The Conversion of Constantia

The Conversion of Constantia  (1907) 
by Josephine Daskam Bacon

From The American Magazine, Aug 1907. Illustrated by Charlotte Harding. A priggish girl, enraged beyond endurance by her teachers' laughter ... "converts."

... then she goes off and sulks a day or two, and finally she comes around and forgives them, because she feels she ought to, she says, and that makes them mad, because they don't want her old forgiveness and they tell her so. It drives some of the girls simply crazy. Sometimes, after Connie has forgiven a girl, she won't speak with her for weeks, she gets so mad.



THE real reason why Constantia went over to Rome very few people know, but I do. It was because she got laughed at so, and nothing else. And it was always Protestants—that is congregationalists, Unitarians, etc, (although many people don't think that Unitarians are really religious at all, because they don't believe in the Holy Ghost, I think it is)—that laughed at her, and never Roman Catholics. Still there was some reason for that, because just about everybody in the school is a Protestant anyway, except only the maids and Gray Fairfox's Aunt Isabel, and she wasn't in the school, of course. But it was through her that Constantia began the whole thing.

Aunt Isabel was visiting Gray in the town, and Gray used to go down there to stay all night, and she took her out to drive and everything. And Constantia used to go with Gray a good deal because her Aunt Isabel took a liking to her, and that made Constantia rather proud of course, and nobody blamed her, because Aunt Isabel was perfectly lovely. She was quite large—larger than aunts usually are—with a very little waist and big shoulders. And she always wore high-heeled shoes—even in the morning. She used to call Constantia and Gray "sister."

She let connie wear a ring of hers all the while she stayed

"Well, sisters, how does the world treat you all to-day?" she used to say. And she let Connie wear a ring of hers all the while she stayed.

Not that Connie would have been converted just for that, probably, but she began to think of it when Aunt Isabel was the only one that didn't laugh at what she said in Sunday-school. She is in Miss Welles's class—that's Dr. Welles's daughter—and it was the Sunday after that lesson about the Holy Ghost descending upon the apostles, and a mighty rushing wind, and all that; and she always asks them the next time about the last lesson. She jumped on Connie when Connie was looking at her ring and said, "When the spirit descended upon the apostles, Constantia, what were they full of?"

And Connie jumped and just called out: "Wind!"

And then Miss Welles got perfectly red in the face and pretended to be coughing, but she wasn't at all. She was laughing, and pretty hard, too, for she couldn't seem to stop. Of course Connie knew perfectly well what she was doing, and it isn't very pleasant to have anyone laugh at you like that, especially when you haven't the least idea what about. She says that Miss Welles explained what they were full of, and she couldn't see why it was any different from what she said, and none of the rest of us either. Even Ben, who usually knows what relatives and teachers mean, and explains why they laugh, even Ben hadn't the least idea. She thought Con must have misunderstood and said something else; for very often the least little thing will make a difference in anything being funny, she says, but Con was sure that was all she said and just what she said. And it turned out to be right, too, for Miss Welles told it to her father, and when he came up to the school to see if Ben had poison ivy, or trouble with her teeth, she heard him telling it outside the door to Miss Demarest, and they both laughed.

Then Miss Demarest told it to the other teachers, for we could tell by the way they acted when Miss Naldreth read that part for morning chapel. They all got red and coughed, so that Miss Naldreth noticed it herself—we saw her lift up her eyebrows, the way she does sometimes, and I tell you they stopped in a hurry!

Well, by that time Connie thought that everybody was laughing at her and she got pretty sulky. That's the way Connie has always been since the day she came into Elmbank: she doesn't get over things very quick. She thinks everybody is teasing her all the time, and mostly they're not at all. Then she goes off and sulks a day or two, and finally she comes around and forgives them, because she feels she ought to, she says, and that makes them mad, because they don't want her old forgiveness and they tell her so. Then she says they cant prevent her forgiving them if she wants to, and then they usually have a row. I don't mind it a bit myself—I'd just as soon she'd forgive me, it doesn't hurt me any. But it drives some of the girls simply crazy. Sometimes, after Connie has forgiven a girl, she won't speak with her for weeks, she gets so mad.

You see, she has always been very religious, more so than any of the rest of us. Ben says she doesn't believe in God at all, because, if he was so powerful as all that, there wouldn't be any wickedness in the world at all, and no prisons. Miss Naldreth had a long talk with her and said that he was powerful enough, but he preferred to have the evil there for reasons known to him only; but Ben told her that in that case he certainly wasn't very sensible, and did Miss Naldreth think it was reasonable to let poor Mary Murphy's little brother be knocked down by his big brother, and his leg broken, when the brother was drunk? And Miss Naldreth said that our reason was lower than God's and we mustn't judge him by it, and Ben said it was all she had to judge by, anyway. So Miss Naldreth told her never to mind, but when she got older she would come to feel different about it. But that was way back in last term and Ben hasn't changed yet, so I'm afraid she never will.

I believe in God, of course, because, if you don't, who would you say your prayers to?

Gray believes in him because when there is a thunderstorm she always gets awfully white and whispers out loud, "Please don't let it hit me, God! Please don't let it hit me!"

And she confesses every wicked thing she ever did if the lightning is very bad. She doesn't mean to, but she just can't help it. Her mother is the same way. It's about the only thing she is afraid of.

When Eleanor Northrop was going with our crowd of girls she told Ben that if she could be perfectly sure there wasn't any hell she didn't think she'd believe in God; but as it was, she thought she'd better keep on the safe side.

After Connie has forgiven a girl, she won't speak with her for weeks

So you see, except for Ben, we are all quite religious, but none of us so much so as Constantia. When she first came to the school she used to go around asking us, "Do you think God would like that?" for everything we did. Of course nobody enjoys that and pretty soon she had to stop it, especially after she cheated in her examples and everybody knew it. All the girls went up to her and looked at her the way she looked at them, and said in that sort of baby way, "Do you think God would like that?" and she cried and acted dreadfully, but she stopped, though afterwards she forgave them all and got even with them.

All during Lent, Constantia never ate her dessert once and she started to read the Bible through; but when she divided the number of pages by forty, to read so much every day, it made such a terrible lot that she got discouraged. I told her to go on and get as much done as she could, if she didn't get through it all, but she said that wouldn't do—it must be all or none. She could have saved out a lot by skipping those places where it says "and somebody begat somebody," but she didn't think she ought to do that either. So she never even began it.

I could tell you hundreds of things like that to show you how religious Connie was. There was that time we teased the Pie to take us to the revival meeting, and finally she did, in the afternoon, though Ben says Miss Naldreth wouldn't have liked it a bit. There was such a funny little man there on the platform, walking back and forth and waving his hands; I never saw anybody get so covered with perspiration. It was fun to see the people get up and walk down to the front, they looked so ashamed, but after a while we got tired of it, Ben and I. Connie thought it was beautiful, though. He kept saying, "Let me see the children! Let the young people come on!" and Connie wanted to go dreadfully, only in the first place she knew Miss Appleby would never let her, and, besides, her father had promised her that she might be confirmed next year, and she thought perhaps it wouldn't count if she did anything like this first.

"Do you think God would like that?"

He told a story just before we went out that I must say I didn't believe exactly, if he was a minister. He said that in one place where he was he preached such a sermon that everybody began to cry, mostly, and when he walked down the aisle there was a little girl four years old with her face buried in her hands, crying so hard that it shook her all over. And he said, "What is it, my little maid? Is your sin too great for you?" (his very words), and she said, "Yes, sir," and he tried to comfort her, and finally he pulled the handkerchief away—and it was his own little daughter!

Connie began to cry and whispered to us, "Oh, girls, I wish I was that little girl!" and then the Pie made us hurry out, and she never let go of Connie's hand all the way home. But just the same it seemed very queer that he shouldn't know his own daughter. And Ben thought so, too. Perhaps he wasn't at home very much and so he wasn't used to seeing her. I didn't suppose you could be such a great sinner when you were only four years old anyway.

Constantia wrote a poem about it and read it to us Sunday afternoon. I only remember one verse:

"He did not guess who she could be,
You little think that I belong to thee.
But although your sins are black and great.
Repent before it is too late.
For there the flowers shall ever bloom,
And we shall all meet beyond the tomb.

No matter what they are about, the last line is always like that in all Connie's poems. I have heard dozens of them and they all end just that way. You'd always know whose they were by that. She sort of sings them, and they sound very well when she reads them, though rather bumpy when you read them yourself. They are always sad and somebody dies in every one of them. I asked her once why she didn't do a funny one for a change, but she said that wasn't what you wrote poetry for. She said there were funny enough things really happening every day without the trouble of making them up in poetry, and of course that is so.

All during Lent, Constantia never ate her desert once

It was the Sunday after she said the apostles were full of wind that she wrote the poem, and then she told me that Aunt Isabel was the only one that hadn't laughed at her.

"Perhaps she doesn't know you said it," I said.

"Oh, yes, she does, because I told her," said Connie. She told her to see what she would do. And Aunt Isabel said it wasn't so terribly funny, after all, and for her not to mind.

"And that's because she's a Catholic," Connie told us, "and I think I shall be one myself."

"Why, Constantia Van Cott, you'd never dare to!" I said, "your father wouldn't let you."

"It wouldn't make any difference," she answered, as calm as you please; "I should, just the same, and the Pope would protect me."

Did you ever hear of anything like that?

"You'll be just like the maids and Michael, then," Mary Matterson said, "and I shoiddn't think you'd like that. You'll have to drive into town with them early Sunday mornings."

Of course Connie didn't like that very much, but she couldn't think of anything to say.

"And I tell you one thing," said Ben, "you'll have to get used to the way the Catholic church smells—it's dreadful."

Ben sneaked into a funeral there once, so she knows.

"I'm surprised at you," Connie said, trying to pretend that she didn't mind, "people don't join a religion because of the way it smells. Do you think that's why people are Protestants—because they think they smell better?"

"It's one of the reasons, probably," Ben answered, obstinate as usual, "and you'll think so when you get into that church."

Connie was just wild to be a Catholic

Connie just walked away and went off with Gray Fairchild to see Aunt Isabel And Aunt Isabel petted her and promised to take her to church early in the morning with her. Which she did, and after that Connie was just wild to be a Catholic and confess to a priest. She waited while Aunt Isabel confessed, and she went into a little sort of place like where you go to telephone, she says, and she pretended there was a priest there and she confessed. too, just as if somebody was really listening. She says she confessed some things about the other girls, too, and Ben especially. Ben was quite mad and told her she could mind her own business and she'd do her own confessing when she got ready. Then Connie just smiled in that silly, baby way she does, and wouldn't promise that she wouldn't confess about the rest of us. Ben got madder and madder, and we all thought it was awfully mean of Connie to do that, when we weren't Catholics, any of us.

We were entirely at her mercy, as they say in books. But Ben can manage any-thing in the world, I do believe. She just looked Connie in the eye and said as follows:

"Very well. Miss, go on and confess about me and my friends, and I will tell Mary Murphy to confess to her priest how you cheated in arithmetic and kept your lemon layer-cake till three o'clock, so as to say it wasn't desert in Lent; for I don't believe you'll ever confess about that yourself—you'd be too ashamed!"

And then she agreed not to mention any of us pretty quick, I can tell you, for of course she couldn't tell any stranger about that lemon cake—nobody could.

Then Aunt Isabel went into the priest's house to see about having some candles on the little side altar, because somebody had died, and she took Connie with her and the priest shook hands with her, and said didn't he see her at mass, and what do you think she said? She said, "Yes, Father."

"I will tell Mary Murphy to confess to her priest how you cheated in arithmetic"

Of course that settled it and we knew she was a Catholic from then on. She said that she turned as red as a beet and her voice came out all wobbly and queer, but she said it, and neither of them laughed at her a bit—they didn't seem to notice how scared she was. Of course it was very brave in Con—I will say that for her, because she told us that she didn't know what might happen, or whether it wasn't dangerous to change to a Catholic so suddenly. But nothing happened at all, and when Aunt Isabel bowed in front of the altar when they went through the church, will you believe it, Connie did, too? She said it made you feel awfully nice—she wanted to do it again. And Aunt Isabel patted her head. Aunt Isabel put her finger into a kind of bowl that a statue of an angel held up by the door, and made a cross on herself, but Connie didn't quite dare do that.

She told Mary Murphy next morning, when Mary was making the bed, that she was a Catholic now, and Mary said, "Is that so, now, Miss Connie? That's good news to hear. It's the only way, I'm thinking."

Mary must have told the others, for when Katey passed the bread she hurried by me so I couldn't get it, and whispered, "There's the end piece, Miss Connie, dear!"

She told Mary Murphy next morning, when Mary was making the bed, that she was a Catholic now

And Connie took it and said, "Thank you, Katey," just like Aunt Isabel.

Gray isn't a Catholic herself, but some of her relatives are, besides Aunt Isabel, and she told Mary Matterson that she was very much mistaken if she thought that only Irish people and coachmen were Catholics, because some very aristocratic and rich people were and always had been, to say nothing of the apostles.

Mary said that wasn't so, that the apostles were Protestants, and she asked Ben. Ben thought St. Peter was a Catholic anyway, but she wasn't sure about the rest—she thought not. Gray asked Aunt Isabel, and she told her a lot that Gray forgot about directly, except that it was Henry the Eighth's fault. If it hadn't been for him we should all have been Catholics now. Gray said.

"Well," said Ben, "if you think I'd go to a smelly church like that every Sunday on account of Henry the Eighth, or a hundred like him, you're mistaken. He must have been crazy when he did it."

"Of course he was crazy—he was a Protestant!" said Connie.

Now the idea—when she had been a Protestant herself a few days ago! Wasn't that just like Constantia Van Cott, though?

Aunt Isabel gave her a lovely picture of the Virgin Mary, with holders for little candles in the side of the frame, and Connie used to put a little bunch of flowers in front of it on a stand, and she told me she kneeled down and said part of her prayers there. She said the most important ones by the bed, the regular way, of course.

And Gray told me that Mary told her not to bother about her room—she'd pick it up when she made the bed. So Connie used to leave her hair ribbons all in knots and—would you believe it?—Mary would pick them out! And she put buttons on her shoes twice.

But the third day she had the picture, Miss Demarest came in for inspection and quick as a wink she noticed it.

"Where did you get this, Constantia, and what is it?" said she.

"It is the Virgin Mary, Miss Demarest, and it was given to me by—by a person," Connie said.

"A strange thing to have in your room, is it not?" said Demmy.

"I don't know about that," Connie answered, "I'm a Catholic myself. Miss Demarest."

She told me she kneeled down and said part of her prayers there

"What do you mean, Constantia? How perfectly ridiculous!" says Demmy.

"Very well, then, ask Father Tenney if you don't believe me," Connie told her.

Miss Demarest just gave her one look and went right out of the room, and Connie knew she was going to see Miss Naldreth. And then Connie kneeled down and prayed for a sign to tell her she was doing right, and the window-shade rolled up with a bang, and nearly frightened her to death, so she knew.

She sat and waited for Miss Naldreth and wondered if she would have to go to a convent, or else be tortured to death like Joan of Arc. And she wrote a poem—a short one, because she didn't know when Miss Naldreth would come. This is the poem:

"If I must die I place my hope
In the greatest man in the world, the Pope.
I do not care what Protestants may do.
To my own religion I will be true.
There where heaven's flowers are sweet,
Beyond the tomb we all shall meet."

I never was very fond of Connie, but I must say I think that is a pretty fine poem.

Well, she waited and she waited and she waited, and Miss Naldreth never came. And by-and-by she went out to the croquet ground and made her will, but as she left everything to Aunt Isabel it didn't matter much. But still Miss Naldreth never called her up nor came near her.

Ben heard Miss Demarest and Miss Norton talking in the old school-room the next morning, when she came into the class early, and she knew it was about Connie, because Miss Demarest said:

"I think it is perfectly disgraceful—the whole school will be going to mass next. Something should be done."

And Miss Norton said:

"Because little Connie has gone over to Rome? Oh, I hardly think so, Miss Demarest. Trust Miss Naldreth. The child is not quite twelve, you know."

Then there was some more Ben didn't hear, and then Demmy said something about the long-distance telephone and ended up:

"He said she had always been a precious little prig, anyway. He hoped they'd knock it out of her."

"Oh, well, if her own father doesn't take it too seriously, I think you needn't worry," Miss Norton said.

But all the teachers talked about it, as we knew very well, and Connie felt too big for anything. She never knew what might happen to her, you see. Everybody was talking about her, and on Sunday she went to mass with Aunt Isabel instead of St. Mark's with us, and you never saw such airs as she put on, never. She told us Aunt Isabel was hunting up a saint for her, to be her own special saint, and you pray to them if you're in trouble. She hoped there would be a Saint Constantia, only Aunt Isabel never heard of one.

Ben got awfully interested in it, and read up a lot about saints and how they turn bread into roses, and things like that, but she didn't think Con would grow up to be that kind. And, what do you think? it was Ben that settled the whole thing finally.

We were out in the croquet ground, Ben and Gray and Connie and me, and Connie was telling about a dream she had about the Virgin Mary that she pretended was a real vision, when Ben said all of a sudden:

"What will Rollie Ogden do about the children?"

"What children?" said Connie.

"Your children," said Ben. Connie has been engaged to Rollie Ogden ever since she came to Elmbank. His father is her rector at home, and they are going to live in the rectory when they are married and have five little girls and five little boys, and vanilla ice-cream every night for dessert. He is very religious, like Connie, and he has a lot of sermons all written to use when he is grown up. He gives a great deal of money to missionaries and Connie tried to save some to give, too, but she is too fond of chocolate Eclairs.

"Why, you know," said Ben, "that all your children must be Catholics if you marry a Protestant, and I don't believe Rollie Ogden would let them be."

"They must not," Connie said, "I don't believe it."

"Oh, yes, they must," said Ben, "I read about it."

And Gray said that was true, too.

"I'll have the girls Catholic and the boys Protestant," Connie said.

"You can't," Ben told her, "you have to promise."

Then Connie got right up and asked permission to go see Aunt Isabel, and Aunt Isabel had a gentleman calling on her, and she didn't pay much attention to Connie, but she said that was usually so about the children, she believed, and Connie would have to excuse her, please, as the runabout was waiting.

So Connie wrote to Rollie Ogden and told him she was a Catholic and the children would have to be, too. And Rollie wrote back that he certainly wouldn't marry her, then, for he hated the Pope and you ought never to pray to the Virgin Mary. And there was Connie's picture with the places for the candles! And Rollie never changes his mind, never. He is very obstinate, if he is religious.

Well, of course Connie wasn't going to be an old maid just to be a Catholic, and she was engaged to Rollie first. So she said that God would never forgive her if she broke her promise to marry Rollie, and she went and asked Miss Naldreth how she could change back. And Miss Naldreth said, "Why, you are not a Catholic, dear child!"

"Why, but yes I am, Miss Naldreth!" said Connie, and she began to cry.

Then Miss Naldreth told her she wasn't one any more than she was, whether she bowed to the altar or not. So you see we had all been mistaken.

And when she found out that Ben had made Connie change back, Miss Naldreth laughed and said, "I thought she would—a lux benigna indeed!" That is Ben's name—Benigna.

So Connie gave the picture back and wrote a poem about being a Protestant again, and Rollie Ogden said it was all right and wrote a sermon about it. This is the poem:

"No more do I in the Pope believe,
For we know that he does ever deceive.
All my children shall Protestants be,
On the land or on the sea.
Nor will they ever and ever bow down
In a Catholic church in any town.
And we shall meet for evermore
Beyond the tomb on the heavenly shore."

When Connie took the picture back to Aunt Isabel she told her that she was engaged, too, to the gentleman that was there—the same one that was there before, and Connie said, to remind her:

"You remember about the children, don't you? No matter how many you have, they must all be Catholics!"

She said they acted awfully queer—they must have forgotten about it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1961, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.