Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances/The White Cowl
The White Cowl.
In a shadowy solitary valley of Southern Kentucky and beside a noiseless stream there stands to-day a great French abbey of white-cowled Trappist monks. It is the loneliest of human habitations. Though not a ruin, an atmosphere of gray antiquity hangs about and forever haunts it. The pale-gleaming cross on the spire looks as though it would fall to the earth, weary of its aged unchangeableness. The long Gothic windows; the rudely carven wooden crucifixes, suggesting the very infancy of holy art; the partly encompassing wall, seemingly built to resist a siege; the iron gate of the porter's lodge, locked against profane intrusion—all are the voiceless but eloquent emblems of a past that still enchains the memory by its associations as it once enthralled the reason by its power.
Over the placid stream and across the fields to the woody crests around float only the sounds of the same sweet monastery bells that in the quiet evening air ages ago summoned a ruder world to nightly rest and pious thoughts of heaven. Within the abbey at midnight are heard the voices of monks chanting the self-same masses that ages ago were sung by others, who all night long from icy chapel floors lifted up piteous hands with intercession for poor souls suffering in purgatory. One almost expects to see coming along the dusty Kentucky road which winds through the valley meek brown palmers returning from the Holy Sepulchre, or through an upper window of the abbey to descry lance and visor and battle-axe flashing in the sunlight as they wind up a distant hill-side to the storming of some perilous citadel.
Ineffable influences, too, seem to bless the spot. Here, forsooth, some saint, retiring to the wilderness to subdue the devil in his flesh, lived and struggled and suffered and died, leaving his life as an heroic pattern for others who in the same hard way should wish to win the fullest grace of Christlike character. Perhaps even one of the old monks, long since halting towards the close of his pilgrimage, will reverently lead you down the aisle to the dim sepulchre of some martyr, whose relics repose under the altar while his virtues perpetually exhale heavenward like gracious incense.
The beauty of the region, and especially of the grounds surrounding the abbey, thus seems but a touching mockery. What have these inward-gazing, heavenward-gazing souls to do with the loveliness of Nature, with change of season, or flight of years, with green pastures and waving harvest-fields outside the wall, with flowers and orchards and vineyards within?
It was in a remote corner of the beautiful gardens of the monastery that a young monk, Father Palemon, was humbly at work one morning some years ago amid the lettuces and onions and fast-growing potatoes. The sun smote the earth with the fierce heat of departing June; and pausing to wipe the thick bead of perspiration from his forehead, he rested a moment, breathing heavily. His powerful legs were astride a row of the succulent shoots, and his hands clasped the handle of the hoe that gave him a staff-like support in front. He was dressed in the sacred garb of his order. His heavy sabots crushed the clods in the furrows. His cream-colored serge cowl, the long skirt of which would have touched the ground, had been folded up to his knees and tied with hempen cords. The wide sleeves, falling away, showed up to the elbows the superb muscles of his bronzed arms; and the calotte, pushed far back from his head, revealed the outlines of his neck, full, round, like a column. Nearly a month had passed since the convent barber had sheared his poll, and his yellow hair was just beginning to enrich his temples with a fillet of thick curling locks. Had Father Palemon's hair been permitted to grow, it would have fallen down on each side in masses shining like flax and making the ideal head of a saint. But his face was not the face of a saint. It had in it no touch of the saint's agony—none of those fine subtle lines that are the material net-work of intense spirituality brooding within. Scant vegetarian diet and the deep shadows of cloistral life had preserved in his complexion the delicate hues of youth, noticeable still beneath the tan of recent exposure to the summer sun. His calm, steady blue eyes, also, had the open look peculiar to self-unconscious childhood; so that as he stood thus, tall, sinewy, supple, grave, bareheaded under the open sky, clad in spotless white, a singular union of strength, manliness, and unawakened innocence, he was a figure startling to come upon.
As he rested, he looked down and discovered that the hempen cords fastening the hem of his cowl were becoming untied, and walking to the border of grass which ran round the garden just inside the monastery wall, he sat down to secure the loosened threads. He was very tired. He had come forth to work before the first gray of dawn. His lips were parched with thirst. Save the little cup of cider and a slice of black bread with which he had broken his fast after matins, he had not tasted food since the frugal meal of the previous noon. Both weary and faint, therefore, he had hardly sat down before, in the weakness of his flesh, a sudden powerful impulse came upon him to indulge in a moment's repose. His fingers fell away from the untied cords, his body sank backward against the trunk of the gnarled apple-tree by which he was shaded, and closing his eyes, he drank in eagerly all the sweet influences of the perfect day.
For Nature was in an ecstasy. The sunlight never fell more joyous upon the unlifting shadows of human life. The breeze that cooled his sweating face was heavy with the odor of the wonderful monastery roses. In the dark green canopy overhead two piping flame-colored orioles drained the last bright dew-drop from the chalice of a leaf. All the liquid air was slumbrous with the minute music of insect life, and from the hon eysuckles clambering over the wall at his back came the murmur of the happy, happy bees.
But what power have hunger and thirst and momentary weariness over the young? Father Palemon was himself part of the pure and beautiful nature around him. His heart was like some great secluded crimson flower that is ready to burst open in a passionate seeking of the sun. As he sat thus in the midst of Nature's joyousness and irrepressible unfoldings, and peaceful consummations, he forgot hunger and thirst and weariness in a feeling of delicious languor. But beneath even this, and more subtle still, was the stir of restlessness and the low fever of vague desire for something wholly beyond his experience. He sighed and opened his eyes. Right before them, on the spire beyond the gardens, was the ancient cross to which he was consecrated. On his shoulders were the penitential wounds he had that morning inflicted with the knotted scourge. In his ears was the faint general chorus of saints and martyrs, echoing backward ever more solemnly to the very passion of Christ. While Nature was everywhere clothing itself with living greenness, around his gaunt body and muscular limbs—over his young head and his coursing hot blood—he had wrapped the dead white cowl of centuries gone as the winding-sheet of his humanity. These were not clear thoughts in his mind, but the vaguest suggestions of feeling, which of late had come to him at times, and now made him sigh more deeply as he sat up and bent over again to tie the hempen cords. As he did so, his attention was arrested by the sound of voices just outside the monastery wall, which was low here, so that in the general stillness they became entirely audible.
Outside the wall was a long strip of woodland which rose gently to the summit of a ridge half a mile away. This woodland was but little used. Into it occasionally a lay-brother drove the gentle monastery cows to pasture, or here a flock sheltered itself beneath forest oaks against the noontide summer heat. Beyond the summit lay the homestead of a gentleman farmer. As one descended this slope towards the abbey, he beheld it from the most picturesque side, and visitors at the home stead usually came to see it by this secluded approach.
If Father Palemon could have seen beyond the wall, he would have discovered that the voices were those of a young man and a young woman—the former a slight, dark cripple, and invalid. He led the way along a foot path up quite close to the wall, and the two sat down beneath the shade of a great tree. Father Palemon, listening eagerly, unconsciously, overheard the following conversation:
"I should like to take you inside the abbey wall, but, of course, that is impossible, as no woman is allowed to enter the grounds. So we shall rest here a while. I find that the walk tires me more than it once did, and this tree has become a sort of outside shrine to me on my pilgrimages."
"Do you come often?"
"Oh yes. When we have visitors, I am appointed their guide, probably because I feel more interest in the place than any one else. If they are men, I take them over the grounds inside; and if they are women. I bring them thus far and try to describe the rest."
"As you will do for me now?"
"No; I am not in the mood for describing. Even when I am, my description always disappoints me. How is one to describe such human beings as these monks? Sometimes, during the long summer days, I walk over here alone and lie for hours under this tree, until the influences of the place have completely possessed me and I feel wrought up to the point of description. The sensation of a chill comes over me. Look up at these Kentucky skies! You have never seen them before. Are there any more delicate and tender? Well, at such times, where they bend over this abbey, they look as hard and cold as a sky of Landseer's. The sun seems no longer to warm the pale cross on the spire yonder, the great drifting white clouds send a shiver through me as though uplifted snow-banks were passing over my head. I fancy that if I were to go inside I should see the white butterflies dropping down dead from the petals of the white roses, finding them stiff with frost, and that the white rabbits would be limping trembling through the frozen grass, like the hare in 'The Eve of St. Agnes.' Every thing becomes cold to me—cold, cold, cold! The bleak and rugged old monks themselves, in their hoary cowls, turn to personifications of perpetual winter; and if I were in the chapel, I should expect to meet in one of them Keats's very beadsman–patient, holy man, meagre, wan—whose fingers were numb while he told his rosary, and his breath frosted as it took flight for heaven. Ugh! I am cold now. My blood must be getting very thin."
"No; you make me shiver also."
"At least the impression is a powerful one. I have watched these old monks closely. Whether it is from the weakness of vigils and fasts or from positive cold, they all tremble—perpetually tremble. I fancy that their souls ache as well. Are not their cowls the grave-clothes of a death in life?"
"You seem to forget, Austin, that faith warms them."
"By extinguishing the fires of nature! Why should not faith and nature grow strong together? I have spent my life on the hill-side back yonder, as you know, and I have had leisure enough for studying these monks. I have tried to do them justice. At different times I have almost lived with St. Benedict at Subiaco, and St. Patrick on the mountain, and St. Anthony in the desert, and St. Thomas in the cell. I understand and value the elements of truth and beauty in the lives of the ancient solitaries. But they belong so inalienably to the past. We have outgrown the ideals of antiquity. How can a man now look upon his body as his evil tenement of flesh? How can he believe that he approaches sainthood by destroying his manhood? The highest type of personal holiness is said to be attained in the cloister. That is not true. The highest type of personal holiness is to be attained in the thick of the world's temptations. Then it becomes sublime. It seems to me that the heroisms worth speaking of nowadays are active, not meditative. But why should I say this to you, who as much as any one else have taught me to think thus—I who myself am able to do nothing? But though I can do nothing, I can at least look upon the monastic ideal of life as an empty, dead, husk, into which no man with the largest ideas of duty will ever compress his powers. Even granting that it develops personal holiness, this itself is but one element in the perfect character, and not even the greatest one."
"But do you suppose that these monks have deliberately and freely chosen their vocation? You know perfectly well that often there are almost overwhelming motives impelling men and women to hide themselves away from the world—from its sorrows, its dangers, its temptations."
"You are at least orthodox. I know that such motives exist, but are they sufficient? Of course there was a time when the cloister was a refuge from dangers. Certainly that is not true in this country now. And as for the sorrows and temptations, I say that they must be met in the world. There is no sorrow befalling a man in the world that he should not bear in the world—bear it as well for the sake of his own character as for the sake of helping others who suffer like him. This way lie moral heroism and martyrdom. This way, even, lies the utmost self-sacrifice, if one will only try to see it. No, I have but little sympathy with such cases. The only kind of monk who has all my sympathy is the one that is produced by early training and education. Take a boy whose nature has nothing in common with the scourge and the cell. Immure him. Never let him get from beneath the shadow of convent walls or away from the sound of masses and the waving of crucifixes. Bend him, train him, break him, until he turns monk despite nature's purposes, and ceases to be a man without becoming a saint. I have sympathy for him. Sympathy! I do not know of any violation of the law of personal liberty that gives me so much positive suffering."
"But why suffer over imaginary cases? Such constraint belongs to the past."
"On the contrary, it is just such an instance of constraint that has colored my thoughts of this abbey. It is this that has led me to haunt the place for years from a sort of sad fascination. Men find their way to this valley from the remotest parts of the world. No one knows from what inward or outward stress they come. They are hidden away here and their secret histories are buried with them. But the history of one of these fathers is known, for he has grown up here under the shadow of these monastery walls. You may think the story one of mediæval flavor, but I believe its counterpart will here and there be found as long as monasteries rise and human beings fall.
"He was an illegitimate child. Who his father was, no one ever so much as suspected. When his mother died he was left a homeless waif in one of the Kentucky towns. But some invisible eye was upon him. He was soon afterwards brought to the boarding-school for poor boys which is taught by the Trappist fathers here. Perhaps this was done by his father, who wished to get him safely out of the world. Well, he has never left this valley since then. The fathers have been his only friends and advisers. He has never looked on the face of a woman since he looked into his mother's when a child. He knows no more of the modern world—except what the various establishments connected with the abbey have taught him—than the most ancient hermit. While he was in the Trappist school, during afternoons and vacations he worked in the monastery fields with the lay-brothers. With them he ate and slept. When his education was finished he became a lay-brother himself. But amid such influences the rest of the story is foreseen; in a few years he put on the brown robe and leathern girdle of a brother of the order, and last year he took final vows, and now wears the white cowl and black scapular of a priest."
"But if he has never known any other life, he, most of all, should be contented with this. It seems to me that it would be much harder to have known human life and then renounce it."
"That is because you are used to dwell upon the good, and strive to better the evil. No; I do not believe that he is happy. I do not believe nature is ever thwarted without suffering, and nature in him never cried out for the monkish life, but against it. His first experience with the rigors of its discipline proved nearly fatal. He was prostrated with long illness. Only by special indulgence in food and drink was his health restored. His system even now is not inured to the cruel exactions of his order. You see, I have known him for years. I was first attracted to him as a lonely little fellow with the sad lay-brothers in the fields. As I would pass sometimes, he would eye me with a boy's unconscious appeal for the young and for companionship. I have often gone into the abbey since then, to watch and study him. He works with a terrible pent-up energy. I know his type among the young Kentuckians. They make poor monks. Time and again they have come here to join the order. But all have soon fallen away. Only Father Palemon has ever persevered to the taking of the vows that bind him until death. My father knew his mother and says that he is much like her—an impulsive, passionate, trustful, beautiful creature, with the voice of a seraph. Father Palemon himself has the richest voice in the monks choir. Ah, to hear him, in the dark chapel, sing the Salve Regina! The others seem to moderate their own voices, that his may rise clear and uncommingled to the vaulted roof. But I believe that it is only the music he feels. He puts passion and an outcry for human sympathy into every note. Do you wonder that I am so strongly drawn towards him? I can give you no idea of his appearance. I shall show you his photograph, but that will not do it. I have often imagined you two together by the very law of contrast. I think of you at home in New York City, with your charities, your missions, your energetic, untiring beneficence. You stand at one extreme. Then I think of him at the other—doing nothing, shut up in this valley, spending his magnificent manhood in a never-changing, never-ending routine of sterile vigils and fasts and prayers. Oh, we should change places, he and I! I should be in there and he out here. He should be lying here by your side, looking up into your face, loving you as I have loved you, and winning you as I never can. Oh, Madeline, Madeline, Madeline!"
The rapid, broken utterance suddenly ceased.
In the deep stillness that followed, Father Palemon heard the sound of a low sob and a groan.
He had sat all this time rivetted to the spot, and as though turned into stone. He had hardly breathed. A bright lizard gliding from out a crevice in the wall had sunned itself in a little rift of sunshine between his feet. A bee from the honeysuckles had alighted unnoticed upon his hand. Others sounds had died away from his ears, which were strained to catch the last echoes of these strange voices from another world.
Now all at once across the gardens came the stroke of a bell summoning to instant prayer. Why had it suddenly grown so loud and terrible? He started up. He forgot priestly gravity and ran—fairly ran, head long and in a straight course, heedless of the tender plants that were being crushed beneath his feet. From another part of the garden an aged brother, his eye attracted by the sunlight glancing on a bright moving object, paused while training a grape-vine and watched with amazement the disorderly figure as it fled. As he ran on, the skirts of his cowl, which he had forgotten to tie up, came down. When at last he reached the door of the chapel and stooped to unroll them, he discovered that they had been draggled over the dirt and stained against the bruised weeds until they were hardly recognizable as having once been spotless white. A pang of shame and alarm went through him. It was the first stain.
Every morning the entire Trappist brotherhood meet in a large room for public confession and accusation. High at one end sits the venerable abbot; beside him, but lower, the prior; while the fathers in white and the brothers in brown range themselves on benches placed against the wall on each side.
It was near the close of this impressive ceremony that Father Palemon arose, and, pushing the hood far back from his face, looked sorrowfully around upon the amazed company. A thrill of the tenderest sympathy shot through them. He was the youngest by far of their number and likeliest therefore to go astray; but never had any one found cause to accuse him, and never had he condemned himself. Many a head wearing its winter of age and worldly scars had been lifted in that sacred audience-chamber of the soul confessing to secret sin. But not he. So awful a thing is it for a father to accuse himself, that in utter self-abasement his brethren throw themselves prone to the floor when he rises. It was over the prostrate forms of his brethren that Father Palemon now stood up erect, alone. Unearthly spectacle! He began his confession. In the hushed silence of the great bare chamber his voice awoke such echoes as might have terrified the soul had one gone into a vast vault and harangued the shrouded dead. But he went on, sparing not himself and laying bare his whole sin—the yielding to weariness in the garden; the listening to the conversation; most of all, the harboring of strange doubts and desires since then. Never before had the word "woman" been breathed at this confessional of devoted celibates. More than one hooded, faded cheek blushed secret crimson at the sound. The circumstances attending Father Palemon's temptation invested it with an ancient horror. The scene, a garden; the tempter, a woman. It was like some modern Adam confessing his fall.
His penance was severe. For a week he was not to leave his cell, except at brief seasons. Every morning he must scourge himself on his naked back until the blood came. Every noon he must go about the refectory on his knees, begging his portion of daily bread, morsel by morsel, from his brethren, and must eat it sitting before them on the floor. This repast was reduced in quantity one half. An aged deaf monk took his place in the garden.
His week of penance over, Father Palemon came forth too much weakened to do heavy work, and was sent to relieve one of the fathers in the school. Educated there himself, he had often before this taught its round of familiar duties.
The school is situated outside the abbey wall on a hill-side several hundred yards away. Between it and the abbey winds the road which enters the valley above and goes out below, connecting two country highways. Where it passes the abbey it offers slippery, unsafe footing on account of a shelving bed of rock which rises on each side as a steep embankment, and is kept moist by overhanging trees and by a small stream that issues from the road-side and spreads out over the whole pass. The fathers are commanded to cross this road at a quick gait, the hood drawn completely over the face, and the eyes bent on the ground.
One sultry afternoon, a few days later, Father Palemon had sent away his little group of pious pupils, and seated himself to finish his work. The look of unawakened innocence had vanished from his eyes. They were full of thought and sorrow. A little while and, as though weighed down with heaviness, his head sank upon his arms, which were crossed over the desk. But he soon lifted it with alarm. One of the violent storms which gather and pass so quickly in the Kentucky skies was rushing on from the south. The shock of distant thunder sent a tremor through the building. He walked to the window and stood for a moment watching the rolling edge of the low storm-cloud with its plumes of white and gray and ominous dun-green colors. Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the road below. Around a bend a horse came running at full speed, uncontrolled by the rider. He clasped his hands and breathed a prayer. Just ahead was the slippery, dangerous footing. Another moment and horse and rider disappeared behind the embankment. Then the horse reappeared on the other side, without saddle or rider, rushing away like a forerunner of the tempest.
He ran down. When he reached the spot he saw lying on the road-side the form of a woman—the creature whom his priestly vows forbade him ever to approach. Her face was upturned, but hidden under a great wave of her long, loosened, brown hair. He knelt down and, lifting the hair aside, gazed down into it.
"Ave Maria!—Mother of God!" The disjointed exclamations were instinctive. The first sight of beautiful womanhood had instantly lifted his thought to the utmost height of holy associations. Indeed, no sweet face had he ever looked on but the Virgin's picture. Many a time in the last few years had he, in moments of restlessness, drawn near and studied it with a sudden rush of indefinable tenderness and longing. But beauty, such as this seemed to him, he had never dream ed of. He bent over it, reverential, awe-stricken. Then, as naturally as the disciple John might have succored Mary, finding her wounded and fainting by the way side, he took the unconscious sufferer in his arms and bore her to the school-room for refuge from the bursting storm. There he quickly stripped himself of his great soft cowl, and, spreading it on the bare floor, laid her on it, and with cold water and his coarse monk's handkerchief bathed away the blood that flowed from a little wound on her temple.
A few moments and she opened her eyes. He was bending close over her, and his voice sounded as sweet and sorrowful as a vesper bell:
"Do you suffer? Are you much hurt? Your horse must have fallen among the rocks. The girth was broken."
She sat up bewildered, and replied slowly:
"I think I am only stunned. Yes, my horse fell. I was hurrying home out of the storm. He took fright at something and I lost control of him. What place is this?"
"This is the school of the abbey. The road passes just below. I was standing at the window when your horse ran past, and I brought you here."
"I must go home at once. They will be anxious about me. I am visiting at a place not more than a mile away."
He shook his head and pointed to the window. A sudden gray blur of rain had effaced the landscape. The wind shook the building.
"You must remain here until the storm is over. It will last but a little while."
During this conversation she had been sitting on the white cowl, and he, with the frankness of a wondering, innocent child, had been kneeling quite close beside her. Now she got up and walked to one of the windows, looking out upon the storm, while he retired to another window at the opposite end of the room.
What was the tempest-swept hill outside to the wild, swift play of emotions in him? A complete revulsion of feeling quickly succeeded his first mood. What if she was more beautiful—far more beautiful—than the sweet Virgin's picture in the abbey? She was a devil, a beautiful devil. Her eyes, her hair, which had blown against his face and around his neck, were the Devil's implements; her form, which he had clasped in his arms, was the Devil's subtlest hiding-place. She had brought sin into the world. She had been the curse of man ever since. She had tempted St. Anthony. She had ruined many a saint, sent many a soul to purgatory, many a soul to hell. Perhaps she was trying to send his soul to hell now—now while he was alone with her and under her influence. It was this same woman who had broken into the peace of his life two weeks before, for he had instantly recognized the voice as the one that he had heard in the garden and that had been the cause of his severe penance. Amid all his scourgings, fasts, and prayers that voice had never left him. It made him ache to think of what penance he must now do again on her account; and with a sudden impulse he walked across the room, and, standing before her with arms folded across his breast, said in a voice of the simplest sorrow:
"Why have you crossed my path-way, thus to tempt me?"
She looked at him with eyes that were calm but full of natural surprise.
"I do not understand how I have tempted you."
"You tempt me to believe that woman is not the devil she is."
She was silent with confusion. The whole train of his thought was unknown to her. It was difficult, bewildering. A trivial answer was out of the question, for he hung upon her expected reply with a look of pitiable eagerness. She took refuge in the didactic.
"I have nothing to say about the nature of woman. It is vague, contradictory; it is anything, everything. But I can speak to you of the lives of women; that is a definite subject. Some women may be what you call devils. But some are not. I thought that you recognized the existence of saintly women within the memories and the present pale of your church."
"True. It is the women of the world who are the devils."
"You know so well the women of the world?"
"I have been taught. I have been taught that if Satan were to appear to me on my right hand and a beautiful woman of the world on my left, I should flee to Satan from the arms of my greater enemy. You tempt me to believe that this is not true—to believe that the fathers have lied to me. You tempt me to believe that Satan would not dare to appear in your presence. Is it because you are yourself a devil that you tempt me thus?"
"Should you ask me? I am a woman of the world. I live in a city of more than a million souls—in the company of thousands of these women-devils. I see hundreds of them daily. I may be one myself. If you think I am a devil, you ought not to ask me to tell you the truth. You should not listen to me or believe me."
She felt the cruelty of this. It was like replying logically to a child who had earnestly asked to be told something that might wreck its faith and happiness.
The storm was passing. In a few minutes this strange interview would end: he back to his cell again; she back to the world. Already it had its deep influence over them both. She, more than he, felt its almost tragical gravity, and was touched by its pathos. These two young human souls, true and pure, crossing each other's path-way in life thus strangely, now looked into each other's eyes, as two travellers from opposite sides of the world meet and salute and pass in the midst of the desert.
"I shall believe whatever you tell me," he said, with tremulous eagerness.
The occasion lifted her ever-serious nature to the extraordinary; and trying to cast the truth that she wished to teach into the mould which would be most familiar to him, she replied:
"Do you know who are most like you monks in consecration of life? It is the women—the good women of the world. What are your great vows? Are they not poverty, labor, self-denial, chastity, prayer? Well, there is not one of these but is kept in the hearts of good women. Only, you monks keep your vows for your own sakes, while women keep them as well for the sakes of others. For the sake of others they live and die poor. Sometimes they even starve. You never do that. They work for others as you have never worked; they pray for others as you have never prayed. In sickness and weariness, day and night, they deny themselves and sacrifice themselves for others as you have never done—never can do. You keep yourselves pure. They keep themselves pure and make others pure. If you are the best examples of personal holiness that may be found in the world apart from temptation, they are the higher types of it maintained amid temptations that never cease. You are content to pray for the world, they also work for it. If you wish to see, in the most nearly perfect form that is ever attained in this world, love and sympathy and forgiveness, if you wish to find vigils and patience and charity—go to the good women of the world. They are all through the world, of which you know nothing—in homes, and schools, and hospitals; with the old, the suffering, the dying. Sometimes they are clinging to the thankless, the dissolute, the cruel; sometimes they are ministering to the weary, the heart-broken, the deserted. No, no! Some women may be what you call them, devils–"
She blushed all at once with recollection of her earnestness. It was the almost elemental simplicity of her listener that had betrayed her into it. Meantime, as she had spoken, his quickly changing mood had regained its first pitch. She seemed to rise higher to be arraigning him and his ideals of duty. In his own sight he seemed to grow smaller, shrink up, become despicable; and when she suddenly ceased speaking, he lifted his eyes to her, alas! too plainly now betraying his heart.
"And you are one of these good women?"
"I have nothing to say of myself; I spoke of others. I may be a devil."
For an instant through the scattering clouds the sun light had fallen in through the window, lighting up her head as with a halo. It fell upon the cowl also, which lay on the floor like a luminous heap. She went to it, and, lifting it, said to him:
"Will you leave me now? They must pass here soon looking for me. I shall see them from the window. I do not know what should have happened to me but for your kindness. And I can only thank you very gratefully."
He took the hand that she gave him in both of his, and held it closely a while as his eyes rested long and intently upon her face. Then, quickly muffling up his own in the folds of his cowl, he turned away and left the room. She watched him disappear behind the embankment below and then reappear on the opposite side, striding rapidly towards the abbey.
All that night the two aged monks whose cells were one on each side of Father Palemon's heard him tossing in his sleep. At the open confessional next morning he did not accuse himself. The events of the day before were known to none. There were in that room but two who could have testified against him. One was Father Palemon himself; the other was a small dark-red spot on the white bosom of his cowl, just by his heart. It was a blood-stain from the wounded head that had lain on his breast. Through the dread examination and the confessions Father Palemon sat motionless, his face shadowed by his hood, his arms crossed over his bosom, hiding this scarlet stain. What nameless foreboding had blanched his cheek when he first beheld it? It seemed to be a dead weight over his heart, as those earth-stains on the hem had begun to clog his feet.
That day he went the round of his familiar duties faultlessly but absently. Without heeding his own voice, he sang the difficult ancient offices of the Church in a full volume of tone, that was heard above the rich unison of the unerring choir. When, at twilight, he lay down on his hard, narrow bed, with the leathern cincture about his gaunt waist, he seemed girt for some lonely spiritual conflict of the midnight hours. Once, in the sad tumult of his dreams, his out-stretched arms struck sharply against some object and he awoke; it was the crucifix that hung against the bare wall at his head.
He sat up. The bell of the monastery tolled twelve. A new clay was beginning. A new day for him? In two hours he would set his feet, as evermore, in the small circle of ancient monastic exactions. Already the westering moon poured its light through the long windows of the abbey and flooded his cell. He arose softly and walked to the open casement, looking out upon the southern summer midnight. Beneath the window lay the garden of flowers. Countless white roses, as though censers swung by unseen hands, waved up to him their sweet incense. Some dreaming bird awoke its happy mate with a note prophetic of the coming dawn. From the bosom of the stream below, white trailing shapes rose ethereal through the moonlit air, and floated down the valley as if journeying outward to some mysterious bourn. On the dim horizon stood the domes of the forest trees, marking the limits of the valley the boundary of his life. He pressed his hot head against the cold casement and groaned aloud, seeming to himself, in his tumultuous state, the only thing that did not belong to the calm and holy beauty of the scene. Disturbed by the sound, an old monk sleeping a few feet distant turned in his cell and prayed aloud:
"Seigneur! Seigneur! Oubliez lafaiblesse de majeunesse! Vive Jesus! Vive sa Croix!"
The prayer smote him like a warning. Conscience was still torturing this old man—torturing him even in his dreams on account of the sinful fevers that had burned up within him half a century ago. On the very verge of the grave he was uplifting his hands to implore forgiveness for the errors of his youth. Ah! and those other graves in the quiet cemetery garth below—the white-cowled dust of his brethren, mouldering till the resurrection morn. They, too, had been sorely tempted had struggled and prevailed, and now reigned as saints in heaven, whence they looked sorrowfully and reproachfully down upon him, and upon their sinful heaps of mortal dust, which had so foiled the immortal spirit.
Miserably, piteously, he wrestled with himself. Even conscience was divided in twain and fought madly on both sides. His whole training had left him obedient to ideas of duty. To be told what to do always had been for him to do it. But hitherto his teachers had been the fathers. Lately two others had appeared—a man and a woman of the world, who had spoken of life and of duty as he had never thought of them. The pale, dark hunchback, whom he had often seen haunting the monastery grounds and hovering around him at his work, had unconsciously drawn aside for him the curtains of the world and a man's nobler part in it. The woman, whom he had addressed as a devil, had come in his eyes to be an angel. Both had made him blush for his barren life, his inactivity. Both had shown him which way duty lay.
Duty? Ah! it was not duty. It was the woman, the woman! The old tempter! It was the sinful passion of love that he was responding to; it was the recollection of that sweet face against which his heart had beat—of the helpless form that he had borne in his arms. Duty or love, he could not separate them. The great world, on the boundaries of which he wished to set his feet, was a dark, formless, unimaginable thing, and only the light from the woman's face streamed across to him and beckoned him on. It was she who made his priestly life wretched—made even the wearing of his cowl an act of hypocrisy that was the last insult to Heaven. Better anything than this. Better the renunciation of his sacred calling, though it should bring him the loss of earthly peace and eternal pardon.
The clock struck half-past one. He turned back to his cell. The ghastly beams of the setting moon suffused it with the pallor of a death-scene. God in heaven! The death-scene was there—the crucifixion! The sight pierced him afresh with the sharpest sorrow, and taking the crucifix down, he fell upon his knees and covered it with his kisses and his tears. There was the wound in the side, there were the drops of blood and the thorns on the brow, and the divine face still serene and victorious in the last agony of self-renunciation. Self-renunciation!
"Lord, is it true that I cannot live to Thee alone? And Thou didst sacrifice Thyself to the utmost for me! Consider me, how I am made! Have mercy, have mercy! If I sin, be Thou my witness that I do not know it!—Thou, too, didst love her well enough to die for her!"
In that hour, when he touched the highest point that nature ever enabled him to attain, Father Palemon, looking into his conscience and into the divine face, took his final resolution. He was still kneeling in steadfast contemplation of the cross when the moon withdrew its last ray and over it there rushed a sudden chill and darkness. He was still immovable before it when, at the resounding clangor of the bell, all the spectral figures of his brethren started up from their couches like ghosts from their graves, and in a long, shadowy line wound noiselessly downward into the gloom of the chapel, to begin the service of matins and lauds.
He did not return with them when at the close of day they wound upward again to their solemn sleep. He slipped unseen into the windings of a secret passage-way, and hastening to the reception-room of the abbey sent for the abbot.
It was a great bare room. A rough table and two plain chairs in the middle were the only furniture. Over the table there swung from the high ceiling a single low, lurid point of light, that failed to reach the shadows of the recesses. The few poor pictures of saints and martyrs on the walls were muffled in gloom. The air was dank and noisome, and the silence was that of a vault.
Standing half in light and half in darkness, Father Palemon awaited the coming of his august superior. It was an awful scene. His face grew whiter than his cowl, and he trembled till he was ready to sink to the floor. A few moments, and through the dim door-way there softly glided in the figure of the aged abbot, like a presence rather felt than seen. He advanced to the little zone of light, the iron keys clanking at his girdle, his delicate fingers interlaced across his breast, his gray eyes filled with a look of mild surprise and displeasure.
"You have disturbed me in my rest and meditations. The occasion must be extraordinary. Speak! Be brief!"
"The occasion is extraordinary. I shall be brief. Father Abbot, I made a great mistake in ever becoming a monk. Nature has not fitted me for such a life. I do not any longer believe that it is my duty to live it. I have disturbed your repose only to ask you to receive the renunciation of my priestly vows and to take back my cowl: I will never put it on again."
As he spoke he took off his cowl and laid it on the table between them, showing that he wore beneath the ordinary dress of a working-man.
Under the flickering spark the face of the abbot had at first flushed with anger and then grown ashen with vague, formless terror. He pushed the hood back from his head and pressed his fingers together until the jewelled ring cut into the flesh.
"You are a priest of God, consecrated for life. Consider the sin and folly of what you say. You have made no mistake. It would be too late to correct it, if you had."
"I shall do what I can to correct it as soon as possible. I shall leave the monastery to-night."
"To-night you confess what has led you to harbor this suggestion of Satan. To-night I forgive you. To-night you sleep once more at peace with the world and your own soul. Begin! Tell me everything that has happened—everything!"
"It were better untold. It could only pain—only shock you."
"Ha! You say this to me, who stand to you in God's stead?"
"Father Abbot, it is enough that Heaven should know my recent struggles and my present purposes. It does know them."
"And it has not smitten you? It is merciful."
"It is also just."
"Then do not deny the justice you receive. Did you not give yourself up to my guidance as a sheep to a shepherd? Am I not to watch near you in danger and lead you back when astray? Do you not realize that I may not make light of the souls committed to my charge, as my own soul shall be called into judgment at the last day? Am I to be pushed aside—made naught of—at such a moment as this?"
Thus urged, Father Palemon told what had recently befallen him, adding these words:
"Therefore I am going—going now. I cannot expect your approval: that pains me. But have I not a claim upon your sympathy? You are an old man, Father Abbot. You are nearer heaven than this earth. But you have been young; and I ask you, is there not in the past of your own buried life the memory of some one for whom you would have risked even the peace and pardon of your own soul?"
The abbot threw up his hands with a gesture of sudden anguish, and turned away into the shadowy distances of the room.
When he emerged again, he came up close to Father Palemon in the deepest agitation.
"I tell you this purpose of yours is a suggestion of the Evil Spirit. Break it against the true rock of the Church. You should have spoken sooner. Duty, honor, gratitude, should have made you speak. Then I could have made this burden lighter for you. But, heavy as it is, it will pass. You suffer now, but it will pass, and you will be at peace again–at perfect peace again."
"Never! Never again at peace here! My place is in the world. Conscience tells me that. Besides, have I not told you, Father Abbot, that I love her, that I think of her day and night? Then I am no priest. There is nothing left for me but to go out into the world."
"The world! What do you know of the world? If I could sum up human life to you in an instant of time, I might make you understand into what sorrow this caprice of restlessness and passion is hurrying you."
Sweetness had forsaken the countenance of the aged shepherd. His tones rung hoarse and hollow, and the muscles of his face twitched and quivered as he went on:
"Reflect upon the tranquil life that you have spent here, preparing your soul for immortality. All your training has been for the solitude of the cloister. All your enemies have been only the spiritual foes of your own nature. You say that you are not fitted for this life. Are you then prepared for a life in the world? Foolish, foolish boy! You exchange the terrestrial solitude of heaven for the battle-field of hell. Its coarse, foul atmosphere will stifle and contaminate you. It has problems that you have not been taught to solve. It has shocks that you would never withstand. I see you in the world? Never, never! See you in the midst of its din and sweat of weariness, its lying and dishonor? You say that you love this woman. Heaven forgive you this sin! You would follow her. Do you not know that you may be deluded, trifled with, disappointed? She may love another. Ah! you are a child—a simple child!"
"Father Abbot, it is time that I were becoming a man." But the abbot did not hear or pause, borne on now by a torrent of ungovernable feelings:
"Your parents committed a great sin." He suddenly lifted the cross from his bosom to his lips, which moved rapidly for an instant in silent prayer. "It has never been counted against you here, as it will never be laid to your charge in heaven. But the world will count it against you. It will make you feel its jeers and scorn. You have no father," again he bent over and passionately kissed his cross, "you have no name. You are an illegitimate child. There is no place for you in the world—in the world that takes no note of sin unless it is discovered. I warn you—I warn you by all the years of my own experience, and by all the sacred obligations of your holy order, against this fatal step."
"Though it be fatal, I must and will take it."
"I implore you! God in heaven, dost thou punish me thus? See! I am an old man. I have but a few years to live. You are the only tie of human tenderness that binds me to my race. My heart is buried in yours. I have watched over you since you were brought here, a little child. I have nursed you through months of sickness. I have hastened the final assumption of your vows, that you might be safe within the fold. I have stayed my last clays on earth with the hope that when I am dead, as I soon shall be, you would perpetuate my spirit among your brethren, and in time come to be a shepherd among them, as I have been. Do not take this solace from me. The Church needs you—most of all needs you in this age and in this country. I have reared you within it that you might be glorified at last among the saints and martyrs. No, no! You will not go away!"
"Father Abbot, what better can I do than heed the will of Heaven in my own conscience?"
"I implore you!"
"I must go."
"I warn you, I say."
"Oh, my father! You only make more terrible the anguish of this moment. Bless me, and let me go in peace."
"Bless you?" almost shrieked the abbot, starting back with horror, his features strangely drawn, his uplifted arms trembling, his whole body swaying. "Bless you? Do this, and I will hurl upon you the awful curse of the everlasting Church!"
As though stricken by the thunderbolt of his own imprecation, he fell into one of the chairs and buried his head in his arms upon the table. Father Palemon had staggered backward, as though the curse had struck him in the forehead. These final words he had never thought of—never foreseen. For a moment the silence of the great chamber was broken only by his own quick breathing and by the convulsive agitation of the abbot. Then with a rapid movement Father Palemon came forward, knelt, and kissed the hem of the abbot's cowl, and, turning away, went out.
Love—duty—the world; in those three words lie all the human, all the divine, tragedy.
Years soon pass away in the life of a Trappist priest.
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
Another June came quickly into the lonely valley of the Abbey of Gethsemane. Again the same sweet monastery bells in the purple twilights, and the same midnight masses. Monks again at work in the gardens, their cowls well tied up with hempen cords. Monks once more teaching the pious pupils in the school across the lane. The gorgeous summer came and passed beyond the southern horizon, like a mortal vision of beauty never to return. There were few changes to note. Only the abbot seemed to have grown much feebler. His hand trembled visibly now as he lifted the crosier, and he walked less than of yore among his brethren while they busied themselves with the duties of the waning autumn. But he was oftener seen pacing to and fro where the leaves fell sadly from the moaning choir of English elms. Or at times he would take a little foot-path that led across the brown November fields, and, having gained a crest on the boundary of the valley, would stand looking far over the outward landscape into imaginary spaces, limitless and unexplored.
But Father Palemon, where was he? Amid what splendors of the great metropolis was he bursting Joy's grape against his palate fine? What of his dreams of love and duty, and a larger, more modern stature of manhood?
Late one chill, cloud-hung afternoon in November there came into the valley of Gethsemane the figure of a young man. He walked slowly along the road towards the abbey, with the air of one who is weary and forgetful of his surroundings. His head dropped heavily forward on his breast, and his empty hands hung listlessly down. At the iron gate of the porter's lodge entrance was refused him; the abbey was locked in repose for the night. Urging the importance of his seeing the abbot, he was admitted. He erased a name from a card and on it wrote another, and waited for the interview.
Again the same great dark room, lighted by a flickering spark. He did not stand half in light and half in shadow, but hid himself away in one of the darkest recesses. In a few moments the abbot entered, holding the card in his hand and speaking with tremulous haste:
"Father Palemon? who wrote this name, Father Palemon?"
Out of the darkness came a low reply:
"I wrote it."
"I do not know you."
"I am Father Palemon."
The calm of a great sadness was in the abbot's voice, as he replied, musingly:
"There—is—no—Father Palemon: he died long ago."
"Oh, my father! Is this the way you receive me?"
He started forward and came into the light. Alas! No; it was not Father Palemon. His long hair was unkempt and matted over his forehead; his face pinched and old with suffering, and ashen gray except for the red spots on his cheeks. Deep shadows lay under his hollow eyes, which were bloodshot and restless and burning.
"I have come back to lead the life of a monk. Will you receive me?"
"Twice a monk, no monk. Receive you for what time? Until next June?"
"I have received you once already until death. How many times am I to receive you until death?"
"I beseech you do not contest in words with me. It is too much. I am ill. I am in trouble."
He suddenly checked his passionate utterance, speaking slowly and with painful self-control:
"I cannot endure now to tell you all that has befallen me since I went away. The new life that I had begun in the world has come to an end. Father Abbot, she is dead. I have just buried her and my child in one grave. Since then the one desire I have had has been to return to this place. God forgive me! I have no heart now for the duties I had undertaken. I had not measured my strength against this calamity. It has left me powerless for good to any human creature. My plans were wrecked when she died. My purposes have gone to pieces. There is no desire in me but for peace and solitude and prayer. All that I can do now is to hide my poor, broken, ineffectual life here, until by God's will, sooner or later, it is ended."
"You speak in the extremity of present suffering. You are young. Nearly all your life lies yet before you. In time Nature heals nearly all the wounds that she inflicts. In a few years this grief which now unmans you—which you think incurable—will wear itself out. You do not believe this. You think me cruel. But I speak the truth. Then you may be happy again happier than you have ever been. Then the world will resume its hold upon you. If the duties of a man's life have appealed to your conscience, as I believe they have, they will then appeal to it with greater power and draw you with a greater sense of their obligations. Moreover, you may love again—ah! Hush! Hear me through! You think this is more unfeeling still. But I must speak, and speak now. It is impossible to seclude you here against all temptation. Some day you may see another woman's face—hear another woman's voice. You may find your priestly vows intolerable again. Men who once break their holiest pledges for the sake of love will break them again, if they love again. No, no! If you were unfit for the life of a monk once, much more are you unfit now. Now that you are in the world, better to remain there."
"In Heaven's name, will you deny me? I tell you that this is the only desire left to me. The world is as dead to me as though it never existed, because my heart is broken. You misunderstood me then. You misunderstand me now. Does experience count for nothing in preparing a man for the cloister?"
"I did misunderstand you once; I thought that you were fitted for the life of a monk. I understand you now: I do not make the same mistake twice."
"This is the home of my childhood, and you turn me away?"
"You went away yourself, in the name of conscience and of your own passion."
"This is the house of God, and you close its doors against me?"
"You burst them open of your own self-will."
Hitherto the abbot had spoken for duty, for his church, for the inviolable sanctity of his order. Against these high claims the pent-up tenderness of his heart had weighed as nothing. But now as the young man, having fixed a long look upon his face, turned silently away towards the door, with out-stretched arms he tottered after him, and cried out in broken tones: "Stop! Stop, I pray you! You are ill. You are free to remain here a guest. No one was ever refused shelter. Oh, my God! what have I done?"
Father Palemon had reeled and fallen fainting in the door-way.
In this life, from earliest childhood, we are trained by merciful degrees to brave its many sorrows. We begin with those of infancy, which, Heaven knows, at the time seem grievous enough to be borne. As we grow older we somehow also grow stronger, until through the discipline of many little sufferings we are enabled to bear up under those final avalanches of disaster that rush down upon us in maturer years. Even thus fortified, there are some of us on whom these fall only to overwhelm.
But Father Palemon. Unnaturally shielded by the cloister up to that period of young manhood when feeling is deepest and fortitude least, he had suddenly appeared upon the world's stage only to enact one of the greatest scenes in the human tragedy—that scene where in the perfect ecstasy of love by one swift, mortal transition becomes the perfect agony of loss. What wonder if he had staggered blindly, and if, trailing the habiliments of his sorrow, he had sought to return to the only place that was embalmed in his memory as a peaceful haven for the shipwrecked? But even this quiet port was denied him.
Into the awful death-chamber of the abbey they bore him one midnight some weeks later. The tension of physical powers during the days of his suspense and suffering, followed by the shock of his rejection, had touched those former well-nigh fatal ravages that had prostrated him during the period of his austere novitiate. He was dying. The delirium of his fever had passed away, and with a clear, dark, sorrowful eye he watched them prepare for the last agony.
On the bare floor of the death-chamber they sprinkled consecrated ashes in the form of a cross. Over these they scattered straw, and over the straw they drew a coarse serge cloth. This was his death-bed–a sign that in the last hour he was admitted once more to the fellowship of his order. From the low couch on which he lay he looked at it. Then he made a sign to the abbot, in the mute language of the brotherhood. The abbot repeated it to one of the attendant fathers, who withdrew and soon returned, bringing a white cowl. Lifting aside the serge cloth, he spread the cowl over the blessed cinders and straw. Father Palemon's request had been that he might die upon his cowl, and on this they now stretched his poor emaciated body, his cold feet just touching the old earth-stains upon its hem. He lay for a little while quite still, with closed eyes. Then he turned them upon the abbot and the monks, who were kneeling in prayer around him, and said, in a voice of great and gentle dignity:
"My father—my brethren, have I your full forgiveness?"
With sobs they bowed themselves around him. After this he received the crucifix, tenderly embracing it, and then lay still again, as if awaiting death. But finally he turned over on one side, and raising himself on one forearm, sought with the hand of the other among the folds of his cowl until he found a small blood-stain now faint upon its bosom. Then he lay down again, pressing his cheek against it; and thus the second time a monk, but even in death a lover, he breathed out his spirit with a faint whisper –"Madeline!"
And as he lay on the floor, so now he lies in the dim cemetery garth outside, wrapped from head to foot in his cowl, with its stains on the hem and the bosom.