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Tales of the Cloister/Belonging to the Third Order

 

Belonging to the Third Order

 

 

Belonging to the Third Order

THE friends of Alice Twombly received the news of her decision with enthusiasm mingled with gratitude. A beauty and prospective heiress, she was already sufficiently interesting to add zest to the lives of those around her. As a nun also—there was no end to the dramatic possibilities of the situation! For the charm of it all, they said, lay in the fact that she was not to enter a convent. There she would be shut away behind stone walls, and however fascinating her experience might be, the knowledge of it could not reach the outer world.

As a member of the Third Order, however, she could remain in the world, hold her place in society, entertain and be entertained, and give herself up to such good works as lay ready to her hand. She might even marry, if she wished. In fact, so far as outward appearance went, there would be little or nothing to distinguish her life from that of the usual society girl. She would wear no habit, of course—though there was a rumor that she intended to dress entirely in white. She would, no doubt, be very strict in the observance of her religious duties as a zealous Catholic; but these, they inferred, merely implied daily attendance at mass and a good deal of prayer in the solitude of her own rooms. How much wiser this compromise, they gossiped, than to immure herself in a convent as she had wished to do after her graduation. And how absorbing it would all be to the looker-on! They sent her notes of good will and congratulation. Then they settled comfortably back in the orchestra chairs of their social circle and waited to see what she would do next.

What she did was to yield to some rather gloomy forebodings. It had not been of her own choice, this compromise so heartily approved by her friends. It made her, she reflected, sadly, neither the nun she longed to be nor the worldling her people wished her. She had pined for the cloister's quiet shelter and had begged permission to follow her choice, yet she had been quick to admit that a certain element of selfishness lay in the aspiration. Why should she leave the father and mother whose only child she was, whose love for her and pride in her were so great, whose willingness to help her in good works in the world was so sincere? Surely they were right in feeling that there was much to be done outside the cloister walls—poverty to be lightened, suffering to be relieved, a good example to be set to those of her own circle whose thoughts were exclusively on worldly things. She did not wish to set herself up as a model, yet perhaps she could show them that life was something more than the gay measure they thought it. She would remain with her people and do her work, but neither her parents nor others realized how great the sacrifice seemed to her. For Miss Twombly was taking herself very seriously, which, perhaps, was due in part to her extreme youth and in part to a lack of the saving grace of humor.

After a year or two had passed, however, she found herself doing with eager hands and a lighter heart the work around her. They had been right—those friends who advised her when she was graduated. The great world held infinite opportunities for a woman with health, youth, charity, and wealth. It was worth while, this chosen career of hers, broken into though it was by the demands of that other social life which must be lived as well. She kept faithfully to the bargain she had made with her father and mother. A certain part of her time was held for them, for home, for friends and social duties. The remainder was her own, to be spent as she pleased and where she pleased. Society did not know as much about her career as it wished, but it heard and saw enough to be highly diverted. It knew that the charming girl in white was equally at home and equally welcome in drawing-rooms and tenements, with box parties and in hospitals, on tally-hos and in prison wards. Sharp contrasts add spice to life, and here were contrasts to satisfy the most exacting. With it all Miss Twombly was fascinating, and full of charms which made many youths sigh hopelessly and long.

"Sister Alice," as they called her—she had no claim to the title, but society gave it and clung to it as a dramatic accessory to the situation—was strangely wanting in sympathy for these young men. Marriage was not a part of the programme she had arranged for herself. She meant to devote her life, she said, to her Work. This was a frequent remark of hers, and as she spoke her face showed that the decision was sincerely made. She was serenely happy; she felt no need of love or companionship other than that given by her own people and the poor. The very suggestion of matrimony, she told her mother, was almost an { affront. It was asking her to give up, to the selfishness of one man, her Opportunities for Good. Her mother sighed, but said nothing. Then Dr. Richard Schuyler crossed Miss Twombly's line of vision, occasionally at first, then frequently—and at last it seemed always to include him.

There was no sudden upheaval in the experience—nor was there at first any apparent lessening of interest in her career. In fact, weeks and months passed before she even dimly realized how important a place the quiet doctor was taking in her life. He was a great man in his little world—a wonderful surgeon whose operations were watched and talked about. As she came to know him better, meeting him often in the hospitals she visited, she had a vague memory of having heard much gossip concerning him during her school-days. There had been some remarkable story of a love affair—an unfortunate one—in his early life. That must have been long ago, she reflected. He was over forty now. The age seemed far advanced to the girl of twenty-one. But he was plainly not the victim of a corroding grief. He was cheerful, well poised, ambitious, a little self-centred, she thought, but full of a beautiful sympathy of which she found the practical wake in her visits. Her poor people adored him. From these and from her society friends she heard of him constantly. He seemed, like herself, equally well known in both circles. She was surprised and pleased to discover that his presence at social affairs she was forced to attend made those functions unusually endurable to her. Of course, she reasoned, the explanation of this lay in the edifying conversations they held concerning their common interests in the slums. His hospitals, her model tenements and settlements, were subjects worthy of the attention of intelligent minds. But subsequently she remembered that evenings equally enjoyable and brief in the passing had been spent by them in animated conversations on topics of music and literature. Her protégés had not been introduced, even parenthetically. The reflection was startling to Miss Twombly, whose conscience immediately touched a warning bell. When Dr. Schuyler met her after that they worried the meat from the conversational bone of Sanitary Tenement Buildings and parted with mutual dissatisfaction. It was at this point that Miss Twombly obviously shunned Dr. Schuyler, while society, with an expansive smile, proceeded to fix its eyes upon the two. Here, also, this tale properly begins.

Love, when it becomes part of the experience of a repressed and self-contained girl with a Life Work, usually fills up the foreground of her existence as completely as if it were the Sphinx itself. Miss Twombly observed this. She tried to get over or around the tremendous fact that bounded her, but wherever she turned it was there. She was surprised at first, then incredulous, then annoyed, and finally alarmed. Being an introspective and extremely conscientious person, she made an analysis of her mental condition and discovered these things:

That she spent a surprising amount of time in thought concerning Dr. Schuyler—this thought occupying itself with such trivial details as idle remarks he had made, the color of the clothes he wore, a certain expression his eyes took on, the white flash of his teeth as he smiled.

That she was holding imaginary conversations with him, in the course of which she astonished and delighted him by the aptness and brilliancy of her remarks.

That when she made her visits it seemed desirable to go very often to the hospitals he frequented. That when she got there her calls resolved themselves into a strained looking and listening for a glimpse of him and the sound of his voice.

That it gave her great pleasure to hear her humble friends talk of him, and that she was wont to prolong these conversations to a remarkable length.

That she liked to be alone—and longed to be alone with him.

That she had developed an abnormal curiosity about that vague old love affair of his—and was afraid to ask any one concerning it.

Having discovered that in such lines her inclinations lay, Miss Twombly conscientiously refrained from doing any of these things. She plunged into work feverishly for a day or two, even though at the end of that time she knew she must laboriously fight her battle all over again. It was humiliating to a proud spirit, but it had to be endured. Dr. Schuyler did not materially aid the situation when, having himself fought a similar fight in vain, he came to her like a man and asked her to be his wife.

Alice Twombly took her Life Work as a divinely-appointed mission. Never before had she been tempted from it. Here, she reflected, was a Test, to try her soul. Perhaps, who knows, the devil himself was in it! True, she had taken no vows of celibacy. But who did not know that matrimony blasted woman's career? What of her poor, what of her place in the Third Order, if she became Dr. Schuyler's wife? He himself admitted that he realized how much he was asking her to give up.

"I am not going to let you answer me at once," he said, with the masterfulness she secretly loved. "You would refuse me off-hand, and we can't have that, you know, before you have given some thought to the attractions of this proposition." He was smiling, but she noticed that he was very pale.

"Let me say at once," he went on, "that there is no woman in the world for me but you. For years no woman has had more than a passing thought of mine. One did— when I was a young man. We were engaged, and she—changed her mind. It was a hard blow, but I got over it. Now I love you as a man loves in his mature manhood. There will never be another woman for me. I will make you happy. I will help you in your work. You shall live your own life—only let me share it. Let me put into it the love that should be in it—such love as no woman can afford to put away from her, no matter what else the world offers her. I have wealth and position equal to your own. Let us combine our opportunities and work together. Promise me you will think of it—that you will not turn me away without letting your heart speak for me. Think it over. That is all I ask—now."

She thought it over. It was with infinite difficulty that she thought of anything else. And in those thoughts what wonderful coloring this old gray world took on! It was a test, she thought, in her young ignorance. She would bear it well, but she would give her self a few days to revel in dreams—to look over her bars at the smiling fields beyond—to know the fulness of the joy that might be hers—before she turned away. She would not yield—she would not give up her people and her work and her gentle cloister friends. Somehow, it was a fixed conclusion with her that she could not have him and them, too. It was well enough to say that he would help her—no doubt he meant it. But she thought she knew herself too well to believe her work could be the vital thing it had been, if he came into her life as he wished to come. Now was the time to show the earnestness of the spirit in which she had joined the Third Order. Now was the time for a Sacrifice. Yet, could she give him up? Her problem seemed a vital one to her; her suffering was very real. She was quite capable of turning away the precious thing that had come into her life. She knew its sweetness, but she did not dream of its real worth.

In the mean time the days had gone by, and she had not given him his answer. She wrote and specified a certain night when he was to come for it. She told herself reproachfully that she had been neglecting her poor, putting the real things of life from her while she dreamed idle dreams. She thought she despised herself. She repeated this to herself as time passed, and the eventful day came. She would give him his answer that night, and it should be "No." Perhaps, after it, she could settle again into the old routine in which she had plodded so patiently before he came. It should be "No." She wondered if she would better write it, but decided against that. She would see him once more. They would have at least a parting—something to recall in the dreary days to come; and in the mean time she would fortify herself by a little visit to the convent. In the chapel, and with the nuns, she would find strength for the renunciation she had determined finally and definitely to make.

She drove to the old building and waited in the convent garden for her favorite among the inmates—Sister George. The world itself seemed to be in league against her as she sat by the sleepy fountain, for all nature was a love-song that June day. Over her arched the blue sky, and across its mirror birds skimmed, dropping a shower of jubilant notes. The odor of mignonette and geranium floated to her from the old-fashioned flower-beds blossoming around her. In the trees above the peep of nestlings was heard—even here, where she had come for peace, the birds flaunted their domestic happiness in her face. She wondered whether she was getting a little morbid, and was glad the approach of Sister George interrupted her gloomy reverie. The nun sat down beside her with a smile of welcome, for the two had been friends for years and formal greetings no longer existed for them. It did not need an especially observant eye to see that something was very wrong with the young girl so dear to the nuns, and Sister George looked at her with an anxious sympathy in her glance.

"What is it now?" she asked, gently. "More trouble with Sarah McGuire, or have your plans for the model tenements proved unsatisfactory?"

The girl leaned her head against the lattice-work of the arbor, and a quizzical thought shot across her tired mind. Why approach the subject by devious ways? Why work up to it through Sarah McGuire and the tenements? Why not lay it before this old friend at once and tersely, even though the sudden revelation might startle the gentle nun? She spoke on the impulse.

"Neither," she said, slowly. "It is a love affair." She turned her eyes from the smiling garden and fixed them on Sister George's face with much the same look they had held years before when she had childish confessions to make. The nun's cheeks flushed a delicate pink.

"Really?" she said, and gazed back incredulously. The opening was not encouraging, but the barriers of the other's self-control had been let down, and the recital poured out rapidly.

"Yes, it is," she said. "Don't despise me for it; don't think I am weak and foolish and that I am losing interest in my work and will give it up. Don t think that, for I shall refuse to marry—to-night I am to give him his answer. I have decided, and I think now I shall not even see him again." She broke into a little sob. "Oh, Sister," she added, "it is very hard." There was a volume of unconscious self-betrayal in the last sentence.

The nun stroked her bent head and stared absently at the smooth coils of hair under her hands. What could she say or do? What light had she for such a moment? They of the cloister had long doubted the child's continuance in her chosen career; not that they lacked faith in her, but because they knew the ways of life.

"The man," she hazarded; "he must be good if you care for him."

"He is—he is all that is good," came the stifled tones from the head now buried in her lap. "He is so kind, so generous, he does so much for my poor people. It was through them that I met him, for he works among them too. He is Dr. Richard Schuyler."

The nun looked at the water bubbling in the fountain near them. A gold-fish came up to the surface, and she followed its graceful motions with intent interest until it dropped again to the bottom of the little pool.

"Every one seems to speak of him, and all speak well," she said, slowly. Then she sat for a few moments in silence and deep thought.

The voice of the other ran on, and the nun listened, though her mind was busy. Her brain worked out in detail the situation between the man and the sweet but almost fanatical girl who might give up, if she were permitted, the happiness of a lifetime. It was all clear enough.

"He says he will help me in my work," said Alice, faintly. "I think he would, too, and yet I am afraid we might fail, and grow absorbed and selfish. I put all these things away from me, you know, when I made my profession. Yet now a thousand temptations have come to me. I go over it all again and again. I picture to myself what life would be with him—and then I turn from it. I once promised myself that I would never abandon my poor people. I shall keep that vow if it kills me. To-night I shall tell him so. You must help me to be strong. It is very hard," she repeated, pitifully.

The nun straightened herself with a sudden air of decision.

"Sit up, Alice," she said. "I want you to look at me." She took the girl's face between her hands and looked deep into the eyes that showed her how genuine the other's suffering had been. There was an unusual tenderness in her manner as she continued.

"I shall try to help you, my dear," she said, " but not in the way you wish. I think—I am almost sure—you should marry Dr. Schuyler. We have felt here that we could not keep you always: we have believed that the One Man would some day come for you. Is he not here?"

She looked steadily at the startled face upturned to her own, and smiled reassuringly at the incredulity it showed so plainly.

"I have been thinking it all over as we sat here," she resumed. "Look at me. No Sister in the Order is more content in her choice than I. Never for one moment have I regretted making the decision that brought me here. Yet even I, happy in my vocation, beg you to think again before you turn away from the love of a good man. Your place is in the world. Your work lies there. Will it be done less well if you have help in it?"

She stopped a moment. The girl still stared at her, surprised beyond speech. Her astonishment was vividly written in her face, and the nun smiled in perfect understanding of her thoughts.

"It seems to me," resumed Sister George, slowly, "that you are in danger of becoming a little morbid in your attitude. Because this step would mean happiness, you feel that you should put it from you. Yet why? God did not put us into the world to be miserable. Dr. Schuyler is a Catholic, and he loves the work you love. Why should you doubt that he will keep his word? He helped the poor long years before he knew you. His interest in them was for them, not recently acquired, or through any wish to please you. He seems the ideal mate for you, dear child—the one who would double your power for the comfort and relief of the poor you love to help."

"I did not suppose you would feel this way," murmured the girl. She felt, indeed, as if a rock that held her up had given way. Yet she felt, too, strangely buoyant without the support she had expected.

"Why not?" asked the nun, gently. "Am I not human? Should I, because I am happy here, urge you to a life of loneliness outside? For some day, dear little girl, when youth is gone and your parents are dead and your friends have fallen away, life in that big, hungry world would be terrible. Then you might carry into your old age a regret for what you have missed, and regret is a bitter companion for one's declining days."

Alice Twombly listened in silence. How different was the advice from what she had expected, and how sweet! The mellow, beautiful voice beside her was answering all her doubts, quieting all her fears, leading her back to the sane and normal point of view she had so resolutely put away from her. She would take the advice of this good friend who knew what was best. One word from Sister George had always had more weight with her than much advice from others. She would say "Yes," and the world would be brighter and better because there were two supremely happy people in it.

And now that it was decided, let the birds burst their little throats in song! Their flood of melody was merely an expression of the joy that filled her heart. Oh, Life—what a marvellous thing it was! And what an instructor was this Love, that gave the birds speech which humans understood and made eloquent the rippling water and the growing plants. The very perfume that came to her seemed a message from him. Yes? Why, the whole world was saying "Yes" this moment!

Sister George brought her back to her surroundings with a gentle shake that was a caress.

"Think well, little sister, before you turn Dr. Schuyler from you," she said again. "There is no doubt of your love for him. Even I, shut away from all these things, can read it in your eyes. The very insects around us to-day have your secret, my self-absorbed young friend."

Alice caught her hand between her own and kissed it.

"Thank you," she breathed. "You have shown me the way. I shall take it; I shall say 'Yes' to-night. Yes,—yes,—yes!"

The nun bent and kissed her on the forehead. "God bless you," she said, "and make you happy. About the future you need have, I think, no foreboding. Dr. Schuyler is not a man to break his word." She looked up over the garden as she spoke. For the girl at her side, life was beginning to expand. For her it was bounded by those high walls, softened by their covering of ivy, but hard and cold under its green mass. Yet she felt no regrets. Alice smiled at her radiantly as they rose to go to the chapel.

"One would think you knew him," she said, dreamily. "You seem to understand him so well." Sister George looked down from her stately height with a curious expression in her gray eyes.

"We have not always lived here, you know," she said, gently.

The slender figure beside her skimmed along the garden path without answering. Miss Twombly had reached the point in her reverie where Dr. Schuyler was ushered into the library, to find her there alone. He would ask for his answer and he would find it ready. She hardly heard the nun's words.


She recalled them as she sat in the library that evening—alone with Richard. The soft evening air blew in through the open windows, and on it was the scent of the growing things outside. High in the heavens hung the moon, the face in it smiling at the two as if they alone, of all those in the world, were looking at it with lovers' eyes. Some one in the neighboring house was playing softly on the piano. The notes came to them very plainly on the night air. It was a gay little waltz, with the undercurrent of sentiment that creeps into all the music of Germany. Its seductive invitation brought them close together, and they stood at the window looking out at the night, Alice nestling in the strong arm of the man beside her. She studied his face adoringly in the soft light. There was a trace of gray in the dark curls on his well-shaped head. One lock on the left side was almost white. She had noticed it again and again in the last few months, and it had somehow had a singularly vivid place in her thoughts when she considered giving him up. Now, that lock belonged to her with the rest of him. She decided to kiss it at the first opportunity.

Through the portières that separated the library from the music-room came the voice of her father, raised in more jubilant tones than she had heard from him in years. She smiled as she listened. How happy, how joyfully happy he and her mother were over to-night's betrothal!

It had taken all Mrs. Twombly's tact to draw her delighted husband out of the room and to make him grasp the fact that the lovers might like an hour together. He longed to sit with them and smoke and let his eyes rest on this paragon daughter of his while he talked to the fine fellow who would anchor her for ever out in the busy world, safely away from the convent walls he had feared would yet close around her. To him, the convent had been a hungry thing, reaching out long arms to grasp his treasure.

She had made many happy by this choice of hers—herself the happiest of all. Sister George was pleased, too—Sister George, no doubt tucked away now in her little cell, peacefully asleep. At the thought a sudden memory stirred in the girl's mind.

"Dick," she said,—how easily and naturally the name came to her lips!—"do you know that you really owe me to a nun? I had decided to-day to—to give you up. I don't know how I could have done it as I look back now, but I was determined. And Sister George brought me to my senses. She really made a very eloquent plea for you. You should have heard it. And by-the-way," she added, suddenly, "she spoke as if she knew you. I hardly noticed it at the time, but now I recall it. She has been in the convent twenty years, but somebody told me once that when she entered her family lived in Boston. Her name in the world was Margaret Canterbury. It seems too strange to be true, but do you know anything about her?"

Dr. Schuyler was silent. Did he know her? There had been years through which he had felt that death itself could not take her from his thoughts. Days of loss, nights of bitter pain, years of loneliness and longing for the woman who had sent him back his ring and shut herself away from him behind convent walls—all these came back to him now. She had been right to follow the call that came to her; that he had admitted even at the time. She had been young when she plighted her troth to him, and had not known her own mind. Later, as the voice of her vocation grew clear and strong, she had been so frank with him, so honest. He recalled their last interview and the tears in her deep eyes.

Twenty years ago! Had it been so long as that! The time had seemed eternal in passing, especially those first years when he had tried so vainly to seek forgetfulness and peace in work and travel. Margaret Canterbury remembered him, and after all these years had sent to him, from her cloister shelter, this child to take her place. She must still believe in him—she had always believed in him, he reflected, gratefully. She had given him trust and admiration when he asked love. Their engagement had been a mistake, and she had seen it. His mind travelled slowly over the twenty years. Margaret had felt regret and something like remorse, he knew, over her share in his disappointed life. Her opportunity to make good the loss had come to her, and how promptly she had grasped it! She had given him full measure of good for the harm she had so unwillingly done—full to overflowing. Through the years there had been a little bitterness mingled with the love in his thoughts of her; he was only human. But the last drop of that disappeared in this hour of his happiness and her association with it.

He drew a ring from his finger. It was a heavy gold one, perfectly plain, and on the in side there was an inscription and a date:

"Margaret to Richard, 1881."

He showed it to his betrothed, and then slipped it on her finger.

"I knew her—this well," he said, smiling into the eyes of his new love. Then he added:

"When you see her, show this to Sister George, and tell her it never left my finger since Margaret Canterbury placed it there, until to-night. It has been the most precious thing in my life, so now I wish my wife to wear it."