One morning in May, Rosalie ran in from the kitchen, dish-cloth in hand, screaming out in the familiar fashion of a favorite servant: “Oh, madame, come quick! His reverence the Abbe is digging the ground down in the doctor’s garden.”
Helene made no responsive movement, but Jeanne had already rushed to have a look. On her return, she exclaimed:
“How stupid Rosalie is! he is not digging at all. He is with the gardener, who is putting some plants into a barrow. Madame Deberle is plucking all her roses.”
“They must be for the church,” quietly said Helene, who was busy with some tapestry-work.
A few minutes later the bell rang, and Abbe Jouve made his appearance. He came to say that his presence must not be expected on the following Tuesday. His evenings would be wholly taken up with the ceremonies incident to the month of Mary. The parish priest had assigned him the task of decorating the church. It would be a great success. All the ladies were giving him flowers. He was expecting two palm-trees about fourteen feet high, and meant to place them to the right and left of the altar.
“Oh! mamma, mamma!” murmured Jeanne, listening, wonderstruck.
“Well,” said Helene, with a smile, “since you cannot come to us, my old friend, we will go to see you. Why, you’ve quite turned Jeanne’s head with your talk about flowers.”
She had few religious tendencies; she never even went to mass, on the plea that her daughter’s health suffered from the shivering fits which seized her when she came out of a church. In her presence the old priest avoided all reference to religion. It was his wont to say, with good-natured indulgence, that good hearts carve out their own salvation by deeds of loving kindness and charity. God would know when and how to touch her.
Till the evening of the following day Jeanne thought of nothing but the month of Mary. She plagued her mother with questions; she dreamt of the church adorned with a profusion of white roses, filled with thousands of wax tapers, with the sound of angels’ voices, and sweet perfumes. And she was very anxious to go near the altar, that she might have a good look at the Blessed Virgin’s lace gown, a gown worth a fortune, according to the Abbe. But Helene bridled her excitement with a threat not to take her should she make herself ill beforehand.
However, the evening came at last, and they set out. The nights were still cold, and when they reached the Rue de l’Annonciation, where the church of Notre-Dame-de-Grace stands, the child was shivering all over.
“The church is heated,” said her mother. “We must secure a place near a hot-air pipe.”
She pushed open the padded door, and as it gently swung back to its place they found themselves in a warm atmosphere, with brilliant lights streaming on them, and chanting resounding in their ears. The ceremony had commenced, and Helene, perceiving that the nave was crowded, signified her intention of going down one of the aisles. But there seemed insuperable obstacles in her way; she could not get near the altar. Holding Jeanne by the hand, she for a time patiently pressed forward, but at last, despairing of advancing any farther, took the first unoccupied chairs she could find. A pillar hid half of the choir from view.
“I can see nothing,” said the child, grievously discontented. “This is a very nasty place.”
However, Helene signed to her to keep silent, and she lapsed into a fit of sulks. In front of her she could only perceive the broad back of a fat old lady. When her mother next turned towards her she was standing upright on her chair.
“Will you come down!” said Helene in a low voice. “You are a nuisance.”
But Jeanne was stubborn.
“Hist! mamma,” she said, “there’s Madame Deberle. Look! she is down there in the centre, beckoning to us.”
The young woman’s annoyance on hearing this made her very impatient, and she shook her daughter, who still refused to sit down. During the three days that had intervened since the ball, Helene had avoided any visit to the doctor’s house on the plea of having a great deal to do.
“Mamma,” resumed Jeanne with a child’s wonted stubbornness, “she is looking at you; she is nodding good-day to you.”
At this intimation Helene was forced to turn round and exchange greetings; each bowed to the other. Madame Deberle, in a striped silk gown trimmed with white lace, sat in the centre of the nave but a short distance from the choir, looking very fresh and conspicuous. She had brought her sister Pauline, who was now busy waving her hand. The chanting still continued, the elder members of the congregation pouring forth a volume of sound of falling scale, while now and then the shrill voice of the children punctuated the slow, monotonous rhythm of the canticle.
“They want us to go over to them, you see,” exclaimed Jeanne, with some triumph in her remark.
“It is useless; we shall be all right here.”
“Oh, mamma, do let us go over to them! There are two chairs empty.”
“No, no; come and sit down.”
However, the ladies smilingly persisted in making signs, heedless to the last degree of the slight scandal they were causing; nay, delighted at being the observed of all observers. Helene thus had to yield. She pushed the gratified Jeanne before her, and strove to make her way through the congregation, her hands all the while trembling with repressed anger. It was no easy business. Devout female worshippers, unwilling to disturb themselves, glared at her with furious looks, whilst all agape they kept on singing. She pressed on in this style for five long minutes, the tempest of voices ringing around her with ever-increasing violence. Whenever she came to a standstill, Jeanne, squeezing close beside her, gazed at those cavernous, gaping mouths. However, at last they reached the vacant space in front of the choir, and then had but a few steps to make.
“Come, be quick,” whispered Madame Deberle. “The Abbe told me you would be coming, and I kept two chairs for you.”
Helene thanked her, and, to cut the conversation short, at once began turning over the leaves of her missal. But Juliette was as worldly here as elsewhere; as much at her ease, as agreeable and talkative, as in her drawing-room. She bent her head towards Helene and resumed:
“You have become quite invisible. I intended to pay you a visit to-morrow. Surely you haven’t been ill, have you?”
“No, thank you. I’ve been very busy.”
“Well, listen to me. You must come and dine with us to-morrow. Quite a family dinner, you know.”
“You are very kind. We will see.”
She seemed to retire within herself, intent on following the service, and on saying nothing more. Pauline had taken Jeanne beside her that she might be nearer the hot-air flue over which she toasted herself luxuriously, as happy as any chilly mortal could be. Steeped in the warm air, the two girls raised themselves inquisitively and gazed around on everything, the low ceiling with its woodwork panels, the squat pillars, connected by arches from which hung chandeliers, and the pulpit of carved oak; and over the ocean of heads which waved with the rise and fall of the canticle, their eyes wandered towards the dark corners of the aisles, towards the chapels whose gilding faintly gleamed, and the baptistery enclosed by a railing near the chief entrance. However, their gaze always returned to the resplendent choir, decorated with brilliant colors and dazzling gilding. A crystal chandelier, flaming with light, hung from the vaulted ceiling; immense candelabra, filled with rows of wax tapers, that glittered amidst the gloom of the church like a profusion of stars in orderly array, brought out prominently the high altar, which seemed one huge bouquet of foliage and flowers. Over all, standing amidst a profusion of roses, a Virgin, dressed in satin and lace, and crowned with pearls, was holding a Jesus in long clothes on her arm.
“I say, are you warm?” asked Pauline. “It’s nice, eh?”
But Jeanne, in ecstasy, was gazing on the Virgin amongst the flowers. The scene thrilled her. A fear crept over her that she might do something wrong, and she lowered her eyes in the endeavor to restrain her tears by fixing her attention on the black-and-white pavement. The vibrations of the choir-boys’ shrill voices seemed to stir her tresses like puffs of air.
Meanwhile Helene, with face bent over her prayer-book, drew herself away whenever Juliette’s lace rustled against her. She was in no wise prepared for this meeting. Despite the vow she had sworn within herself, to be ever pure in her love for Henri, and never yield to him, she felt great discomfort at the thought that she was a traitoress to the confiding, happy woman who sat by her side. She was possessed by one idea — she would not go to that dinner. She sought for reasons which would enable her to break off these relations so hateful to her honor. But the swelling voices of the choristers, so near to her, drove all reflection from her mind; she could decide on no precise course, and surrendered herself to the soothing influences of the chant, tasting a pious joy such as she had never before found inside a church.
“Have you been told about Madame de Chermette?” asked Juliette, unable any longer to restrain her craving for a gossip.
“No, I know nothing.”
“Well, well; just imagine. You have seen her daughter, so womanish and tall, though she is only fifteen, haven’t you? There is some talk about her getting married next year to that dark young fellow who is always hanging to her mother’s skirts. People are talking about it with a vengeance.”
“Ah!” muttered Helene, who was not paying the least attention.
Madame Deberle went into particulars, but of a sudden the chant ceased, and the organ-music died away in a moan. Astounded at the loudness of her own voice breaking upon the stillness which ensued, she lapsed into silence. A priest made his appearance at this moment in the pulpit. There was a rustling, and then he spoke. No, certainly not, Helene would not join that dinner-party. With her eyes fixed on the priest she pictured to herself the next meeting with Henri, that meeting which for three days she had contemplated with terror; she saw him white with anger, reproaching her for hiding herself, and she dreaded lest she might not display sufficient indifference. Amidst her dream the priest had disappeared, his thrilling tones merely reaching her in casual sentences: “No hour could be more ineffable than that when the Virgin, with bent head, answered: ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord!’”
Yes, she would be brave; all her reason had returned to her. She would taste the joy of being loved, but would never avow her love, for her heart told her that such an avowal would cost her peace. And how intensely would she love, without confessing it, gratified by a word, a look from Henri, exchanged at lengthy intervals on the occasion of a chance meeting! It was a dream that brought her some sense of the infinite. The church around her became a friend and comforter. The priest was now exclaiming:
“The angel vanished and Mary plunged into contemplation of the divine mystery working within her, her heart bathed in sunshine and love.”
“He speaks very well,” whispered Madame Deberle, leaning towards her. “And he’s quite young, too, scarcely thirty, don’t you think?”
Madame Deberle was affected. Religion pleased her because the emotions it prompted were in good taste. To present flowers for the decoration of churches, to have petty dealings with the priests, who were so polite and discreet, to come to church attired in her best and assume an air of worldly patronage towards the God of the poor — all this had for her special delights; the more so as her husband did not interest himself in religion, and her devotions thus had all the sweetness of forbidden fruit. Helene looked at her and answered with a nod; her face was ashy white with faintness, while the other’s was lit up by smiles. There was a stirring of chairs and a rustling of handkerchiefs, as the priest quitted the pulpit with the final adjuration
“Oh! give wings unto your love, souls imbued with Christian piety. God has made a sacrifice of Himself for your sakes, your hearts are full of His presence, your souls overflow with His grace!”
Of a sudden the organ sounded again, and the litanies of the Virgin began with their appeals of passionate tenderness. Faint and distant the chanting rolled forth from the side-aisles and the dark recesses of the chapels, as though the earth were giving answer to the angel voices of the chorister-boys. A rush of air swept over the throng, making the flames of the tapers leap, while amongst the flowers, fading as they exhaled their last perfume, the Divine Mother seemed to incline her head to smile on her infant Jesus.
All at once, seized with an instinctive dread, Helene turned. “You’re not ill, Jeanne, are you?” she asked.
The child, with face ashy white and eyes glistening, her spirit borne aloft by the fervent strains of the litanies, was gazing at the altar, where in imagination she could see the roses multiplying and falling in cascades.
“No, no, mamma,” she whispered; “I am pleased, I am very well pleased.” And then she asked: “But where is our dear old friend?”
She spoke of the Abbe. Pauline caught sight of him; he was seated in the choir, but Jeanne had to be lifted up in order that she might perceive him.
“Oh! He is looking at us,” said she; “he is blinking.” According to Jeanne, the Abbe blinked when he laughed inwardly. Helene hastened to exchange a friendly nod with him. And then the tranquillity within her seemed to increase, her future serenity appeared to be assured, thus endearing the church to her and lulling her into a blissful condition of patient endurance. Censers swung before the altar and threads of smoke ascended; the benediction followed, and the holy monstrance was slowly raised and waved above the heads lowered to the earth. Helene was still on her knees in happy meditation when she heard Madame Deberle exclaiming: “It’s over now; let us go.”
There ensued a clatter of chairs and a stamping of feet which reverberated along the arched aisles. Pauline had taken Jeanne’s hand, and, walking away in front with the child, began to question her:
“Have you ever been to the theatre?”
“No. Is it finer than this?”
As she spoke, the little one, giving vent to great gasps of wonder, tossed her head as though ready to express the belief that nothing could be finer. To her question, however, Pauline deigned no reply, for she had just come to a standstill in front of a priest who was passing in his surplice. And when he was a few steps away she exclaimed aloud, with such conviction in her tones that two devout ladies of the congregation turned around:
“Oh! what a fine head!”
Helene, meanwhile, had risen from her knees. She stepped along by the side of Juliette among the crowd which was making its way out with difficulty. Her heart was full of tenderness, she felt languid and enervated, and her soul no longer rebelled at the other being so near. At one moment their bare hands came in contact and they smiled. They were almost stifling in the throng, and Helene would fain have had Juliette go first. All their old friendship seemed to blossom forth once more.
“Is it understood that we can rely on you for to-morrow evening?” asked Madame Deberle.
Helene no longer had the will to decline. She would see whether it were possible when she reached the street. It finished by their being the last to leave. Pauline and Jeanne already stood on the opposite pavement awaiting them. But a tearful voice brought them to a halt.
“Ah, my good lady, what a time it is since I had the happiness of seeing you!”
It was Mother Fetu, who was soliciting alms at the church door. Barring Helene’s way, as though she had lain in wait for her, she went on:
“Oh, I have been so very ill always here, in the stomach, you know. Just now I feel as if a hammer were pounding away inside me; and I have nothing at all, my good lady. I didn’t dare to send you word about it — May the gracious God repay you!”
Helene had slipped a piece of money into her hand, and promised to think about her.
“Hello!” exclaimed Madame Deberle, who had remained standing within the porch, “there’s some one talking with Pauline and Jeanne. Why, it is Henri.”
“Yes, yes” Mother Fetu hastened to add as she turned her ferret-like eyes on the ladies, “it is the good doctor. I have seen him there all through the service; he has never budged from the pavement; he has been waiting for you, no doubt. Ah! he’s a saint of a man! I swear that to be the truth in the face of God who hears us. Yes, I know you, madame; he is a husband who deserves to be happy. May Heaven hearken to your prayers, may every blessing fall on you! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!”
Amidst the myriad furrows of her face, which was wrinkled like a withered apple, her little eyes kept gleaming in malicious unrest, darting a glance now on Juliette, now on Helene, so that it was impossible to say with any certainty whom she was addressing while speaking of “the good doctor.” She followed them, muttering on without a stop, mingling whimpering entreaty with devout outbursts.
Henri’s reserve alike astonished and moved Helene. He scarcely had the courage to raise his eyes towards her. On his wife quizzing him about the opinions which restrained him from entering a church, he merely explained that to smoke a cigar was his object in coming to meet them; but Helene understood that he had wished to see her again, to prove to her how wrong she was in fearing some fresh outrage. Doubtless, like herself, he had sworn to keep within the limits of reason. She never questioned whether his sincerity could be real. She simply experienced a feeling of unhappiness at seeing him unhappy. Thus it came about, that on leaving them it the Rue Vineuse, she said cheerfully:
“Well, it is settled then; to-morrow at seven.”
In this way the old friendship grew closer than ever, and a charming life began afresh. To Helene it seemed as if Henri had never yielded to that moment of folly; it was but a dream of hers; each loved the other, but they would never breathe a word of their love, they were content with knowing its existence. They spent delicious hours, in which, without their tongues giving evidence of their passion, they displayed it constantly; a gesture, an inflexion of the voice sufficed, ay, even a silence. Everything insensibly tended towards their love, plunged them more and more deeply into a passion which they bore away with them whenever they parted, which was ever with them, which formed, as it were, the only atmosphere they could breathe. And their excuse was their honesty; with eyes wide open they played this comedy of affection; not even a hand-clasp did they allow each other and their restraint infused unalloyed delight into the simple greetings with which they met.
Every evening the ladies went to church. Madame Deberle was enchanted with the novel pleasure she was enjoying. It was so different from evening dances, concerts, and first nights; she adored fresh sensations, and nuns and priests were now constantly in her company. The store of religion which she had acquired in her school-days now found new life in her giddy brain, taking shape in all sorts of trivial observances, as though she were reviving the games of her childhood. Helene, who on her side had grown up without any religious training, surrendered herself to the bliss of these services of the month of Mary, happy also in the delight with which they appeared to inspire Jeanne. They now dined earlier; they gave Rosalie no peace lest she should cause them to be late, and prevent their securing good seats. Then they called for Juliette on the way. One day Lucien was taken, but he behaved so badly that he was afterward left at home. On entering the warm church, with its glare of wax candles, a feeling of tenderness and calm, which by degrees grew necessary to Helene, came over her. When doubts sprang up within her during the day, and the thought of Henri filled her with indefinable anxiety, with the evening the church once more brought her peace. The chants arose overflowing with divine passion; the flowers, newly culled, made the close atmosphere of the building still heavier. It was here that she breathed all the first rapture of springtide, amidst that adoration of woman raised to the status of a cult; and her senses swam as she contemplated the mystery of love and purity — Mary, virgin and mother, beaming beneath her wreath of white roses. Each day she remained longer on her knees. She found herself at times with hands joined in entreaty. When the ceremony came to an end, there followed the happiness of the return home. Henri awaited their appearance at the door; the evenings grew warmer, and they wended their way through the dark, still streets of Passy, while scarce a word passed between them.
“How devout you are getting, my dear!” said Madame Deberle one night, with a laugh.
Yes, it was true; Helene was widely opening the portals of her heart to pious thoughts. Never could she have fancied that such happiness would attend her love. She returned to the church as to a spot where her heart would melt, for under its roof she could give free vent to her tears, remain thoughtless, plunged in speechless worship. For an hour each evening she put no restraint on herself. The bursting love within her, prisoned throughout the day, at length escaped from her bosom on the wings of prayer, amidst the pious quiver of the throng. The muttered supplications, the bendings of the knee, the reverences — words and gestures seemingly interminable — all lulled her to rest; to her they ever expressed the same thing; it was always the same passion speaking in the same phrase, or the same gesture. She felt a need of faith, and basked enraptured by the Divine goodness.
Helene was not the only person whom Juliette twitted; she feigned a belief that Henri himself was becoming religious. What, had he not now entered the church to wait for them? — he, atheist and scoffer, who had been wont to assert that he had sought for the soul with his scalpel, and had not yet discovered its existence! As soon as she perceived him standing behind a pillar in the shadow of the pulpit, she would instantly jog Helene’s arm.
“Look, look, he is there already! Do you know, he wouldn’t confess when we got married! See how funny he looks; he gazes at us with so comical an expression; quick, look!”
Helene did not at the moment raise her head. The service was coming to an end, clouds of incense were rising, and the organ-music pealed forth joyfully. But her neighbor was not a woman to leave her alone, and she was forced to speak in answer.
“Yes, yes, I see him,” she whispered, albeit she never turned her eyes.
She had on her own side divined his presence amidst the song of praise that mounted from the worshipping throng. It seemed to her that Henri’s breath was wafted on the wings of the music and beat against her neck, and she imagined she could see behind her his glances shedding their light along the nave and haloing her, as she knelt, with a golden glory. And then she felt impelled to pray with such fervor that words failed her. The expression on his face was sober, as unruffled as any husband might wear when looking for ladies in a church, the same, indeed, as if he had been waiting for them in the lobby of a theatre. But when they came together, in the midst of the slowly-moving crowd of worshippers, they felt that the bonds of their love had been drawn closer by the flowers and the chanting; and they shunned all conversation, for their hearts were on their lips.
A fortnight slipped away, and Madame Deberle grew wearied. She ever jumped from one thing to the other, consumed with the thirst of doing what every one else was doing. For the moment charity bazaars had become her craze; she would toil up sixty flights of stairs of an afternoon to beg paintings of well-known artists, while her evenings were spent in presiding over meetings of lady patronesses, with a bell handy to call noisy members to order. Thus it happened that one Thursday evening Helene and her daughter went to church without their companions. On the conclusion of the sermon, while the choristers were commencing the Magnificat, the young woman, forewarned by some impulse of her heart, turned her head. Henri was there, in his usual place. Thereupon she remained with looks riveted to the ground till the service came to an end, waiting the while for the return home.
“Oh, how kind of you to come!” said Jeanne, with all a child’s frankness, as they left the church. “I should have been afraid to go alone through these dark streets.”
Henri, however, feigned astonishment, asserting that he had expected to meet his wife. Helene allowed the child to answer him, and followed them without uttering a word. As the trio passed under the porch a pitiful voice sang out: “Charity, charity! May God repay you!”
Every night Jeanne dropped a ten-sou piece into Mother Fetu’s hand. When the latter saw the doctor alone with Helene, she nodded her head knowingly, instead of breaking out into a storm of thanks, as was her custom. The church was now empty, and she began to follow them, mumbling inaudible sentences. Sometimes, instead of returning by the Rue de Passy, the ladies, when the night was fine, went homewards by the Rue Raynouard, the way being thus lengthened by five or six minutes’ walk. That night also Helene turned into the Rue Raynouard, craving for gloom and stillness, and entranced by the loneliness of the long thoroughfare, which was lighted by only a few gas-lamps, without the shadow of a single passer-by falling across its pavement.
At this hour Passy seemed out of the world; sleep had already fallen over it; it had all the quietude of a provincial town. On each side of the street loomed mansions, girls’ schools, black and silent, and dining places, from the kitchens of which lights still streamed. There was not, however, a single shop to throw the glare of its frontage across the dimness. To Henri and Helene the loneliness was pregnant with intense charm. He had not ventured to offer her his arm. Jeanne walked between them in the middle of the road, which was gravelled like a walk in some park. At last the houses came to an end, and then on each side were walls, over which spread mantling clematis and clusters of lilac blossoms. Immense gardens parted the mansions, and here and there through the railings of an iron gate they could catch glimpses of a gloomy background of verdure, against which the tree-dotted turf assumed a more delicate hue. The air was filled with the perfume of irises growing in vases which they could scarce distinguish. All three paced on slowly through the warm spring night, which was steeping them in its odors, and Jeanne, with childish artlessness, raised her face to the heavens, and exclaimed:
“Oh, mamma, see what a number of stars!”
But behind them, like an echo of their own, came the footfall of Mother Fetu. Nearer and nearer she approached, till they could hear her muttering the opening words of the Angelic Salutation ”Ave Marie, gratia plena,” repeating them over and over again with the same confused persistency. She was telling her beads on her homeward way.
“I have still something left — may I give it to her?” Jeanne asked her mother.
And thereupon, without waiting for a reply, she left them, running towards the old woman, who was on the point of entering the Passage des Eaux. Mother Fetu clutched at the coin, calling upon all the angels of Heaven to bless her. As she spoke, however, she grasped the child’s hand and detained her by her side, then asking in changed tones:
“The other lady is ill, is she not?”
“No,” answered Jeanne, surprised.
“May Heaven shield her! May it shower its favors on her and her husband! Don’t run away yet, my dear little lady. Let me say an Ave Maria for your mother’s sake, and you will join in the ‘Amen’ with me. Oh! your mother will allow you; you can catch her up.”
Meanwhile Henri and Helene trembled as they found themselves suddenly left alone in the shadow cast by a line of huge chestnut trees that bordered the road. They quietly took a few steps. The chestnut trees had strewn the ground with their bloom, and they were walking upon this rosy-tinted carpet. On a sudden, however, they came to a stop, their hearts filled with such emotion that they could go no farther.
“Forgive me,” said Henri simply.
“Yes, yes,” ejaculated Helene. “But oh! be silent, I pray you.”
She had felt his hand touch her own, and had started back. Fortunately Jeanne ran towards them at the moment.
“Mamma, mamma!” she cried; “she made me say an Ave; she says it will bring you good luck.”
The three then turned into the Rue Vineuse, while Mother Fetu crept down the steps of the Passage des Eaux, busy completing her rosary.
The month slipped away. Two or three more services were attended by Madame Deberle. One Sunday, the last one, Henri once more ventured to wait for Helene and Jeanne. The walk home thrilled them with joy. The month had been one long spell of wondrous bliss. The little church seemed to have entered into their lives to soothe their love and render its way pleasant. At first a great peace had settled on Helene’s soul; she had found happiness in this sanctuary where she imagined she could without shame dwell on her love; however, the undermining had continued, and when her holy rapture passed away she was again in the grip of her passion, held by bonds that would have plucked at her heartstrings had she sought to break them asunder. Henri still preserved his respectful demeanor, but she could not do otherwise than see the passion burning in his face. She dreaded some outburst, and even grew afraid of herself.
One afternoon, going homewards after a walk with Jeanne, she passed along the Rue de l’Annonciation and entered the church. The child was complaining of feeling very tired. Until the last day she had been unwilling to admit that the evening services exhausted her, so intense was the pleasure she derived from them; but her cheeks had grown waxy-pale, and the doctor advised that she should take long walks.
“Sit down here,” said her mother. “It will rest you; we’ll only stay ten minutes.”
She herself walked towards some chairs a short way off, and knelt down. She had placed Jeanne close to a pillar. Workmen were busy at the other end of the nave, taking down the hangings and removing the flowers, the ceremonials attending the month of Mary having come to an end the evening before. With her face buried in her hands Helene saw nothing and heard nothing; she was eagerly catechising her heart, asking whether she ought not to confess to Abbe Jouve what an awful life had come upon her. He would advise her, perhaps restore her lost peace. Still, within her there arose, out of her very anguish, a fierce flood of joy. She hugged her sorrow, dreading lest the priest might succeed in finding a cure for it. Ten minutes slipped away, then an hour. She was overwhelmed by the strife raging within her heart.
At last she raised her head, her eyes glistening with tears, and saw Abbe Jouve gazing at her sorrowfully. It was he who was directing the workmen. Having recognized Jeanne, he had just come forward.
“Why, what is the matter, my child?” he asked of Helene, who hastened to rise to her feet and wipe away her tears.
She was at a loss what answer to give; she was afraid lest she should once more fall on her knees and burst into sobs. He approached still nearer, and gently resumed:
“I do not wish to cross-question you, but why do you not confide in me? Confide in the priest and forget the friend.”
“Some other day,” she said brokenly, “some other day, I promise you.”
Jeanne meantime had at first been very good and patient, finding amusement in looking at the stained-glass windows, the statues over the great doorway, and the scenes of the journey to the Cross depicted in miniature bas-reliefs along the aisles. By degrees, however, the cold air of the church had enveloped her as with a shroud; and she remained plunged in a weariness that even banished thought, a feeling of discomfort waking within her with the holy quiet and far-reaching echoes, which the least sound stirred in this sanctuary where she imagined she was going to die. But a grievous sorrow rankled in her heart — the flowers were being borne away. The great clusters of roses were vanishing, and the altar seemed to become more and more bare and chill. The marble looked icy-cold now that no wax-candle shone on it and there was no smoking incense. The lace-robed Virgin moreover was being moved, and after suddenly tottering fell backward into the arms of two workmen. At the sight Jeanne uttered a faint cry, stretched out her arms, and fell back rigid; the illness that had been threatening her for some days had at last fallen upon her.
And when Helene, in distraction, carried her child, with the assistance of the sorrowing Abbe, into a cab, she turned towards the porch with outstretched, trembling hands.
“It’s all this church! it’s all this church!” she exclaimed, with a vehemence instinct with regret and self-reproach as she thought of the month of devout delight which she herself had tasted there.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56