Part 13 out of 36
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
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
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
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.
THE LITTLE CONVENT
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; to-day, 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:
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.
 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.
SOME SILHOUETTES OF THIS DARKNESS
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
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.
POST CORDA LAPIDES
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.
A CENTURY UNDER A GUIMPE
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.
ORIGIN OF THE PERPETUAL ADORATION
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.
END OF THE PETIT-PICPUS
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 to-day? 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 to-day. 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
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.
THE CONVENT AS AN ABSTRACT IDEA
This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the Infinite.
Man is the second.
Such being the case, and a convent having happened to be on our road,
it has been our duty to enter it. Why? Because the convent,
which is common to the Orient as well as to the Occident,
to antiquity as well as to modern times, to paganism, to Buddhism,
to Mahometanism, as well as to Christianity, is one of the optical
apparatuses applied by man to the Infinite.
This is not the place for enlarging disproportionately on
certain ideas; nevertheless, while absolutely maintaining
our reserves, our restrictions, and even our indignations, we must
say that every time we encounter man in the Infinite, either well
or ill understood, we feel ourselves overpowered with respect.
There is, in the synagogue, in the mosque, in the pagoda,
in the wigwam, a hideous side which we execrate, and a sublime side,
which we adore. What a contemplation for the mind, and what endless
food for thought, is the reverberation of God upon the human wall!
THE CONVENT AS AN HISTORICAL FACT
From the point of view of history, of reason, and of truth,
monasticism is condemned. Monasteries, when they abound in a nation,
are clogs in its circulation, cumbrous establishments, centres of
idleness where centres of labor should exist. Monastic communities
are to the great social community what the mistletoe is to the oak,
what the wart is to the human body. Their prosperity and their
fatness mean the impoverishment of the country. The monastic regime,
good at the beginning of civilization, useful in the reduction
of the brutal by the spiritual, is bad when peoples have reached
their manhood. Moreover, when it becomes relaxed, and when it
enters into its period of disorder, it becomes bad for the very
reasons which rendered it salutary in its period of purity,
because it still continues to set the example.
Claustration has had its day. Cloisters, useful in the early education
of modern civilization, have embarrassed its growth, and are injurious
to its development. So far as institution and formation with relation
to man are concerned, monasteries, which were good in the tenth century,
questionable in the fifteenth, are detestable in the nineteenth.
The leprosy of monasticism has gnawed nearly to a skeleton two
wonderful nations, Italy and Spain; the one the light, the other
the splendor of Europe for centuries; and, at the present day,
these two illustrious peoples are but just beginning to convalesce,
thanks to the healthy and vigorous hygiene of 1789 alone.
The convent--the ancient female convent in particular, such as it still
presents itself on the threshold of this century, in Italy, in Austria,
in Spain--is one of the most sombre concretions of the Middle Ages.
The cloister, that cloister, is the point of intersection of horrors.
The Catholic cloister, properly speaking, is wholly filled with the
black radiance of death.
The Spanish convent is the most funereal of all. There rise,
in obscurity, beneath vaults filled with gloom, beneath domes
vague with shadow, massive altars of Babel, as high as cathedrals;
there immense white crucifixes hang from chains in the dark;
there are extended, all nude on the ebony, great Christs of ivory;
more than bleeding,--bloody; hideous and magnificent, with their elbows
displaying the bones, their knee-pans showing their integuments,
their wounds showing their flesh, crowned with silver thorns,
nailed with nails of gold, with blood drops of rubies on their brows,
and diamond tears in their eyes. The diamonds and rubies seem wet,
and make veiled beings in the shadow below weep, their sides bruised
with the hair shirt and their iron-tipped scourges, their breasts
crushed with wicker hurdles, their knees excoriated with prayer;
women who think themselves wives, spectres who think themselves seraphim.
Do these women think? No. Have they any will? No. Do they love?
No. Do they live? No. Their nerves have turned to bone; their bones
have turned to stone. Their veil is of woven night. Their breath
under their veil resembles the indescribably tragic respiration
of death. The abbess, a spectre, sanctifies them and terrifies them.
The immaculate one is there, and very fierce. Such are the ancient
monasteries of Spain. Liars of terrible devotion, caverns of virgins,
Catholic Spain is more Roman than Rome herself. The Spanish convent was,
above all others, the Catholic convent. There was a flavor of
the Orient about it. The archbishop, the kislar-aga of heaven,
locked up and kept watch over this seraglio of souls reserved
for God. The nun was the odalisque, the priest was the eunuch.
The fervent were chosen in dreams and possessed Christ.
At night, the beautiful, nude young man descended from the cross
and became the ecstasy of the cloistered one. Lofty walls guarded
the mystic sultana, who had the crucified for her sultan, from all
living distraction. A glance on the outer world was infidelity.
The in pace replaced the leather sack. That which was cast into
the sea in the East was thrown into the ground in the West.
In both quarters, women wrung their hands; the waves for the first,
the grave for the last; here the drowned, there the buried.
To-day the upholders of the past, unable to deny these things,
have adopted the expedient of smiling at them. There has come into
fashion a strange and easy manner of suppressing the revelations
of history, of invalidating the commentaries of philosophy,
of eliding all embarrassing facts and all gloomy questions. A matter
for declamations, say the clever. Declamations, repeat the foolish.
Jean-Jacques a declaimer; Diderot a declaimer; Voltaire on Calas,
Labarre, and Sirven, declaimers. I know not who has recently
discovered that Tacitus was a declaimer, that Nero was a victim,
and that pity is decidedly due to "that poor Holofernes."
Facts, however, are awkward things to disconcert, and they are obstinate.
The author of this book has seen, with his own eyes, eight leagues
distant from Brussels,--there are relics of the Middle Ages there
which are attainable for everybody,--at the Abbey of Villers,
the hole of the oubliettes, in the middle of the field which was
formerly the courtyard of the cloister, and on the banks of the Thil,
four stone dungeons, half under ground, half under the water.
They were in pace. Each of these dungeons has the remains of an
iron door, a vault, and a grated opening which, on the outside,
is two feet above the level of the river, and on the inside,
six feet above the level of the ground. Four feet of river flow
past along the outside wall. The ground is always soaked.
The occupant of the in pace had this wet soil for his bed.
In one of these dungeons, there is a fragment of an iron necklet
riveted to the wall; in another, there can be seen a square box made
of four slabs of granite, too short for a person to lie down in,
too low for him to stand upright in. A human being was put inside,
with a coverlid of stone on top. This exists. It can be seen.
It can be touched. These in pace, these dungeons, these iron hinges,
these necklets, that lofty peep-hole on a level with the river's current,
that box of stone closed with a lid of granite like a tomb,
with this difference, that the dead man here was a living being,
that soil which is but mud, that vault hole, those oozing walls,--
ON WHAT CONDITIONS ONE CAN RESPECT THE PAST
Monasticism, such as it existed in Spain, and such as it still
exists in Thibet, is a sort of phthisis for civilization. It stops
life short. It simply depopulates. Claustration, castration.
It has been the scourge of Europe. Add to this the violence so often
done to the conscience, the forced vocations, feudalism bolstered
up by the cloister, the right of the first-born pouring the excess
of the family into monasticism, the ferocities of which we have
just spoken, the in pace, the closed mouths, the walled-up brains,
so many unfortunate minds placed in the dungeon of eternal vows,
the taking of the habit, the interment of living souls.
Add individual tortures to national degradations, and, whoever you
may be, you will shudder before the frock and the veil,--those two
winding-sheets of human devising. Nevertheless, at certain points
and in certain places, in spite of philosophy, in spite of progress,
the spirit of the cloister persists in the midst of the nineteenth
century, and a singular ascetic recrudescence is, at this moment,
astonishing the civilized world. The obstinacy of antiquated
institutions in perpetuating themselves resembles the stubbornness
of the rancid perfume which should claim our hair, the pretensions
of the spoiled fish which should persist in being eaten, the persecution
of the child's garment which should insist on clothing the man,
the tenderness of corpses which should return to embrace the living.
"Ingrates!" says the garment, "I protected you in inclement weather.
Why will you have nothing to do with me?" "I have just come from the
deep sea," says the fish. "I have been a rose," says the perfume.
"I have loved you," says the corpse. "I have civilized you,"
says the convent.
To this there is but one reply: "In former days."
To dream of the indefinite prolongation of defunct things, and of the
government of men by embalming, to restore dogmas in a bad condition,
to regild shrines, to patch up cloisters, to rebless reliquaries,
to refurnish superstitions, to revictual fanaticisms, to put
new handles on holy water brushes and militarism, to reconstitute
monasticism and militarism, to believe in the salvation of society
by the multiplication of parasites, to force the past on the present,--
this seems strange. Still, there are theorists who hold such theories.
These theorists, who are in other respects people of intelligence,
have a very simple process; they apply to the past a glazing which
they call social order, divine right, morality, family, the respect
of elders, antique authority, sacred tradition, legitimacy, religion;
and they go about shouting, "Look! take this, honest people."
This logic was known to the ancients. The soothsayers practise it.
They rubbed a black heifer over with chalk, and said, "She is white,
As for us, we respect the past here and there, and we spare it,
above all, provided that it consents to be dead. If it insists on
being alive, we attack it, and we try to kill it.
Superstitions, bigotries, affected devotion, prejudices, those forms
all forms as they are, are tenacious of life; they have teeth and
nails in their smoke, and they must be clasped close, body to body,
and war must be made on them, and that without truce; for it is one
of the fatalities of humanity to be condemned to eternal combat
with phantoms. It is difficult to seize darkness by the throat,
and to hurl it to the earth.
A convent in France, in the broad daylight of the nineteenth century,
is a college of owls facing the light. A cloister, caught in the
very act of asceticism, in the very heart of the city of '89 and of
1830 and of 1848, Rome blossoming out in Paris, is an anachronism.
In ordinary times, in order to dissolve an anachronism and to
cause it to vanish, one has only to make it spell out the date.
But we are not in ordinary times.
Let us fight.
Let us fight, but let us make a distinction. The peculiar
property of truth is never to commit excesses. What need has it
of exaggeration? There is that which it is necessary to destroy,
and there is that which it is simply necessary to elucidate
and examine. What a force is kindly and serious examination!
Let us not apply a flame where only a light is required.
So, given the nineteenth century, we are opposed, as a general
proposition, and among all peoples, in Asia as well as in Europe,
in India as well as in Turkey, to ascetic claustration.
Whoever says cloister, says marsh. Their putrescence is evident,
their stagnation is unhealthy, their fermentation infects people
with fever, and etiolates them; their multiplication becomes a
plague of Egypt. We cannot think without affright of those lands
where fakirs, bonzes, santons, Greek monks, marabouts, talapoins,
and dervishes multiply even like swarms of vermin.
This said, the religious question remains. This question has
certain mysterious, almost formidable sides; may we be permitted
to look at it fixedly.
THE CONVENT FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF PRINCIPLES
Men unite themselves and dwell in communities. By virtue of what right?
By virtue of the right of association.
They shut themselves up at home. By virtue of what right?
By virtue of the right which every man has to open or shut his door.
They do not come forth. By virtue of what right? By virtue of
the right to go and come, which implies the right to remain at home.
There, at home, what do they do?
They speak in low tones; they drop their eyes; they toil.
They renounce the world, towns, sensualities, pleasures, vanities,
pride, interests. They are clothed in coarse woollen or coarse linen.
Not one of them possesses in his own right anything whatever.
On entering there, each one who was rich makes himself poor.
What he has, he gives to all. He who was what is called noble,
a gentleman and a lord, is the equal of him who was a peasant.
The cell is identical for all. All undergo the same tonsure,
wear the same frock, eat the same black bread, sleep on the same straw,
die on the same ashes. The same sack on their backs, the same rope
around their loins. If the decision has been to go barefoot,
all go barefoot. There may be a prince among them; that prince
is the same shadow as the rest. No titles. Even family names
have disappeared. They bear only first names. All are bowed
beneath the equality of baptismal names. They have dissolved the
carnal family, and constituted in their community a spiritual family.
They have no other relatives than all men. They succor the poor,
they care for the sick. They elect those whom they obey. They call
each other "my brother."
You stop me and exclaim, "But that is the ideal convent!"
It is sufficient that it may be the possible convent, that I
should take notice of it.
Thence it results that, in the preceding book, I have spoken
of a convent with respectful accents. The Middle Ages cast aside,
Asia cast aside, the historical and political question held
in reserve, from the purely philosophical point of view, outside the
requirements of militant policy, on condition that the monastery
shall be absolutely a voluntary matter and shall contain only
consenting parties, I shall always consider a cloistered community
with a certain attentive, and, in some respects, a deferential gravity.
Wherever there is a community, there is a commune; where there
is a commune, there is right. The monastery is the product of
the formula: Equality, Fraternity. Oh! how grand is liberty!
And what a splendid transfiguration! Liberty suffices to transform
the monastery into a republic.
Let us continue.
But these men, or these women who are behind these four walls.
They dress themselves in coarse woollen, they are equals, they call
each other brothers, that is well; but they do something else?
They gaze on the darkness, they kneel, and they clasp their hands.
What does this signify?
To pray to God,--what is the meaning of these words?
Is there an infinite beyond us? Is that infinite there, inherent,
permanent; necessarily substantial, since it is infinite; and because,
if it lacked matter it would be bounded; necessarily intelligent,
since it is infinite, and because, if it lacked intelligence, it would
end there? Does this infinite awaken in us the idea of essence,
while we can attribute to ourselves only the idea of existence?
In other terms, is it not the absolute, of which we are only the relative?
At the same time that there is an infinite without us, is there
not an infinite within us? Are not these two infinites (what an
alarming plural!) superposed, the one upon the other? Is not this
second infinite, so to speak, subjacent to the first? Is it not
the latter's mirror, reflection, echo, an abyss which is concentric
with another abyss? Is this second infinity intelligent also?
Does it think? Does it love? Does it will? If these two infinities
are intelligent, each of them has a will principle, and there is an
_I_ in the upper infinity as there is an _I_ in the lower infinity.
The _I_ below is the soul; the _I_ on high is God.
To place the infinity here below in contact, by the medium of thought,
with the infinity on high, is called praying.
Let us take nothing from the human mind; to suppress is bad.
We must reform and transform. Certain faculties in man are directed
towards the Unknown; thought, revery, prayer. The Unknown is
an ocean. What is conscience? It is the compass of the Unknown.
Thought, revery, prayer,--these are great and mysterious radiations.
Let us respect them. Whither go these majestic irradiations
of the soul? Into the shadow; that is to say, to the light.
The grandeur of democracy is to disown nothing and to deny nothing
of humanity. Close to the right of the man, beside it, at the least,
there exists the right of the soul.
To crush fanaticism and to venerate the infinite, such is the law.
Let us not confine ourselves to prostrating ourselves before the tree
of creation, and to the contemplation of its branches full of stars.
We have a duty to labor over the human soul, to defend the mystery
against the miracle, to adore the incomprehensible and reject
the absurd, to admit, as an inexplicable fact, only what is necessary,
to purify belief, to remove superstitions from above religion;
to clear God of caterpillars.
THE ABSOLUTE GOODNESS OF PRAYER
With regard to the modes of prayer, all are good, provided that they
are sincere. Turn your book upside down and be in the infinite.
There is, as we know, a philosophy which denies the infinite.
There is also a philosophy, pathologically classified, which denies
the sun; this philosophy is called blindness.
To erect a sense which we lack into a source of truth, is a fine
blind man's self-sufficiency.
The curious thing is the haughty, superior, and compassionate
airs which this groping philosophy assumes towards the philosophy
which beholds God. One fancies he hears a mole crying, "I pity
them with their sun!"
There are, as we know, powerful and illustrious atheists. At bottom,
led back to the truth by their very force, they are not absolutely sure
that they are atheists; it is with them only a question of definition,
and in any case, if they do not believe in God, being great minds,
they prove God.
We salute them as philosophers, while inexorably denouncing
Let us go on.
The remarkable thing about it is, also, their facility in paying
themselves off with words. A metaphysical school of the North,
impregnated to some extent with fog, has fancied that it has worked
a revolution in human understanding by replacing the word Force
with the word Will.
To say: "the plant wills," instead of: "the plant grows":
this would be fecund in results, indeed, if we were to add:
"the universe wills." Why? Because it would come to this:
the plant wills, therefore it has an _I_; the universe wills,
therefore it has a God.
As for us, who, however, in contradistinction to this school,
reject nothing a priori, a will in the plant, accepted by this school,
appears to us more difficult to admit than a will in the universe
denied by it.
To deny the will of the infinite, that is to say, God, is impossible
on any other conditions than a denial of the infinite. We have
The negation of the infinite leads straight to nihilism.
Everything becomes "a mental conception."
With nihilism, no discussion is possible; for the nihilist logic
doubts the existence of its interlocutor, and is not quite sure
that it exists itself.
From its point of view, it is possible that it may be for itself,
only "a mental conception."
Only, it does not perceive that all which it has denied it admits
in the lump, simply by the utterance of the word, mind.
In short, no way is open to the thought by a philosophy which makes
all end in the monosyllable, No.
To No there is only one reply, Yes.
Nihilism has no point.
There is no such thing as nothingness. Zero does not exist.
Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.
Man lives by affirmation even more than by bread.
Even to see and to show does not suffice. Philosophy should be an energy;
it should have for effort and effect to ameliorate the condition
of man. Socrates should enter into Adam and produce Marcus Aurelius;
in other words, the man of wisdom should be made to emerge from
the man of felicity. Eden should be changed into a Lyceum.
Science should be a cordial. To enjoy,--what a sad aim, and what a
paltry ambition! The brute enjoys. To offer thought to the thirst
of men, to give them all as an elixir the notion of God, to make
conscience and science fraternize in them, to render them just by this
mysterious confrontation; such is the function of real philosophy.
Morality is a blossoming out of truths. Contemplation leads to action.
The absolute should be practicable. It is necessary that the ideal
should be breathable, drinkable, and eatable to the human mind.
It is the ideal which has the right to say: Take, this
is my body, this is my blood. Wisdom is a holy communion.
It is on this condition that it ceases to be a sterile love of
science and becomes the one and sovereign mode of human rallying,
and that philosophy herself is promoted to religion.
Philosophy should not be a corbel erected on mystery to gaze upon it
at its ease, without any other result than that of being convenient
For our part, adjourning the development of our thought to
another occasion, we will confine ourselves to saying that we neither
understand man as a point of departure nor progress as an end,
without those two forces which are their two motors: faith and love.
Progress is the goal, the ideal is the type.
What is this ideal? It is God.
Ideal, absolute, perfection, infinity: identical words.
PRECAUTIONS TO BE OBSERVED IN BLAME
History and philosophy have eternal duties, which are, at the
same time, simple duties; to combat Caiphas the High-priest, Draco
the Lawgiver, Trimalcion the Legislator, Tiberius the Emperor;
this is clear, direct, and limpid, and offers no obscurity.
But the right to live apart, even with its inconveniences and
its abuses, insists on being stated and taken into account.
Cenobitism is a human problem.
When one speaks of convents, those abodes of error, but of innocence,
of aberration but of good-will, of ignorance but of devotion,
of torture but of martyrdom, it always becomes necessary to say
either yes or no.
A convent is a contradiction. Its object,
salvation; its means thereto, sacrifice.
The convent is supreme egoism having for its result supreme abnegation.
To abdicate with the object of reigning seems to be the device
In the cloister, one suffers in order to enjoy. One draws a bill of
exchange on death. One discounts in terrestrial gloom celestial light.
In the cloister, hell is accepted in advance as a post obit on paradise.
The taking of the veil or the frock is a suicide paid for with eternity.
It does not seem to us, that on such a subject mockery is permissible.
All about it is serious, the good as well as the bad.
The just man frowns, but never smiles with a malicious sneer.
We understand wrath, but not malice.
A few words more.
We blame the church when she is saturated with intrigues,
we despise the spiritual which is harsh toward the temporal;
but we everywhere honor the thoughtful man.
We salute the man who kneels.
A faith; this is a necessity for man. Woe to him who believes nothing.
One is not unoccupied because one is absorbed. There is visible
labor and invisible labor.
To contemplate is to labor, to think is to act.
Folded arms toil, clasped hands work. A gaze fixed on heaven
is a work.
Thales remained motionless for four years. He founded philosophy.
In our opinion, cenobites are not lazy men, and recluses are not idlers.
To meditate on the Shadow is a serious thing.
Without invalidating anything that we have just said, we believe
that a perpetual memory of the tomb is proper for the living.
On this point, the priest and the philosopher agree. We must die.
The Abbe de la Trappe replies to Horace.
To mingle with one's life a certain presence of the sepulchre,--
this is the law of the sage; and it is the law of the ascetic.
In this respect, the ascetic and the sage converge. There is a
material growth; we admit it. There is a moral grandeur; we hold
to that. Thoughtless and vivacious spirits say:--
"What is the good of those motionless figures on the side of mystery?
What purpose do they serve? What do they do?"
Alas! In the presence of the darkness which environs us,
and which awaits us, in our ignorance of what the immense
dispersion will make of us, we reply: "There is probably no work
more divine than that performed by these souls." And we add:
"There is probably no work which is more useful."
There certainly must be some who pray constantly for those who
never pray at all.
In our opinion the whole question lies in the amount of thought
that is mingled with prayer.
Leibnitz praying is grand, Voltaire adoring is fine. Deo erexit Voltaire.
We are for religion as against religions.
We are of the number who believe in the wretchedness of orisons,
and the sublimity of prayer.
Moreover, at this minute which we are now traversing,--a minute which
will not, fortunately, leave its impress on the nineteenth century,--
at this hour, when so many men have low brows and souls but little
elevated, among so many mortals whose morality consists in enjoyment,
and who are busied with the brief and misshapen things of matter,
whoever exiles himself seems worthy of veneration to us.
The monastery is a renunciation. Sacrifice wrongly directed is
still sacrifice. To mistake a grave error for a duty has a grandeur
of its own.
Taken by itself, and ideally, and in order to examine the truth
on all sides until all aspects have been impartially exhausted,
the monastery, the female convent in particular,--for in our
century it is woman who suffers the most, and in this exile
of the cloister there is something of protestation,--the female
convent has incontestably a certain majesty.
This cloistered existence which is so austere, so depressing,
a few of whose features we have just traced, is not life, for it
is not liberty; it is not the tomb, for it is not plenitude;
it is the strange place whence one beholds, as from the crest of a
lofty mountain, on one side the abyss where we are, on the other,
the abyss whither we shall go; it is the narrow and misty frontier
separating two worlds, illuminated and obscured by both at the
same time, where the ray of life which has become enfeebled is mingled
with the vague ray of death; it is the half obscurity of the tomb.
We, who do not believe what these women believe, but who, like them,
live by faith,--we have never been able to think without a sort
of tender and religious terror, without a sort of pity, that is
full of envy, of those devoted, trembling and trusting creatures,
of these humble and august souls, who dare to dwell on the very brink
of the mystery, waiting between the world which is closed and heaven
which is not yet open, turned towards the light which one cannot see,
possessing the sole happiness of thinking that they know where it is,
aspiring towards the gulf, and the unknown, their eyes fixed motionless
on the darkness, kneeling, bewildered, stupefied, shuddering,
half lifted, at times, by the deep breaths of eternity.
BOOK EIGHTH.--CEMETERIES TAKE THAT WHICH IS COMMITTED THEM
WHICH TREATS OF THE MANNER OF ENTERING A CONVENT
It was into this house that Jean Valjean had, as Fauchelevent
expressed it, "fallen from the sky."
He had scaled the wall of the garden which formed the angle
of the Rue Polonceau. That hymn of the angels which he had heard
in the middle of the night, was the nuns chanting matins; that hall,
of which he had caught a glimpse in the gloom, was the chapel.
That phantom which he had seen stretched on the ground was the
sister who was making reparation; that bell, the sound of which
had so strangely surprised him, was the gardener's bell attached
to the knee of Father Fauchelevent.
Cosette once put to bed, Jean Valjean and Fauchelevent had, as we
have already seen, supped on a glass of wine and a bit of cheese
before a good, crackling fire; then, the only bed in the hut being
occupied by Cosette, each threw himself on a truss of straw.
Before he shut his eyes, Jean Valjean said: "I must remain
here henceforth." This remark trotted through Fauchelevent's
head all night long.
To tell the truth, neither of them slept.
Jean Valjean, feeling that he was discovered and that Javert was on
his scent, understood that he and Cosette were lost if they returned
to Paris. Then the new storm which had just burst upon him had stranded
him in this cloister. Jean Valjean had, henceforth, but one thought,--
to remain there. Now, for an unfortunate man in his position,
this convent was both the safest and the most dangerous of places;
the most dangerous, because, as no men might enter there, if he
were discovered, it was a flagrant offence, and Jean Valjean would
find but one step intervening between the convent and prison;
the safest, because, if he could manage to get himself accepted
there and remain there, who would ever seek him in such a place?
To dwell in an impossible place was safety.
On his side, Fauchelevent was cudgelling his brains. He began
by declaring to himself that he understood nothing of the matter.
How had M. Madeleine got there, when the walls were what they were?
Cloister walls are not to be stepped over. How did he get there
with a child? One cannot scale a perpendicular wall with a child
in one's arms. Who was that child? Where did they both come from?
Since Fauchelevent had lived in the convent, he had heard nothing
of M. sur M., and he knew nothing of what had taken place there.
Father Madeleine had an air which discouraged questions; and besides,
Fauchelevent said to himself: "One does not question a saint."
M. Madeleine had preserved all his prestige in Fauchelevent's eyes.
Only, from some words which Jean Valjean had let fall, the gardener
thought he could draw the inference that M. Madeleine had probably become
bankrupt through the hard times, and that he was pursued by his creditors;
or that he had compromised himself in some political affair, and was
in hiding; which last did not displease Fauchelevent, who, like many
of our peasants of the North, had an old fund of Bonapartism about him.
While in hiding, M. Madeleine had selected the convent as a refuge,
and it was quite simple that he should wish to remain there.
But the inexplicable point, to which Fauchelevent returned constantly
and over which he wearied his brain, was that M. Madeleine should
be there, and that he should have that little girl with him.
Fauchelevent saw them, touched them, spoke to them, and still
did not believe it possible. The incomprehensible had just made
its entrance into Fauchelevent's hut. Fauchelevent groped
about amid conjectures, and could see nothing clearly but this:
"M. Madeleine saved my life." This certainty alone was sufficient
and decided his course. He said to himself: "It is my turn now."
He added in his conscience: "M. Madeleine did not stop to deliberate
when it was a question of thrusting himself under the cart for
the purpose of dragging me out." He made up his mind to save
Nevertheless, he put many questions to himself and made himself
divers replies: "After what he did for me, would I save him if he
were a thief? Just the same. If he were an assassin, would I
save him? Just the same. Since he is a saint, shall I save him?
Just the same."
But what a problem it was to manage to have him remain in the convent!
Fauchelevent did not recoil in the face of this almost chimerical
undertaking; this poor peasant of Picardy without any other ladder than
his self-devotion, his good will, and a little of that old rustic cunning,
on this occasion enlisted in the service of a generous enterprise,
undertook to scale the difficulties of the cloister, and the steep
escarpments of the rule of Saint-Benoit. Father Fauchelevent was an old
man who had been an egoist all his life, and who, towards the end
of his days, halt, infirm, with no interest left to him in the world,
found it sweet to be grateful, and perceiving a generous action
to be performed, flung himself upon it like a man, who at the moment
when he is dying, should find close to his hand a glass of good wine
which he had never tasted, and should swallow it with avidity.
We may add, that the air which he had breathed for many years
in this convent had destroyed all personality in him, and had
ended by rendering a good action of some kind absolutely necessary to him.
So he took his resolve: to devote himself to M. Madeleine.
We have just called him a poor peasant of Picardy. That description
is just, but incomplete. At the point of this story which we
have now reached, a little of Father Fauchelevent's physiology
becomes useful. He was a peasant, but he had been a notary, which added
trickery to his cunning, and penetration to his ingenuousness.
Having, through various causes, failed in his business, he had
descended to the calling of a carter and a laborer. But, in spite
of oaths and lashings, which horses seem to require, something of
the notary had lingered in him. He had some natural wit; he talked
good grammar; he conversed, which is a rare thing in a village;
and the other peasants said of him: "He talks almost like a gentleman
with a hat." Fauchelevent belonged, in fact, to that species,
which the impertinent and flippant vocabulary of the last century
qualified as demi-bourgeois, demi-lout, and which the metaphors showered
by the chateau upon the thatched cottage ticketed in the pigeon-hole
of the plebeian: rather rustic, rather citified; pepper and salt.
Fauchelevent, though sorely tried and harshly used by fate,
worn out, a sort of poor, threadbare old soul, was, nevertheless,
an impulsive man, and extremely spontaneous in his actions;
a precious quality which prevents one from ever being wicked.
His defects and his vices, for he had some, were all superficial;
in short, his physiognomy was of the kind which succeeds with
an observer. His aged face had none of those disagreeable
wrinkles at the top of the forehead, which signify malice or stupidity.
At daybreak, Father Fauchelevent opened his eyes, after having
done an enormous deal of thinking, and beheld M. Madeleine
seated on his truss of straw, and watching Cosette's slumbers.
Fauchelevent sat up and said:--
"Now that you are here, how are you going to contrive to enter?"
This remark summed up the situation and aroused Jean Valjean from
The two men took counsel together.
"In the first place,"' said Fauchelevent, "you will begin by not
setting foot outside of this chamber, either you or the child.
One step in the garden and we are done for."
"That is true."
"Monsieur Madeleine," resumed Fauchelevent, "you have arrived at
a very auspicious moment, I mean to say a very inauspicious moment;
one of the ladies is very ill. This will prevent them from looking
much in our direction. It seems that she is dying. The prayers of
the forty hours are being said. The whole community is in confusion.
That occupies them. The one who is on the point of departure
is a saint. In fact, we are all saints here; all the difference
between them and me is that they say `our cell,' and that I say
`my cabin.' The prayers for the dying are to be said, and then
the prayers for the dead. We shall be at peace here for to-day;
but I will not answer for to-morrow."
"Still," observed Jean Valjean, "this cottage is in the niche
of the wall, it is hidden by a sort of ruin, there are trees,
it is not visible from the convent."
"And I add that the nuns never come near it."
"Well?" said Jean Valjean.
The interrogation mark which accentuated this "well" signified:
"it seems to me that one may remain concealed here?" It was to this
interrogation point that Fauchelevent responded:--
"There are the little girls."
"What little girls?" asked Jean Valjean.
Just as Fauchelevent opened his mouth to explain the words which he
had uttered, a bell emitted one stroke.
"The nun is dead," said he. "There is the knell."
And he made a sign to Jean Valjean to listen.
The bell struck a second time.
"It is the knell, Monsieur Madeleine. The bell will continue
to strike once a minute for twenty-four hours, until the body is
taken from the church.--You see, they play. At recreation hours
it suffices to have a ball roll aside, to send them all hither,
in spite of prohibitions, to hunt and rummage for it all about here.
Those cherubs are devils."
"Who?" asked Jean Valjean.
"The little girls. You would be very quickly discovered.
They would shriek: `Oh! a man!' There is no danger to-day. There
will be no recreation hour. The day will be entirely devoted
to prayers. You hear the bell. As I told you, a stroke each minute.
It is the death knell."
"I understand, Father Fauchelevent. There are pupils."
And Jean Valjean thought to himself:--
"Here is Cosette's education already provided."
"Pardine! There are little girls indeed! And they would bawl
around you! And they would rush off! To be a man here is to have
the plague. You see how they fasten a bell to my paw as though
I were a wild beast."
Jean Valjean fell into more and more profound thought.--"This convent
would be our salvation," he murmured.
Then he raised his voice:--
"Yes, the difficulty is to remain here."
"No," said Fauchelevent, "the difficulty is to get out."
Jean Valjean felt the blood rush back to his heart.
"To get out!"
"Yes, Monsieur Madeleine. In order to return here it is first
necessary to get out."
And after waiting until another stroke of the knell had sounded,
Fauchelevent went on:--
"You must not be found here in this fashion. Whence come you?
For me, you fall from heaven, because I know you; but the nuns require
one to enter by the door."
All at once they heard a rather complicated pealing from another bell.
"Ah!" said Fauchelevent, "they are ringing up the vocal mothers.
They are going to the chapter. They always hold a chapter when any
one dies. She died at daybreak. People generally do die at daybreak.
But cannot you get out by the way in which you entered? Come, I do
not ask for the sake of questioning you, but how did you get in?"
Jean Valjean turned pale; the very thought of descending again
into that terrible street made him shudder. You make your
way out of a forest filled with tigers, and once out of it,
imagine a friendly counsel that shall advise you to return thither!
Jean Valjean pictured to himself the whole police force still
engaged in swarming in that quarter, agents on the watch,
sentinels everywhere, frightful fists extended towards his collar,
Javert at the corner of the intersection of the streets perhaps.
"Impossible!" said he. "Father Fauchelevent, say that I fell
from the sky."
"But I believe it, I believe it," retorted Fauchelevent.
"You have no need to tell me that. The good God must have taken you
in his hand for the purpose of getting a good look at you close to,
and then dropped you. Only, he meant to place you in a man's convent;
he made a mistake. Come, there goes another peal, that is to order
the porter to go and inform the municipality that the dead-doctor is
to come here and view a corpse. All that is the ceremony of dying.
These good ladies are not at all fond of that visit. A doctor
is a man who does not believe in anything. He lifts the veil.
Sometimes he lifts something else too. How quickly they have had
the doctor summoned this time! What is the matter? Your little
one is still asleep. What is her name?"
"She is your daughter?
You are her grandfather, that is?"
"It will be easy enough for her to get out of here. I have my service
door which opens on the courtyard. I knock. The porter opens;
I have my vintage basket on my back, the child is in it, I go out.
Father Fauchelevent goes out with his basket--that is perfectly natural.
You will tell the child to keep very quiet. She will be under the cover.
I will leave her for whatever time is required with a good old friend,
a fruit-seller whom I know in the Rue Chemin-Vert, who is deaf,
and who has a little bed. I will shout in the fruit-seller's ear,
that she is a niece of mine, and that she is to keep her for me
until to-morrow. Then the little one will re-enter with you;
for I will contrive to have you re-enter. It must be done.
But how will you manage to get out?"
Jean Valjean shook his head.
"No one must see me, the whole point lies there, Father Fauchelevent.
Find some means of getting me out in a basket, under cover,
Fauchelevent scratched the lobe of his ear with the middle finger
of his left hand, a sign of serious embarrassment.
A third peal created a diversion.
"That is the dead-doctor taking his departure," said Fauchelevent.
"He has taken a look and said: `She is dead, that is well.'
When the doctor has signed the passport for paradise, the undertaker's
company sends a coffin. If it is a mother, the mothers lay her out;
if she is a sister, the sisters lay her out. After which, I nail
her up. That forms a part of my gardener's duty. A gardener is
a bit of a grave-digger. She is placed in a lower hall of the church
which communicates with the street, and into which no man may enter
save the doctor of the dead. I don't count the undertaker's men
and myself as men. It is in that hall that I nail up the coffin.
The undertaker's men come and get it, and whip up, coachman! that's
the way one goes to heaven. They fetch a box with nothing in it,
they take it away again with something in it. That's what a burial
is like. De profundis."
A horizontal ray of sunshine lightly touched the face of
the sleeping Cosette, who lay with her mouth vaguely open,
and had the air of an angel drinking in the light. Jean Valjean
had fallen to gazing at her. He was no longer listening to Fauchelevent.
That one is not listened to is no reason for preserving silence.
The good old gardener went on tranquilly with his babble:--
"The grave is dug in the Vaugirard cemetery. They declare that they
are going to suppress that Vaugirard cemetery. It is an ancient
cemetery which is outside the regulations, which has no uniform,
and which is going to retire. It is a shame, for it is convenient.
I have a friend there, Father Mestienne, the grave-digger. The nuns
here possess one privilege, it is to be taken to that cemetery
at nightfall. There is a special permission from the Prefecture on
their behalf. But how many events have happened since yesterday!
Mother Crucifixion is dead, and Father Madeleine--"
"Is buried," said Jean Valjean, smiling sadly.
Fauchelevent caught the word.
"Goodness! if you were here for good, it would be a real burial."
A fourth peal burst out. Fauchelevent hastily detached the belled
knee-cap from its nail and buckled it on his knee again.
"This time it is for me. The Mother Prioress wants me. Good, now I
am pricking myself on the tongue of my buckle. Monsieur Madeleine,
don't stir from here, and wait for me. Something new has come up.
If you are hungry, there is wine, bread and cheese."
And he hastened out of the hut, crying: "Coming! coming!"
Jean Valjean watched him hurrying across the garden as fast as his
crooked leg would permit, casting a sidelong glance by the way
on his melon patch.
Less than ten minutes later, Father Fauchelevent, whose bell put
the nuns in his road to flight, tapped gently at a door, and a gentle
voice replied: "Forever! Forever!" that is to say: "Enter."
The door was the one leading to the parlor reserved for seeing
the gardener on business. This parlor adjoined the chapter hall.
The prioress, seated on the only chair in the parlor, was waiting
FAUCHELEVENT IN THE PRESENCE OF A DIFFICULTY
It is the peculiarity of certain persons and certain professions,
notably priests and nuns, to wear a grave and agitated air on
critical occasions. At the moment when Fauchelevent entered,
this double form of preoccupation was imprinted on the countenance
of the prioress, who was that wise and charming Mademoiselle de Blemeur,
Mother Innocente, who was ordinarily cheerful.
The gardener made a timid bow, and remained at the door of the cell.
The prioress, who was telling her beads, raised her eyes and said:--
"Ah! it is you, Father Fauvent."
This abbreviation had been adopted in the convent.
Fauchelevent bowed again.
"Father Fauvent, I have sent for you."
"Here I am, reverend Mother."
"I have something to say to you."
"And so have I," said Fauchelevent with a boldness which caused him
inward terror, "I have something to say to the very reverend Mother."
The prioress stared at him.
"Ah! you have a communication to make to me."
"Very well, speak."
Goodman Fauchelevent, the ex-notary, belonged to the category of
peasants who have assurance. A certain clever ignorance constitutes
a force; you do not distrust it, and you are caught by it.
Fauchelevent had been a success during the something more than two
years which he had passed in the convent. Always solitary and busied
about his gardening, he had nothing else to do than to indulge
his curiosity. As he was at a distance from all those veiled women
passing to and fro, he saw before him only an agitation of shadows.
By dint of attention and sharpness he had succeeded in clothing all
those phantoms with flesh, and those corpses were alive for him.
He was like a deaf man whose sight grows keener, and like a blind man
whose hearing becomes more acute. He had applied himself to riddling
out the significance of the different peals, and he had succeeded,
so that this taciturn and enigmatical cloister possessed no
secrets for him; the sphinx babbled all her secrets in his ear.
Fauchelevent knew all and concealed all; that constituted his art.
The whole convent thought him stupid. A great merit in religion.
The vocal mothers made much of Fauchelevent. He was a curious mute.
He inspired confidence. Moreover, he was regular, and never went
out except for well-demonstrated requirements of the orchard and
vegetable garden. This discretion of conduct had inured to his credit.
None the less, he had set two men to chattering: the porter,
in the convent, and he knew the singularities of their parlor,
and the grave-digger, at the cemetery, and he was acquainted with
the peculiarities of their sepulture; in this way, he possessed
a double light on the subject of these nuns, one as to their life,
the other as to their death. But he did not abuse his knowledge.
The congregation thought a great deal of him. Old, lame, blind to
everything, probably a little deaf into the bargain,--what qualities!
They would have found it difficult to replace him.
The goodman, with the assurance of a person who feels that he
is appreciated, entered into a rather diffuse and very deep
rustic harangue to the reverend prioress. He talked a long time
about his age, his infirmities, the surcharge of years counting
double for him henceforth, of the increasing demands of his work,
of the great size of the garden, of nights which must be passed,
like the last, for instance, when he had been obliged to put straw mats
over the melon beds, because of the moon, and he wound up as follows:
"That he had a brother"--(the prioress made a movement),--"a brother
no longer young"--(a second movement on the part of the prioress,
but one expressive of reassurance),--"that, if he might be permitted,
this brother would come and live with him and help him, that he
was an excellent gardener, that the community would receive from him
good service, better than his own; that, otherwise, if his brother
were not admitted, as he, the elder, felt that his health was broken
and that he was insufficient for the work, he should be obliged,
greatly to his regret, to go away; and that his brother had a little
daughter whom he would bring with him, who might be reared for God
in the house, and who might, who knows, become a nun some day."
When he had finished speaking, the prioress stayed the slipping
of her rosary between her fingers, and said to him:--
"Could you procure a stout iron bar between now and this evening?"
"For what purpose?"
"To serve as a lever."
"Yes, reverend Mother," replied Fauchelevent.
The prioress, without adding a word, rose and entered the adjoining room,
which was the hall of the chapter, and where the vocal mothers
were probably assembled. Fauchelevent was left alone.
About a quarter of an hour elapsed. The prioress returned
and seated herself once more on her chair.
The two interlocutors seemed preoccupied. We will present a stenographic
report of the dialogue which then ensued, to the best of our ability.
"Do you know the chapel?"
"I have a little cage there, where I hear the mass and the offices."
"And you have been in the choir in pursuance of your duties?"
"Two or three times."
"There is a stone to be raised."
"The slab of the pavement which is at the side of the altar."
"The slab which closes the vault?"
"It would be a good thing to have two men for it."
"Mother Ascension, who is as strong as a man, will help you."
"A woman is never a man."
"We have only a woman here to help you. Each one does what he can.
Because Dom Mabillon gives four hundred and seventeen epistles
of Saint Bernard, while Merlonus Horstius only gives three hundred
and sixty-seven, I do not despise Merlonus Horstius."
"Neither do I."
"Merit consists in working according to one's strength. A cloister
is not a dock-yard."
"And a woman is not a man. But my brother is the strong one, though!"
"And can you get a lever?"
"That is the only sort of key that fits that sort of door."
"There is a ring in the stone."
"I will put the lever through it."
"And the stone is so arranged that it swings on a pivot."
"That is good, reverend Mother. I will open the vault."
"And the four Mother Precentors will help you."
"And when the vault is open?"
"It must be closed again."
"Will that be all?"
"Give me your orders, very reverend Mother."
"Fauvent, we have confidence in you."
"I am here to do anything you wish."
"And to hold your peace about everything!"
"Yes, reverend Mother."
"When the vault is open--"
"I will close it again."
"But before that--"
"What, reverend Mother?"
"Something must be lowered into it."
A silence ensued. The prioress, after a pout of the under lip
which resembled hesitation, broke it.
"You know that a mother died this morning?"
"Did you not hear the bell?"
"Nothing can be heard at the bottom of the garden."
"I can hardly distinguish my own signal."
"She died at daybreak."
"And then, the wind is not blowing in my direction this morning."
"It was Mother Crucifixion. A blessed woman."
The prioress paused, moved her lips, as though in mental prayer,
"Three years ago, Madame de Bethune, a Jansenist, turned orthodox,
merely from having seen Mother Crucifixion at prayer."
"Ah! yes, now I hear the knell, reverend Mother."
"The mothers have taken her to the dead-room, which opens on the church."
"No other man than you can or must enter that chamber. See to that.
A fine sight it would be, to see a man enter the dead-room!"