a great deal; and though I am sure you would have refrained from all allusions to unpleasant topics, still your presence would remind me too much of what I don't want to think about. It is impossible for me to explain better. This letter will seem unkind to you, who do not like unkind letters; but you will try to understand, and to see things from my point of view, and not to rave when I tell you that I am going to a convent—not to be a nun; that, of course, is out of the question; but for rest, and only among those good women can I find the necessary rest.
"My first thought was to go to Dulwich to my father, but—well, here is a piece of news that will interest you—he has been appointed capelmeister to the Papal choir, the ambition of his life is fulfilled, and he started at once for Rome. It is possible that three or four months hence, when he is settled, he will write to ask me to go out to join him there, and Monsignor would like me to do this, for, of course, my duty is by my father, who is no longer as young as he used to be. I don't like to leave him, but the matter has been carefully considered; he has been here with Monsignor, and the conclusion arrived at is, that it is better for me to go to the convent for a long rest. Afterwards ... one never knows; there is no use making plans. "EVELYN."
"No use making plans; I should think not, indeed," Owen cried. "Never will she come out of that convent, Merat, never! They have got her, they have got her! You remember the first day we met, you and I, in the Rue Balzac, and you have been with her ever since; you were with us in Brussels when she sang 'Elizabeth,' and in Germany—do you remember the night she sang 'Isolde'? So it has come to this, so it has come to this; and in spite of all we could do. Do you remember Italy, Merat? Good God! Good God!" And he fell into a chair and did not speak again for some time. "It would have been better if Ulick Dean had persuaded her to go away with him. It was I who told him to go to see her and kept him in my house because I knew that this damned priest would get her in the end."
"But, Sir Owen, for mademoiselle to be a nun is out of the question... if you knew what convents were."
"Oh, Merat, don't talk to me, don't talk to me; they have got her!"
Then a sudden idea seized him.
"Come into the dining-room," he said. "You know Mr. Harding? He is there." He passed out of the room, leaving the door open for Merat to follow through. "Harding, read this letter." He stood watching Harding while he read; but before Harding was half-way down the page he said: "You see, she is going into a convent. They have got her, they have got her! But they shan't get her as long as I have a shoulder with which to force in a door. The doors of those mansions where she has gone to live are not very strong, are they, Merat? She shall see me; she shall not go to that convent. That blasted priest shall not get her. Those ghouls of nuns!" And he was about to break from the room when Merat threw herself in front of him.
"Remember, Sir Owen, she has been very ill; remember what has happened, and if you prevent her from going to the convent—"
"So, Merat, you're against me too? You want to drive her into a convent, do you?"
"Sir Owen, you hardly know what you are saying. I am thinking of what might happen if you went to Ayrdale Mansions and forced in the door. Sir Owen, I beg of you."
"Then if you oppose me you are responsible. They will get her, I tell you; those blasted ghouls, haunters of graveyards, diggers of graves, faint creatures who steal out of the light, mumblers of prayers! You know, Harding, what I say is true. God!" He raised his fist in the air and fell back into an armchair, screaming oaths and blasphemies without sense. It was on Harding's lips to say, "Asher, you are making a show of yourself." "Vous vous donnez en spectacle" were the words that crossed Merat's mind. But there was something noble in this crisis, and Harding admired Owen—here was one who was not afraid to shriek out and to rage. And what nobler cause for a man's rage?
"The woman he loves is about to be taken out of the sunlight into the grey shadow of the cloister. Why shouldn't he rage?"
"To sing of death, not of life, and where the intelligence wilts and bleaches!" he shrieked. "What an awful end! don't you understand? Devils! devils!" and he slipped from his chair suddenly on to the hearthrug, and lay there tearing at it with his fingers. The elegant fribble of St. James' Street had passed back to the primeval savage robbed of his mate.
"You give way to your feelings, Asher."
At these words Asher sprang to his feet, yelling:
"Why shouldn't I give way to my feelings? You haven't lost the most precious thing on God's earth. You never cared for a woman as I do; perhaps you never cared for one at all. You don't look as if you did." Owen's face wrinkled; he jibbered at one moment like a demented baboon, at the next he was transfigured, and looked like some Titan as he strode about the room, swearing that they should not get her.
"But it all depends upon herself, Owen; you can do nothing," Harding said, fearing a tragedy. But Owen did not seem to hear him, he could only hear his own anger thundering in his heart. At last the storm seemed to abate a little, and he said that he knew Harding would forgive him for having spoken discourteously; he was afraid he had done so just now.
"But, you know, Harding, I have suspected this abomination; the taint was in her blood. You know those Papists, Harding, how they cringe, how shamefaced they are, how low in intelligence. I have heard you say yourself they have not written a book for the last four hundred years. Now, why do you defend them?"
"Defend them, Asher? I am not defending them."
"Paralysed brains, arrested intelligences." He stopped, choked, unable to articulate for his haste. "That brute, Monsignor Mostyn— at all events I can see him, and kick the vile brute." And taken in another gust of passion, Owen went towards the door. "Yes, I can have it out with him."
"But, Asher, he is an old man; to lay hands upon him would be ruin."
"What do I care about ruin? I am ruined. They have got her, and her mind will be poisoned. She will get the abominable ascetic mind. The pleasure of the flesh transferred! What is legitimate and beautiful in the body put into the mind, the mind sullied by passions that do not belong to the mind. That is what papistry is! They will poison that pure, beautiful woman's mind. That priest has put them up to it, and he shall pay for it if I can get at him to-night!" Owen broke away suddenly, leaving Harding and Merat in the dining-room, Harding regretting that he had accepted Owen's invitation to dinner... If Asher and Monsignor were to meet that night? Good Lord! ... Owen would strike him for sure, and a blow would kill the old man.
"Merat, this is very unfortunate.... Not to be able to control one's temper. You have known him a long time.... I hope nothing will happen. Perhaps you had better wait."
"No, Mr. Harding, I can't wait; I must go back to mademoiselle." And the two went out together, Harding turning to the right, jumping into a cab as soon as he could hail one, and Merat getting into another in order to be in time to save her mistress from her madman lover.
Three hours after Harding and Merat had left Berkeley Square, Owen let himself in with his latch-key. He was very pale and very weary, and his boots and trousers were covered with mud, for he had been splashing through wet streets, caring very little where he went. At first he had gone in the direction of the river, thinking to rouse up Monsignor, and to tell him what he thought of him, perhaps to give him a good thrashing; but the madness of his anger began to die long before reaching the river. In the middle of St. James's Park the hopelessness of any effort on his part to restrain Evelyn became clear to him suddenly, and he uttered a cry, walking on again, and on again, not caring whither he walked, splashing on through the wet, knowing well that nothing could be done, that the inevitable had happened.
"It would have been better if she had died," he often said; "it would have been much better if she had died, for then I should be free, and she would be free. Now neither is free."
There were times when he did not think at all, when his mind was away; and, after a long absence of thought, the memory of how he had lost her for ever would strike him, and then it seemed as if he could walk no longer, but would like to lie down and die. All the same, he had to get home, and the sooner he got home the better, for there was whisky on the table, and that would dull his memory; and, tottering along the area railings, he thought of the whisky, understanding the drunkard for the first time and his temptations. "Anything to forget the agony of living!"
Three or four days afterwards he wrote to her from Riversdale. Something had to be written, though it was not very clear that anything could be gained by writing, only he felt he must write just to wish her goodbye, to show that he was not angry, for he would like her to know that he loved her always; so he wrote:
"For the last four days I have been hoping to get a letter from you saying you had changed your mind, and that what was required to restore you to health was not a long residence in a convent, but the marriage ceremony. This morning, when my valet told me there were no letters, I turned aside in bed to weep, and I think I must have lain crying for hours, thinking how I had lost my friend, the girl whom I met in Dulwich, whom I took to Paris, the singer whose art I had watched over. It was a long time before I could get out of bed and dress myself, and during breakfast tears came into my eyes; it was provoking, for my servant was looking at me. You know how long he has been with me, so, yielding to the temptation to tell somebody, I told him; I had to speak to somebody, and I think he was sorry for me, and for you. But he is a well-bred servant, and said very little, thinking it better to leave the room on the first opportunity.
"Merat, who brought your letter, told me you said I would understand why it was necessary for you to go to a convent for rest. Well, in a way, I do understand, and, in a way, I am glad you are going, for at all events your decision puts an end to the strife that has been going on between us now for the last three years. It was first difficult for me to believe, but I have become reconciled to the belief that you will never be happy except in a chaste life. I daresay it would be easy for me, for Ulick, or for some other man whom you might take a fancy to, to cause you to put your idea behind you for a time. Your senses are strong, and they overpower you. You were, on more than one occasion, nearly yielding to me, but if you had yielded it would have only resulted in another crisis, so I am glad you did not. It is no pleasure to make love to a woman who thinks it wrong to allow you to make love to her, and, could I get you as a mistress, strange as it will seem to you, upon my word, Evelyn, I don't think I would accept you. I have been through too much. Of course, if I could get back the old Evelyn, that would be different, but I am very much afraid she is dead or overpowered; another Evelyn has been born in you, and it overpowers the old. An idea has come into your mind, you must obey it, or your life would be misery. Yes, I understand, and I am glad you are going to the convent, for I would not see you wretched. When I say I understand, I only mean that I acquiesce—I shall never cease to wonder how such a strange idea has come into your mind; but there is no use arguing that point, we have argued it often enough, God knows! I cannot go to London to bid you goodbye. Goodbyes are hateful to me. I never go to trains to see people off, nor down to piers to wave handkerchiefs, nor do I go to funerals. Those who indulge their grief do so because their grief is not very deep. I cannot go to London to bid you goodbye unless you promise to see me in the convent. Worse than a death-bed goodbye would be the goodbye I should bid you, and it, too, would be for eternity. But say I can go to see you in the convent, and I will come to London to see you.
* * * * *
"MY DEAR OWEN,—You have written me a beautiful letter. Not one word of it would I have unwritten, and it is a very great grief to me that I cannot write you a letter which would please you as much as your letter pleases me. No woman, since the world began, has had such a lover as I have had, and yet I am putting him aside. What a strange fatality! Yet I cannot do otherwise. But there is consolation for me in the thought that you understand; had it been otherwise, it would have been difficult for me to bear it. You know I am not acting selfishly, but because I cannot do otherwise. I have been through a great deal, Owen, more, perhaps, even than you can imagine. That night! But we must not speak of it, we must not speak of it! Rest is required, avoidance of all agitation—that is what the doctor says, and it agitates me to write this letter. But it must be done. To see you, to say goodbye to you, would be an agitation which neither of us could bear, we should both burst into tears; and for you to come to see me in the convent would be another agitation which must be avoided. The Prioress would not allow me to see you alone, if she allowed me to see you at all. No, Owen, don't come to see me either in London or in the convent. Leave me to work out my destiny as best I can. In three or four months perhaps I shall have recovered. Until then,
In a letter to Monsignor, Evelyn wrote:
"I have just sent a letter to my father, in which I tell him, amid many hopes of a safe arrival in Rome, not unduly tired, and with all the dear instruments intact, unharmed by rough hands of porters and Custom House officers, that, one of these days, in three or four months, when I am well, I look forward to contributing the viola da gamba part of a sonata to the concert of the old instrumental music which he will give when he has put his choir in order: you know I used to play that instrument in my young days. A more innocent wish never entered into the heart of a human being, you will say, yet this letter causes me many qualms, for I cannot help thinking that I have been untruthful; I have—lied is, perhaps, too strong a word— but I have certainly equivocated to the Prioress, and deceived her, I think, though it is possible, wishing to be deceived, she lent herself to the deception. Now I am preferring an accusation against the dear Prioress! My goodness, Monsignor, what a strange and difficult thing life is, and how impossible to tell the exact truth! If one tries to be exact one ends by entangling the thread, and getting it into very ugly knots indeed. In trying to tell the truth, I have been guilty of a calumny against the Prioress, nothing short of that, Monsignor, nothing short of that—against the dear Prioress, who deserves better of me, for her kindness towards me since I have been to the convent has never ceased for a single instant!
"One of her many kindnesses is the subject of this letter. When I arrived here the nuns were not decided, and I was not decided, whether I should live in the convent as I did before, as a guest, or whether, in view of the length of my probable residence in the convent, I should be given the postulant's cap and gown. Mother Mary Hilda thought it would be dangerous to open the doors of the novitiate to one who admitted she was entering the religious life only as an experiment, especially to one like myself, an opera singer, who, however zealously she might conform to the rule, would bring a certain atmosphere with her into the novitiate, one which could not fail to affect a number of young and innocent girls, and perhaps deleteriously. I think I agree with Mother Mary Hilda. All this I heard afterwards from Mother Philippa, who, in her homely way, let out the secret of these secret deliberations to me—how the Prioress, who desired the investiture, said that every postulant entered the novitiate as an experiment. 'But believing,' Mother Mary Hilda interrupted, 'that the experiment will succeed, whereas, in her case, the postulant does not believe at all.'
"As it was impossible for the Mothers to decide I was sent for, and asked whether I thought the experiment would succeed or fail.' But what experiment?—I had to ask. And the Prioress and Mother Hilda were not agreed, their points of view were not the same; mine was, again, a different point of view, mine being, as you know, a determination to conquer a certain thing in my nature which had nearly brought about my ruin, and which, if left unchecked, would bring it about. Room for doubt there was none, and, after such an escape as mine, one does not hesitate about having recourse to strong remedies. My remedy was the convent, and, my resolve being to stay in the convent till I had conquered myself, it did not at the time seem to me a falsehood to say that I put myself in the hands of God, and hoped the experiment would succeed. Mother Mary Hilda, who is very persistent, asked me what I meant by conquering myself, and I answered, a subjugation of that part of me which was repellent to God. At these words the Prioress's face lit up, and she said, 'Well, Mother Hilda, I suppose you are satisfied?' Mother Hilda did not answer, but I could see that she was not satisfied; and I am not satisfied either, for I feel that I am deceiving the nuns.
"But, Monsignor, if a different answer had been given, if I had said that I looked upon the convent as a refuge where a difficult time might be passed, two or three months, it does not seem to me that I would have answered the nuns more truthfully. The Prioress seems to think with me in this, going so far as to suggest that there are occasions when we do well not to try to say everything, for the very simple reason that we do not know everything—even about ourselves; and she seemed glad that I had not said more, and took me there and then to her room, and, in the presence of Mother Philippa and Mother Mary Hilda, said, 'Now, we must hide all this fair hair under a little cap.' I knelt in front of the Prioress, and she put a white cap on my head, and pinned a black veil over it; and when she had done this she drew me to her and kissed me, saying, 'Now you look like my own child, with all your worldly vanities hidden away. I believe Monsignor Mostyn would hardly know his penitent in her new dress.'
"I think I can see you smile as you read this, and I think I can hear you thinking, 'Once an actress always an actress.' But there is not sufficient truth in this criticism to justify it, and if such a thought does cross your mind, I feel you will suppress it quickly in justice to me, knowing, as you must know, that a badge gives courage to the wearer, putting a conviction into the heart that one is not alone, but a soldier in a great army walking in step towards a definite end. This sounds somewhat grandiloquent, but it seems to me somewhat like the truth. Trying to get into step is interesting and instructive, and the novitiate, though hardly bearable at times, is better than sitting in the lonely guest-room. Mother Hilda's instruction in the novitiate seems childish, yet why is it more childish than a hundred other things? Only because one is not accustomed to look at life from the point of view of the convent. As a guest, I felt it to be impossible to remain in the convent for three months, and it pleased me, I admit it, and interested me, I admit it, to try to become part of this conventual life, so different, so strangely different, from the life of the world, so remote from common sympathies. In speaking of this life, one hardly knows what words to employ, so inadequate are words to express one's meaning, or shall I say one's feeling? 'Actress again,' I hear your thoughts, Monsignor; 'a woman desirous of a new experience, of new sensations.' No, no, Monsignor, no; but I confess that the pure atmosphere of the convent is easier and more agreeable to breathe than the atmosphere of the world and its delight. To her whose quest is chastity, it is infinitely agreeable to feel that she is living among chaste women, the chastity of the nuns seems to penetrate and enfold me. To the hunted animal a sense of safety is perhaps a greater pleasure than any other, and one is never really unhappy, however uncomfortable one's circumstances may be, if one is doing what one wants to do.... But I am becoming sententious."
In another letter to Monsignor she said:
"This morning I received a long and delightful letter from my father telling me about the progress he is making, or I should say the progress that the choir is making under his direction, and how convinced he found everybody of the necessity of a musical reformation of some kind, and how gratifying it was to find them ready to accept his reading of the old music as the one they had been waiting for all this time. But, Monsignor, does my father exaggerate? For all this sounds too delightful to be true. Is it possible that his ideas meet with no opposition? Or is it that an opposition is preparing behind an ambuscade of goodwill? Father is such an optimist that any enthusiasm for his ideas convinces him that stupidity has ended in the world at last. But you will not be duped, Monsignor, for Rome is your native city, and his appointment of capelmeister is owing to you, and the kindly reception of my father's ideas—if they have been received as he thinks—is also owing to you. You will not be deceived, as he would easily be, by specious appearance, and will support him in the struggle that may be preparing under cover. I know you will. "His letter is entirely concerned with music; he does not tell me about his daily life, and, knowing how neglectful he is of material things, thinking only of his ideas, I am not a little anxious about him: how he is lodged, and if there is anybody by him who will see that he has regular meals. He will neglect his meals if he is allowed to neglect them, so, in the interests of the musical reformation, somebody should be charged to look after him, and he should not be allowed to overwork himself; but it will be difficult to prevent this. The most we can hope for is that he shall get his meals regularly, and that the food be of good quality and properly cooked. The food here is not very good, nor very plentiful; to feel always a little hungry is certainly trying, and the doctor has spoken to the Prioress on the subject, insisting that nourishing food is necessary to those suffering from nervous breakdown, and healthy exercise; of healthy exercise there is plenty, for the nuns dig their own garden; so I am a reformer in a small way, and I can assure you my reformation is appreciated by the nuns, who thank me for it; my singing at Benediction is better appreciated on a full than on an empty stomach, especially when it is the song that fills the stomach. And it is my singing that enables Mother Philippa, who looks after the catering, to spend more money at the baker's and the butcher's. There has been an improvement, too, in the cooking; a better watch is kept in the kitchen, and not only my health but the health of the entire community is improved.
"We are a little more joyous now than we were, and every day I seem to be better able to appreciate the happiness of living among people who share one's ideas. One cannot love those whose ideas are different, at least I cannot; a mental atmosphere suitable to our minds is as necessary as fresh air is to our lungs. And I feel it a great privilege to be allowed to live among chaste women, no longer to feel sure of my own unworthiness, no longer; it is terrible to live always at war with oneself. The eyes of the nuns and their voices exhale an atmosphere in which it seems to me my soul can rise, and very often as I walk in the garden with them I feel as if I were walking upon air. Owen Asher used to think that intellectual conversation kindled the soul; so it does in a way; and great works of art enkindle the soul and exalt it; but there is another exaltation of soul which is not discoverable in the intellect, and I am not sure that it is not the greater: the exaltation of which I speak is found in obedience, in submission, yes, and in ignorance, in trying—I will not say to lower oneself—but in trying to bring oneself within the range of the humble intelligence and to understand it. And there is plenty of opportunity for this in the convent. To explain what I mean, and perhaps to pass away the tedium of an afternoon which seems long drawn out, I will put down here for you, Monsignor, the conversation, as much as I can remember of it, which introduced me to the inhabitants of the novitiate.
"When Mother Hilda recited the Litany of Our Lady, and we had risen to our feet, she said:
"'Now, Evelyn, you must be introduced to your sisters—Sister Barbara I think you have met, as she sings in the choir. This is Sister Angela; this tall maypole is Sister Winifred, and this little being here is Sister Jerome, who was the youngest till you came. Aren't you pleased, Jerome, to have one younger than yourself?' The novices said, 'How do you do?' and looked shy and awkward for a minute, and then they forgot me in their anxiety to know whether recreation was to be spent indoors or out.
"'Mother, we may go out, mayn't we? Oh, thank you so much, it is such a lovely evening. We need not wear cloaks, need we? Oh, that is all right, just our garden shoes.' And there was a general scurry to the cells for shoes, whilst Mother Hilda and I made our way downstairs, and by another door, into the still summer evening.
"'How lovely it is!' I said, feeling that if Mother Hilda and I could have spent the recreation hour together my first convent evening would have been happy. But the chattering novices soon caught us up, and when we were sitting all a-row on a bench, or grouped on a variety of little wooden stools, they asked me questions as to my sensations in the refectory, and I could not help feeling a little jarred by their familiarity.
"'Were you not frightened when you felt yourself at the head of the procession? I was,' said Winifred.
"'But you didn't get through nearly so well as Sister Evelyn; you turned the wrong way at the end of the passage and Mother had to go after you,' said Sister Angela. 'We all thought you were going to run away.' And they went into the details as to how they had felt on their arrival, and various little incidents were recalled, illustrating the experience of previous postulants, and these were productive of much hilarity.
"'What did you all think of the cake?' said Sister Barbara suddenly.
"'Was it Angela's cake?' asked Mother Hilda. 'Angela, I really must congratulate you; you will be quite a distinguished chef in time.'
"Sister Angela blushed with delight, saying, 'Yes, I made it yesterday, Mother; but, of course, Sister Rufina stood over me to see that I didn't forget anything.'
"'Ah, well, I don't think I cared very much for the flavouring,' said Sister Barbara in pondering tones.
"'You seemed to me to be enjoying it very much at the time,' I said, joining the conversation for the first time; and when I added that Sister Barbara had eaten four slices of bread and butter the laugh turned against Barbara, and every one was hilarious. It is evident that Sister Barbara's appetite is considered an excellent joke in the novitiate.
"Of course I marvelled that grown-up women should be so easily amused, and then remembered a party at the Savoy Hotel (on leaving it I went to the presbytery to confess to you, Monsignor). I had to admit to myself that the talk at Louise Helbrun's party did not move on a higher level; our conversation did not show us to be wiser than the novices, and our behaviour was certainly less exemplary. Everything is attitude of mind, and the convent attitude towards life is curiously sympathetic to me... at present. My doubts lest it should not always be so is caused by the fury of my dislike to my former attitude of mind; something tells me that such fury as mine cannot be maintained, and will be followed by a certain reaction. I don't mean that I shall ever again return to a life of sin, that life is done with for ever. Even if I should fall again—the thought is most painful to me—but even if that should happen it would be a passing accident, I never could again continue in sin, for the memory of the suffering sin has caused me would be sure to bring me back again and force me to take shelter and to repent.
"I know too much belief in one's own power of resistance is not a good thing, but I can hardly bear to think of the suffering I endured during those weeks with Ulick Dean, walking in Hyde Park, round that Long Water, talking of sin and its pleasures, feeling every day that I was being drawn a little nearer to the precipice, that I was losing every day some power of resistance. It is terrifying to lose sense of the reality of things, to lose one's own will, to feel that one is merely a stone that has been set rolling. To feel like this is to experience the obtuse and intense sensations of nightmare, and this I know well. Have I not told you, Monsignor, of the dreams from which I suffered, which brought me to you, and which forced me to confession, those terrific dreams which used to drive me dazed from my bed, flying through the door of my room into the passage to wake up before the window, saying to myself:
"'Oh, my God! it is a dream, it is a dream, thank God, it is only a dream!'
"But I must not allow myself to dwell on that time, to do so throws me back again, and I have almost escaped those fits of brooding in which I see my soul lost for ever. Sooner than go back to that time I would become a nun, and remain here until the end of my life, eating the poorest food, feeling hungry all day; anything were better than to go back to that time!"
In another letter she said:
"I am afraid I shall always continue to be looked upon as an actress by the Prioress, and St. Teresa's ecstasies and ravishments, with added miracles and prophecies, would not avail to blot out the motley which continues in her eyes, though it dropped from me three years ago.
"'My dear Evelyn, you have hardly any perception of what our life is,' she said to me yesterday. 'You know it only from the outside, you are still an actress, you are acting on a different stage, that is all.' And it seemed to me that the Prioress thought she was speaking very wisely, that she flattered herself on her wisdom, and rejoiced not a little in my discomfiture, visible on my face, for one cannot control the change of expression, 'which gives one away,' as the phrase goes. She laughed, and we walked on together, I genuinely perplexed and pathetically anxious to discover if she had spoken the truth, fearing lest I might be adapting myself to a new part, not quite sure, hoping, however, that something new had come into my life. On such occasions one peers into one's heart, but however closely I peer it is impossible for me to say that the Prioress is right or that she was wrong. Everybody will say she is right, of course, for it is so obvious that a prima donna who retires to a convent must think of the parts she has played, of her music, and the applause at the end of every evening, applause without which she could not live. To say that no thought of my stage life ever crosses my mind would be to tell a lie that no one would believe; all thoughts cross one's mind, especially in a convent of a contemplative Order where the centre of one's life is, as Mother Mary Hilda would say, the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed upon the altar; where, as she teaches, next to receiving Holy Communion, this hour of prayer and meditation in the presence of our Lord is the central feature of our spiritual life, the axis on which our spiritual progress revolves.
"This was the subject of yesterday's lesson; nevertheless, during the meditation thoughts came and went, and I found much difficulty in trying to fix my mind. Perhaps I shall never learn how to meditate on—shall I say the Cross?—I shall never be able to fix my attention. Thoughts of the heroes and heroines of legends come and go in my mind, mixing with thoughts of Christ and His apostles; yet there is little of me in these flitting remembrances. My stage life does not interest me any longer, but the Prioress does not see it as I do, far away, a tiny speck. My art was once very real to me, and I am surprised, and a little disappointed sometimes, that it should seem so little now. But what I would not have, if I could change it, is the persistency with which I remember my lovers; not that I desire them, oh, no; but in the midst of a meditation on the Cross a remembrance catches one about the heart, and, closing the eyes, one tries to forget; and, Monsignor, what is worse than memory is our powerlessness to regret our sins. We may not wish to sin again, but we cannot regret that we have sinned. How is one to regret that one is oneself? For one's past is as much oneself as one's present. Has any saint attained to such a degree of perfection as to wish his past had never existed?
"Another part of my life which I remember very well—much better than my stage life—is the time I spent working among the poor under your direction. My poor people are very vivid in my memory; I remember their kindness to each other, their simplicities, and their patience. The patience of the poor is divine! But the poor people who looked to me for help had to be put aside, and that was the hardest part of my regeneration. Of course I know that I should have perished utterly if I had not put them aside, but even the thought of my great escape does not altogether satisfy me, and I would that I might have escaped without leaving them, the four poor women whom I took under my special protection, and who came to see me the day before I came to the convent to ask me not to leave them. Four poor women, poor beyond poverty, came to ask me not to go into the convent. 'The convent will be always able to get on without you, miss.' Such poverty as theirs is silent, they only asked me not to leave them, not to go to the convent. Among them was poor Lena, a hunchback seamstress, who has never been able to do more than keep herself from starving. It is hard that cripples should have to support themselves. She has, I think, always lived in fear lest she should not be able to pay for her room at the end of the week, and her food was never certain. How little it was, yet to get it caused her hours and hours of weary labour. Three and sixpence a week was all she could earn. Poor Lena, what has become of her? So little of the money which my singing brings to the convent would secure her against starvation, yet I cannot send her a penny. Doesn't it seem hard, Monsignor? And if she were to die in my absence would not the memory of my desertion haunt me for ever? Should I be able to forgive myself? You will answer that to save one's soul is everybody's first concern, but to sacrifice one's own soul for the poor may not be theological, but it would be sublime. You who are so kind, Monsignor, will not reprove me for writing in this strain, writing heresy to you from a convent devoted to the Perpetual Adoration of the Sacrament, but you will understand, and will write something that will hearten me, for I am a little disheartened to-day. You will write, perhaps, to the Reverend Mother, asking her if I may send Lena some money; that would be a great boon if she would allow it. In my anxiety to escape from the consequences of my own sins I had almost forgotten this poor girl, but yesterday she came into my mind. It was the lay sisters who reminded me of the poor people I left; the lay sisters are what is most beautiful in the convent.
"Yesterday, when the grass was soaked with dew and the crisp leaves hung in a death-like silence, one of them, Sister Bridget, came down the path carrying a pail of water, 'going,' she said, answering me, 'to scrub the tiles which covered the late Reverend Mother's grave. Ah, well, Mother's room must have its weekly turn out.' How beautiful is the use of the word 'room' in the phrase, and when I pointed out to her that the tiles were still clean her answer was that she regarded the task of attending the grave not as a duty but as a privilege. Dear Sister Bridget, withered and ruddy like an apple, has worked in the community for nearly thirty years. She has been through all the early years of struggle: a struggle which has begun again—a struggle the details of which were not even told her, and which she has no curiosity to hear. She is content to work on to the end, believing that it was God's will for her to do so. The lay sisters can aspire to none of the convent offices; they have none of the smaller distractions of receiving guests, and instructing converts and so forth, and not to have as much time for prayer as they desire is their penance. They are humble folk, who strive in a humble way to separate themselves from the animal, and they see heaven from the wash-tub plainly. In the eyes of the world they are ignorant and simple hearts. They are ignorant, but of what are they ignorant? Only of the passing show, which every moment crumbles and perishes. I see them as I write—their ready smiles and their touching humility. They are humble workers in a humble vineyard, and they are content that it should be so."
"You see, Evelyn," the Prioress said, "it is contrary to the whole spirit of the religious life to treat the lay sisters as servants, and though I am sure you don't intend any unkindness, they have complained to me once or twice that you order them about."
"But, my dear Mother, it seems to me that we are all inferior to the lay sisters. To slight them—" "I am sure you did not do so intentionally."
"I said, 'Do hurry up,' but I only meant I was in a hurry. I don't think anything you could have said could have pained me more than that you should think I lacked respect for the lay sisters."
Seeing that Evelyn was hurt the Prioress said:
"The sisters have no doubt forgotten all about it by now."
But Evelyn wanted to know which of the sisters had complained, so that she might beg her pardon.
"She doesn't want you to beg her pardon."
"I beg you to allow me, it will be better that I should. The benefit will be mine."
The Prioress shook her head, and listened willingly to Evelyn, who told her of her letter to Monsignor. "Now, wasn't it extraordinary, Mother, that I should have written like that about Sister Bridget, and to-day you should tell me that the lay sisters complained about me? If the complaint had been that I was inclined to put the active above the contemplative orders and was dissatisfied with our life here—"
"Dissatisfied!" the Prioress said.
"Only this, Mother: I have been reading the story of the Order of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and it seems to me so wonderful that everything else, for the moment, seems insignificant."
The Reverend Mother smiled.
"Your enthusiasms, my dear Evelyn, are delightful. The last book you read, the last person you meet—"
"Do you think I am so frivolous, so changeable as that, dear Mother?"
"Not changeable, Evelyn, but spontaneous."
"It would seem to me that everything in me is of slow growth—but why talk of me when there is Jeanne to talk about; marvellous, extraordinary, unique—" Evelyn was nearly saying "divine Jeanne," but she stopped herself in time and substituted the word "saintly." "No one seems to me more real than this woman, no one in literature; not Hamlet, nor Don Quixote, not Dante himself starts out into clearer outline than this poor servant-girl—a goatherd in her childhood." And to the Prioress, who did not know the story of this poor woman, Evelyn told it, laying stress—as she naturally would— on Jeanne's refusal to marry a young sailor, whom she had been willing to marry at first, but whom she refused to marry on his returning after a long voyage. When he asked her for whom she had refused him, she answered for nobody, only she did not wish to marry, though she knew of no reason why she should not. It was not caprice but an instinct which caused Jeanne to leave her sweetheart, and to go on working in humble service attending on a priest until he died, then going to live with his sister, remaining with her until she died, and saving during all these long twenty years only four-and-twenty pounds—all the money she had when she returned to the little seaport town whence she had come: a little seaport town where the aged poor starved in the streets, or in garrets in filth and vermin, without hope of relief from any one.
It was to this cruel little village, of which there are many along the French coast, and along every coast in the world, that Jeanne returned to rent a garret with an old and bedridden woman, unable to help herself. Without the poor to help the poor the poor would not be able to live, and this old woman lived by the work of Jeanne's hands for many a year, Jeanne going every morning to the market-place to find some humble employment, finding it sometimes, returning at other times desperate, but concealing her despair from her bedridden companion, telling her as gaily as might be that they would have to do without any dinner that day. So did they live until two little seamstresses—women inspired by the same pity for the poor as Jeanne herself—heard of her, and asked the cure, in whom this cruel little village had inspired an equal pity, to send for Jeanne. She was asked to give her help to those in greater need than she—the blind beggars and such like who prowled about the walls of the churches.
On leaving the priest it is related that she said: "I don't understand, but I never heard any one speak so beautifully." But next day when she went to see the priest she understood everything, sufficient at all events for the day which was to take to her garret a blind woman whom the seamstresses had discovered in the last stages of neglect and age. There was the bedridden woman whom Jeanne supported, and who feared to share Jeanne's charity with another, and resented the intrusion; she had to be pacified and cajoled with some little present of food, for the aged and hungry are like animals— food appeases them, silences many a growl; and the blind woman was given a corner in the garret. "But how is she to be fed?" was the question put to Jeanne next morning, and from that question the whole Order of the Little Sisters of the Poor started. Jeanne, inspired suddenly, said, "I will beg for them," and seizing a basket she went out to beg for broken victuals.
"There is a genius for many things besides the singing of operas, painting pictures, and writing books," Evelyn said, "and Jeanne's genius was for begging for her poor people. And there is nothing more touching in the world's history than her journey in the milk-cart to the regatta. You see, dear Mother, she was accustomed to beg from door to door among squalid streets, stopping a passer-by, stooping under low doorways, intruding everywhere, daring everything among her own people, but frightened by the fashionable folk en grande toilette bent on amusement. It seems that her courage almost failed her, but grasping the cross which hung round her neck, she entered a crowd of pleasure-seekers, saying, 'Won't you give me something for my poor people?' Now, Mother, isn't the story a wonderful one? for there was genius in this woman, though it was only for begging: a tall, thin, curious, fantastic figure, considered simple by some, but gifted for her task which had been revealed to her in middle age."
"But why, Evelyn, does that seem to you so strange that her task should have been revealed to her in middle age?"
Evelyn looked at the Reverend Mother for a while unable to answer, then went on suddenly with her tale, telling how that day, at that very regatta, a man had slapped Jeanne in the face, and she had answered, "You are perfectly right, a box on the ears is just what is suited to me; but now tell me what you are going to give me for my poor people." At another part of the ground somebody had begun to tease her—some young man, no doubt, in a long fashionable grey frock-coat with race-glasses hung round his neck, had ventured to tease this noble woman, to twit her, to jeer and jibe at her uncouthness, for she was uncouth, and she stood bearing with these jeers until they apologised to her. "Never mind the apology," she had answered; "you have had your fun out of me, now give me something for my poor people." They gave her five francs, and she said, "At that price you may tease me as much as you please."
Evelyn asked if it were not extraordinary how an ignorant and uncouth woman, a goatherd during her childhood, a priest's servant till she was well on in middle age, should have been able to invent a system of charity which had penetrated all over Europe. Every moment Evelyn expected the Prioress to check her, for she was conscious that she was placing the active orders above the contemplative, Jeanne above St. Teresa, and, determined to see how far she could go in this direction without being reproved, she began to speak of how Jeanne, after having made the beds and cleaned the garret in the morning, took down a big basket and stood receiving patiently the remonstrances addressed to her, the blind woman saying, "I am certain and sure you will forget to ask for the halfpenny a week which I used to get from the grocery store, you very nearly forgot it last week, and had to go back for it." "But I'll not make a mistake this time," Jeanne would answer. Her bed-ridden friend would reprove her, "But you did forget to ask for my soup." To bear patiently with all such unjust remonstrances was part of Jeanne's genius, and Evelyn asked the Reverend Mother if it were not strange that a woman like Jeanne had never inspired some great literary work.
"I spoke just now of Hamlet, Don Quixote, but Falstaff himself is not more real than Jeanne, and her words are always so wonderful, wonderful as Joan of Arc's. When the old woman used to hide their food under the bed-clothes and sell it for food for the pigs, leaving the Little Sisters almost starving, Jeanne used to say, 'So-and-so has not been as nice as usual this afternoon.' How is it, Mother, that no great writer has ever given us a portrait of Jeanne?"
"Well, Jeanne, my dear Evelyn, has given us her own portrait. What can a writer add to what Nature has given? No one has ever yet given a portrait of a great saint, of St. Teresa—what can any one tell us that we do not already know?"
"St. Teresa's life passed in thought, whereas Jeanne's passed in action."
"Don't be afraid, Evelyn," the Prioress said, "to say what you mean, that perhaps the way of the Little Sisters of the Poor is a better way than ours."
"It seems so, Mother, doesn't it?"
"It is permissible to have doubts on such a subject—which is the better course, mercy or prayer? We have all had our doubts on this subject, and it is the weakness of our intelligences that causes these doubts to arise."
"How is that, Mother?"
"It is easy to realise the beauty of the relief of material suffering. The flesh is always with us, and we realise so easily that it suffers that there are times when relief of suffering seems to us the only good. But in truth bread and prayer are as necessary to man, one as the other. You have never heard the story of the foundation of our Order? It will not appeal to the animal sympathies as readily as the foundation of the Sisters of the Poor, but I don't think it is less human." And the Reverend Mother told how in Lyons a sudden craving for God had occurred in a time of extraordinary prosperity. Three young women had suddenly wearied of the pleasure that wealth brought them, and had without intercommunication decided that the value of life was in foregoing it, that is to say, foregoing what they had always been taught to consider as life; and this story reaching as it did to the core of Evelyn's own story, was listened to by her with great interest, and she heard in the quiet of the Reverend Mother's large room, in which the silence when the canaries were not shrilling was intense, how a sign had been vouchsafed to these three young women, daughters of two bankers and a silk merchant, and how all three had accepted the signs vouchsafed to them and become nuns.
"I am not depreciating the active Orders when I say they are more easily understood by the average man than—shall I say the Carmelite or any contemplative Order, our own for example. To relieve suffering makes a ready appeal to his sympathies, but he is incapable of realising what the world would be were it not for our prayers. It would be a desert. In truth the active and the contemplative Orders are identical, when we look below the surface."
"How are they identical, Mother?"
"In this way: the object of the active Orders is to relieve suffering, but the good they do is not a direct good. There will always be suffering in the world, the little they relieve is only like a drop taken out of the ocean. It might even be argued that if you eliminate on one side the growth is greater on the other; by preserving the lives of old people one makes the struggle harder for others. There is as much suffering in the world now as there was before the Little Sisters began their work—that is what I mean."
"Then, dear Mother, the Order does not fulfil its purpose."
"On the contrary, Evelyn, it fulfils its purpose, but its purpose is not what the world thinks it is; it is by the noble example they set that the Little Sisters of the Poor achieve their purpose. It is by forsaking the world that they achieve their purpose, by their manifestation that the things of this world are not worth considering. The Little Sisters pray in outward acts, whereas the contemplative Orders pray only in thought. The purpose, as I have said, is identical; the creation of an atmosphere of goodness, without which the world could not exist. There are two atmospheres, the atmosphere of good and the atmosphere of evil, and both are created by thought, whether thought in the concrete form of an act or thought in its purest form—an aspiration. Therefore all those who devote themselves to prayer, whether their prayers take the form of good works or whether their prayer passes in thought, collaborate in the production of a moral atmosphere, and it is the moral atmosphere which enables man to continue his earthly life. Yourself is an instance of what I mean. You were inspired to leave the stage, but whence did that inspiration come? Are you sure that our prayers had nothing to do with it? And the acts of the Little Sisters of the Poor all over the world—are you sure they did not influence you?"
Evelyn thought of Owen's letter, the last he had written to her, for in it he reminded her that she had nearly yielded to him. But was it she who had resisted? She attributed her escape rather to a sudden realisation on his part that she would be unhappy if he persisted. Now, what was the cause of this sudden realisation, this sudden scruple? For one seemed to have come into Owen's mind. How wonderful it would be if it could be attributed to the prayers of the nuns, for they had promised to pray for her, and, as the Prioress said, everything in the world is thought: all begins in thought, all returns to thought, the world is but our thought.
While she pondered, unable to believe that the nuns' prayers had saved her, unwilling to discard the idea, the Prioress told of the three nuns who came to England about thirty years ago to make the English foundation. But of this part of the story Evelyn lost a great deal; her interest was not caught again until the Prioress began to tell how a young girl in society, rich and beautiful, whose hand was sought by many, came to the rescue of these three nuns with all her fortune and a determination to dedicate her life to God. Her story did not altogether catch Evelyn's sympathies, and the Prioress agreed with Evelyn that her conduct in leaving her aged parents was open to criticism. We owe something to others, and it appears that an idea had come into her mind when she was twelve years old that she would like to be a nun, and though she appeared to like admiration and to encourage one young man, yet she never really swerved from her idea, she always told him she would enter a convent.
Evelyn did not answer, for she was thinking of the strange threads one finds in the weft of human life. Every one follows a thread, but whither do the threads lead? Into what design? And while Evelyn was thinking the Prioress told how the house in which they were now living had been bought with five thousand out of the thirty thousand pounds which this girl had brought to the convent. The late Prioress was blamed for this outlay. Blame often falls on innocent shoulders, for how could she have foreseen the increased taxation? how could she have foreseen that no more rich postulants would come to the convent, only penniless converts turned out by their relations, and aged governesses? A great deal of the money had been lost in a railway, and it was lost at a most unfortunate time, only a few days before the lawyer had written to say that the Australian mine in which most of their money was invested had become bankrupt.
"There was nothing for us to do," the Prioress said, "but to mortgage the property, and this mortgage is our real difficulty, and its solution seems as far off as ever. There seems to be no solution. We are paying penal interest on the money, and we have no security that the mortgagee will not sell the property. He has been complaining that he can do better with his money, though we are paying him five and six per cent.
"And if he were to sell the property, Mother, you would all have to go back to your relations?"
"All of us have not relations, and few have relations who would take us in. The lay sisters—what is to become of them?—some of them old women who have given up their lives. Frankly, Evelyn, I am at my wits' end."
"But, Mother, have I not offered to lend you the money? It will be a great pleasure to me to do it, and in some way I feel that I owe the money."
"Owe the money, Evelyn?"
The women sat looking at each other, and at the end of a long silence the Prioress said:
"It is impossible for us to take your money, my child?"
"But something must be done, Mother."
"If you were staying with us a little longer—"
"I have made no plans to leave you." And to turn the conversation from herself Evelyn spoke of the crowds that came to Benediction.
"To hear you, dear, and when you leave us our congregation will be the same as it was before, a few pious old Catholic ladies living on small incomes who can hardly afford to put a shilling into the plate." Evelyn spoke of the improvement of the choir, and the Prioress interrupted her, saying, "Don't think for a moment that any reformation in the singing of the plain chant is likely to bring people to our church; the Benedictine gradual versus the Ratisbon." And the Prioress shrugged her shoulders contemptuously. "What has brought us a congregation is you, my dear—your voice and your story which is being talked about. The story is going the rounds that you are going to become a nun, and that interests everybody. An opera singer entering a convent! Such a thing was never heard of before, and they come to hear you."
"But, Mother, I never said I was going to join the Order. I only came here in the hope—"
"And I accepted you as a postulant in the hope that you would persevere. All this seems very selfish, Evelyn. It looks as if we were only thinking! of your money; but you know it isn't so."
"Indeed, I do, Mother. I know it isn't so."
"When are you going to leave us?"
"Well, nothing is decided. Every day I expect to hear from my father, and if he wishes—"
"But if he doesn't require you? By remaining with us you may find you have a vocation. Other women have persevered and discovered in the end—" The Prioress's face changed expression, and Evelyn began to think that perhaps the Prioress had discovered a vocation in herself, after long waiting, and though she had become Prioress discovered too late that perhaps she had been mistaken. "You have no intention of joining the Order?"
"You mean to become a novice and then to become a nun and live here with you?"
"You need say no more."
"But you don't think I have deceived you, Mother?"
"No, I don't blame anybody, only a hope has gone. Besides, I at least, Evelyn, shall be very sorry to part with you, sorry for many reasons which I may not tell you... in the convent we don't talk of our past life." And Evelyn wondered what the Prioress alluded to. "Has she a past like mine? What is her story?"
The canaries began singing, and they sang so loudly the women could hardly hear themselves speak. Evelyn got up and waved her handkerchief at the birds, silencing them.
* * * * *
Late that night a telegram came telling Evelyn that her father was dangerously ill, and she was to start at once for Rome.
The wind had gathered the snow into the bushes and all the corners of the common, and the whole earth seemed but a little brown patch, with a dead grey sky sweeping by. For many weeks the sky had been grey, and heavy clouds had passed slowly, like a funeral, above the low horizon. The wind had torn the convent garden until nothing but a few twigs remained; even the laurels seemed about to lose their leaves. The nuns had retreated with blown skirts; Sister Mary John had had to relinquish her digging, and her jackdaw had sought shelter in the hen-house.
One night, when the nuns assembled for evening prayer, the north wind seemed to lift the roof as with hands; the windows were shaken; the nuns divined the wrath of God in the wind, and Miss Dingle, who had learned through pious incantation that the Evil One would attempt a descent into the convent, ran to warn the porteress of the danger. At that moment the wind was so loud that the portress listened, perforce, to the imaginings of Miss Dingle's weak brain, thinking, in spite of herself, that some communication had been vouchsafed to her. "Who knows," her thoughts said, "who can say? The ways of Providence are inscrutable." And she looked at the little daft woman as if she were a messenger.
As they stood calculating the strength of the lock and hinges the door-bell suddenly began to jingle.
"He wouldn't ring the bell; he would come down the chimney," said Miss Dingle.
"But who can it be?" said the portress, "and at this hour."
"This will save you." Miss Dingle thrust a rosary into the nun's hand and fled down the passage. "Be sure to throw it over his neck."
The nun tried to collect her scattered thoughts and her courage. Again the bell jingled; this time the peal seemed crazier than the first, and, rousing herself into action, she asked through the grating who it might be.
"It is I, Sister Evelyn; open the door quickly, Sister Agnes."
The nun held the door open, thanking God it was not the devil, and Evelyn dragged her trunk through the door, letting it drop upon the mat abruptly.
"Tell dear Mother I want to speak to her—say that I must see her—be sure to say that, and I will wait for her in the parlour."
"There is no light there; I will fetch one."
"Never mind, don't trouble; I don't want a light. But go to the Reverend Mother and tell her I must see her before any one else."
"Of course, Sister Evelyn, of course." And the portress hurried away, feeling that things had happened in a life which was beyond her life, beyond its scope. Perhaps Sister Evelyn had come to tell the Prioress the Pope himself was dead, or had gone mad; something certainly had happened into which it was no business of hers to inquire. And this vague feeling sent her running down the passage and up the stairs, and returning breathless to Evelyn, whom she found in a chair nearly unconscious, for when she called to her Evelyn awoke as from sleep, asking where she was.
"Sister Evelyn, why do you ask? You are in Wimbledon Convent, with Sister Agnes; what is the matter?"
"Matter? Nothing and everything." She seemed to recover herself a little. "I had forgotten, Sister Agnes, I had forgotten. But the Prioress, where is she?"
"In her room, and she will see you. But you asked me to go to the Prioress saying she must see you—have you forgotten, Sister Evelyn? You know the way to her room?"
Evelyn did not answer; and feeling perhaps that she might lose her way in the convent, Sister Agnes said she would conduct her to the Prioress, and opened the door for her, saying, "Reverend Mother, Sister Evelyn."
There was a large fire burning in the room, and Evelyn was conscious of the warmth, of bodily comfort, and was glad to sit down.
"You are very cold, my child, you are very cold. Don't trouble to speak, take your time and get warm first." And Evelyn sat looking into the fire for a long time. At last she said:
"It is warm here, Mother, I am so glad to be here. But perhaps you will turn me away and won't have me. I know you won't, I know you won't, so why did I come all this long way?"
"My dear child, why shouldn't we be glad to have you back? We were sorry to part with you."
"That was different, that was different."
These answers, and the manner in which they were spoken even more than the answers themselves, frightened the Prioress; but unable to think of what might have happened, she sat wondering, waiting for Evelyn to reveal herself. The hour was late, and Evelyn showed no signs of speaking. Perhaps it would be better to ring for one of the lay sisters, and ask her to show Evelyn to her room.
"You will stay here to-night?"
"Yes, if you will allow me."
"Allow you, my dear child! Why speak in this way?"
"Oh, Mother, I am done for, I am done for!"
"You haven't told me yet what has happened."
Evelyn did not answer; she seemed to have forgotten everything, or to be thinking of one thing, and unable to detach her thoughts from it sufficiently to answer the Prioress's question.
"My father is dead," she answered. And the Prioress, imagining her father's death to be the cause of this mental breakdown, spoke of the consolations of religion, which no doubt Mr. Innes had received, and which would enable Mr. Innes's soul to appear before a merciful God for judgment.
"There is little in this life, my dear; we should not be sorry for those who leave it—that is, if they leave it in a proper disposition of soul."
"My father died after having received the Sacraments of the Church. Oh, his death!" And thinking it well to encourage her to speak, the Prioress said:
"Tell me, my dear, tell me; I can understand your grief and sympathise with you; tell me everything."
And like one awakening Evelyn told how for days he had fluctuated between life and death, sometimes waking to consciousness, then falling back into a trance. In spite of the hopes the doctors had held out to him he had insisted he was dying.
"'I am worn to a thread,' he said, 'I shall flicker like that candle when it reaches the socket, and then I shall go out. But I am not afraid of death: death is a great experience, and we are all better for every experience. There is only one thing—'
"He was thinking of his work, he was sorry he was called away before his work was done; and then he seemed to forget it, to be absorbed in things of greater importance."
Sometimes the wind interrupted the Prioress's attention, and she thought of the safety of her roofs; Evelyn noticed the wind, and her notice of it served to accentuate her terror. "It is terror," the Prioress said to herself, "rather than grief."
"I waited by his bedside seeing the soul prepare for departure. The soul begins to leave the body several days before it goes; it flies round and round like a bird that is going to some distant country. I must tell you all about it, Mother. He lay for hours and hours looking into a corner of the room. I am sure he saw something there; and one night I heard him call me. I went to him and asked him what he wanted; but he lay quiet, looking into the corner of the room, and then he said, 'The wall has been taken away,' I know he saw something there. He saw something, he learnt something in that last moment that we do not know. That last moment is the only real moment of our lives, the only true moment—all the rest is falsehood, delirium, froth. The rest of life is contradictions, distractions, and lies, but in the moment before death I am sure everything becomes quite clear to us. Then we learn what we are. We do not know ourselves until then. If I ask who am I, what am I, there is no answer. We do not believe in ourselves because we do not know who we are; we do not know enough of ourselves to believe in anything. We do not believe; we acquiesce that certain things are so because it is necessary to acquiesce, but we do not believe in anything, not even that we are going to die, for if we did we should live for death, and not for life."
"Your father's death has been a great grief to you; only time will help you to recover yourself."
"Recover myself? But I shall never recover, no, Mother, never, never, never!"
The Prioress asked when Mr. Innes had died.
"I can't remember, Mother; some time ago."
The Prioress asked if he were dead a week.
"Oh, more than that, more than that."
"And you have been in Rome ever since? Why did you not come here at once?"
"Why, indeed, did I not come here?" was all Evelyn could say. She seemed to lose all recollection, or at all events she had no wish to speak, and sat silent, brooding. "Of what is she thinking?" the Prioress asked herself, "or is she thinking of anything? She seems lost in a great terror, some sin committed. If she were to confess to me. Perhaps confession would relieve her." And the Prioress tried to lead Evelyn into some account of herself, but Evelyn could only say, "I am done for, Mother, I am done for!" She repeated these words without even asking the Prioress to say no more: it seemed to her impossible to give utterance to the terror in her soul. What could have happened to her?"
"Did you meet, my child, either of the men whom you spoke to me of?"
The question only provoked a more intense agony of grief.
"Mother, Mother, Mother!" she cried, "I am done for! let me go, let me leave you."
"But, my child, you can't leave us to-night, it is too late. Why should you leave us at all?"
"Why did I ever leave you? But, Mother, don't let us talk any more about it. I know myself; no one can tell me anything about myself; it is all clear to me, all clear to me from the beginning; and now, and now, and now—"
"But, my child, all sins can be forgiven. Have you confessed?"
"Yes, Mother, I confessed before I left Italy, and then came on here feeling that I must see you; I only wanted to see you. Now I must go."
"No, my child, you mustn't go; we will talk of this to-morrow."
"No, let us never talk of it again, that I beseech you, Mother; promise me that we shall never talk of it again."
"As you like, as you like. Perhaps every one knows her own soul best.... It is not for me to pry into yours. You have confessed, and your grief is great."
The Prioress went back to her chair, feeling relieved, thinking it was well that Evelyn had confessed her sin to some Italian priest who did not know her, for it would be inconvenient for Father Daly to know Evelyn's story. Evelyn could be of great use to them; it were well, indeed, that she had not even confessed to her. She must not leave the convent; and arriving at that conclusion, suddenly she rang the bell. Nothing was said till the lay sister knocked at the door. "Will you see, Sister Agnes, that Sister Evelyn's bed is prepared for her?"
"In the guest-room or in the novitiate, Reverend Mother?"
"In the novitiate," the Prioress answered.
Evelyn had sunk again into a stupor, and, only half-conscious of what was happening to her, she followed the lay sister out of the Prioress's room.
"It is very late," the Prioress said to herself, "all the lights in the convent should be out; but the rule doesn't apply to me." And she put more coal on the fire, feeling that she must give all her mind to the solution of the question which had arisen—whether Evelyn was to remain with them to-morrow. It had almost been decided, for had she not told Sister Agnes to take Evelyn to the novitiate? But Evelyn might herself wish to leave to-morrow, and if so what inducements, what persuasion, what pressure should be used to keep her? And how far would she be justified in exercising all her influence to keep Evelyn? The Prioress was not quite sure. She sat thinking. Evelyn in her present state of mind could not be thrown out of the convent. The convent was necessary for her salvation in this world and in the next.
"She knows that, and I know it."
The Prioress's thoughts drifted into recollections of long ago; and when she awoke from her reverie it seemed that she must have been dreaming a long while: "too long" she thought; "but I have not thought of these things for many a year.... Evelyn has confessed, her sins are behind her, and it would be so inconvenient—" The Prioress's thoughts faded away; for even to herself she did not like to admit that it would be inconvenient for Evelyn to confess to Father Daly the sins she had committed—if she had committed any. Perhaps it might be all an aberration, an illusion in the interval between her father's death and her return to the convent. "Her sins have been absolved, and for guidance she will not turn to Father Daly but to me." The Reverend Mother reflected that a man would not be able to help this woman with his advice. She thought of Evelyn's terror, and how she had cried, "I am done for, I am done for!" She remembered the tears upon Evelyn's cheeks and every attitude so explicit of her grief.
"A penitent if ever there was one, one whom we must help, whom we must lead back to God. Evelyn must remain in the convent. To-morrow we must seek to persuade her. But it will not be difficult." Then, listening to the wind, the Prioress remembered that the convent roof required re-slating. "Who knows? Perhaps what happened may have been divinely ordered to bring her back to us? Who knows? who knows?" She thought of the many other things the convent required: the chapel wanted re-decorating, and they had to spare every penny they could from their food and clothing to buy candles for the altar; another item of expense was the resident chaplain; and when in bed she lay thinking that perhaps to-morrow she would find a way out of the difficulty that had puzzled her so long.
"Yes, dear Mother, if you are willing to keep me I shall be glad to remain. It is good of you. How kind you all are!"
Very little more than that she could be induced to say, relapsing, after a few words, into a sort of stupor or dream, from which very often it was impossible to rouse her; and the Prioress dreaded these long silences, and often asked herself what they could mean, if the cause were a fixed idea... on which she was brooding. Or it might be that Evelyn's mind was fading, receding. If so, the responsibility of keeping her in the convent was considerable. A little time would, however, tell them. Any religious instruction was, of course, out of the question, and books would be fatal to her.
"Her mind requires rest," the Prioress said. "Even her music is a mental excitement."
"I don't think that," Sister Mary John answered. "And as for work, I have been thinking I might teach her a little carpentry. If plain carpentry does not interest her sufficiently, she might learn to work at the lathe."
"Your idea is a very good one, Sister Mary John. Go to her at once and set her to work. It is terrible to think of her sitting brooding, brooding."
"But on what is she brooding, dear Mother?"
"No doubt her father's death was a great shock."
And Sister Mary John went in search of Evelyn, and found her wandering in the garden.
"Of what are you thinking, Sister?" As Evelyn did not answer, Sister Mary John feared she resented the question. "You don't like me to walk with you?"
"Yes I do, I don't mind; but I wonder if the Prioress likes me to be here. Can you find out for me?"
"Why should you think we do not wish to have you here?"
"Well, you see, Sister—oh, it is no use talking." Her thoughts seemed to float away, and it might be five or ten minutes before she would speak again.
"I wish you would come to the woodshed, Sister. If not, I must leave you."
"Oh, I'll go to the woodshed with you."
"And will you help me with my work?"
"I help you with your work!"
There was a long, narrow table in the woodshed—some planks laid upon two tressels; and the walls were piled with all kinds of sawn wood, deal planks, and rough timber, and a great deal of broken furniture and heaps of shavings. The woodshed was so full of rubbish of all kinds that there was only just room enough to walk up and down the table. Sister Mary John was making at that time a frame for cucumbers, and Evelyn watched her planing the deal boards, especially interested when she pushed the plane down the edge of the board, and a long, narrow shaving curled out of the plane, but asking no questions.
"Now, wouldn't you like to do some work on the other side of the table, Sister?"
Evelyn did not answer, and it was not that day nor the next, but at the end of the week, that she was persuaded to take the pincers and pull the nails out of an old board.
"And when you have done that, I will show you how to plane it."
She seemed to have very little strength—or was it will that she lacked? The pincers often fell from her hands, and she would stand, lost in reverie.
"Now, Sister, you have only pulled two nails out of that board in the last ten minutes; it is really very tiresome of you, and I am waiting for it."
"Do you really mean that you are waiting for this board? Do you want it?"
"But of course; I shouldn't have asked you to draw the nails out of it if I didn't," And it was by such subterfuges that she induced Evelyn to apply herself. "Now, you won't think of anything until you have drawn out every nail, will you? Promise me." Sister Mary John put the pincers into her hand, and when the board was free of nails, it seemed that Evelyn had begun to take an interest in the fate of the board which she had prepared. She came round the table to watch Sister Mary John planing it, and was very sorry when the nun's plane was gapped by a nail which had been forgotten.
"This iron will have to go to the grinders."
"I am so sorry, Sister. Will you forgive me?"
"Yes, I'll forgive you; but you must try to pay attention."
When the cucumber-frame was finished Sister Mary John was busy making some kitchen chairs, and the cutting out of the chair-backs moved Evelyn's curiosity.
"Shall you really be able to make a chair that one can sit upon?"
"I hope so."
"Have you ever made one before?"
"Well, no, this is my first chair, but I made several stools."
The mystery of dovetailing was explained to Evelyn, and she learned that glue was required.
"Now you may, if you like, melt the glue for me."
There was a stove in the adjoining shed, and Sister Mary John lighted a fire and told Evelyn that she was to keep stirring the glue. "And be sure not to let it burn." But when she came back twenty minutes after, she found that Evelyn had wandered away from the stove to the farther end of the shed to watch a large spider.
"Oh, Sister, just look at the spider! There is a fly in the web; see how he comes out to seize his prey!"
"But, my goodness, Evelyn! what about my glue? There it is, all burnt in the pot, and I shall have to take it to the kitchen and get hot water and scrape it all out. It is really very tiresome of you."
When she returned with the glue, Evelyn said:
"You see, Sister, it is difficult to fix one's thoughts on a glue-pot; the glue melts so slowly, and, watching the spider, I lost count of the time. But I think I should like to saw something."
"That's a very good idea."
A saw was put into her hand, and half an hour after the sister came to see how Evelyn had been getting on. "Why, you will be a first-rate carpenter; you have sawn those boards capitally, wandering a little from the line, it is true, but you will do better to-morrow."
Whenever Sister Mary John heard the saw cease she cried out, "Now, Sister Evelyn, what are you thinking about? You are neglecting your work." And Evelyn would begin again, and continue until her arm ached.
"Here is Mother Abbess."
"See, dear Mother, what Evelyn has been doing. She sawed this board through all by herself, and you see she has sawn it quite straight, and she has learned how to plane a board; and as for glueing, she does it capitally!"
"What are you looking for, Sister Evelyn?"
"Veronica asked me to go into the garden; I think it was to gather some laurel-leaves, but I can't remember where they grow."
"Never mind the leaves, I will gather them for you. Take my spade and dig a little while. It is pleasanter being in the open air than in that hot sacristy."
"But I don't know how to dig. You'll only laugh at me."
"No, no. See, here is a bed of spring onions, and it wants digging out. You press the spade in as far as you can, pull down the handle, and lift out the earth. I shall be some little while away, and I expect you will have dug some yards. You can dig as far as this. Try, Evelyn, make up your mind that you will; if you make up your mind, you will succeed."
"But you won't stay a long time, will you?" she called after the nun. "Now I know why Sister Mary John wears men's boots." And she stooped to pin up her skirt.
All the while the sky was clearing, the wind drove the clouds westward, breaking up the dark masses, scattering, winnowing, letting the sun through. Delicious was the glow, though it lasted but for a few minutes—perhaps more delicious because it was so transitory. Another patch of wind-driven clouds came up, and the world became cold and grey again. A moment afterwards the clouds passed, the sun shone out, and the delicious warmth filled mind and body with a delight that no artificial warmth could; and, to enjoy the glowing of the sun, Evelyn left her digging, and wandered away through the garden, stopping now and then to notice the progress of the spring. A late frost had cut the blossoms of the pear and the cherry; the half-blown blossom dropped at the touch of the finger, and Evelyn regretted the frost, thinking of the nets she had made.
"They'll be of very little use this year." And she wondered if the currant and gooseberry-bushes had escaped; the apples had, for they were later, unless there was another frost. "And then my nets will be of no use at all; and, I have worked so hard at them!"
The lilac-bushes were not yet in leaf—only some tiny green shoots. "We shall not have any lilac this year till the middle of May. Was there ever such a season?" Larks were everywhere, ascending in short flights, trilling as they ascended; and Evelyn listened to their singing, thinking it most curious—quaint cadenzas in which a note was wanting, like in the bagpipes, a sort of aerial bagpipes. But on a bare bough a thrush sang, breaking out presently into a little tune of five notes. "Quite a little tune; one would think the bird had been taught it." She waited for him to sing it again, but, as if not wishing to waste his song, being a careful bird, he continued a sort of recitative; then, thinking his listener had waited long enough for his little aria, he broke out again. "There it is, five notes—a distinct little tune." Why should he sing and no other thrush sing it? There was a robin; but he sang the same little roundelay all the year.... A little, pale-brown bird, fluttering among the bushes, interested her; but it was some time before she could catch fair sight of it. "A dear little wren!" she said. "It must have its nest about here." She sought it, knowing its beautifully woven house, with one hole, through which the bird passes to feed a numerous progeny, and expected to find it amid the tangle of traveller's-joy which covered an old wall.
In the convent garden there was a beautiful ash-tree, under which Evelyn had often sat with the nuns during recreation, but it showed no signs of coming into leaf; and the poplars rose up against the bright sky, like enormous brooms. The hawthorns had resisted the frost better than the sycamores. One pitied the sycamore and the chestnut-trees most of all; and, fearing they would bear no leaves that year, Evelyn stood with a black and shrivelled leaf in her hand. "Autumn, before the spring has begun," she said. "But here is Jack." And she stooped to pick up the great yellow tom-cat, whom she remembered as a kindly, affectionate animal; but now he ran away from her, turning to snarl at her. "What can have happened to our dear Jack?" she asked herself. And Miss Dingle, who had been watching her from a little distance, cried out:
"You'll not succeed in catching him; he has been very wicked lately, and is quite changed. The devil must have got into him, in spite of the blue ribbon I tied round his neck."
"How are you, Miss Dingle?"
Miss Dingle evinced a considerable shyness, and muttered under her breath that she was very well. She hoped Evelyn was the same; and ran away a little distance, then stopped and looked back, her curiosity getting the better of her. "Ordinary conversation does not suit her," Evelyn said to herself. And, when they were within speaking distance again, Evelyn asked her what had become of the blue ribbon she had tied round the cat's neck to save him from the devil.
"He tore it off—I mean the devil took it off. I can't catch him. If you'd try?—if you'd get between him and that bush. It is a pity to see a good cat go to the devil because we can't get a bit of blue ribbon on his neck."
Evelyn stood between the cat and the bush, and creeping near, caught him by the neck, and held him by the forepaws while Miss Dingle tried to tie the ribbon round his neck; but Jack struggled, and raising one of his hind paws obliged Evelyn to loose him.
"There is no use trying; he won't let it be put on his neck."
"But what will become of him? He will get more and more savage." Miss Dingle ran after the cat, who put up his tail and trotted away, eluding her. She came back, telling Evelyn that she might see the devil if she wished. "That is to say, if you are not afraid. He's in that corner, and I don't like to go there. I have hunted him out of these bushes—you need not be afraid, my rosary has been over them all."
Evelyn could see that Miss Dingle wished her to exorcise the dangerous corner, and she offered to do so.
"You have two rosaries, you might lend me one."
"No, I don't think I could. I want two, one for each hand, you see.... I have not seen you in the garden this last day or two. You've been away, haven't you?"
"I've been in Rome."
"In Rome! Then why don't you go and hunt him out... frighten him away? You don't need a rosary if you have touched the precious relics. You should be able to drive him out of the garden, and out of the park too, though the park is a big place. But here comes Sister Mary John. You will tell me another time if you've brought back anything that the Pope has worn."
Sister Mary John came striding over the broken earth, followed by her jackdaw. The bird stopped to pick up a fat worm, and the nun sent Miss Dingle away very summarily.
"I can't have you here, Alice. Go to the summer-house and worry the devil away with your holy pictures. I've no time for you, dear," she said to the jackdaw, who had alighted on her shoulder; "and I have been looking for you everywhere," she said, turning from her bird to Evelyn. "You promised me—But I suppose digging tired you?"