Their Christmas was naturally overshadowed, and so, as it were by a common impulse, they turned to such people as Barbara and Jamie, people who would neither despise nor insult them. It was Mary who suggested that Barbara and Jamie should be asked to share their Christmas dinner, while Stephen who must suddenly pity Wanda for a misjudged and very unfortunate genius, invited her also — after all why note Wanda was more sinned against than sinning. She drank, oh, yes, Wanda drowned her sorrows; everybody knew that, and like Valérie Seymour, Stephen hated drink like the plague — but all the same she invited Wanda.
An ill wind it is that blows no one any good. Barbara and Jamie accepted with rapture; but for Mary’s most timely invitation, their funds being low at the end of the year, they two must have gone without Christmas dinner. Wanda also seemed glad enough to come, to leave her enormous, turbulent canvas for the orderly peace of the well-warmed house with its comfortable rooms and its friendly servants. All three of them arrived a good hour before dinner, which on this occasion would be in the evening.
Wanda had been up to Midnight Mass at the Sacré Coeur, she informed them gravely; and Stephen, reminded of Mademoiselle Duphot, regretted that she had not offered her the motor. No doubt she too had gone up to Montmartre for Midnight Mass — how queer, she and Wanda. Wanda was quiet, depressed and quite sober; she was wearing a straight-cut, simple black dress that somehow suggested a species of cassock. And as often happened when Wanda was sober, she repeated herself more than when she was drunk.
‘I have been to the Sacré Coeur,’ she repeated, ‘for the Messe de Minuit; it was very lovely.’
But she did not reveal the tragic fact that her fear had suddenly laid hold upon her at the moment of approaching the altar rails, so that she had scuttled back to her seat, terrified of receiving the Christmas Communion. Even a painfully detailed confession of intemperance, of the lusts of the eyes and the mind, of the very occasional sins of the body; even the absolution accorded by a white-haired old priest who had spoken gently and pitifully to his penitent, directing her prayers to the Sacred Heart from which his own heart had derived its compassion — even these things failed to give Wanda courage when it came to the Christmas Communion. And now as she sat at Stephen’s table she ate little and drank but three glasses of wine; nor did she ask for a cognac brandy when later they went to the study for coffee, but must talk of the mighty temple of her faith that watched day and night, night and day over Paris.
She said in her very perfect English: ‘Is it not a great thing that France has done? From every town and village in France has come money to build that church at Montmartre. Many people have purchased the stones of the church, and their names are carved on those stones for ever. I am very much too hard up to do that — and yet I would like to own a small stone. I would just say: “From Wanda”, because of course one need not bother about the surname; mine is so long and so difficult to spell — yes, I would ask them to say: “From Wanda”.’
Jamie and Barbara listened politely, yet without sympathy and without comprehension; while Mary must even smile a little at what seemed to her like mere superstition. But Stephen’s imagination was touched, and she questioned Wanda about her religion. Then Wanda turned grateful eyes upon Stephen and suddenly wanted to win her friendship — she looked so reassuring and cairn sitting there in her peaceful, book-lined study. A great writer she was, did not everyone say so? And yet she was surely even as Wanda . . . Oh, but Stephen had got the better of her fate, had wrestled with her fate so that now it must serve her; that was fine, that was surely true courage, true greatness! For that Christmas none save Mary might know of the bitterness that was in Stephen’s heart, least of all the impulsive, erratic Wanda.
Wanda needed no second invitation to talk, and very soon her eyes were aglow with the fire of the born religious fanatic as she told of the little town in Poland, with its churches, its bells that were always chiming — the Mass bells beginning at early dawn, the Angelus bells, the Vesper bells — always calling, calling, they were, said Wanda. Through the years of persecution and strife, of wars and the endless rumours of wars that had ravaged her most unhappy country, her people had clung to their ancient faith like true children of Mother Church, said Wanda. She herself had three brothers, and all of them priests; her parents had been pious people, they were both dead now, had been dead for some years; and Wanda signed her breast with the Cross, having regard for the souls of her parents. Then she tried to explain the meaning of her faith, but this she did exceedingly badly, finding that words are not always easy when they must encompass the things of the spirit, the things that she herself knew by instinct; and then, too, these days her brain was not clear, thanks to brandy, even when she was quite sober. The details of her coming to Paris she omitted, but Stephen thought she could easily guess them, for Wanda declared with a curious pride that her brothers were men of stone and of iron. Saints they all were, according to Wanda, uncompromising, fierce and relentless, seeing only the straight and narrow path on each side of which yawned the fiery chasm.
‘I was not as they were, ah, no!’ she declared, ‘Nor was I as my father and mother; I was — I was . . . ’ She stopped speaking abruptly, gazing at Stephen with her burning eyes which said quite plainly: ‘You know what I was, you understand.’ And Stephen nodded, divining the reason of Wanda’s exile.
But suddenly Mary began to grow restless, putting an end to this dissertation by starting the large, new gramophone which Stephen had given her for Christmas. The gramophone blared out the latest foxtrot, and jumping up, Barbara and Jamie started dancing, while Stephen and Wanda moved chairs and tables, rolled back rugs and explained to the barking David that he could not join in, but might, if he chose, sit and watch them dance from the divan. Then Wanda slipped an arm around Mary and they glided off; an incongruous couple, the one clad as sombrely as any priest, the other in her soft evening dress of blue chiffon. Mary lay gently against Wanda’s arm, and she seemed to Stephen a very perfect dancer — lighting a cigarette, she watched them. The dance over, Mary put on a new record; she was flushed and her eyes were considerably brighter.
‘Why did you never tell met’ Stephen murmured.
‘Tell you what?’
‘Why, that you danced so well.’
Mary hesitated, then she murmured back: ‘You didn’t dance, so what was the good?’
‘Wanda, you must teach me to foxtrot,’ smiled Stephen.
Jamie was blundering round the room with Barbara clasped to her untidy bosom; then she and Barbara started to sing the harmless, but foolish words of the foxtrot — if the servants were singing their old Breton hymns along in the kitchen, no one troubled to listen. Growing hilarious, Jamie sang louder spinning with Barbara, gyrating wildly, until Barbara, between laughing and coughing, must implore her to stop, must beg for mercy.
Wanda said: ‘You might have a lesson now, Stephen.’
Putting her hands on Stephen’s shoulders, she began to explain the more simple steps, which did not appear at all hard to Stephen. The music seemed to have got into her feet so that her feet must follow its rhythm. She discovered to her own very great amazement that she liked this less formal modern dancing, and after a while she was clasping Mary quite firmly, and they moved away together while Wanda stood calling out her instructions:
‘Take much longer steps! Keep your knees straight — straighter! Don’t get so much to the side — look, it’s this way — hold her this way; always stand square to your partner.’
The lesson went on for a good two hours, until even Mary seemed somewhat exhausted. She suddenly rang the bell for Pierre, who appeared with the tray of simple supper. Then Mary did an unusual thing — she poured herself out a whisky and soda.
‘I’m tired,’ she explained rather fretfully in answer to Stephen’s look of surprise; and she frowned as she turned her back abruptly. But Wanda shied away from the brandy as a frightened horse will shy from fire; she drank two large glasses of lemonade — an extremist she was in all things, this Wanda. Quite soon she announced that she must go home to bed, because of her latest picture which required every ounce of strength she had in her; but before she went she said eagerly to Stephen:
‘Do let me show you the Sacré Coeur. You have seen it of course, but only as a tourist; that is not really seeing it at all, you must come there with me.’
‘All right,’ agreed Stephen.
When Jamie and Barbara had departed in their turn, Stephen took Mary into her arms: ‘Dearest . . . has it been a fairly nice Christmas after all?’ she inquired almost timidly.
Mary kissed her: ‘Of course it’s been a nice Christmas.’ Then her youthful face suddenly changed in expression, the grey eyes growing hard, the mouth resentful: ‘Damn that woman for what she’s done to us, Stephen — the insolence of it! But I’ve learnt my lesson; we’ve got plenty of friends without Lady Massey and Agnes, friends to whom we’re not moral lepers.’ And she laughed, a queer, little joyless laugh.
Stephen flinched, remembering Brockett’s warning.
Wanda’s chastened and temperate mood persisted for several weeks, and while it was on her she clung like a drowning man to Stephen, haunting the house from morning until night, dreading to be alone for a moment. It cannot be said that Stephen suffered her gladly, for now with the New Year she was working hard on a series of articles and short stories; unwilling to visualize defeat, she began once again to sharpen her weapon. But something in Wanda’s poor efforts to keep sober, in her very dependence, was deeply appealing, so that Stephen would put aside her work, feeling loath to desert the unfortunate creature.
Several times they made a long pilgrimage on foot to the church of the Sacré Coeur; just they two, for Mary would never go with them; she was prejudiced against Wanda’s religion. They would climb the steep streets with their flights of steps, grey streets, grey steps leading up from the city. Wanda’s eyes would always be fixed on their goal — pilgrim eyes they would often seem to Stephen. Arrived at the church she and Wanda would stand looking down between the tall, massive columns of the porch, on a Paris of domes and mists, only half revealed by the fitful sunshine. The air would seem pure up there on the height, pure and tenuous as a thing of the spirit. And something in that mighty temple of faith, that amazing thrust towards the sublime, that silent yet articulate cry of a nation to its God, would awaken a response in Stephen, so that she would seem to be brushing the hem of an age-old and rather terrible mystery — the eternal mystery of good and evil.
Inside the church would be brooding shadows, save where the wide lakes of amber fire spread out from the endless votive candles. Above the high altar the monstranced Host would gleam curiously white in the light of the candles. The sound of praying, monotonous, low, insistent, would come from those who prayed with extended arms, with crucified arms, all day and all night for the sins of Paris.
Wanda would make her way to the statue of the silver Christ with one hand on His heart, and the other held out in supplication. Kneeling down she would sign herself with His Cross, then cover her eyes and forget about Stephen. Standing quietly behind her Stephen would wonder what Wanda was saying to the silver Christ, what the silver Christ was saying to Wanda. She would think that He looked very weary, this Christ Who must listen to so many supplications. Queer, unbidden thoughts came to her at such moments; this Man Who was God, a God Who waited, could He answer the riddle of Wanda’s existence, of her own existence? If she asked, could He answer? What if she were suddenly to cry out loudly: ‘Look at us, we are two yet we stand for many. Our name is legion and we also are waiting, we also are tired, oh, but terribly tired . . . Will You give us some hope of ultimate release? Will You tell us the secret of our salvation?’
Wanda would rise from her prayers rather stiffly to purchase a couple of votive candles, and when she had stuck them into the sconce she would touch the foot of the silver Christ as she bade Him farewell — a time-honoured custom. Then she and Stephen might turn again to the lake of fire that flowed round the monstrance.
But one morning when they arrived at the church, the monstrance was not above the high altar. The altar had just been garnished and swept, so the Host was still in the Lady Chapel. And while they stood there and gazed at the Host, came a priest and with him a grey-haired server; they would bear their God back again to His home, to the costly shrine of His endless vigil. The server must first light his little lantern suspended from a pole, and must then grasp his bell. The priest must lift his Lord from the monstrance and lay Him upon a silken cover, and carry Him as a man carries a child — protectively, gently, yet strongly withal, as though some frustrated paternal instinct were finding in this a divine expression. The lantern swung rhythmically to and fro, the bell rang out its imperative warning; then the careful priest followed after the server who cleared his path to the great high altar. And even as once very long ago, such a bell had been the herald of death in the putrefying hand of the leper: ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ death and putrefaction — the warning bell in the dreadful hand that might never again know the clasp of the healthful — so now the bell rang out the approach of supreme purity, of the Healer of lepers, earthbound through compassion; but compassion so vast, so urgent, that the small, white disc of the Host must contain the whole suffering universe. Thus the Prisoner of love Who could never break free while one spiritual leper remained to be healed, passed by on His patient way, heavy-laden.
Wanda suddenly fell to her knees, striking her lean and unfruitful breast, for as always she very shamefully feared, and her fear was a bitter and most deadly insult. With downcast eyes and trembling hands she cowered at the sight of her own salvation. But Stephen stood upright and curiously still, staring into the empty Lady Chapel.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55