"No, Sister, nothing earthly whatever."
"But, Veronica, you said that Sister Mary John left the convent because she believed me to be her counterpart. I am in the world, am I not?"
A perplexed look came into Veronica's face, and she said:
"There are counterparts and counterparts."
"And you think I am a wicked counterpart? You wouldn't like me to be yours?"
"I didn't say that, Sister; only mine is in heaven."
"And when did he come last to you?" Evelyn asked, as she folded up the vestments.
"Teresa, you are folding those vestments wrong. You're not thinking of what you're doing." And the vestments turned the talk back to Father Ambrose.
"Surely the monk isn't the counterpart you were speaking of just now?"
"No, indeed, my counterpart is quite different from Father Ambrose; he is young and beautiful. Father Ambrose has got a beautiful soul, and I love him very dearly; but my counterpart is, as I have said, in heaven, Sister."
The conversation fell, and Evelyn did not dare to ask another question; indeed, she determined never to speak on the subject again to Veronica. But a few days afterwards she yielded to the temptation to speak, or Veronica—she could not tell which was to blame in this matter, but she found herself listening to Veronica telling how she had, for weeks before meeting with her counterpart, often felt a soft hand placed upon her, and the touch would seem so real that she would forget what she was doing, and look for the hand without being able to find it.
"One night it seemed, dear, as if I could not keep on much longer, and all the time I kept waking up. At last I awoke, feeling very cold all over; it was an awful feeling, and I was so frightened that I could hardly summon courage to take my habit from the peg and put it upon my bed. But I did this, for, if what was coming were a wicked thought, it would not be able to find me out under my habit. At last I fell asleep, lying on my back with arms and feet folded, a position I always find myself in when I awake, no matter in what position I may go to sleep. Very soon I awoke, every fibre tingling, an exquisite sensation of glow, and I was lying on my left side (something I am never able to do), folded in the arms of my counterpart. I cannot give you any idea of the beauty of his flesh, and with what joy I beheld and felt it. Luminous flesh, and full of tints so beautiful that they cannot be imagined. You would have to see them. And he folded me so closely in his arms, telling me that it was his coming that had caused the coldness; and then telling of his love for me, and how he would watch over me and care for me. After saying that, he folded me so closely that we seemed to become one person; and then my flesh became beautiful, luminous, like his, and I seemed to have a feeling of love and tenderness for it. I saw his face, but it is too lovely to speak about. How could I think such a visitation sinful? for all my thoughts were of pure love, and he did not kiss me; but I fell asleep in his arms, and what a sleep I slept there! When I awoke he was no longer by me."
"But why should you think it was sinful, dear?"
"Because our counterpart really is, or should be, Jesus Christ; we are His brides, and mine was only an angel."
"But you've said, dear, that those who were drowned in the Flood come down to those living now upon earth to prepare them—" The sentence dropped away on Evelyn's lips; she could not continue it, for it seemed to her disgraceful to draw out this girl into speaking of things which were sacred to her, and which had a meaning for her that was pure. Her love was for God, and she was trying to explain; and the terms open to her were terms of human love, which she, Evelyn, with a sinful imagination, misconstrued, involuntarily perhaps, but misconstrued nevertheless.
At that moment Sister Angela came into the sacristy, and, seeing Sister Veronica and Teresa looking at each other in silence, a look of surprise came into her face, and she said:
"Now, you who are always complaining that the work of the sacristy is behindhand, Veronica—"
Veronica awoke from her dream.
"I know, Sister, we ought not to waste time talking, but Teresa asked me about my counterpart." Evelyn felt the blood rising to her face, and she turned away so that Angela might not see it.
"And you've told her?"
"Yes. And you, Sister Angela, have got a counterpart; won't you tell Teresa about him?"
And then, unable to repress herself at that moment, Evelyn turned to Angela, saying:
"It began about Sister Mary John—who left the convent to my great grief, so Veronica tells me, because she believed herself to be my counterpart."
At this, Angela's face grew suddenly very grave, and she said:
"Of course, Teresa, she would leave the convent if she believed that; but there was no reason for her believing it?"
"None," Evelyn answered, feeling a little frightened. "None. But what do you mean?"
"Only this, that our counterparts are in heaven; but there are counterparts and counterparts. One—I cannot explain now, dear, for I was sent by the Prioress to ask you, Veronica, to go to her room; she wants to speak to you. And I must go back to the novitiate. I suppose," she added, "Veronica has told you that our counterparts are a little secret among ourselves? Mother Hilda knows nothing of them. It would not do to speak of these visitations; but I never could see any harm, for it isn't by our own will that the counterpart comes to us; he is sent."
Evelyn asked in what Gospel Christ's descent into hell is described, and heard it was in that of Nicodemus; her estimation of Angela went up in consequence. Angela was one of the few with intellectual interests; and it was Evelyn's wish to hear about this Gospel that led her, a few days afterwards, to walk with Angela and Veronica in the orchard. Angela was delighted to be questioned regarding her reading, and she told all she knew about Nicodemus. Veronica walked a little ahead, plucking the tall grasses and enjoying the beautiful weather. Evelyn, too, enjoyed the beautiful weather while listening to the story of the harrowing of hell, as described by Nicodemus. There were no clouds anywhere, and the sky, a dim blue overhead, turned to grey as it descended. The June verdure of the park was a wonderful spectacle, so many were the varying tints of green; only a few unfledged poplars retained their russet tints. Outside the garden, along the lanes, all the hedges overflowed with the great lush of June; nettles and young ivy, buttercups, cow-parsley in profusion, and in the hedge itself the white blossom of the hawthorn. "The wild briar," Evelyn said to herself, "preparing its roses for some weeks later, and in the low-lying lands, where there is a dip in the fields, wild irises are coming into flower, and under the larches on the banks women and children spend the long day chattering. Here we talk of Nicodemus and spiritual loves."
Angela, an alert young woman, whose walk still retained a dancing movement, whose face, white like white flowers and lit with laughing eyes, set Evelyn wondering what strange turn of mind should have induced her to enter a convent. Locks of soft golden hair escaped from her hood, intended to grow into long tresses, but she had allowed her hair to be cut. An ideal young mother, she seemed to Evelyn to be; and the thought of motherhood was put into Evelyn's mind by the story Angela was telling, for her counterpart had been drowned in Noah's deluge when he was four years old.
"But he is a dear little fellow, and he creeps into my bed, and lies in my arms; his hair is all curls, and he told me the story of his drowning, how it happened five thousand years ago. He was carried away in his cot by the flood, and had floated away, seeing the tops of trees, until a great brown bear, weary of swimming, laid hold of the cot and overturned it."
Veronica, who had heard Nicodemus's description of the harrowing of hell many times, returned to them, a bunch of wild flowers in her hand.
"Are not these Bright Eyes beautiful? They remind me of the eyes of my baby; his eyes are as blue as these." And she looked into the little blue flower. "Sister Teresa hasn't yet met a counterpart, but that is only because she doesn't wish for it; one must pray and meditate, otherwise one doesn't get one." And Evelyn learned how Rufina had waited a long time for her counterpart. One day an extraordinary fluttering began in her breast, and she heard the being telling her not to forget to warn the doctor that he had grown a little taller, and had come now to reach the end of toes and fingers. Evelyn wanted to understand what that meant, but Angela could not tell her, she could only repeat what Rufina had told her; and a look of reproval came into Veronica's face when Angela said that when Rufina was asked what her counterpart was like she said that it was like having something inside one, and that lately he seemed to be much in search of her mouth and tongue; and when she asked him what he was like he replied that he was all a kiss."
"It really seems to me—" A memory of her past life checked her from reproving the novices for their conversation; they were innocent girls, and though their language seemed strange they were innocent at heart, which was the principal thing, whereas she was not. And the talk went on now about Sister Cecilia, who had been long praying for a counterpart, but whose prayers were not granted.
"She is so stupid; how could a counterpart care about her? What could he say?" Angela whispered to Veronica, pressing the bunch of flowers which Veronica had given to her lips.
"Cecilia isn't pretty. But our counterparts don't seek us for our beauty," Veronica answered, Evelyn thought a little pedantically, "otherwise mine never would have found me." And the novices laughed.
The air was full of larks, some of them lost to view, so high were they; others, rising from the grass, sang as they rose.
"Listen to that one, how beautifully that bird sings!" And the three women stood listening to a heaven full of larks till the Angelus bell called their thoughts away from the birds.
"We have been a long time away. Mother Hilda will be looking for us." And they returned slowly to the Novice Mistress, Evelyn thinking of Cecilia. "So it was for a counterpart she was praying all that time in the corner of the chapel; and it was a dream of a counterpart that caused her to forget to fill the sacred lamp."
It was the day of the month when the nuns watched by day and night before the Sacrament. Cecilia's watch came at dawn, at half-past two, and the last watcher knocked at her cell in the dusk, telling her she must get up at once. But Cecilia answered:
"I cannot get up, Sister, I cannot watch before the Sacrament this morning."
"And why, Sister? Are you ill?"
"Yes, I am very ill."
"And what has made you ill?"
"A dream, Sister."
And seeing it was Angela who had come to awaken her, Cecilia rose from her pillow, saying, "A horrible dream, not a counterpart like yours, Angela; oh! I can't think of it! It would be impossible for me to take my watch."
And walking down the passage, not knowing what to make of Cecilia's answers, Angela stopped at Barbara's cell to tell her Cecilia was ill and could not take her watch that morning.
"And you must watch for her."
"Why... what is it?"
"I can tell you no more, Cecilia's ill."
And she hurried away to avoid further questions, wondering what reason stupid Cecilia would give Mother Hilda for her absence from chapel and the row there would be if she were to tell that a counterpart had visited her! If she could only get a chance to tell Cecilia that she must say she was ill! If she didn't—Angela's thoughts turned to her little counterpart, from whom she might be separated for ever. No chance of speaking happened as the procession moved towards the refectory; and after breakfast the novices bent their heads over their work, when Mother Hilda said:
"I hear, Cecilia, that you were so ill this morning that you couldn't take your watch."
"It wasn't illness—not exactly."
"A bad dream, Mother."
"It must have been a very bad dream to prevent you from getting up to take your watch. I'm afraid I don't believe in dreams." The novices breathed more freely, and their spirits rose when Mother Hilda said, "The cake was heavy; you must have eaten too much of it. Barbara, you must take notice of this indigestion, for you are fond of cake." The novices laughed again, and thought themselves safe. But after breakfast the Prioress sent for Cecilia, and they saw her leave the novitiate angry with them all—she had caught sight of their smiles and dreaded their mockery, and went to the Prioress wondering what plausible contradiction she could give to Angela's story of the ugly counterpart, so she was taken aback by the first question.
"Now, what is it that I hear about a refusal to get up to take your watch? Such a thing—"
"Not laziness, Mother. Mother, if you knew what my dream was, you would understand it was impossible for me to watch before the Sacrament."
Cecilia didn't answer.
"You can tell me your dream...I shall be able to judge for myself."
"No, no; it is too frightful!" And Cecilia fell upon her knees.
"One isn't responsible for one's dreams."
"Is that so, Mother? But if one prays?"
"But you don't pray for dreams?"
"Not for the dream I had last night."
"Well, for what did you pray? Praying for dreams, Cecilia, is entirely contrary to the rule, or to the spirit of the rule."
"But Veronica, Angela, Rufina—they all pray that their counterparts may visit them."
"Counterparts!" the old woman answered. "What are you talking about?"
"Must I tell you?"
"Of course you must tell me."
"But it will seem like spite on my part."
"Because they have gotten beautiful counterparts through their prayers, whereas—Oh, Mother, I cannot tell you."
The Prioress forgot the stupid girl at her feet.
"Who visit them."
"Counterparts visiting them! You don't mean that anybody comes into the convent?"
"Only in dreams."
Cecilia tried to explain, but stumbled in her explanation so often that the Reverend Mother interrupted her:
"Cecilia, you are talking nonsense! I have never heard anything like it before!"
"But what I am telling you, Mother, is in the gospel Nicodemus—"
"Gospel of Nicodemus!"
"The harrowing of hell!"
"But what has all this got to do—I cannot understand you."
The story was begun again and again.
"Veronica's counterpart an angel, with luminous tints in his flesh; Angela's a child drowned in Noah's flood! But—" The Prioress checked her words. Had all the novices taken leave of their senses? Had they gone mad?... It looked like it. Anyhow, this kind of thing must be put a stop to and at once. She must get the whole truth out of this stupid girl at her feet, who blubbered out her story, obviously trying to escape punishment by incriminating others.
"So you were praying that an angel might visit you; but what came was quite different?"
"Mother, Mother!" howled Cecilia; "it was a dwarf, but I didn't want him in my bed. I've been punished enough.... Anything more horrible—"
"In your bed!... anything so horrible? What do you mean?"
"Am I to tell you? Must I?"
"After all, it was only a dream."
"First I was awakened by a smell coming down the chimney."
"But there are no chimneys."
"I'm telling what I thought. There was a smell, which sometimes seemed to collect in one corner of the room, sometimes in another. At last it seemed to come from under the bed and... he crawled out."
"Who crawled out!"
"The dwarf—a creature with a huge head and rolling eyes and a great tongue. That is all I saw, for I was too frightened; I heard him say he was my counterpart, but I cried out, Mother, that it was not true. He laughed at me, and said I had prayed for him. Then it seemed, Mother, I was running away from him, only I was checked at every moment by the others—Veronica, Barbara, and Angela—who put their feet out so that I might fall; and they caught me by the arms; and all were laughing, saying, 'Look at Sister Cecilia's counterpart; she has got one at last and is running away from him. But he shall get her; he shall get her.' I ran on until I found myself in a corner, between two brick walls, and the dwarf standing in front of me, rolling up his night-shirt in his hands, and telling me he was in great agony; for his punishment was to swallow all the souls of the nuns who had made bad Communions, and that I was to come at once with him. I wouldn't go, but he took me by both hands, dragging me towards the chapel. I told him Father Daly would sprinkle holy water upon him; but he didn't seem to mind, Mother. If I hadn't been awakened by Barbara knocking at my; door I don't know—"
"Now you see, my dear child, what comes of praying for counterparts.... This must be seen into at once."
"But you will not say that I told you?"
"Cecilia, I have heard enough; it isn't for you to ask me to make any promises. Be sure, I shall try to act for the best. Mother Hilda and Mother Philippa know nothing of these stories?"
"Nothing; it is entirely between the novices."
"You can go now, and remember not a word of what has passed between us, not a word."
"But I must confess to Father Daly. My mind wouldn't be at rest if I didn't, for the dwarf did take me in his arms."
"You can confess to Father Daly if you like; but I can't see you have committed any sin; you've been merely very foolish." And the Prioress turned towards the window, wondering if she should consult with Father Daly. The secret would not be kept; Angela and Veronica would speak about it, and there were others more or less implicated, no doubt, and these would have recourse to Father Daly for advice, or to Mother Hilda.
"Come in. So it is you, Teresa? Disturbing me! No, you are not disturbing me; I am not busy, and if I were it wouldn't matter. You want to talk to me. Now, about what?"
There was only one subject which would cause Evelyn to hesitate, so the Prioress guessed that she had come to tell her that she wished to leave the convent.
"Well, Teresa, be it so; I cannot argue with you any more about a vocation. I suppose you know best."
"You seem very sad, Mother?"
"Yes, I am sad; but you are not the cause of my sadness, though what you have come to tell me is sad enough. I was just coming to the conclusion, when you came into the room, that things must take their course. God is good; his guiding hand is in everything, so I suppose all that is happening is for the best. But it is difficult to see whither it is tending, if it be not towards the dissolution of the Order."
"The dissolution of the Order, Mother!"
"Well, if not of its dissolution, at all events of a change in the rule. You know that many here—Mother Philippa, Sister Winifred, aided and abetted by Father Daly—are anxious for a school, and we can only have a school by becoming an active Order. You have helped us a great deal, and our debts are no longer as pressing as they were; but we still owe a good deal of money, and as you do not intend to become a member of the community you will take your money away with you. And this fact will strengthen the opposition against me."
The Prioress lay back in her chair, white and frail, exhausted by the heat.
"May I pull down the blind, Mother?"
"Yes, you may, dear; the sun is very hot."
"Your determination to leave us isn't the only piece of bad news which reached me this morning. Have you heard of Sister Cecilia's adventure with her counterpart?" Evelyn nodded and tried to repress a smile. "It is difficult not to smile, so ridiculous is her story; and if I didn't look upon the matter as very serious, I shouldn't be able to prevent myself from smiling."
"But you will easily be able, Mother, to smile at this nonsense. Veronica, who is a most pious girl, will not allow her mind to dwell on counterparts since she knows it to be a sin, or likely to lead to sin, and Angela and the others—if there are any others—"
"That will not make an end to the evil. Everything, my dear Teresa, declines. Ideas, like everything else, have their term of life. Everything declines, everything turns to clay, and I look upon this desire for spiritual visitations as a warning that the belief which led to the founding of this Order has come to an end! From such noble prayers as led to the founding of this Order we have declined to prayers for the visitation of counterparts."
Evelyn was about to interrupt, but the Prioress shook her head, saying, "Well, if not the whole of the convent, at all events part of it—several novices." And she told Evelyn the disease would spread from nun to nun, and that there was no way of checking it.
"Unless by becoming an active order," Evelyn answered, "founding a school."
The old woman rose to her feet instantly, saying that she had spoken out of a moment of weakness; and that it would be cowardly for her to give way to Mother Philippa and Sister Winifred; she would never acquiesce in any alteration of the rule.
"But you, too," she said, "are inclined towards the school?"
Evelyn admitted she was thinking of the poor, people whom she had left to their fate, so that she might save herself from sin; and the talk of the two women dropped from the impersonal to the personal, Evelyn telling the Prioress a great deal more of herself than she had told before, and the Prioress confiding to Evelyn in the end her own story, a simple one, which Evelyn listened to with tears in her eyes.
"Before I came here I was married, and before I was married I often used to come to the convent, for I was fond of the nuns, and was a pious girl. But after my marriage I was captured by life—the vine of life grew about me and held me tight. One day, passing by the door of the convent, my husband said, 'It is lucky that love rescued you, for when I met you you were a little taken by the convent, and might have become a nun if you hadn't fallen in love. You might have shut yourself up there and lived in grey habit and penances!' That day I wore a grey silk dress, and I remember lifting the skirt up as we passed the door and hitting the kerbstone with it. 'Shut up in that prison-house! Did I ever seriously think of such a thing?' These were my words, but God, in his great goodness and wisdom, resolved to bring me back. A great deal is required to save our souls, so deeply are we enmeshed in the delight of life and in the delight of one another.... God took my husband from me after an illness of three weeks. That happened forty years ago. I used to sit on the seashore, crying all day, and my little child used to put his arms about me and say, 'What is mammie crying for?' Then my child died; seemingly without any reason, and I felt that I could not live any longer amid the desires and activities of the world. I'll not try to tell you what my grief was; you have suffered grief, and can imagine it. Perhaps you can. I left my home and hurried here. When I saw you return, soon after your father's death; I couldn't but think of my own returning. I saw myself in you."
"But, Mother, do you regret that you came here?"
The old nun did not answer for some time.
"It is hard to say, Teresa. There are deceptions everywhere, in the convent as in the world; and the mediocrity of the Sisters here is tiresome; one longs for a little more intelligence. And, as I was saying just now, everything declines; an idea ravels like a sleeve. Are you happy here?... You are not; I see it in your eyes."
"The only ones who are happy here," Evelyn answered, "I am sure, are those like Veronica, who pass from the schoolroom to the novitiate."
"You think that? But the convent is a great escapement. You came here, having escaped death only by an accident, and when you went to Rome to see your father you came back distraught, your mind unhinged, and it was months before you could believe that your sins could be forgiven. If you leave here, what will become of you? You will return to the stage."
Evelyn smiled sadly.
"You will meet your lovers again. Temptation will be by you; you are still a young woman. How old are you, Teresa?"
"Thirty-eight. But I no longer feel young."
"Then, do you not think it better to spend the last term with us? I am an old woman, Teresa, and you are the only friend I have in the convent, the only one who knows me; it would be a great charity if you were to remain with me.... But you fear I shall live too long? No, Teresa, the time will not be very long."
"Mother, don't talk like that, it only grieves me. As long as you wish me to stay I'll stay."
"But if I weren't here you would leave?" Evelyn did not answer. "You would be very lonely?"
"Yes, I should be lonely." And then, speaking at the end of a long silence, she said, "Why did you send away Sister Mary John? She was my friend, and one must have a friend—even in a convent."
"Teresa, I begged of her to remain. And you are lonely now without her?"
"I should be lonelier, Mother, if you weren't here."
"We will share our loneliness together."
Evelyn seemed to acquiesce.
"My dear child, you are very good; you have a kind heart. One sees it in your eyes."
She left the Prioress's room frightened, saying. "Till the Prioress's death."
Father Daly paced the garden alley, reading his Breviary, and, catching sight of him, Sister Winifred, a tall, thin woman, with a narrow forehead and prominent teeth, said to herself, "Now's my chance."
"I hope you won't mind my interrupting you, Father, but I have come to speak to you on a matter of some importance. It will take some minutes for me to explain it all to you, and in confession, you see, our time is limited. You know how strict the Prioress is that we shouldn't exceed our regulation three minutes."
"I know that quite well," the little man answered abruptly; "a most improper rule. But we'll not discuss the Prioress, Sister Winifred. What have you come to tell me?"
"Well, in a way, it is about the Prioress. You know all about our financial difficulties, and you know they are not settled yet."
"I thought that Sister Teresa's singing—"
"Of course, Sister Teresa's singing has done us a great deal of good, but the collections have fallen off considerably; and, as for the rich Catholics who were to pay off our debts, they are like the ships coming from the East, but whose masts have not yet appeared above the horizon."
"But does the Prioress still believe that these rich Catholics will come to her aid?"
"Oh, yes, she believes; she tells us that we must pray, and that if we pray they will come. Well, Father, prayer is very well, but we must try to help ourselves, and we have been thinking it over; and, in thinking it over, some of us have come to very practical conclusions."
"You have come to the conclusion that perhaps a good deal of time is wasted in this garden, which might be devoted to good works?"
"Yes, that has struck us, and we think the best way out of our difficulties would be a school."
"Something must be done," she said, "and we are thinking of starting a school. We've received a great deal of encouragement. I believe I could get twenty pupils to-morrow, but Mother Prioress won't hear of it. She tells us that we are to pray, and that all will come right. But even she does not depend entirely upon prayer; she depends upon Sister Teresa's singing."
"A most uncertain source of income, I should say."
"So we all think."
They walked in silence until within a few yards of the end of the walk; and, just as they were about to turn, the priest said:
"I was talking at the Bishop's to a priest who has been put in charge of a parish in one of the poorest parts of South London. There is no school, and the people are disheartened; and he has gone to live among them, in a wretched house, in one of the worst slums of the district. He lives in one of the upper rooms, and has turned the ground floor, which used to be a greengrocer's shop, into a temporary chapel and school, and now he is looking for some nuns to help him in the work. He asked me if I could recommend any, and I thought of you all here, Sister Winifred, with your beautiful church and garden, doing, what I call, elegant piety. It has come to seem to me unbearably sad that you and I and these few here, who could do such good work, should be kept back from doing it."
"I am afraid our habit, Father, makes that sort of work out of the question for us." And Sister Winifred dropped her habit for a moment and let it trail gracefully.
"Long, grey habits, that a speck of dirt will stain, are very suitable to trail over green swards, but not fit to bring into the houses of the poor, for fear they should be spoiled. "Oh," he cried, "I have no patience with such rules, such petty observances. I have often asked myself why the Bishop chose to put me here, where I am entirely out of sympathy, where I am useless, where there is nothing for me to do really, except to try to keep my temper. I have spoken of this matter to no one before, but, since you have come to speak to me, Sister Winifred, I, too, must speak. Ever since I've been here I've been longing for some congenial work—work which I could feel I was intended to do. It seems hard at times to feel one's life slipping away and the work one could do always withheld from one's reach. You understand?"
"Indeed, I do. It is the fate of many of us here, Father Daly."
"Now, if you could make a new foundation—if some three or four of you—if the Bishop would send me there."
"Of course, we might go and do good work in the district you speak of, but I doubt whether the Bishop would recognise us as a new foundation."
"I daresay he wouldn't." And they walked a little way in silence. "You were telling me of your project for a school, Sister Winifred."
Sister Winifred entered into the details. But she had unduly excited Father Daly, and he could not listen.
"My position here," he said, interrupting her, "is an impossible one. The only ones here who consider my advice are the lay sisters, the admirable lay sisters who work from morning till evening, and forego their prayers lest you should want for anything. You know I'm treated very nearly with contempt by almost all the choir sisters. You think I don't know that I am spoken of as a mere secular priest? Every suggestion of mine meets with a rude answer. You have witnessed a good deal of this, Sister Winifred. I daresay you've forgotten, but I remember it all... you have come to speak to me here because the Prioress will not allow you to spend more than three minutes in the confessional, arrogating to herself the position of your spiritual adviser, only allowing to me what is to her no more than the mechanical act of absolution. In her eyes I am a mere secular priest, incapable of advising those who live in an Order! Do you think I haven't noticed her deference to the very slightest word that Father Ambrose deigns to speak to her? Her rule doesn't apply to his confessional, only to mine—a rule which I have always regarded as extremely unorthodox; I don't feel at all sure that the amateur confessional which she carries on upstairs wouldn't be suppressed were it brought under the notice of Rome; I have long been determined to resist it, and I beg of you, Sister Winifred, when you come to me to confession to stay as long as you think proper. On this matter I now see that the Prioress and I must come to an understanding."
"But not a word. Father Daly, must we breathe to her of what I have come to tell you about. The relaxation of our Order must be referred to the Bishop, and with your support."
They walked for some yards in silence, Father Daly reflecting on the admirable qualities of Sister Winifred, her truthfulness and her strength of character which had brought her to him; Sister Winifred congratulating herself on how successfully she had deceived Father Daly and thinking how she might introduce another subject into the conversation (a delicate one it was to introduce); so she began to talk as far away as possible from the subject which she wished to arrive at. The founders of the Orders seemed to her the point to start from; the conversation could be led round to the question of how much time was wasted on meditation; it would be easy to drop a sly hint that the meditations of the nuns were not always upon the Cross; she managed to do this so adroitly that Father Daly fell into the trap at once.
"Love of God, of course, is eternal; but each age must love God in its own fashion, and our religious sentiments are not those of the Middle Ages." The exercises of St. Ignatius did not appeal in the least to Father Daly, who disapproved of letting one's thoughts brood upon hell; far better think of heaven. Too much brooding on hell engenders a feeling of despair, which was the cause of Sister Teresa's melancholia. Too intense a fear of hell has caused men, so it is said, to kill themselves. It seems strange, but men kill themselves through fear of death. "I suppose it is possible that fear of hell might distract the mind so completely—Well, let us not talk on these subjects. We were talking of—" The nun reminded the priest they were talking of the exercises of St. Ignatius. "Let us not speak of them. St. Ignatius's descriptions of the licking of the flames round the limbs of the damned may have been suitable in his time, but for us there are better things in the exercises."
"But do you not think that the time spent in meditation might be spent more profitably, Father? I have often thought so."
"If the meditation were really one."
"Exactly, Father, but who can further thoughts; thought wanders, and before one is aware one finds oneself far from the subject of the meditation."
"No doubt; no doubt."
"It was through active work that Sister Teresa was cured." "If any fact has come to your knowledge, Sister, it is your duty to tell it to me, the spiritual adviser of the nuns, notwithstanding all the attempts of the Prioress to usurp my position."
"Well, Father, if you ask me—"
"Yes, certainly I ask you." And Sister Winifred told how, through a dream, Sister Cecilia had been unable to go down from her cell to watch before the Sacrament.
"We are not answerable for our dreams," the priest answered.
"No; but if we pray for dreams?"
"But Cecilia could not desire such a dream?"
"Not exactly that dream." And so the story was gradually unfolded to the priest.
"What you tell me is very serious. The holy hours which should be devoted to meditation of the Cross wasted in dreams of counterparts! A strange name they have given these visitations, some might have given them a harsher name." Father Daly's thoughts went to certain literature of the Middle Ages. "The matter is, of course, one that is not entirely unknown to me; it is one of the traditional sins of the convent, one of the plagues of the Middle Ages. The early Fathers suffered from the visits of Succubi. What you tell me is very alarming. Would it not be well for me to speak to the Prioress on the subject?"
"No, on no account."
"But she must be exceedingly anxious to put a stop to such a pollution of the meditation?"
"Yes, indeed, I will say that nobody is more opposed to it; but she is one of these women who, though she sees that something is wrong, will not go to the root of the wrong at once. The tendency of her mind is towards the contemplative, and not towards the active orders, and she will not give way to the relaxation of the rule. You had better just take the matter into your hands, feeling sure she will approve of the action in the end. A word or two on the subject in your sermon on Sunday would be very timely."
Father Daly promised to think the matter over, and Sister Winifred said:
"But you must know we shall have much opposition?"
"But who will oppose us?"
"Those who have succeeded in getting counterparts will not surrender them easily." And Sister Winifred was persuaded to mention the names of the nuns incriminated in this traffic with the spirits of the children who had been drowned in Noah's flood.
"Beings from the other world!" Father Daly cried, alarmed that not one of the nuns had spoken on this subject to him in the convent. "This is the first time a nun has spoken to me—"
"All will speak to you on this matter when you explain to them the danger they are incurring—when you tell them in your sermon. There is the bell; now I must fly. I will tell you more when I come to confession this afternoon." As she went up the path she resolved to remain ten minutes in the confessional at least, for such a breach of the rule would challenge the Prioress's spiritual authority, and in return for this Father Daly would use his influence with the Bishop to induce the Prioress to relax the rule of the community. To make her disobedience more remarkable, she loitered before slipping into the confessional, and the Prioress, who had just come into the chapel, noticed her. But without giving it another thought the Prioress began her prayers. At the end of five minutes, however, she began to grow impatient, and at the end of ten minutes to feel that her authority had been set aside.
"You've been at least ten minutes in the confessional, Sister Winifred."
"It is hard, indeed, dear Mother, if one isn't allowed to confess in peace," Sister Winifred answered. And she tossed her head somewhat defiantly.
"All the hopes of my life are at an end," the Prioress said to Mother Hilda." Every one is in rebellion against me; and this branch of our Order is about to disappear. I feel sure the Bishop will decide against us, and what can we do with the school? Sister Winifred will have to manage it herself. I will resign. It is hard indeed that this should happen after so many years of struggle; and, after redeeming the convent from its debts, to be divided in the end."
Next Sunday Father Daly took for his text, "And all nations shall turn and fear the Lord truly, and shall bury their idols" (Toby xiv. 6).
"Yes, indeed, we should bury our idols." And then Father Daly asked if our idols were always external things, made of brass and gold, or if they were not very often cherished in our hearts—the desires of the flesh to which we give gracious forms, and which we supply with specious words; "we think," he said, "to deceive ourselves with those fair images born of our desires; and we give them names, and attribute to them the perfections of angels, believing that our visitations are angels, but are we sure they are not devils?"
The Prioress raised her eyes, and looked at him long and steadily, asking herself what he was going to say next.
He went on to tell how one of the chief difficulties of monastic life was to distinguish between the good and the evil visitant, between the angel and the demon; for permission was often given to the demon to disguise himself as an angel, in order that the nun and the monk might be approved. Returning then to the text, he told the story of Tobit and Tobias's son, and how Tobias had to have resort to burning perfumes in order to save himself from death from the evil spirit, who, when he smelt the perfume, fled into Egypt and was bound by an angel. "We, too, must strive to bind the evil spirit, and we can do so with prayer. We must have recourse to prayer in order to put the evil spirit to flight. Prayer is a perfume, and it ascends sweeter than the scent of roses and lilies, greeting God's nostrils, which are in heaven."
The Prioress thought this expression somewhat crude, and she again looked at the preacher long and steadfastly, asking herself if the text and Father Daly's interpretation of it were merely coincidences, or if he were speaking from knowledge of the condition of convents... Cecilia, had she told him everything? The Prioress frowned. Sister Winifred was careful not to raise her eyes to the preacher, for she was regretting his words, foreseeing the difficulties they would lead her into, knowing well that the Prioress would resent this interference with her authority, and she would have given much to stop Father Daly; but that, of course, was impossible now, and she heard him say that the angel who bound the evil spirit in Egypt four thousand years ago is to-day the symbol of the priest in the confessional, and it was only by availing themselves of that Sacrament, not in any invidious sense, but in the fullest possible sense, confiding their entire souls to the care of their spiritual adviser, that they could escape from the evil spirits which penetrated into monasteries to-day no less than before, as they had always done, from the earliest times; for the more pious men and women are, the more they retire from the world, the more delicate are the temptations which the devil invents. Convents dedicate to the Adoration of the Sacrament, to meditation on the Cross, convents in which active work is eschewed are especially sought by the evil spirits, "the larvae of monasticism," he called them. An abundance of leisure is favourable to the hatching of these; and he drew a picture of how the grub first appears, and then the winged moth, sometimes brown and repellant, sometimes dressed in attractive colours like the butterfly. The soul follows as a child follows the butterfly, from flower to flower through the sunshine, led on out of the sunshine into dark alleys, at the end of which are dangerous places, from whence the soul may never return again.
"Nuns and monks of the Middle Ages, those who knew monasticism better than it ever could be known in these modern days, dreaded these larvae more than anything else, and they had methods of destroying them and repelling the beguilements of evil spirits better than we have, for the contemplative orders were more kindred to those earlier times than to-day. Monasticism of today takes another turn. Love of God is eternal, but we must love God in the idiom and spirit of our time." And Father Daly believed that there was no surer method of escaping from the danger than by active work, by teaching, which, he argued, was not incompatible with contemplation, not carried to excess; and there were also the poor people, and to work for them was always pleasing to God. Any drastic changes were, of course, out of the question, but he had been asked to speak on this subject, and it seemed to him that they should look to Nature for guidance, and in Nature they found not revolution but evolution; the law of Nature was progression. Why should any rule remain for ever the same? It must progress just as our ideas progress. He wandered on, words coming up in his mouth involuntarily, saying things which immediately after they were said he regretted having said, trying to bring his sermon to a close, unable to do so, obliged, at last, to say hurriedly that he hoped they would reflect on this matter, and try to remember he was always at their service and prepared to give them the best advice.
As soon as Mass was over Mother Hilda went to the Prioress. "We'll speak on this matter later." And the Prioress went to her room, hurriedly. The nuns hung about the cloister, whispering in little groups, forgetful of the rule; the supporters of the Prioress indignant with the priest, who had dared to call into question the spiritual value of their Order, and to tell them it would be more pleasing to God for them to start a school. It was felt even by the supporters of the school that the priest had gone too far, not in advocating the school, but in what he had said regarding the liability of the contemplative orders to be attacked by demons, for really what he had said amounted to that.
When the news arrived that Father Daly had been transferred suddenly by the Bishop to another parish, Sister Winifred walked about in terror, expecting every minute to bring her a summons to the Prioress's room. A shiver went through her when she thought of the interview which probably awaited her; but as the morning wore away without any command reaching her, she began to take pleasure in the hope that she had escaped, and in the belief that the Prioress was afraid of an explanation. No doubt that was it; and Sister Winifred picked up courage and the threads of the broken intrigue, resolving this time to confine herself to laying stress on the necessitous condition of the convent, which was still in debt, and the impossibility of Sister Teresa's singing redeeming it entirely.
It would have been wiser if she had conducted her campaign as she intended to do, but the temptation was irresistible to point out, occasionally, that those who did not agree with her were the very nuns—Angela, Veronica, Rufina, and one or two others—who had confessed to the sin of praying for the visitations of counterparts during the hour of meditation and other hours. By doing this she prejudiced her cause. Her inuendoes reached the ears of the Bishop and Monsignor Mostyn, who came to the convent to settle the difficulty of an alteration in the rule; she was severely reprimanded, and it was decreed that the contemplative Orders were not out of date, and that nuns should be able to meditate on the Cross without considering too closely the joys that awaited the brides of Christ in heaven. St. Teresa's writings were put under ban, only the older nuns, who would not accept the words of the saint too literally, being allowed to read them. "Added to which," as Monsignor said, "the idle thoughts of the novices are occupying too much of our attention. This is a matter for the spiritual adviser of the novices, and Father Rawley is one who will keep a strict watch."
The Bishop concurred with Monsignor, and then applied his mind to the consideration of the proposed alteration of the rule, deciding that no alteration could receive his sanction, at all events during the life of the present Prioress. Sister Winifred was told that the matter must be dropped for the present. It so happened that Monsignor came upon her and Evelyn together before the Bishop left; and he tried to reconcile them, saying that when the Prioress was called to God—it was only a question of time for all of us, and it didn't seem probable that she would live very long; of course, it was a very painful matter, one which they did not care to speak about—but after her death, if it should be decided that the Order might become a teaching Order, Sister Teresa would be the person who would be able to assist Sister Winifred better than any other.
"But, Monsignor," Evelyn said, "I do not feel sure I've a vocation for the religious life."
Out of a shrivelled face pale, deeply-set eyes looked at her, and it seemed that she could read therein the disappointment he felt that she was not remaining in the convent. She was sorry she had disappointed him, for he had helped her; and she left him talking to Sister Winifred and wandered down the passage, not quite certain whether he doubted her strength to lead a chaste life in the world, or could she attribute that change of expression in his eyes to wounded vanity at finding that the living clay put into his hands was escaping from them unmoulded... by him? Hard to say. There was a fear in her heart! Now was it that she might lack the force of character to leave the convent when the time came... after the Prioress's death? Life is but a ceaseless uprooting of oneself. Sister Winifred might be elected....
"Who will have the strength to turn the convent into an active Order when I am gone?" the Prioress often asked Evelyn, who could only answer her that she hoped she would be with them for many a day yet. "No, my dear, not for many months. I am a very old woman." She questioned Evelyn regarding Mother Philippa's administration; and Evelyn disguised from her the disorder that had come into the convent, not telling how the nuns spent a great deal of time visiting each other in their cells, how in the garden some walked on one side and some on the other, how the bitterest enmities had sprung up. But, though she was not told these things, the Prioress knew her convent had fallen into decadence, and sometimes she said:
"Well, I haven't the strength to restore dignity to this Order; so it had better disappear, become an active Order. But who among you will be able to reorganise it? Mother Philippa—what do you think, dear?"
"Mother Philippa is an excellent woman," Evelyn answered; "but as an administrator—"
"You don't believe in her?"
"Only when she is guided by another, one superior to herself."
"One who will see that the rule is maintained?"
Evelyn was thinking of Mother Hilda.
"Mother Hilda," she said, "seems to me too quiet, too subtle, too retiring." And the Prioress agreed with her, saying under her breath:
"She prefers to confine herself to the education of her novices. So what is to be done?"
From Mother Hilda Evelyn's thoughts went to Sister Mary John, and it seemed to her she never realised before the irreparable loss the convent had sustained. But what was the good in reminding the Prioress of Sister Mary John? No doubt, lying back there in her chair, the old mind was thinking of the nun she had lost, and who would have proved of such extraordinary service in the present circumstances. While looking at the Prioress, thinking with her (for it is true the Prioress was thinking of Sister Mary John), Evelyn understood suddenly, in a single second, that if Sister Mary John had not left Sister Winifred would not have come forward with the project of a school, nor would there have been any schism. But in spite of all her wisdom, the Prioress had not known, until this day, how dependent they were on Sister Mary John. A great mistake had been made, but there was no use going into that now.
A bell rang, and Evelyn said:
"Now, Mother, will you take my arm and we'll go down to chapel together?"
"And after Benediction I will take a turn in the garden with you," the Prioress said.
She was so weary of singing Gounod's "Ave Maria" that she accentuated the vulgarity of the melody, and wondered if the caricature would be noticed. "The more vulgarly it is sung the more money it draws." And smiling at the theatrical phrase, which had arisen unexpectedly to her lips, she went into the garden to join the Prioress.
"Come this way, dear; I want to talk to you." And the Prioress and the novice wandered away from the other nuns towards the fish-pond, and stood listening to the gurgle of the stream and to the whisper of the woods. An inspiring calm seemed to fall out of the sky, filling the heart with sympathy, turning all things to one thing, drawing the earth and sky and thoughts of men and women together.
"Teresa, dear, when you leave us what do you intend to do? You have never told me. Do you intend to return to the stage?"
"Mother, I cannot bear to think of leaving you." The old nun raised her eyes for a moment, and there was a great sadness in them, for she felt that without Evelyn her death would be lonely.
"We came here for the same reason, or very nearly. I stayed, and you are going."
"And which do you think is the better part, Mother?"
The nun did not answer for a long time, and Evelyn's heart seemed to beat more quickly as she waited for the answer.
"These are things we shall never know, whether it is better to go or to stay. All the wisdom of the ages has never solved this question— which ever course we take; it costs a great deal to come here."
"And it costs a great deal to remain in the world. Something terrible would have happened to me. I should have killed myself. But you know everything, Mother; there is no use going over that story again."
"No, there is none. Only one thing remains to be said, Teresa—to thank you for remaining with me. You are a gift from God, the best I have received for a long time, and if I reach heaven my prayers will always be with you."
"And, Mother, if you reach heaven, will you promise me one thing, that you will come to me and tell me the truth?"
"That I promise, and I will keep my promise if I am allowed."
The ripple of the stream sounded loud in their ears, and the skies became more lovely as Evelyn and the Prioress thought of the promise that had been asked and been given.
"I'll ask you to do some things for me." And she gave Evelyn instructions regarding her papers. "When you have done all these things you will leave the convent. You will not be able to remain. I have seen a great deal of you, more than I saw of any other novice, and I know you as if you were my own child.... I am very old, and you are still a young woman."
"Mother, I am nearly, forty, and my trials are at an end, or nearly."
"Truly, a great trial. I am old enough now, Teresa, to speak about it without shame. A great trial, yet one is sorry when it is over. And you still believe that a calamity would have befallen you?"
"And a great calamity nearly did befall me."
They sat side by side, their eyes averted, knowing well that they had reached a point beyond which words could not carry them.
"We are always anxious to be understood, every one wants to be understood. But why? Of what use?"
"Mother, we must never speak on this subject again, for I love you very dearly, and it is a great pain to me to think that your death will set me free."
"It seems wrong, Teresa, but I wouldn't have you remain in the convent after me; you are not suited to it. I knew it all the while, only I tried to keep you. One is never free from temptation. Now you know everything.... We have been here long enough."
"We have only been here a few minutes," Evelyn answered; "at least it has only seemed a few minutes to me. The evening is so beautiful, the sky is so calm, the sound of the water so extraordinary in the stillness! Listen to those birds, the chaffinch shrieking in that aspen, and the thrush singing all his little songs somewhere at the end of the garden."
"And there is your bullfinch, dear. He will remain in the convent to remind them of you when you have left."
The bird whistled a stave of the Bird Music from "Siegfried," and then came to their feet to pick. Evelyn threw him some bread, and they wandered back to the novices, who had forgotten their differences, and were sitting under their tree with Mother Hilda discussing a subject of great interest to them.
"We haven't seen them united before for a long time."
"That odious Sister Winifred waiting for your death, thinking only of her school."
"That is the way of the world, and we find the world everywhere, even in a convent. Her idea comes before everything else. Only you, Teresa, are good; you are sacrificing yourself to me; I hope it will not be for long."
"But we said, Mother, we wouldn't talk of that any more. Now, what are the novices so eager about?"
Sister Agatha ran forward to tell them that it had been suddenly remembered that the thirtieth of the month would be Sister Bridget's fortieth anniversary of her vows.
"Forty years she has been in the convent, and we are thinking that we might do something to commemorate the anniversary."
"I should like to see her on an elephant, riding round the garden. What a spree it would be!" said Sister Jerome.
The words were hardly out of her mouth when she regretted them, foreseeing allusions to elephants till the end of her days, for Sister Jerome often said foolish things, and was greatly quizzed for them. But the absurdity of the proposal did not seem to strike any one; only the difficulty of procuring an elephant, with a man who would know how to manage the animal, was very great. Why not a donkey? They could easily get one from Wimbledon; the gardener would bring one. But a donkey ride seemed a strange come-down after an elephant ride, and an idea had suddenly struck Sister Agatha.
"Sister Jerome doesn't mean a real elephant, I suppose. We might easily make a very fine elephant indeed by piling the long table from the library with cushions, stuffing it as nearly as possible into the shape of an elephant."
"And the making of the elephant would be such a lark!" cried Sister Jerome.
Mother Hilda raised no objection, and the Prioress and Evelyn walked aside, saying:
"Well, it is better they should be making elephants than dreaming of counterparts."
The creation of the beast was accomplished in the novitiate, no one being allowed to see it except the Prioress. The great difficulty was to find beads large enough for the eyes, and it threatened to frustrate the making of their beast. But the latest postulant suggested that perhaps the buttons off her jacket would do, they were just the thing,' and the legs of the beast were most natural and life-like; it had even a tail.
As no one out of the novitiate had seen this very fine beast, the convent was on tip-toe with excitement, and when, at the conclusion of dinner, the elephant was wheeled into the refectory, every one clapped her hands, and there were screams of delight. Then the saddle was brought in and attached by blue ribbons. Sister Bridget, who did not seem quite sure that the elephant was not alive, was lifted on it and held there; and was wheeled round the refectory in triumph, the novices screaming with delight, the professed, too. Only Evelyn stood silent and apart, sorry she could not mix with the others, sharing their pleasures. To stand watching them she felt to be unkind, so she went into the garden, and wandered to the sundial, whence she could see Richmond Park; and looking into the distance, hearing the childish gaiety of the nuns, she remembered Louise's party at the Savoy Hotel years and years ago. The convent had ceased to have any meaning for her; so she must return, but not to the mummers, they, too, had faded out of her life. She did not know whither she was going, only that she must wander on... as soon as the Prioress died. The thought caused her to shudder, and, remembering that the old woman was alone in her room, she went up to ask her if she would care to come into the garden with her. The Prioress was too weak to leave her room, but she was glad to have Evelyn, and to listen to her telling of the great success of the elephant.
"Of course, my dear, the recreations here must seem to you very childish. I wonder what your life will be when I'm gone?"
"To-morrow you will be stronger, and will be able to come into the garden."
But the old nun never left her room again, and Evelyn's last memory of her in the garden was when they had sat by the fish-pond, looking into the still water, reflecting sky and trees, with a great carp moving mysteriously through a dim world of water-weed and flower. There were many other memories of the Prioress which lingered through many years, memories of an old woman lying back in her chair, frail and white, slipping quite consciously out of life into death. Every day she seemed to grow a trifle smaller, till there was hardly anything left of her. It was terrible to be with her, so conscious was she that death was approaching, that she and death were drawing nearer and nearer, and to hear her say, "Four planks are the only habit I want now." Another time, looking into Evelyn's eyes, she said, "It is strange that I should be so old and you so young."
"But I don't feel young, Mother." And every day the old woman grew more and more dependent upon Evelyn.
"You are very good to me. Why should you wait here till I am dead? Only it won't be long, dear. Of what matter to me that the convent will be changed when I am dead. If I am a celestial spirit, our disputes—which is the better, prayer or good works—will raise a smile upon my lips. But celestial spirits have no lips. Why should I trouble myself? And yet—"
Evelyn could see that the old woman could not bear to think that her life's work was to fall to pieces when she was gone.
"But, dear Mother, we all wish that what we have done shall remain; and we all wish to be remembered, at least for a little while. There is nothing more human. And your papers, dear Mother, will have to be published; they will vindicate you, as nothing else could."
"But who is to publish them?" the Prioress asked. "They would require to be gone over carefully, and I am too weak to do that, too weak even to listen to you reading them."
Evelyn promised the Prioress again that she would collect all the papers, and, as far as she could, select those which the Prioress would herself select; and the promise she could see pleased the dying woman. It was at the end of the week that the end came. Evelyn sat by her, holding her hand, and hearing an ominous rattling sound in the throat, she waited, waited, heard it again, saw the body tremble a little, and then, getting up, she closed the eyes, said a little prayer, and went out of the room to tell the nuns of the Prioress's death, surprised at what seemed to her like indifference, without tears in her eyes, or any manifestation of grief. There could be none, for she was not feeling anything; she seemed to herself to be mechanically performing certain duties, telling Mother Philippa, whom she met in the passage, in a smooth, even voice, that the Prioress had died five minutes ago, without any suffering, quite calmly. Her lack of feeling seemed to her to give the words a strange ring, and she wondered if Mother Philippa would be stirred very deeply.
"Dead, Sister, dead? How terrible! None of us there. And the prayers for the dying not said. Surely, Teresa, you could have sent for us. I must summon the community at once." And the sub-Prioress hurried away, feeling already on her shoulders the full weight of the convent affairs.
In a few moments the Sisters, with scared faces, were hurrying from all parts of the house to the room where the Prioress lay dead. Evelyn felt she could not go back, and she slipped away to look for Veronica, whom she found in the sacristy.
"Veronica, dear, it is all over."
The girl turned towards her and clasped her hands.
"Auntie is dead," was all she said, and, dropping into a chair, her tears began to flow.
"Dear Veronica, we both loved her very much."
"So we did, Sister; the convent will be very different without her. Whom will they elect? Sister Winifred very possibly. It won't matter to you, dear, you will go, and we shall have a school; everything will be different."
"But many weeks will pass before I leave. Your aunt asked me to put her papers in order; I shall be at work in the library for a long while."
"Oh, I am so glad, Sister. I thought perhaps you would go at once." And Veronica dried her tears. "But, dear, we can't talk now. I must join the others in the prayers for the dead, and there will be so much to do."
"We shall have to strip the altar, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, the whole chapel—we shall want all our black hangings. But I must go."
At that moment a Sister hurried in to say the bell was to be tolled at once, and Evelyn went with Veronica to the corner of the cloister where the ropes hung, and stood by listlessly while Veronica dragged at the heavy rope, leaving a long interval between each clang.
"Oughtn't we to go up, Sister?" Veronica asked again.
"No, I can't go back yet," Evelyn answered. And she went into the garden and followed the winding paths, wondering at the solemn clanging, for it all seemed so useless.
The chaplain arrived half an hour afterwards, and next day several priests came down from London, and there was a great assembly to chant the Requiem Mass. But Evelyn, though she worked hard at decorating the altar, was not moved by the black hangings, nor by the doleful chant, nor by the flutter of the white surplice and the official drone about the grave. All the convent had followed the prelates down the garden paths; by the side of the grave Latin prayers were recited and holy water was sprinkled. On the day the Prioress was buried there were few clouds in the sky, sunshine was pretty constant, and all the birds were singing in the trees; every moment Evelyn expected one of her bullfinches to come out upon a bough and sing its little stave. If it did, she would take his song for an omen. But the bullfinches happened to be away, and she wished that the priests' drone would cease to interrupt the melody of the birds and boughs. The dear Prioress would prefer Nature's own music, it was kinder; and the sound of the earth mixed with the stones falling on the coffin-lid was the last sensation. After it the prelates and nuns returned to the convent, everybody wondering what was going to happen next, every nun asking herself who would be elected Prioress.
"Dear Mother, it is all over now," Evelyn said to Mother Hilda in the passage, and the last of the ecclesiastics disappeared through a doorway, going to his lunch.
"Yes, dear Teresa, it is all over so far as this world is concerned. We must think of her now in heaven."
"And to-morrow we shall begin to think for whom we shall vote—at least, you will be thinking. I am not a choir sister, and am leaving you."
"Is that decided, Teresa?"
"Yes, I think so. Perhaps now would be the time for me to take off this habit; I only retained it at the Prioress's wish. But, Mother, though I have not discovered a vocation, and feel that you have wasted much time upon me, still, I wouldn't have you think I am ungrateful."
"My dear, it never occurred to me to think so." And the two women walked to the end of the cloister together, Evelyn telling Mother Hilda about the Prioress and the Prioress's papers.
And from that day onward, for many weeks, Evelyn worked in the library, collecting her papers, and writing the memoir of the late Prioress, which, apparently, the nun had wished her to do, though why she should have wished it Evelyn often wondered, for if she were a soul in heaven it could matter to her very little what anybody thought of her on earth. How a soul in heaven must smile at the importance attached to this rule and to these exercises! How trivial it all must seem to the soul!... And yet it could not seem trivial to the soul, if it be true that by following certain rules we get to heaven. If it be true! Evelyn's thoughts paused, for a doubt had entered into her mind—the old familiar doubt, from which no one can separate herself or himself, from which even the saints could not escape. Are they not always telling of the suffering doubt caused them? And following this doubt, which prayers can never wholly stifle, the old original pain enters the heart. We are only here for a little while, and the words lose nothing of their original freshness by repetition; and, in order to drink the anguish to its dregs, Evelyn elaborated the words, reminding herself that time is growing shorter every year, even the years are growing shorter.
"The space is very little between me and the grave."
Some celebrated words from a celebrated poet, calling attention to the brevity of life, came into her mind, and she repeated them again and again, enjoying their bitterness. We like to meditate on death; even the libertine derives satisfaction from such meditation, and poets are remembered by their powers of expressing our great sorrow in stinging terms. "Our lives are not more intense than our dreams," Evelyn thought; "and yet our only reason for believing life to be reality is its intensity. Looked at from the outside, what is it but a little vanishing dust? Millions have preceded that old woman into the earth, millions shall follow her. I shall be in the earth too—in how many years? In a few months perhaps, in a few weeks perhaps. Possibly within the next few days I may hear how long I may expect to live, for what is more common than to wake with a pain, and on consulting a doctor to see a grave look come into his face, and to hear him tell of some mortal disease beyond his knife's reach? Words come reluctantly to one's tongue. "How long have I to live?" "About a year, about six months; I cannot say for certain."
Doctors are answering men and women in these terms every day, and Evelyn thought of some celebrated sayings that life's mutability has inspired. She remembered some from the Bible, and some from Shakespeare; and those she remembered from Fitzgerald, from his "Omar Khayyam," took her back to the afternoon she spent with Owen by the Serpentine, to the very day when he gave her the poem to read, thinking to overcome her scruples with literature.
"There were no scruples in me then. My own business, 'The Ring,' is full of the pagan story of life and death. We have babbled about it ever since, trying to forget or explain it, without, however, doing either; I tried to forget it on the stage, and did not succeed, but it was not fear of death that brought me here. The nuns do not succeed better than I; all screens are unavailing, for the wind is about everywhere—a cold, searching wind, which prayers cannot keep out; our doorways are not staunch—the wind comes under the door of the actress's dressing-room and under the door of the nun's cell in draughts chilling us to the bone, and then leaving us to pursue our avocations for a time in peace. The Prioress thought that in coming here she had discovered a way to heaven, yet she was anxious to defend herself from her detractors upon earth. If she had believed in her celestial inheritance she would have troubled very little, and I should be free to go away now. Perhaps it is better as it is," she reflected. And it seemed to her that no effort on her part was called for or necessary. She was certain she was drifting, and that the current would carry her to the opposite bank in good time; she was content to wait, for had she not promised the Prioress to perform a certain task? And it was part of her temperament to leave nothing undone; she also liked a landmark, and the finishing of her book would be a landmark.
She was even a little curious to see what turn the convent affairs would take, and as she sat biting the end of her pen, thinking, the sound of an axe awoke her from her reverie. Trees were being felled in the garden; "and an ugly, red-brick building will be run up, in which children of city merchants will be taught singing and the piano." Was it contempt for the world's ignorance in matters of art that filled her heart? or was she animated with a sublime pity for those parents who would come to her (if she remained in the convent, a thing she had no intention of doing) to ask her, Evelyn Innes, if she thought that Julia would come to something if she were to persevere, or if Kitty would succeed if she continued to practice "The Moonlight Sonata," a work of the beauty of which no one in the convent had any faintest comprehension? She herself had some gifts, and, after much labour, had brought her gifts to fruition, not to any splendid, but to some fruition. It was not probable that any one who came to the convent would do more than she had done; far better to learn knitting or cooking—anything in the world except music. Her gift of singing had brought her to this convent. Was it really so? Was her gift connected in some obscure way with the moral crisis which had drawn her into this convent? There seemed to be a connection, only she did not seem to be able to work it out. But there must be one surely, otherwise her poor people, whom she loved so dearly, would not have been abandoned. A very cruel abandonment it was, and she pondered a long while on this subject without arriving at any other conclusion except that for her to remain in the convent to teach music to the children of rich merchants, who had villas in Wimbledon, was out of the question. Her poor people were calling to her, and the convent had no further concern in her life. Of that she was sure. It was no longer the same convent. The original aspiration had declined; the declension had been from the late Prioress to Sister Winifred, who, knowing that her own election to Prioress was impossible, had striven to get Mother Philippa elected Prioress and herself sub-Prioress—a very clever move on her part, for with Mother Philippa as Prioress the management of the school would be left to her, and the school was what interested her. Of course, the money they made would be devoted to building a chapel, or something of that kind; but it was the making of money which would henceforth be the pleasure of the convent. Evelyn took a certain pleasure in listening negligently to Mother Winifred, who seemed unable to resist the desire to talk to her about vocations whenever they met. From whatever point they started, the conversation would soon turn upon a vocation, and Evelyn found herself in the end listening to a story of some novice who thought she had no vocation and had left the convent, but had returned.
"And very often," Mother Winifred would say sententiously, "those who think themselves most sure of their vocation find themselves without one."
And Evelyn would answer, "Those who would take the last place are put up first—isn't that it, Mother Winifred?"
Very often as they walked round the great, red-brick building, with rows of windows on either side facing each other, so that the sky could be seen through the building, Evelyn said:
"But do you not regret the trees?" She took pleasure in reminding every nun that they sacrificed the beauty of the garden in the hope of making a little money; and these remarks, though they annoyed Mother Winifred, did not prevent her from speaking with pride of the school, now rapidly advancing towards completion, nor did Evelyn's criticism check her admiration of Evelyn herself. It seemed to Evelyn that Mother Winifred was always paying her compliments, or if she were not doing that, she would seek opportunities to take Evelyn into her confidence, telling her of the many pupils they had been promised, and of the conversions that would follow their teaching. The girls would be impressed by the quiet beauty of the nun's life; some of them would discover in themselves vocations for the religious life, and a great many would certainly go away anxious for conversion; and, even if their conversions did not happen at once, though they might be delayed for years, sooner or later many conversions would be the result of this school. And the result of all this flummery was:
"Now, why should you not stay with us, dear, only a little while longer? It would be such a sad thing if you were to go away, and find that, after all, you had a vocation for the religious life, for if you return to us you will have to go through the novitiate again."
"But, Mother Winifred, you always begin upon the supposition that I have a vocation. Now, supposing you begin upon the other supposition —that I have not one."
Mother Winifred hesitated, and looked sharply at Evelyn; but, unable to take her advice, on the very next opportunity she spoke to Evelyn of the vocation which she might discover in herself when it was too late.
"You have forgotten what I said, Mother Winifred."
Mother Winifred laughed, but, undaunted, she soon returned with some new argument, which had occurred to her in the interval, as she prayed in church, or in her cell at night, and the temptation to try the effect of the new argument on Evelyn was irresistible.
"Dear Sister Teresa—you see the familiar name comes to my tongue though you have put off the habit—we shall be a long time in straitened circumstances. A new mortgage has had, as you know, to be placed on the property in order to get money to build the school; the school will pay, but not at once."
Evelyn protested she was not responsible for this new debt. She had advised the Prioress and Mother Winifred against it, warning them that she did not intend to remain in the convent.
"But we always expected that you would remain."
And in this way Evelyn was made to feel her responsibility so much that in the end she consented to give up part of her money to the nuns. So long as she had just enough to live upon it did not matter, and she owed these nuns a great deal. True that she had paid them ten times over what she owed them, but still, it was difficult to measure one's debts in pounds, shillings, and pence. However, that was the way the nuns wanted her to measure them, and if she could leave them fifteen hundred pounds—. And as soon as this sum was agreed upon, Sister Winifred never lost an opportunity of regretting that the convent was obliged to accept this magnificent donation, hinting that the Prioress and herself would be willing (and there would be no difficulty in obtaining the consent of the choir sisters) to accept Evelyn's services for three years in the school instead of the money.
"Five hundred a year we shall be paying you, but the value of your teaching will be very great; mothers will be especially anxious to send their daughters to our school, so that they may get good singing lessons from you."
"And when I leave?"
"Well, the school will have obtained a reputation by that time. Of course, you will be a loss, but we must try to do without you."
"Three years in this convent!"
"But you are quite free here; you come and go as you please. After all, your intention in leaving the convent is to teach music. Why not teach music here?"
The argument was an ingenious one, but Evelyn did not feel that it would appeal to her in the least, either to continue living in the convent after she had finished her book, or to go back to the convent to give singing lessons three or four times a week.
It would be preferable for her to give fifteen hundred pounds to the convent, and so finish with the whole thing; and this she intended to do, though she put Mother Winifred off with evasion, leaving her thinking that perhaps after all she would teach for some little while in the convent. It was necessary to do this, for Mother Winifred could persuade Mother Philippa as she pleased; and it had occurred to Evelyn that perhaps Mother Winfred might arrange for her expulsion. Nothing could be easier than to tell her that somebody's friend was going to stay with them in the convent, that the guest-room would be wanted. To leave now would not suit Evelyn at all. The late Prioress's papers belonged to the convent; and to deceive Mother Winifred completely Evelyn agreed to give some singing lessons, for they had already begun to receive pupils, though the school was not yet finished.
This teaching proved very irksome to her, for it delayed the completion of her book, and she often meditated an escape, thinking how this might be accomplished while the nuns played at ball in the autumn afternoon. Very often they were all in the garden, all except Sister Agnes, the portress, and she often left her keys on the nail. So it would be easy for Evelyn to run down the covered way and take the keys from the nail and open the door. And the day came when she could not resist the temptation of opening the door, not with a view to escape; but just to know what the sensation of the open door was like. And she stood for some time looking into the landscape, remembering vaguely, somewhere at the back of her mind, that she could not take the Prioress's papers with her, they did not belong to her; the convent could institute an action for theft against her, the Prioress not having made any formal will, only a memorandum saying she would like Evelyn to collect her papers.
So it was necessary for her to lock the gate again, to restore the keys to the nail, and return to the library. But in a few weeks more her task would be done, and it would be pleasanter to go away when it was done; and, as it has already been said, Evelyn liked landmarks. "To pass out is easy, but the Evelyn that goes out will not be the same as the Evelyn who came in." And a terror gathered in her mind, remembering that she was forty, and to begin life again after forty, and after such an experience as hers, might prove beyond her strength. Doubts enter into every mind, doubt entered into hers; perhaps the convent was the natural end of her life, not as a nun, but as an oblate. The guest-room was a pleasant room, and she could live more cheaply in the convent than elsewhere. There are cowardly hours in every life, and there were hours when this compromise appealed to Evelyn Innes. But if she remained she would have to continue teaching under Mother Winifred's direction. A little revolt awoke in her. She could not do that; and she began to think what would happen to her when she left the convent. There would not be money enough left her to sit down in a small flat and do nothing; she would have to work. Well, she would have to do that in any case, for idleness was not natural to her, and she would have to work for somebody besides herself—for her poor people—and this she could do by giving singing lessons. Where? In Dulwich? But to go back to the house in which she lived her life, to the room which used to be hung with the old instruments, and to revive her mother's singing classes? No, she could not begin her life from exactly the same point at which she left off. And gradually the project formed in her mind of a new life, a life which would be at once new and old. And the project seemed to take shape as she wrote the last pages of her memoir of the late Prioress.
"It is done, and I have got a right to my own manuscript; they cannot take that from me." And she went into the sacristy, her manuscript in her hand.
The cool, sweet room seemed empty, and Veronica emerged from the shadow, almost a shadow. There were two windows, lattice panes, and these let the light fall upon the counter, along which the vestments were laid for the priest. The oak press was open, and it exhaled an odour of orris root and lavender, and Veronica, standing beside it, a bunch of keys at her girdle, once more reminded Evelyn of the mediaeval virgin she had seen in the Rhenish churches.
"I have finished collecting your aunt's papers."
"And now you are going to leave us?"
There was a sob in the girl's voice, and all Evelyn's thoughts about her seemed to converge and to concentrate. There was the girl before her who passed through life without knowing it, interested in putting out the vestments for an old priest, hiding his amice so that no other hands but hers should touch it; this and the dream of an angel who visited her in sleep and whose flesh was filled with luminous tints constituted all she knew of life, all she would ever know. There were tears in her eyes now, there was a sob in her voice; she would regret her friend for a day, for a week, and then the convent life would draw about her like great heavy curtains. Evelyn remembered how she had told her of a certain restlessness which kept her from her prayers; she remembered how she had said to her, "It will pass, everything will pass away." She would become an old nun, and would be carried to the graveyard just as her aunt had been. When would that happen? Perhaps not for fifty years. Sooner or later it would happen. And Evelyn listened to Veronica saying the convent would never be the same without her, saying:
"Once you leave us you will never come back."
"Yes, I shall, Veronica; I shall come once or twice to see you."
"Perhaps it would be better for you not to come at all," the girl cried, and turned away; and then going forward suddenly as Evelyn was about to leave the sacristy, she said:
"But when are you leaving? When are you leaving?"
"To-morrow; there is no reason why I should wait any longer."
"We cannot part like this." And she put down the chalice, and the women went into a chill wind; the pear-trees were tossing, and there were crocuses in the bed and a few snowdrops.
"You had better remain until the weather gets warmer; to leave in this bleak season! Oh, Sister, how we shall miss you! But you were never like a nun."
They walked many times to and fro, forgetful of the bleak wind blowing.
"It must be so, you were never like a nun. Of course we all knew, I at least knew... only we are sorry to lose you."
The next day a carriage came for Evelyn. The nuns assembled to bid her goodbye; they were as kind as their ideas allowed them to be, but, of course, they disapproved of Evelyn going, and the fifteen hundred pounds she left them did not seem to reconcile them to her departure. It certainly did not reconcile Mother Winifred, who refused to come down to wish her goodbye, saying that Evelyn had deceived them by promising to remain, or at all events led them to think she would stay with them until the school was firmly established. Mother Philippa apologised for her, but Evelyn said it was not necessary.
"After all, what Mother Winifred says is the truth, only I could not do otherwise. Now, goodbye, I'll come to see you again, may I not?"
They did not seem very anxious on this point, and Evelyn thought it quite possible she might never see the convent again, which had meant so much to her and which was now behind her. Her thoughts were already engaged in the world towards which she was going, and thinking of the etiolated hands of the nuns she remembered the brown hands of her poor people; it was these hands that had drawn her out of the convent, so she liked to think; and it was nearly the truth, not the whole truth, for that we may never know.
The blinds of 27, Berkeley Square were always down, and when Sir Owen's friends called the answer was invariably the same: "No news of Sir Owen yet; his letters aren't forwarded; business matters are attended to by Mr. Watts, the secretary." And Sir Owen's friends went away wondering when the wandering spirit would die in him.
It was these last travels, extending over two years, in the Far East, that killed it; Owen felt sure of that when he entered his house, glad of its comfort, glad to be home again; and sinking into his armchair he began to read his letters, wondering how he should answer the different invitations, for every one was now more than six months old, some going back as far as eighteen months. It seemed absurd to write to Lady So-and-so, thanking her for an invitation so long gone by. All the same, he would like to see her, and all his friends, the most tedious would be welcome now. He tore open the envelopes, reading the letters greedily, unsuspicious of one amongst them which would make him forget the others—a letter from Evelyn. It came at last under his hand, and having glanced through it he sank back in his chair, overcome, not so much by surprise that she had left her convent as at finding that the news had put no great gladness into his heart, rather, a feeling of disappointment.
"How little one knows about oneself!" But he wasn't sorry she had left the convent. A terrible result of time and travel it would be if his first feeling on opening her letter were one of disappointment. He was sorry she had been disappointed, and thought for a long time of that long waste of life, five years spent with nuns. "We are strange beings, indeed," he said. And getting up, he looked out the place she wrote from, discovering it to be a Surrey village, probably about thirty miles from London, with a bad train service; and having sent a telegram asking if it would suit her for him to go down to see her next day, he fell back in his chair to think more easily how his own life had been affected by Evelyn's retreat from the convent; and again he experienced a feeling of disappointment. "A long waste of life, not only of her life, but of mine," for he had travelled thousands of miles... to forget her? Good heavens, no! What would his life be without remembrance of Evelyn? He had come home believing himself reconciled to the loss of Evelyn, and willing to live in memories of her—the management of his estate a sufficient interest for his life, and his thoughts were already engaged in the building of a new gatehouse; after all, Riversdale was his business, and he had come home to work for his successor while cherishing a dream— wasn't it strange? But this letter had torn down his dream and his life was again in pieces. Would he ever be at rest while she was abroad? Would it not have been better for them both if she had remained in her convent? The thought seemed odiously selfish. If she were to read his disappointment on hearing that she was no longer in the convent? ... Telepathy! There were instances! And his thoughts drifted away, and he seemed to lose consciousness of everything, until he was awakened by the butler bringing back her reply.
Now he would see her in twenty-four hours, and hear from her lips a story of adventure, for it is an adventure to renounce the world, the greatest, unless a return to the world be a greater. She had known both; and it would be interesting to hear her tell both stories—if she could tell her stories; she might only be half aware of their interest and importance.
"God only knows what she is like now! A wreck, a poor derelict woman, with no life to call her own. The life of an actress which I gave her, and which was so beautiful, wrecked; and the life of a nun, which she insisted on striving after, wrecked." A cold, blighting sorrow like a mist came up, it seemed to penetrate to his very bones, and he asked why she had left the convent—of what use could she be out of it?... only to torment him again. Twenty times during the course of the evening and the next morning he resolved not to go to see her, and as many times a sudden desire to see her ripped up his resolution; and he ordered the brougham. "Five years' indulgence in vigils and abstinences, superstitions must have made a great change in her; utterly unlike the Evelyn Innes whom I discovered years ago in Dulwich, the beautiful pagan girl whom I took away to Paris." He was convinced. But anxious to impugn his conviction, he took her letter from his pocket, and in it discovered traces, which cheered him, of the old Evelyn.
"She must have suffered terribly on finding herself obliged after five years to retreat, and something of the original spirit was required for her to fight her way out, for, of course, she was opposed at every moment."
The little stations went by one by one: the train stopped nine or ten times before it reached the penultimate.
"In the next few minutes I shall see her. She is sure to come to the station to meet me. If she doesn't I'll go back—what an end that would be! A strange neighbourhood to choose. Why did she come here? With whom is she living? In a few minutes I shall know."
The train began to slacken speed. "Why, there she is on the platform." The train rushed by her, the first-class carriages stopping at the other end; and, calling to the porter to take his bag out of the carriage, he sprang out, tall and thin. "Like one who had never had the gout," she said, as she hurried to meet him, smiling, so intimately did his appearance bring back old times. "He is so like himself, and better dressed than I am; the embroidered waistcoat still goes in at the waist; and he still wears shirts with mauve stripes. But he is a good deal greyer... and more wrinkled than I am."