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   Chapter 4 SOUVENIRS OF LENT

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 15742

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


The faithful are flocking up the steps of the temple; spring toilettes already glitter in the sun; trains sweep the dust with their long flowing folds; feathers and ribbons flutter; the bell chimes solemnly, while carriages keep arriving at a trot, depositing upon the pavement all that is most pious and most noble in the Faubourg, then draw up in line at the farther end of the square.

Be quick, elbow your way through the crowd if you want a good place; the Abbe Gelon preaches to-day on abstinence, and when the Abbe Gelon preaches it is as if Patti were singing.

Enter Madame, pushes the triple door, which recloses heavily, brushes with rapid fingers the holywater sprinkler which that pious old man holds out, and carefully makes a graceful little sign of the cross so as not to spot her ribbons.

Do you hear these discreet and aristocratic whisperings?

"Good morning, my dear."

"Good morning, dear. It is always on abstinence that he preaches, is it not? Have you a seat?"

"Yes, yes, come with me. You have got on your famous bonnet, I see?"

"Yes; do you like it? It is a little showy, is it not? What a multitude of people! Where is your husband?"

"Showy! Oh, no, it is splendid. My husband is in the churchwarden's pew; he left before me; he is becoming a fanatic-he speaks of lunching on radishes and lentils."

"That ought to be very consoling to you."

"Don't mention it. Come with me. See; there are Ernestine and Louise. Poor Louise's nose, always the same; who would believe that she drinks nothing stronger than water?"

The ladies push their way among the chairs, some of which they upset with the greatest unconcern.

Arrived at their places they sink down on their knees, and, moist-eyed and full of feeling, cast a look of veiled adoration toward the high altar, then hide their faces with their gloved hands.

For a very few minutes they gracefully deprecate themselves in the eyes of the Lord, then, taking their seats, coquettishly arrange the immense bows of their bonnet-strings, scan the assembly through a gold eyeglass, with the little finger turning up; finally, while smoothing down the satin folds of a dress difficult to keep in place, they scatter, right and left, charming little recognitions and delightful little smiles.

"Are you comfortable, dear?"

"Quite, thanks. Do you see in front there, between the two tapers, Louise and Madame de C----? Is it allowable in any one to come to church got up like that?"

"Oh! I have never believed much in the piety of Madame de C----. You know her history-the story of the screen? I will tell it you later. Ah! there is the verger."

The verger shows his bald head in the pulpit of truth. He arranges the seat, adjusts the kneeling-stool, then withdraws and allows the Abbe Gelon, who is somewhat pale from Lenten fasting, but striking, as he always is, in dignity, elegance, and unction. A momentary flutter passes through the congregation, then they settle down comfortably. The noise dies away, and all eyes are eagerly looking toward the face of the preacher. With his eyes turned to heaven, the latter stands upright and motionless; a light from above may be divined in his inspired look; his beautiful, white hands, encircled at the wrists by fine lace, are carelessly placed on the red velvet cushion of the pulpit. He waits a few moments, coughs twice, unfolds his handkerchief, deposits his square hat in a corner, and, bending forward, lets fall from his lips in those sweet slow, persuasive tones, by which he is known, the first words of his sermon, "Ladies!"

With this single word he has already won all hearts. Slowly he casts over his audience a mellow glance, which penetrates and attracts; then, having uttered a few Latin words which he has the tact to translate quickly into French, he continues:

"What is it to abstain? Why should we abstain? How should we abstain? Those are the three points, ladies, I shall proceed to discuss."

He blows his nose, coughs; a holy thrill stirs every heart. How will he treat this magnificent subject? Let us listen.

Is it not true, Madame, that your heart is piously stirred, and that at this moment you feel an actual thirst for abstinence and mortification?

The holy precincts are bathed in a soft obscurity, similar to that of your boudoir, and inducing revery.

I know not how much of the ineffable and of the vaguely exhilarating penetrates your being. But the voice of this handsome and venerated old man has, amidst the deep silence, something deliciously heavenly about it. Mysterious echoes repeat from the far end of the temple each of his words, and in the dim light of the sanctuary the golden candlesticks glitter like precious stones. The old stained-glass windows with their symbolic figures become suddenly illuminated, a flood of light and sunshine spreads through the church like a sheet of fire. Are the heavens opening? Is the Spirit from on high descending among us?

While lost in pious revery, which soothes and lulls, one gazes with ecstasy on the fanciful details of the sculptures which vanish in the groined roof above, and on the quaint pipes of the organ with its hundred voices. The beliefs of childhood piously inculcated in your heart suddenly reawaken; a vague perfume of incense again penetrates the air. The stone pillars shoot up to infinite heights, and from these celestial arches depends the golden lamp which sways to and fro in space, diffusing its eternal light. Truly, God is great.

By degrees the sweet tones of the preacher enrapture one more and more, and the sense of his words are lost; and, listening to the divine murmur of that saint-like voice, your eyes, like those of a child falling asleep in the bosom of the Creator, close.

You do not go to sleep, but your head inclines forward, the ethereal light surrounds you, and your soul, delighting in the uncertain, plunges into celestial space, and loses itself in infinity.

What a sweet and holily intoxicating sensation, a delicious ecstasy! Nevertheless, there are those who smile at this religious raise-en-scene, these pomps and splendors, this celestial music, which soothes the nerves and thrills the brain! Pity on these scoffers who do not comprehend the ineffable delight of being able to open at will the gates of Paradise to themselves, and to become, at odd moments, one with the angels! But what purpose does it serve to speak of the faithless and of their harmless, smiles? As the Abbe Gelon has in his inimitable manner observed, "The heart is a fortress, incessantly assailed by the spirit of darkness."

The idea of a constant struggle with this powerful being has something about it that adds tenfold to our strength and flatters our vanity. What, alone in your fortress, Madame; alone with the spirit of darkness.

But hush! the Abbe Gelon is finishing in a quivering and fatigued voice. His right hand traces in the air the sign of peace. Then he wipes his humid forehead, his eyes sparkle with divine light, he descends the narrow stairs, and we hear on the pavement the regular taps of the rod of the verger, who is reconducting him to the vestry.

"Was he not splendid, dear?"

"Excellent! when he said, 'That my eyes might close forever, if...' you remember?"

"Superb! and further on: 'Yes, ladies, you are coquettes.' He told us some hard truths; he speaks admirably."

"Admirably! He is divine!"

It is four o'clock, the church is plunged in shadow and silence. The confused rumble of the vehicles without hardly penetrates this dwelling of prayer, and the creak of one's boots, echoing in the distance, is the only human noise which ruffles the deep calm.

However, in proportion as we advance, we perceive in the chapels groups of the faithful, kneeling, motionless and silent. In viewing the despair that their attitude a

ppears to express, we are overwhelmed with sadness and uneasiness. Is it an appeal for the damned?

The aspects of one of these chapels is peculiar. A hundred or a hundred and fifty ladies, almost buried in silk and velvet, are crowded devoutly about the confessional. A sweet scent of violets and vervain permeates the vicinity, and one halts, in spite of one's self, in the presence of this large display of elegance.

From each of the two cells adjoining the confessional shoot out the folds of a rebellious skirt, for the penitent, held fast at the waist, has been able to get only half of her form into the narrow space. However, her head can be distinguished moving in the shadow, and we can guess from the contrite movements of her white feather that her forehead is bowed by reason of remonstrance and repentance.

Hardly has she concluded her little story when a dozen of her neighbors rush forward to replace her. This eagerness is quite explicable, for this chapel is the one in which the Abbe Gelon hears confessions, and I need not tell you that when the Abbe Gelon confesses it is the same as if he were preaching-there is a crowd.

The good Abbe confesses all these ladies, and, with angelic devotion, remains shut up for hours in this dark, narrow, suffocating box, through the grating of which two penitents are continually whispering their sins.

The dear Abbe! the most likable thing about him is that he is not long over the business. He knows how to get rid of useless details; he perceives, with subtle instinct and a sureness of vision that spares you a thousand embarrassments, the condition of a soul, so that, besides being a man of intelligence and of the world, he renders the repetition of those little weaknesses, of which he has whispered the one half to you, almost agreeable.

In coming to him with one's little burden of guilt, one feels somewhat embarrassed, but while one is hesitating about telling him all, he, with a discreet and skilful hand, disencumbers one of it rapidly, examines the contents, smiles or consoles, and the confession is made without one having uttered a single word; so that after all is over the penitent exclaims, prostrating one's self before God, "But, Lord, I was pure, pure as the lily, and yet how uneasy I was!"

Even when he assumes the sacerdotal habit and ceases to be a man, and speaks in the name of God, the tones of his voice, the refinement of his look, reveal innate distinction and that spotless courtesy which can not harm even a minister of God, and which one must cultivate on this side of the Rue du Bac.

If God wills that there must be a Faubourg St.-Germain in the world-and it can not be denied that He does-is it not proper that He should give us a minister who speaks our language and understands our weaknesses? Nothing is more obvious, and I really do not comprehend some of these ladies who talk to me about the Abbe Brice. Not that I wish to speak ill of the good Abbe, for this is neither the time nor the place for it; he is a holy man, but his sanctity is a little bourgeois and needs polish.

With him one has to dot one's i's; he is dull in perception, or does not perceive at all.

Acknowledge a peccadillo, and his brows knit, he must know the hour, the moment, the antecedents; he examines, he probes, he weighs, and finishes his thousand questions by being indiscreet and almost improper. Is there not, even in the holy mission of the priest, a way of being politely severe, and of acting the gentleman to people well born?

The Abbe Brice-and there is no reason why I should conceal it-smells of the stable, which must be prejudicial to him. He is slightly Republican, too, wears clumsy boots, has awful nails, and when he gets new gloves, twice a year, his fingers stand out stiff and separate.

I do not, I would have you remark, deny his admirable virtues; but say what you like, you will never get a woman of fashion to confide her "little affairs" to a farmer's son, and address him as "Father." Matters must not be carried the length of absurdity; besides, this Abbe Brice always smells detestably of snuff.

He confesses all sorts of people, and you will agree that it is not pleasant to have one's maid or one's cook for one's visa-vis at the confessional.

There is not a woman who understands Christian humility better than yourself, dear Madame; but all the same you are not accustomed to travel in an omnibus. You may be told that in heaven you will only be too happy to call your coachman "Brother," and to say to Sarah Jane, "Sister," but these worthy folk shall have first passed through purgatory, and fire purifies everything. Again, what is there to assure us that Sarah Jane will go to heaven, since you yourself, dear Madame, are not so sure of entering there?

It is hence quite well understood why the Abbe Gelon's chapel is crowded. If a little whispering goes on, it is because they have been waiting three long hours, and because everybody knows one another.

All the ladies, you may be sure, are there.

"Make a little room for me, dear," whispers a newcomer, edging her way through trains, kneeling-stools, and chairs.

"Ah! is that you, dear? Come here. Clementine and Madame de B. are there in the corner at the cannon's mouth. You will have to wait two good hours."

"If Madame de B. is there, it does not surprise me. She is inexhaustible, and there is no other woman who is so long in telling a thing. Have all these people not had their turn yet? Ah! there is Ernestine." (She waves her hand to her quietly.) "That child is an angel. She acknowledged to me the other day that her conscience troubled her because, on reading the 'Passion,' she could not make up her mind to kiss the mat."

"Ah! charming; but, tell me, do you kiss the mat yourself?"

"I! no, never in my life; it is so nasty, dear."

"You confess to the omission, at least?"

"Oh! I confess all those little trifles in a lump. I say, 'Father, I have erred out of human self-respect.' I give the total at once."

"That is just what I do, and that dear Abbe Gelon discharges the bill."

"Seriously, time would fail him if he acted otherwise. But it seems to me that we are whispering a little too much, dear; let me think over my little bill."

Madame leans upon her praying-stool. Gracefully she removes, without taking her eyes off the altar, the glove from her right hand, and with her thumb turns the ring of Ste-Genevieve that serves her as a rosary, moving her lips the while. Then, with downcast eyes and set lips, she loosens the fleur-de-lys-engraved clasp of her Book of Hours, and seeks out the prayers appropriate to her condition.

She reads with fervency: "'My God, crushed beneath the burden of my sins I cast myself at thy feet'-how annoying that it should be so cold to the feet. With my sore throat, I am sure to have influenza,-'that I cast myself at thy feet'-tell me, dear, do you know if the chapel-keeper has a footwarmer? Nothing is worse than cold feet, and that Madame de P. sticks there for hours. I am sure she confesses her friends' sins along with her own. It is intolerable; I no longer have any feeling in my right foot; I would pay that woman for her foot-warmer-'I bow my head in the dust under the weight of repentance, and of........'"

"Ah! Madame de P. has finished; she is as red as the comb of a turkey-cock."

Four ladies rush forward with pious ardor to take her place.

"Ah! Madame, do not push so, I beg of you."

"But I was here before you, Madame."

"I beg a thousand pardons, Madame."

"You surely have a very strange idea of the respect which is due to this hallowed spot."

"Hush, hush! Profit by the opportunity, Madame; slip through and take the vacant place. (Whispering.) Do not forget the big one last night, and the two little ones of this morning."

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