Nothing, half a century ago, more resembled every other carriage gate than the carriage gate of Number 62 Rue Petit–Picpus. This entrance, which usually stood ajar in the most inviting fashion, permitted a view of two things, neither of which have anything very funereal about them — a courtyard surrounded by walls hung with vines, and the face of a lounging porter. Above the wall, at the bottom of the court, tall trees were visible. When a ray of sunlight enlivened the courtyard, when a glass of wine cheered up the porter, it was difficult to pass Number 62 Little Picpus Street without carrying away a smiling impression of it. Nevertheless, it was a sombre place of which one had had a glimpse.
The threshold smiled; the house prayed and wept.
If one succeeded in passing the porter, which was not easy — which was even nearly impossible for every one, for there was an open sesame! which it was necessary to know — if, the porter once passed, one entered a little vestibule on the right, on which opened a staircase shut in between two walls and so narrow that only one person could ascend it at a time, if one did not allow one’s self to be alarmed by a daubing of canary yellow, with a dado of chocolate which clothed this staircase, if one ventured to ascend it, one crossed a first landing, then a second, and arrived on the first story at a corridor where the yellow wash and the chocolate-hued plinth pursued one with a peaceable persistency. Staircase and corridor were lighted by two beautiful windows. The corridor took a turn and became dark. If one doubled this cape, one arrived a few paces further on, in front of a door which was all the more mysterious because it was not fastened. If one opened it, one found one’s self in a little chamber about six feet square, tiled, well-scrubbed, clean, cold, and hung with nankin paper with green flowers, at fifteen sous the roll. A white, dull light fell from a large window, with tiny panes, on the left, which usurped the whole width of the room. One gazed about, but saw no one; one listened, one heard neither a footstep nor a human murmur. The walls were bare, the chamber was not furnished; there was not even a chair.
One looked again, and beheld on the wall facing the door a quadrangular hole, about a foot square, with a grating of interlacing iron bars, black, knotted, solid, which formed squares — I had almost said meshes — of less than an inch and a half in diagonal length. The little green flowers of the nankin paper ran in a calm and orderly manner to those iron bars, without being startled or thrown into confusion by their funereal contact. Supposing that a living being had been so wonderfully thin as to essay an entrance or an exit through the square hole, this grating would have prevented it. It did not allow the passage of the body, but it did allow the passage of the eyes; that is to say, of the mind. This seems to have occurred to them, for it had been re-enforced by a sheet of tin inserted in the wall a little in the rear, and pierced with a thousand holes more microscopic than the holes of a strainer. At the bottom of this plate, an aperture had been pierced exactly similar to the orifice of a letter box. A bit of tape attached to a bell-wire hung at the right of the grated opening.
If the tape was pulled, a bell rang, and one heard a voice very near at hand, which made one start.
“Who is there?” the voice demanded.
It was a woman’s voice, a gentle voice, so gentle that it was mournful.
Here, again, there was a magical word which it was necessary to know. If one did not know it, the voice ceased, the wall became silent once more, as though the terrified obscurity of the sepulchre had been on the other side of it.
If one knew the password, the voice resumed, “Enter on the right.”
One then perceived on the right, facing the window, a glass door surmounted by a frame glazed and painted gray. On raising the latch and crossing the threshold, one experienced precisely the same impression as when one enters at the theatre into a grated baignoire, before the grating is lowered and the chandelier is lighted. One was, in fact, in a sort of theatre-box, narrow, furnished with two old chairs, and a much-frayed straw matting, sparely illuminated by the vague light from the glass door; a regular box, with its front just of a height to lean upon, bearing a tablet of black wood. This box was grated, only the grating of it was not of gilded wood, as at the opera; it was a monstrous lattice of iron bars, hideously interlaced and riveted to the wall by enormous fastenings which resembled clenched fists.
The first minutes passed; when one’s eyes began to grow used to this cellar-like half-twilight, one tried to pass the grating, but got no further than six inches beyond it. There he encountered a barrier of black shutters, re-enforced and fortified with transverse beams of wood painted a gingerbread yellow. These shutters were divided into long, narrow slats, and they masked the entire length of the grating. They were always closed. At the expiration of a few moments one heard a voice proceeding from behind these shutters, and saying:—
“I am here. What do you wish with me?”
It was a beloved, sometimes an adored, voice. No one was visible. Hardly the sound of a breath was audible. It seemed as though it were a spirit which had been evoked, that was speaking to you across the walls of the tomb.
If one chanced to be within certain prescribed and very rare conditions, the slat of one of the shutters opened opposite you; the evoked spirit became an apparition. Behind the grating, behind the shutter, one perceived so far as the grating permitted sight, a head, of which only the mouth and the chin were visible; the rest was covered with a black veil. One caught a glimpse of a black guimpe, and a form that was barely defined, covered with a black shroud. That head spoke with you, but did not look at you and never smiled at you.
The light which came from behind you was adjusted in such a manner that you saw her in the white, and she saw you in the black. This light was symbolical.
Nevertheless, your eyes plunged eagerly through that opening which was made in that place shut off from all glances. A profound vagueness enveloped that form clad in mourning. Your eyes searched that vagueness, and sought to make out the surroundings of the apparition. At the expiration of a very short time you discovered that you could see nothing. What you beheld was night, emptiness, shadows, a wintry mist mingled with a vapor from the tomb, a sort of terrible peace, a silence from which you could gather nothing, not even sighs, a gloom in which you could distinguish nothing, not even phantoms.
What you beheld was the interior of a cloister.
It was the interior of that severe and gloomy edifice which was called the Convent of the Bernardines of the Perpetual Adoration. The box in which you stood was the parlor. The first voice which had addressed you was that of the portress who always sat motionless and silent, on the other side of the wall, near the square opening, screened by the iron grating and the plate with its thousand holes, as by a double visor. The obscurity which bathed the grated box arose from the fact that the parlor, which had a window on the side of the world, had none on the side of the convent. Profane eyes must see nothing of that sacred place.
Nevertheless, there was something beyond that shadow; there was a light; there was life in the midst of that death. Although this was the most strictly walled of all convents, we shall endeavor to make our way into it, and to take the reader in, and to say, without transgressing the proper bounds, things which story-tellers have never seen, and have, therefore, never described.
This convent, which in 1824 had already existed for many a long year in the Rue Petit–Picpus, was a community of Bernardines of the obedience of Martin Verga.
These Bernardines were attached, in consequence, not to Clairvaux, like the Bernardine monks, but to Citeaux, like the Benedictine monks. In other words, they were the subjects, not of Saint Bernard, but of Saint Benoit.
Any one who has turned over old folios to any extent knows that Martin Verga founded in 1425 a congregation of Bernardines–Benedictines, with Salamanca for the head of the order, and Alcala as the branch establishment.
This congregation had sent out branches throughout all the Catholic countries of Europe.
There is nothing unusual in the Latin Church in these grafts of one order on another. To mention only a single order of Saint–Benoit, which is here in question: there are attached to this order, without counting the obedience of Martin Verga, four congregations — two in Italy, Mont–Cassin and Sainte–Justine of Padua; two in France, Cluny and Saint–Maur; and nine orders — Vallombrosa, Granmont, the Celestins, the Camaldules, the Carthusians, the Humilies, the Olivateurs, the Silvestrins, and lastly, Citeaux; for Citeaux itself, a trunk for other orders, is only an offshoot of Saint–Benoit. Citeaux dates from Saint Robert, Abbe de Molesme, in the diocese of Langres, in 1098. Now it was in 529 that the devil, having retired to the desert of Subiaco — he was old — had he turned hermit? — was chased from the ancient temple of Apollo, where he dwelt, by Saint–Benoit, then aged seventeen.
After the rule of the Carmelites, who go barefoot, wear a bit of willow on their throats, and never sit down, the harshest rule is that of the Bernardines–Benedictines of Martin Verga. They are clothed in black, with a guimpe, which, in accordance with the express command of Saint–Benoit, mounts to the chin. A robe of serge with large sleeves, a large woollen veil, the guimpe which mounts to the chin cut square on the breast, the band which descends over their brow to their eyes — this is their dress. All is black except the band, which is white. The novices wear the same habit, but all in white. The professed nuns also wear a rosary at their side.
The Bernardines–Benedictines of Martin Verga practise the Perpetual Adoration, like the Benedictines called Ladies of the Holy Sacrament, who, at the beginning of this century, had two houses in Paris — one at the Temple, the other in the Rue Neuve–Sainte-Genevieve. However, the Bernardines–Benedictines of the Petit–Picpus, of whom we are speaking, were a totally different order from the Ladies of the Holy Sacrament, cloistered in the Rue Neuve–Sainte-Genevieve and at the Temple. There were numerous differences in their rule; there were some in their costume. The Bernardines–Benedictines of the Petit–Picpus wore the black guimpe, and the Benedictines of the Holy Sacrament and of the Rue Neuve–Sainte-Genevieve wore a white one, and had, besides, on their breasts, a Holy Sacrament about three inches long, in silver gilt or gilded copper. The nuns of the Petit–Picpus did not wear this Holy Sacrament. The Perpetual Adoration, which was common to the house of the Petit–Picpus and to the house of the Temple, leaves those two orders perfectly distinct. Their only resemblance lies in this practice of the Ladies of the Holy Sacrament and the Bernardines of Martin Verga, just as there existed a similarity in the study and the glorification of all the mysteries relating to the infancy, the life, and death of Jesus Christ and the Virgin, between the two orders, which were, nevertheless, widely separated, and on occasion even hostile. The Oratory of Italy, established at Florence by Philip de Neri, and the Oratory of France, established by Pierre de Berulle. The Oratory of France claimed the precedence, since Philip de Neri was only a saint, while Berulle was a cardinal.
Let us return to the harsh Spanish rule of Martin Verga.
The Bernardines–Benedictines of this obedience fast all the year round, abstain from meat, fast in Lent and on many other days which are peculiar to them, rise from their first sleep, from one to three o’clock in the morning, to read their breviary and chant matins, sleep in all seasons between serge sheets and on straw, make no use of the bath, never light a fire, scourge themselves every Friday, observe the rule of silence, speak to each other only during the recreation hours, which are very brief, and wear drugget chemises for six months in the year, from September 14th, which is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, until Easter. These six months are a modification: the rule says all the year, but this drugget chemise, intolerable in the heat of summer, produced fevers and nervous spasms. The use of it had to be restricted. Even with this palliation, when the nuns put on this chemise on the 14th of September, they suffer from fever for three or four days. Obedience, poverty, chastity, perseverance in their seclusion — these are their vows, which the rule greatly aggravates.
The prioress is elected for three years by the mothers, who are called meres vocales because they have a voice in the chapter. A prioress can only be re-elected twice, which fixes the longest possible reign of a prioress at nine years.
They never see the officiating priest, who is always hidden from them by a serge curtain nine feet in height. During the sermon, when the preacher is in the chapel, they drop their veils over their faces. They must always speak low, walk with their eyes on the ground and their heads bowed. One man only is allowed to enter the convent — the archbishop of the diocese.
There is really one other — the gardener. But he is always an old man, and, in order that he may always be alone in the garden, and that the nuns may be warned to avoid him, a bell is attached to his knee.
Their submission to the prioress is absolute and passive. It is the canonical subjection in the full force of its abnegation. As at the voice of Christ, ut voci Christi, at a gesture, at the first sign, ad nutum, ad primum signum, immediately, with cheerfulness, with perseverance, with a certain blind obedience, prompte, hilariter, perseveranter et caeca quadam obedientia, as the file in the hand of the workman, quasi limam in manibus fabri, without power to read or to write without express permission, legere vel scribere non addiscerit sine expressa superioris licentia.
Each one of them in turn makes what they call reparation. The reparation is the prayer for all the sins, for all the faults, for all the dissensions, for all the violations, for all the iniquities, for all the crimes committed on earth. For the space of twelve consecutive hours, from four o’clock in the afternoon till four o’clock in the morning, or from four o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon, the sister who is making reparation remains on her knees on the stone before the Holy Sacrament, with hands clasped, a rope around her neck. When her fatigue becomes unendurable, she prostrates herself flat on her face against the earth, with her arms outstretched in the form of a cross; this is her only relief. In this attitude she prays for all the guilty in the universe. This is great to sublimity.
As this act is performed in front of a post on which burns a candle, it is called without distinction, to make reparation or to be at the post. The nuns even prefer, out of humility, this last expression, which contains an idea of torture and abasement.
To make reparation is a function in which the whole soul is absorbed. The sister at the post would not turn round were a thunderbolt to fall directly behind her.
Besides this, there is always a sister kneeling before the Holy Sacrament. This station lasts an hour. They relieve each other like soldiers on guard. This is the Perpetual Adoration.
The prioresses and the mothers almost always bear names stamped with peculiar solemnity, recalling, not the saints and martyrs, but moments in the life of Jesus Christ: as Mother Nativity, Mother Conception, Mother Presentation, Mother Passion. But the names of saints are not interdicted.
When one sees them, one never sees anything but their mouths.
All their teeth are yellow. No tooth-brush ever entered that convent. Brushing one’s teeth is at the top of a ladder at whose bottom is the loss of one’s soul.
They never say my. They possess nothing of their own, and they must not attach themselves to anything. They call everything our; thus: our veil, our chaplet; if they were speaking of their chemise, they would say our chemise. Sometimes they grow attached to some petty object — to a book of hours, a relic, a medal that has been blessed. As soon as they become aware that they are growing attached to this object, they must give it up. They recall the words of Saint Therese, to whom a great lady said, as she was on the point of entering her order, “Permit me, mother, to send for a Bible to which I am greatly attached.” “Ah, you are attached to something! In that case, do not enter our order!”
Every person whatever is forbidden to shut herself up, to have a place of her own, a chamber. They live with their cells open. When they meet, one says, “Blessed and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar!” The other responds, “Forever.” The same ceremony when one taps at the other’s door. Hardly has she touched the door when a soft voice on the other side is heard to say hastily, “Forever!” Like all practices, this becomes mechanical by force of habit; and one sometimes says forever before the other has had time to say the rather long sentence, “Praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar.”
Among the Visitandines the one who enters says: “Ave Maria,” and the one whose cell is entered says, “Gratia plena.” It is their way of saying good day, which is in fact full of grace.
At each hour of the day three supplementary strokes sound from the church bell of the convent. At this signal prioress, vocal mothers, professed nuns, lay-sisters, novices, postulants, interrupt what they are saying, what they are doing, or what they are thinking, and all say in unison if it is five o’clock, for instance, “At five o’clock and at all hours praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar!” If it is eight o’clock, “At eight o’clock and at all hours!” and so on, according to the hour.
This custom, the object of which is to break the thread of thought and to lead it back constantly to God, exists in many communities; the formula alone varies. Thus at The Infant Jesus they say, “At this hour and at every hour may the love of Jesus kindle my heart!” The Bernardines–Benedictines of Martin Verga, cloistered fifty years ago at Petit–Picpus, chant the offices to a solemn psalmody, a pure Gregorian chant, and always with full voice during the whole course of the office. Everywhere in the missal where an asterisk occurs they pause, and say in a low voice, “Jesus–Marie-Joseph.” For the office of the dead they adopt a tone so low that the voices of women can hardly descend to such a depth. The effect produced is striking and tragic.
The nuns of the Petit–Picpus had made a vault under their grand altar for the burial of their community. The Government, as they say, does not permit this vault to receive coffins so they leave the convent when they die. This is an affliction to them, and causes them consternation as an infraction of the rules.
They had obtained a mediocre consolation at best — permission to be interred at a special hour and in a special corner in the ancient Vaugirard cemetery, which was made of land which had formerly belonged to their community.
On Fridays the nuns hear high mass, vespers, and all the offices, as on Sunday. They scrupulously observe in addition all the little festivals unknown to people of the world, of which the Church of France was so prodigal in the olden days, and of which it is still prodigal in Spain and Italy. Their stations in the chapel are interminable. As for the number and duration of their prayers we can convey no better idea of them than by quoting the ingenuous remark of one of them: “The prayers of the postulants are frightful, the prayers of the novices are still worse, and the prayers of the professed nuns are still worse.”
Once a week the chapter assembles: the prioress presides; the vocal mothers assist. Each sister kneels in turn on the stones, and confesses aloud, in the presence of all, the faults and sins which she has committed during the week. The vocal mothers consult after each confession and inflict the penance aloud.
Besides this confession in a loud tone, for which all faults in the least serious are reserved, they have for their venial offences what they call the coulpe. To make one’s coulpe means to prostrate one’s self flat on one’s face during the office in front of the prioress until the latter, who is never called anything but our mother, notifies the culprit by a slight tap of her foot against the wood of her stall that she can rise. The coulpe or peccavi, is made for a very small matter — a broken glass, a torn veil, an involuntary delay of a few seconds at an office, a false note in church, etc.; this suffices, and the coulpe is made. The coulpe is entirely spontaneous; it is the culpable person herself (the word is etymologically in its place here) who judges herself and inflicts it on herself. On festival days and Sundays four mother precentors intone the offices before a large reading-desk with four places. One day one of the mother precentors intoned a psalm beginning with Ecce, and instead of Ecce she uttered aloud the three notes do si sol; for this piece of absent-mindedness she underwent a coulpe which lasted during the whole service: what rendered the fault enormous was the fact that the chapter had laughed.
When a nun is summoned to the parlor, even were it the prioress herself, she drops her veil, as will be remembered, so that only her mouth is visible.
The prioress alone can hold communication with strangers. The others can see only their immediate family, and that very rarely. If, by chance, an outsider presents herself to see a nun, or one whom she has known and loved in the outer world, a regular series of negotiations is required. If it is a woman, the authorization may sometimes be granted; the nun comes, and they talk to her through the shutters, which are opened only for a mother or sister. It is unnecessary to say that permission is always refused to men.
Such is the rule of Saint–Benoit, aggravated by Martin Verga.
These nuns are not gay, rosy, and fresh, as the daughters of other orders often are. They are pale and grave. Between 1825 and 1830 three of them went mad.
One is a postulant for two years at least, often for four; a novice for four. It is rare that the definitive vows can be pronounced earlier than the age of twenty-three or twenty-four years. The Bernardines–Benedictines of Martin Verga do not admit widows to their order.
In their cells, they deliver themselves up to many unknown macerations, of which they must never speak.
On the day when a novice makes her profession, she is dressed in her handsomest attire, she is crowned with white roses, her hair is brushed until it shines, and curled. Then she prostrates herself; a great black veil is thrown over her, and the office for the dead is sung. Then the nuns separate into two files; one file passes close to her, saying in plaintive accents, “Our sister is dead”; and the other file responds in a voice of ecstasy, “Our sister is alive in Jesus Christ!”
At the epoch when this story takes place, a boarding-school was attached to the convent — a boarding-school for young girls of noble and mostly wealthy families, among whom could be remarked Mademoiselle de Saint–Aulaire and de Belissen, and an English girl bearing the illustrious Catholic name of Talbot. These young girls, reared by these nuns between four walls, grew up with a horror of the world and of the age. One of them said to us one day, “The sight of the street pavement made me shudder from head to foot.” They were dressed in blue, with a white cap and a Holy Spirit of silver gilt or of copper on their breast. On certain grand festival days, particularly Saint Martha’s day, they were permitted, as a high favor and a supreme happiness, to dress themselves as nuns and to carry out the offices and practice of Saint–Benoit for a whole day. In the early days the nuns were in the habit of lending them their black garments. This seemed profane, and the prioress forbade it. Only the novices were permitted to lend. It is remarkable that these performances, tolerated and encouraged, no doubt, in the convent out of a secret spirit of proselytism and in order to give these children a foretaste of the holy habit, were a genuine happiness and a real recreation for the scholars. They simply amused themselves with it. It was new; it gave them a change. Candid reasons of childhood, which do not, however, succeed in making us worldlings comprehend the felicity of holding a holy water sprinkler in one’s hand and standing for hours together singing hard enough for four in front of a reading-desk.
The pupils conformed, with the exception of the austerities, to all the practices of the convent. There was a certain young woman who entered the world, and who after many years of married life had not succeeded in breaking herself of the habit of saying in great haste whenever any one knocked at her door, “forever!” Like the nuns, the pupils saw their relatives only in the parlor. Their very mothers did not obtain permission to embrace them. The following illustrates to what a degree severity on that point was carried. One day a young girl received a visit from her mother, who was accompanied by a little sister three years of age. The young girl wept, for she wished greatly to embrace her sister. Impossible. She begged that, at least, the child might be permitted to pass her little hand through the bars so that she could kiss it. This was almost indignantly refused.
None the less, these young girls filled this grave house with charming souvenirs.
At certain hours childhood sparkled in that cloister. The recreation hour struck. A door swung on its hinges. The birds said, “Good; here come the children!” An irruption of youth inundated that garden intersected with a cross like a shroud. Radiant faces, white foreheads, innocent eyes, full of merry light, all sorts of auroras, were scattered about amid these shadows. After the psalmodies, the bells, the peals, and knells and offices, the sound of these little girls burst forth on a sudden more sweetly than the noise of bees. The hive of joy was opened, and each one brought her honey. They played, they called to each other, they formed into groups, they ran about; pretty little white teeth chattered in the corners; the veils superintended the laughs from a distance, shades kept watch of the sunbeams, but what mattered it? Still they beamed and laughed. Those four lugubrious walls had their moment of dazzling brilliancy. They looked on, vaguely blanched with the reflection of so much joy at this sweet swarming of the hives. It was like a shower of roses falling athwart this house of mourning. The young girls frolicked beneath the eyes of the nuns; the gaze of impeccability does not embarrass innocence. Thanks to these children, there was, among so many austere hours, one hour of ingenuousness. The little ones skipped about; the elder ones danced. In this cloister play was mingled with heaven. Nothing is so delightful and so august as all these fresh, expanding young souls. Homer would have come thither to laugh with Perrault; and there was in that black garden, youth, health, noise, cries, giddiness, pleasure, happiness enough to smooth out the wrinkles of all their ancestresses, those of the epic as well as those of the fairy-tale, those of the throne as well as those of the thatched cottage from Hecuba to la Mere–Grand.
In that house more than anywhere else, perhaps, arise those children’s sayings which are so graceful and which evoke a smile that is full of thoughtfulness. It was between those four gloomy walls that a child of five years exclaimed one day: “Mother! one of the big girls has just told me that I have only nine years and ten months longer to remain here. What happiness!”
It was here, too, that this memorable dialogue took place:—
A Vocal Mother. Why are you weeping, my child?
The child (aged six). I told Alix that I knew my French history. She says that I do not know it, but I do.
Alix, the big girl (aged nine). No; she does not know it.
The Mother. How is that, my child?
Alix. She told me to open the book at random and to ask her any question in the book, and she would answer it.
“She did not answer it.”
“Let us see about it. What did you ask her?”
“I opened the book at random, as she proposed, and I put the first question that I came across.”
“And what was the question?”
“It was, ‘What happened after that?’”
It was there that that profound remark was made anent a rather greedy paroquet which belonged to a lady boarder:—
“How well bred! it eats the top of the slice of bread and butter just like a person!”
It was on one of the flagstones of this cloister that there was once picked up a confession which had been written out in advance, in order that she might not forget it, by a sinner of seven years:—
“Father, I accuse myself of having been avaricious.
“Father, I accuse myself of having been an adulteress.
“Father, I accuse myself of having raised my eyes to the gentlemen.”
It was on one of the turf benches of this garden that a rosy mouth six years of age improvised the following tale, which was listened to by blue eyes aged four and five years:—
“There were three little cocks who owned a country where there were a great many flowers. They plucked the flowers and put them in their pockets. After that they plucked the leaves and put them in their playthings. There was a wolf in that country; there was a great deal of forest; and the wolf was in the forest; and he ate the little cocks.”
And this other poem:—
“There came a blow with a stick.
“It was Punchinello who bestowed it on the cat.
“It was not good for her; it hurt her.
“Then a lady put Punchinello in prison.”
It was there that a little abandoned child, a foundling whom the convent was bringing up out of charity, uttered this sweet and heart-breaking saying. She heard the others talking of their mothers, and she murmured in her corner:—
“As for me, my mother was not there when I was born!”
There was a stout portress who could always be seen hurrying through the corridors with her bunch of keys, and whose name was Sister Agatha. The big big girls — those over ten years of age — called her Agathocles.
The refectory, a large apartment of an oblong square form, which received no light except through a vaulted cloister on a level with the garden, was dark and damp, and, as the children say, full of beasts. All the places round about furnished their contingent of insects.
Each of its four corners had received, in the language of the pupils, a special and expressive name. There was Spider corner, Caterpillar corner, Wood-louse corner, and Cricket corner.
Cricket corner was near the kitchen and was highly esteemed. It was not so cold there as elsewhere. From the refectory the names had passed to the boarding-school, and there served as in the old College Mazarin to distinguish four nations. Every pupil belonged to one of these four nations according to the corner of the refectory in which she sat at meals. One day Monseigneur the Archbishop while making his pastoral visit saw a pretty little rosy girl with beautiful golden hair enter the class-room through which he was passing.
He inquired of another pupil, a charming brunette with rosy cheeks, who stood near him:—
“Who is that?”
“She is a spider, Monseigneur.”
“Bah! And that one yonder?”
“She is a cricket.”
“And that one?”
“She is a caterpillar.”
“Really! and yourself?”
“I am a wood-louse, Monseigneur.”
Every house of this sort has its own peculiarities. At the beginning of this century Ecouen was one of those strict and graceful places where young girls pass their childhood in a shadow that is almost august. At Ecouen, in order to take rank in the procession of the Holy Sacrament, a distinction was made between virgins and florists. There were also the “dais” and the “censors,”— the first who held the cords of the dais, and the others who carried incense before the Holy Sacrament. The flowers belonged by right to the florists. Four “virgins” walked in advance. On the morning of that great day it was no rare thing to hear the question put in the dormitory, “Who is a virgin?”
Madame Campan used to quote this saying of a “little one” of seven years, to a “big girl” of sixteen, who took the head of the procession, while she, the little one, remained at the rear, “You are a virgin, but I am not.”
Above the door of the refectory this prayer, which was called the white Paternoster, and which possessed the property of bearing people straight to paradise, was inscribed in large black letters:—
“Little white Paternoster, which God made, which God said, which God placed in paradise. In the evening, when I went to bed, I found three angels sitting on my bed, one at the foot, two at the head, the good Virgin Mary in the middle, who told me to lie down without hesitation. The good God is my father, the good Virgin is my mother, the three apostles are my brothers, the three virgins are my sisters. The shirt in which God was born envelopes my body; Saint Margaret’s cross is written on my breast. Madame the Virgin was walking through the meadows, weeping for God, when she met M. Saint John. ‘Monsieur Saint John, whence come you?’ ‘I come from Ave Salus.’ ‘You have not seen the good God; where is he?’ ‘He is on the tree of the Cross, his feet hanging, his hands nailed, a little cap of white thorns on his head.’ Whoever shall say this thrice at eventide, thrice in the morning, shall win paradise at the last.”
In 1827 this characteristic orison had disappeared from the wall under a triple coating of daubing paint. At the present time it is finally disappearing from the memories of several who were young girls then, and who are old women now.
A large crucifix fastened to the wall completed the decoration of this refectory, whose only door, as we think we have mentioned, opened on the garden. Two narrow tables, each flanked by two wooden benches, formed two long parallel lines from one end to the other of the refectory. The walls were white, the tables were black; these two mourning colors constitute the only variety in convents. The meals were plain, and the food of the children themselves severe. A single dish of meat and vegetables combined, or salt fish — such was their luxury. This meagre fare, which was reserved for the pupils alone, was, nevertheless, an exception. The children ate in silence, under the eye of the mother whose turn it was, who, if a fly took a notion to fly or to hum against the rule, opened and shut a wooden book from time to time. This silence was seasoned with the lives of the saints, read aloud from a little pulpit with a desk, which was situated at the foot of the crucifix. The reader was one of the big girls, in weekly turn. At regular distances, on the bare tables, there were large, varnished bowls in which the pupils washed their own silver cups and knives and forks, and into which they sometimes threw some scrap of tough meat or spoiled fish; this was punished. These bowls were called ronds d’eau. The child who broke the silence “made a cross with her tongue.” Where? On the ground. She licked the pavement. The dust, that end of all joys, was charged with the chastisement of those poor little rose-leaves which had been guilty of chirping.
There was in the convent a book which has never been printed except as a unique copy, and which it is forbidden to read. It is the rule of Saint–Benoit. An arcanum which no profane eye must penetrate. Nemo regulas, seu constitutiones nostras, externis communicabit.
The pupils one day succeeded in getting possession of this book, and set to reading it with avidity, a reading which was often interrupted by the fear of being caught, which caused them to close the volume precipitately.
From the great danger thus incurred they derived but a very moderate amount of pleasure. The most “interesting thing” they found were some unintelligible pages about the sins of young boys.
They played in an alley of the garden bordered with a few shabby fruit-trees. In spite of the extreme surveillance and the severity of the punishments administered, when the wind had shaken the trees, they sometimes succeeded in picking up a green apple or a spoiled apricot or an inhabited pear on the sly. I will now cede the privilege of speech to a letter which lies before me, a letter written five and twenty years ago by an old pupil, now Madame la Duchesse de —— one of the most elegant women in Paris. I quote literally: “One hides one’s pear or one’s apple as best one may. When one goes up stairs to put the veil on the bed before supper, one stuffs them under one’s pillow and at night one eats them in bed, and when one cannot do that, one eats them in the closet.” That was one of their greatest luxuries.
Once — it was at the epoch of the visit from the archbishop to the convent — one of the young girls, Mademoiselle Bouchard, who was connected with the Montmorency family, laid a wager that she would ask for a day’s leave of absence — an enormity in so austere a community. The wager was accepted, but not one of those who bet believed that she would do it. When the moment came, as the archbishop was passing in front of the pupils, Mademoiselle Bouchard, to the indescribable terror of her companions, stepped out of the ranks, and said, “Monseigneur, a day’s leave of absence.” Mademoiselle Bouchard was tall, blooming, with the prettiest little rosy face in the world. M. de Quelen smiled and said, “What, my dear child, a day’s leave of absence! Three days if you like. I grant you three days.” The prioress could do nothing; the archbishop had spoken. Horror of the convent, but joy of the pupil. The effect may be imagined.
This stern cloister was not so well walled off, however, but that the life of the passions of the outside world, drama, and even romance, did not make their way in. To prove this, we will confine ourselves to recording here and to briefly mentioning a real and incontestable fact, which, however, bears no reference in itself to, and is not connected by any thread whatever with the story which we are relating. We mention the fact for the sake of completing the physiognomy of the convent in the reader’s mind.
About this time there was in the convent a mysterious person who was not a nun, who was treated with great respect, and who was addressed as Madame Albertine. Nothing was known about her, save that she was mad, and that in the world she passed for dead. Beneath this history it was said there lay the arrangements of fortune necessary for a great marriage.
This woman, hardly thirty years of age, of dark complexion and tolerably pretty, had a vague look in her large black eyes. Could she see? There was some doubt about this. She glided rather than walked, she never spoke; it was not quite known whether she breathed. Her nostrils were livid and pinched as after yielding up their last sigh. To touch her hand was like touching snow. She possessed a strange spectral grace. Wherever she entered, people felt cold. One day a sister, on seeing her pass, said to another sister, “She passes for a dead woman.” “Perhaps she is one,” replied the other.
A hundred tales were told of Madame Albertine. This arose from the eternal curiosity of the pupils. In the chapel there was a gallery called L’OEil de Boeuf. It was in this gallery, which had only a circular bay, an oeil de boeuf, that Madame Albertine listened to the offices. She always occupied it alone because this gallery, being on the level of the first story, the preacher or the officiating priest could be seen, which was interdicted to the nuns. One day the pulpit was occupied by a young priest of high rank, M. Le Duc de Rohan, peer of France, officer of the Red Musketeers in 1815 when he was Prince de Leon, and who died afterward, in 1830, as cardinal and Archbishop of Besancon. It was the first time that M. de Rohan had preached at the Petit–Picpus convent. Madame Albertine usually preserved perfect calmness and complete immobility during the sermons and services. That day, as soon as she caught sight of M. de Rohan, she half rose, and said, in a loud voice, amid the silence of the chapel, “Ah! Auguste!” The whole community turned their heads in amazement, the preacher raised his eyes, but Madame Albertine had relapsed into her immobility. A breath from the outer world, a flash of life, had passed for an instant across that cold and lifeless face and had then vanished, and the mad woman had become a corpse again.
Those two words, however, had set every one in the convent who had the privilege of speech to chattering. How many things were contained in that “Ah! Auguste!” what revelations! M. de Rohan’s name really was Auguste. It was evident that Madame Albertine belonged to the very highest society, since she knew M. de Rohan, and that her own rank there was of the highest, since she spoke thus familiarly of so great a lord, and that there existed between them some connection, of relationship, perhaps, but a very close one in any case, since she knew his “pet name.”
Two very severe duchesses, Mesdames de Choiseul and de Serent, often visited the community, whither they penetrated, no doubt, in virtue of the privilege Magnates mulieres, and caused great consternation in the boarding-school. When these two old ladies passed by, all the poor young girls trembled and dropped their eyes.
Moreover, M. de Rohan, quite unknown to himself, was an object of attention to the school-girls. At that epoch he had just been made, while waiting for the episcopate, vicar-general of the Archbishop of Paris. It was one of his habits to come tolerably often to celebrate the offices in the chapel of the nuns of the Petit–Picpus. Not one of the young recluses could see him, because of the serge curtain, but he had a sweet and rather shrill voice, which they had come to know and to distinguish. He had been a mousquetaire, and then, he was said to be very coquettish, that his handsome brown hair was very well dressed in a roll around his head, and that he had a broad girdle of magnificent moire, and that his black cassock was of the most elegant cut in the world. He held a great place in all these imaginations of sixteen years.
Not a sound from without made its way into the convent. But there was one year when the sound of a flute penetrated thither. This was an event, and the girls who were at school there at the time still recall it.
It was a flute which was played in the neighborhood. This flute always played the same air, an air which is very far away nowadays — “My Zetulbe, come reign o’er my soul,”— and it was heard two or three times a day. The young girls passed hours in listening to it, the vocal mothers were upset by it, brains were busy, punishments descended in showers. This lasted for several months. The girls were all more or less in love with the unknown musician. Each one dreamed that she was Zetulbe. The sound of the flute proceeded from the direction of the Rue Droit–Mur; and they would have given anything, compromised everything, attempted anything for the sake of seeing, of catching a glance, if only for a second, of the “young man” who played that flute so deliciously, and who, no doubt, played on all these souls at the same time. There were some who made their escape by a back door, and ascended to the third story on the Rue Droit–Mur side, in order to attempt to catch a glimpse through the gaps. Impossible! One even went so far as to thrust her arm through the grating, and to wave her white handkerchief. Two were still bolder. They found means to climb on a roof, and risked their lives there, and succeeded at last in seeing “the young man.” He was an old emigre gentleman, blind and penniless, who was playing his flute in his attic, in order to pass the time.
In this enclosure of the Petit–Picpus there were three perfectly distinct buildings — the Great Convent, inhabited by the nuns, the Boarding-school, where the scholars were lodged; and lastly, what was called the Little Convent. It was a building with a garden, in which lived all sorts of aged nuns of various orders, the relics of cloisters destroyed in the Revolution; a reunion of all the black, gray, and white medleys of all communities and all possible varieties; what might be called, if such a coupling of words is permissible, a sort of harlequin convent.
When the Empire was established, all these poor old dispersed and exiled women had been accorded permission to come and take shelter under the wings of the Bernardines–Benedictines. The government paid them a small pension, the ladies of the Petit–Picpus received them cordially. It was a singular pell-mell. Each followed her own rule, Sometimes the pupils of the boarding-school were allowed, as a great recreation, to pay them a visit; the result is, that all those young memories have retained among other souvenirs that of Mother Sainte–Bazile, Mother Sainte–Scolastique, and Mother Jacob.
One of these refugees found herself almost at home. She was a nun of Sainte–Aure, the only one of her order who had survived. The ancient convent of the ladies of Sainte–Aure occupied, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, this very house of the Petit–Picpus, which belonged later to the Benedictines of Martin Verga. This holy woman, too poor to wear the magnificent habit of her order, which was a white robe with a scarlet scapulary, had piously put it on a little manikin, which she exhibited with complacency and which she bequeathed to the house at her death. In 1824, only one nun of this order remained; today, there remains only a doll.
In addition to these worthy mothers, some old society women had obtained permission of the prioress, like Madame Albertine, to retire into the Little Convent. Among the number were Madame Beaufort d’Hautpoul and Marquise Dufresne. Another was never known in the convent except by the formidable noise which she made when she blew her nose. The pupils called her Madame Vacarmini (hubbub).
About 1820 or 1821, Madame de Genlis, who was at that time editing a little periodical publication called l’Intrepide, asked to be allowed to enter the convent of the Petit–Picpus as lady resident. The Duc d’Orleans recommended her. Uproar in the hive; the vocal-mothers were all in a flutter; Madame de Genlis had made romances. But she declared that she was the first to detest them, and then, she had reached her fierce stage of devotion. With the aid of God, and of the Prince, she entered. She departed at the end of six or eight months, alleging as a reason, that there was no shade in the garden. The nuns were delighted. Although very old, she still played the harp, and did it very well.
When she went away she left her mark in her cell. Madame de Genlis was superstitious and a Latinist. These two words furnish a tolerably good profile of her. A few years ago, there were still to be seen, pasted in the inside of a little cupboard in her cell in which she locked up her silverware and her jewels, these five lines in Latin, written with her own hand in red ink on yellow paper, and which, in her opinion, possessed the property of frightening away robbers:—
Imparibus meritis pendent tria corpora ramis:15
Dismas et Gesmas, media est divina potestas;
Alta petit Dismas, infelix, infima, Gesmas;
Nos et res nostras conservet summa potestas.
Hos versus dicas, ne tu furto tua perdas.
15 On the boughs hang three bodies of unequal merits: Dismas and Gesmas, between is the divine power. Dismas seeks the heights, Gesmas, unhappy man, the lowest regions; the highest power will preserve us and our effects. If you repeat this verse, you will not lose your things by theft.
These verses in sixth century Latin raise the question whether the two thieves of Calvary were named, as is commonly believed, Dismas and Gestas, or Dismas and Gesmas. This orthography might have confounded the pretensions put forward in the last century by the Vicomte de Gestas, of a descent from the wicked thief. However, the useful virtue attached to these verses forms an article of faith in the order of the Hospitallers.
The church of the house, constructed in such a manner as to separate the Great Convent from the Boarding-school like a veritable intrenchment, was, of course, common to the Boarding-school, the Great Convent, and the Little Convent. The public was even admitted by a sort of lazaretto entrance on the street. But all was so arranged, that none of the inhabitants of the cloister could see a face from the outside world. Suppose a church whose choir is grasped in a gigantic hand, and folded in such a manner as to form, not, as in ordinary churches, a prolongation behind the altar, but a sort of hall, or obscure cellar, to the right of the officiating priest; suppose this hall to be shut off by a curtain seven feet in height, of which we have already spoken; in the shadow of that curtain, pile up on wooden stalls the nuns in the choir on the left, the school-girls on the right, the lay-sisters and the novices at the bottom, and you will have some idea of the nuns of the Petit–Picpus assisting at divine service. That cavern, which was called the choir, communicated with the cloister by a lobby. The church was lighted from the garden. When the nuns were present at services where their rule enjoined silence, the public was warned of their presence only by the folding seats of the stalls noisily rising and falling.
During the six years which separate 1819 from 1825, the prioress of the Petit–Picpus was Mademoiselle de Blemeur, whose name, in religion, was Mother Innocente. She came of the family of Marguerite de Blemeur, author of Lives of the Saints of the Order of Saint–Benoit. She had been re-elected. She was a woman about sixty years of age, short, thick, “singing like a cracked pot,” says the letter which we have already quoted; an excellent woman, moreover, and the only merry one in the whole convent, and for that reason adored. She was learned, erudite, wise, competent, curiously proficient in history, crammed with Latin, stuffed with Greek, full of Hebrew, and more of a Benedictine monk than a Benedictine nun.
The sub-prioress was an old Spanish nun, Mother Cineres, who was almost blind.
The most esteemed among the vocal mothers were Mother Sainte–Honorine; the treasurer, Mother Sainte–Gertrude, the chief mistress of the novices; Mother–Saint-Ange, the assistant mistress; Mother Annonciation, the sacristan; Mother Saint–Augustin, the nurse, the only one in the convent who was malicious; then Mother Sainte–Mechtilde (Mademoiselle Gauvain), very young and with a beautiful voice; Mother des Anges (Mademoiselle Drouet), who had been in the convent of the Filles–Dieu, and in the convent du Tresor, between Gisors and Magny; Mother Saint–Joseph (Mademoiselle de Cogolludo), Mother Sainte–Adelaide (Mademoiselle d’Auverney), Mother Misericorde (Mademoiselle de Cifuentes, who could not resist austerities), Mother Compassion (Mademoiselle de la Miltiere, received at the age of sixty in defiance of the rule, and very wealthy); Mother Providence (Mademoiselle de Laudiniere), Mother Presentation (Mademoiselle de Siguenza), who was prioress in 1847; and finally, Mother Sainte–Celigne (sister of the sculptor Ceracchi), who went mad; Mother Sainte–Chantal (Mademoiselle de Suzon), who went mad.
There was also, among the prettiest of them, a charming girl of three and twenty, who was from the Isle de Bourbon, a descendant of the Chevalier Roze, whose name had been Mademoiselle Roze, and who was called Mother Assumption.
Mother Sainte–Mechtilde, intrusted with the singing and the choir, was fond of making use of the pupils in this quarter. She usually took a complete scale of them, that is to say, seven, from ten to sixteen years of age, inclusive, of assorted voices and sizes, whom she made sing standing, drawn up in a line, side by side, according to age, from the smallest to the largest. This presented to the eye, something in the nature of a reed-pipe of young girls, a sort of living Pan-pipe made of angels.
Those of the lay-sisters whom the scholars loved most were Sister Euphrasie, Sister Sainte–Marguerite, Sister Sainte–Marthe, who was in her dotage, and Sister Sainte–Michel, whose long nose made them laugh.
All these women were gentle with the children. The nuns were severe only towards themselves. No fire was lighted except in the school, and the food was choice compared to that in the convent. Moreover, they lavished a thousand cares on their scholars. Only, when a child passed near a nun and addressed her, the nun never replied.
This rule of silence had had this effect, that throughout the whole convent, speech had been withdrawn from human creatures, and bestowed on inanimate objects. Now it was the church-bell which spoke, now it was the gardener’s bell. A very sonorous bell, placed beside the portress, and which was audible throughout the house, indicated by its varied peals, which formed a sort of acoustic telegraph, all the actions of material life which were to be performed, and summoned to the parlor, in case of need, such or such an inhabitant of the house. Each person and each thing had its own peal. The prioress had one and one, the sub-prioress one and two. Six-five announced lessons, so that the pupils never said “to go to lessons,” but “to go to six-five.” Four-four was Madame de Genlis’s signal. It was very often heard. “C’est le diable a quatre — it’s the very deuce — said the uncharitable. Tennine strokes announced a great event. It was the opening of the door of seclusion, a frightful sheet of iron bristling with bolts which only turned on its hinges in the presence of the archbishop.
With the exception of the archbishop and the gardener, no man entered the convent, as we have already said. The schoolgirls saw two others: one, the chaplain, the Abbe Banes, old and ugly, whom they were permitted to contemplate in the choir, through a grating; the other the drawing-master, M. Ansiaux, whom the letter, of which we have perused a few lines, calls M. Anciot, and describes as a frightful old hunchback.
It will be seen that all these men were carefully chosen.
Such was this curious house.
After having sketched its moral face, it will not prove unprofitable to point out, in a few words, its material configuration. The reader already has some idea of it.
The convent of the Petit–Picpus-Sainte–Antoine filled almost the whole of the vast trapezium which resulted from the intersection of the Rue Polonceau, the Rue Droit–Mur, the Rue Petit–Picpus, and the unused lane, called Rue Aumarais on old plans. These four streets surrounded this trapezium like a moat. The convent was composed of several buildings and a garden. The principal building, taken in its entirety, was a juxtaposition of hybrid constructions which, viewed from a bird’s-eye view, outlined, with considerable exactness, a gibbet laid flat on the ground. The main arm of the gibbet occupied the whole of the fragment of the Rue Droit–Mur comprised between the Rue Petit–Picpus and the Rue Polonceau; the lesser arm was a lofty, gray, severe grated facade which faced the Rue Petit–Picpus; the carriage entrance No. 62 marked its extremity. Towards the centre of this facade was a low, arched door, whitened with dust and ashes, where the spiders wove their webs, and which was open only for an hour or two on Sundays, and on rare occasions, when the coffin of a nun left the convent. This was the public entrance of the church. The elbow of the gibbet was a square hall which was used as the servants’ hall, and which the nuns called the buttery. In the main arm were the cells of the mothers, the sisters, and the novices. In the lesser arm lay the kitchens, the refectory, backed up by the cloisters and the church. Between the door No. 62 and the corner of the closed lane Aumarais, was the school, which was not visible from without. The remainder of the trapezium formed the garden, which was much lower than the level of the Rue Polonceau, which caused the walls to be very much higher on the inside than on the outside. The garden, which was slightly arched, had in its centre, on the summit of a hillock, a fine pointed and conical fir-tree, whence ran, as from the peaked boss of a shield, four grand alleys, and, ranged by twos in between the branchings of these, eight small ones, so that, if the enclosure had been circular, the geometrical plan of the alleys would have resembled a cross superposed on a wheel. As the alleys all ended in the very irregular walls of the garden, they were of unequal length. They were bordered with currant bushes. At the bottom, an alley of tall poplars ran from the ruins of the old convent, which was at the angle of the Rue Droit–Mur to the house of the Little Convent, which was at the angle of the Aumarais lane. In front of the Little Convent was what was called the little garden. To this whole, let the reader add a courtyard, all sorts of varied angles formed by the interior buildings, prison walls, the long black line of roofs which bordered the other side of the Rue Polonceau for its sole perspective and neighborhood, and he will be able to form for himself a complete image of what the house of the Bernardines of the Petit–Picpus was forty years ago. This holy house had been built on the precise site of a famous tennis-ground of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, which was called the “tennis-ground of the eleven thousand devils.”
All these streets, moreover, were more ancient than Paris. These names, Droit–Mur and Aumarais, are very ancient; the streets which bear them are very much more ancient still. Aumarais Lane was called Maugout Lane; the Rue Droit–Mur was called the Rue des Eglantiers, for God opened flowers before man cut stones.
Since we are engaged in giving details as to what the convent of the Petit–Picpus was in former times, and since we have ventured to open a window on that discreet retreat, the reader will permit us one other little digression, utterly foreign to this book, but characteristic and useful, since it shows that the cloister even has its original figures.
In the Little Convent there was a centenarian who came from the Abbey of Fontevrault. She had even been in society before the Revolution. She talked a great deal of M. de Miromesnil, Keeper of the Seals under Louis XVI. and of a Presidentess Duplat, with whom she had been very intimate. It was her pleasure and her vanity to drag in these names on every pretext. She told wonders of the Abbey of Fontevrault — that it was like a city, and that there were streets in the monastery.
She talked with a Picard accent which amused the pupils. Every year, she solemnly renewed her vows, and at the moment of taking the oath, she said to the priest, “Monseigneur Saint–Francois gave it to Monseigneur Saint–Julien, Monseigneur Saint–Julien gave it to Monseigneur Saint–Eusebius, Monseigneur Saint–Eusebius gave it to Monseigneur Saint–Procopius, etc., etc.; and thus I give it to you, father.” And the school-girls would begin to laugh, not in their sleeves, but under their veils; charming little stifled laughs which made the vocal mothers frown.
On another occasion, the centenarian was telling stories. She said that in her youth the Bernardine monks were every whit as good as the mousquetaires. It was a century which spoke through her, but it was the eighteenth century. She told about the custom of the four wines, which existed before the Revolution in Champagne and Bourgogne. When a great personage, a marshal of France, a prince, a duke, and a peer, traversed a town in Burgundy or Champagne, the city fathers came out to harangue him and presented him with four silver gondolas into which they had poured four different sorts of wine. On the first goblet this inscription could be read, monkey wine; on the second, lion wine; on the third, sheep wine; on the fourth, hog wine. These four legends express the four stages descended by the drunkard; the first, intoxication, which enlivens; the second, that which irritates; the third, that which dulls; and the fourth, that which brutalizes.
In a cupboard, under lock and key, she kept a mysterious object of which she thought a great deal. The rule of Fontevrault did not forbid this. She would not show this object to anyone. She shut herself up, which her rule allowed her to do, and hid herself, every time that she desired to contemplate it. If she heard a footstep in the corridor, she closed the cupboard again as hastily as it was possible with her aged hands. As soon as it was mentioned to her, she became silent, she who was so fond of talking. The most curious were baffled by her silence and the most tenacious by her obstinacy. Thus it furnished a subject of comment for all those who were unoccupied or bored in the convent. What could that treasure of the centenarian be, which was so precious and so secret? Some holy book, no doubt? Some unique chaplet? Some authentic relic? They lost themselves in conjectures. When the poor old woman died, they rushed to her cupboard more hastily than was fitting, perhaps, and opened it. They found the object beneath a triple linen cloth, like some consecrated paten. It was a Faenza platter representing little Loves flitting away pursued by apothecary lads armed with enormous syringes. The chase abounds in grimaces and in comical postures. One of the charming little Loves is already fairly spitted. He is resisting, fluttering his tiny wings, and still making an effort to fly, but the dancer is laughing with a satanical air. Moral: Love conquered by the colic. This platter, which is very curious, and which had, possibly, the honor of furnishing Moliere with an idea, was still in existence in September, 1845; it was for sale by a bric-a-brac merchant in the Boulevard Beaumarchais.
This good old woman would not receive any visits from outside because, said she, the parlor is too gloomy.
However, this almost sepulchral parlor, of which we have sought to convey an idea, is a purely local trait which is not reproduced with the same severity in other convents. At the convent of the Rue du Temple, in particular, which belonged, in truth, to another order, the black shutters were replaced by brown curtains, and the parlor itself was a salon with a polished wood floor, whose windows were draped in white muslin curtains and whose walls admitted all sorts of frames, a portrait of a Benedictine nun with unveiled face, painted bouquets, and even the head of a Turk.
It is in that garden of the Temple convent, that stood that famous chestnut-tree which was renowned as the finest and the largest in France, and which bore the reputation among the good people of the eighteenth century of being the father of all the chestnut trees of the realm.
As we have said, this convent of the Temple was occupied by Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration, Benedictines quite different from those who depended on Citeaux. This order of the Perpetual Adoration is not very ancient and does not go back more than two hundred years. In 1649 the holy sacrament was profaned on two occasions a few days apart, in two churches in Paris, at Saint–Sulpice and at Saint–Jean en Greve, a rare and frightful sacrilege which set the whole town in an uproar. M. the Prior and Vicar–General of Saint–Germain des Pres ordered a solemn procession of all his clergy, in which the Pope’s Nuncio officiated. But this expiation did not satisfy two sainted women, Madame Courtin, Marquise de Boucs, and the Comtesse de Chateauvieux. This outrage committed on “the most holy sacrament of the altar,” though but temporary, would not depart from these holy souls, and it seemed to them that it could only be extenuated by a “Perpetual Adoration” in some female monastery. Both of them, one in 1652, the other in 1653, made donations of notable sums to Mother Catherine de Bar, called of the Holy Sacrament, a Benedictine nun, for the purpose of founding, to this pious end, a monastery of the order of Saint–Benoit; the first permission for this foundation was given to Mother Catherine de Bar by M. de Metz, Abbe of Saint–Germain, “on condition that no woman could be received unless she contributed three hundred livres income, which amounts to six thousand livres, to the principal.” After the Abbe of Saint–Germain, the king accorded letters-patent; and all the rest, abbatial charter, and royal letters, was confirmed in 1654 by the Chamber of Accounts and the Parliament.
Such is the origin of the legal consecration of the establishment of the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration of the Holy Sacrament at Paris. Their first convent was “a new building” in the Rue Cassette, out of the contributions of Mesdames de Boucs and de Chateauvieux.
This order, as it will be seen, was not to be confounded with the Benedictine nuns of Citeaux. It mounted back to the Abbe of Saint–Germain des Pres, in the same manner that the ladies of the Sacred Heart go back to the general of the Jesuits, and the sisters of charity to the general of the Lazarists.
It was also totally different from the Bernardines of the Petit–Picpus, whose interior we have just shown. In 1657, Pope Alexander VII. had authorized, by a special brief, the Bernardines of the Rue Petit–Picpus, to practise the Perpetual Adoration like the Benedictine nuns of the Holy Sacrament. But the two orders remained distinct none the less.
At the beginning of the Restoration, the convent of the Petit–Picpus was in its decay; this forms a part of the general death of the order, which, after the eighteenth century, has been disappearing like all the religious orders. Contemplation is, like prayer, one of humanity’s needs; but, like everything which the Revolution touched, it will be transformed, and from being hostile to social progress, it will become favorable to it.
The house of the Petit–Picpus was becoming rapidly depopulated. In 1840, the Little Convent had disappeared, the school had disappeared. There were no longer any old women, nor young girls; the first were dead, the latter had taken their departure. Volaverunt.
The rule of the Perpetual Adoration is so rigid in its nature that it alarms, vocations recoil before it, the order receives no recruits. In 1845, it still obtained lay-sisters here and there. But of professed nuns, none at all. Forty years ago, the nuns numbered nearly a hundred; fifteen years ago there were not more than twenty-eight of them. How many are there today? In 1847, the prioress was young, a sign that the circle of choice was restricted. She was not forty years old. In proportion as the number diminishes, the fatigue increases, the service of each becomes more painful; the moment could then be seen drawing near when there would be but a dozen bent and aching shoulders to bear the heavy rule of Saint–Benoit. The burden is implacable, and remains the same for the few as for the many. It weighs down, it crushes. Thus they die. At the period when the author of this book still lived in Paris, two died. One was twenty-five years old, the other twenty-three. This latter can say, like Julia Alpinula: “Hic jaceo. Vixi annos viginti et tres.” It is in consequence of this decay that the convent gave up the education of girls.
We have not felt able to pass before this extraordinary house without entering it, and without introducing the minds which accompany us, and which are listening to our tale, to the profit of some, perchance, of the melancholy history of Jean Valjean. We have penetrated into this community, full of those old practices which seem so novel today. It is the closed garden, hortus conclusus. We have spoken of this singular place in detail, but with respect, in so far, at least, as detail and respect are compatible. We do not understand all, but we insult nothing. We are equally far removed from the hosanna of Joseph de Maistre, who wound up by anointing the executioner, and from the sneer of Voltaire, who even goes so far as to ridicule the cross.
An illogical act on Voltaire’s part, we may remark, by the way; for Voltaire would have defended Jesus as he defended Calas; and even for those who deny superhuman incarnations, what does the crucifix represent? The assassinated sage.
In this nineteenth century, the religious idea is undergoing a crisis. People are unlearning certain things, and they do well, provided that, while unlearning them they learn this: There is no vacuum in the human heart. Certain demolitions take place, and it is well that they do, but on condition that they are followed by reconstructions.
In the meantime, let us study things which are no more. It is necessary to know them, if only for the purpose of avoiding them. The counterfeits of the past assume false names, and gladly call themselves the future. This spectre, this past, is given to falsifying its own passport. Let us inform ourselves of the trap. Let us be on our guard. The past has a visage, superstition, and a mask, hypocrisy. Let us denounce the visage and let us tear off the mask.
As for convents, they present a complex problem — a question of civilization, which condemns them; a question of liberty, which protects them.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09