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   Chapter 6 A DREAM

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 16040

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


Sleeplessness is almost always to be traced to indigestion. My friend, Dr. Jacques, is there and he will tell you so.

Now, on that particular evening, it was last Friday, I had committed the mistake of eating brill, a fish that positively disagrees with me.

God grant that the account of the singular dream which ensued may inspire you with some prudent reflections.

Be that as it may, this was my dream, in all its extravagance.

I had, in this dream, the honor to belong, as senior curate, to one of the most frequented parish churches in Paris. What could be more ridiculous! I was, moreover, respectably stout, possessed a head decked with silver locks, well-shaped hands, an aquiline nose, great unction, the friendship of the lady worshippers, and, I venture to add, the esteem of the rector.

While I was reciting the thanksgiving after service, and at the same time unfastening the cords of my alb, the rector came up to me (I see him even now) blowing his nose.

"My dear friend," said he, "you hear confessions this evening, do you not?"

"Most certainly. Are you well this morning? I had a good congregation at mass."

Having said this, I finished my thanksgiving, put my alb into the wardrobe, and, offering a pinch to the rector, added cheerily:

"This is not breaking the fast, is it?"

"Ha! ha! no, no, no! Besides, it wants five minutes to twelve and the clock is slow."

We took a pinch together and walked off arm in arm by the little side door, for night sacraments, chatting in a friendly way.

Suddenly I found myself transported into my confessional. The chapel was full of ladies who all bowed at my approach. I entered my narrow box, the key of which I had. I arranged on the seat the air-cushion which is indispensable to me on the evenings preceding great church festivals, the sittings at that season being always prolonged. I slipped the white surplice which was hanging from a peg over my cassock, and, after meditating for a moment, opened the little shutter that puts me in communication with the penitents.

I will not undertake to describe to you one by one the different people who came and knelt before me. I will not tell you, for instance, how one of them, a lady in black, with a straight nose, thin lips, and sallow complexion, after reciting her Confiteor in Latin, touched me infinitely by the absolute confidence she placed in me, though I was not of her sex. In five minutes she found the opportunity to speak to me of her sister-in-law, her brother, an uncle who was on the point of death whose heiress she was, her nephews, and her servants; and I could perceive, despite the tender benevolence that appeared in all her words, that she was the victim of all these people. She ended by informing me she had a marriageable daughter, and that her stomach was an obstacle to her fasting.

I can still see a throng of other penitents, but it would take too long to tell you about them, and we will confine ourselves, with your permission, to the last two, who, besides, impressed upon my memory themselves particularly.

A highly adorned little lady rushed into the confessional; she was brisk, rosy, fresh. Despite her expression of deep thoughtfulness, she spoke very quickly in a musical voice, and rattled through her Confiteor, regardless of the sense.

"Father," she said, "I have one thing that is troubling me."

"Speak, my child; you know that a confessor is a father."

"Well, father-but I really dare not."

There are many of these timid little hearts that require to be encouraged. I said, "Go on, my child, go on."

"My husband," she murmured confusedly, "will not abstain during Lent. Ought I to compel him, father?"

"Yes, by persuasion."

"But he says that he will go and dine at the restaurant if I do not let him have any meat. Oh! I suffer terribly from that. Am I not assuming the responsibility of all that meat, father?"

This young wife really interested me; she had in the midst of one cheek, toward the corner of the mouth, a small hollow, a kind of little dimple, charming in the profane sense of the word, and giving a special expression to her face. Her tiny white teeth glittered like pearls when she opened her mouth to relate her pious inquietudes; she shed around, besides, a perfume almost as sweet as that of our altars, although of a different kind, and I breathed this perfume with an uneasiness full of scruples, which for all that inclined me to indulgence. I was so close to her that none of the details of her face escaped me; I could distinguish, almost in spite of myself, even a little quiver of her left eyebrow, tickled every now and again by a stray tress of her fair hair.

"Your situation," I said, "is a delicate one; on one hand, your domestic happiness, and on the other your duty as a Christian." She gave a sigh from her very heart. "Well, my dear child, my age warrants my speaking to you like that, does it not?"

"Oh, yes, father."

"Well, my dear child"-I fancy I noticed at that moment that she had at the outer corner of her eyes a kind of dark mark something like an arrow-head-"try, my dear child, to convince your husband, who in his heart-" In addition, her lashes, very long and somewhat curled, were underlined, I might almost say, by a dark streak expanding and shading off delicately toward the middle of the eye. This physical peculiarity did not seem to me natural, but an effect of premeditated coquetry.

Strange fact, the verification of such weakness in this candid heart only increased my compassion. I continued in a gentle tone:

"Strive to bring your husband to God. Abstinence is not only a religious observance, it is also a salutary custom. 'Non solum lex Dei, sed etiam'. Have you done everything to bring back your husband?"

"Yes, father, everything."

"Be precise, my child; I must know all."

"Well, father, I have tried sweetness and tenderness."

I thought to myself that this husband must be a wretch.

"I have implored him for the sake of our child," continued the little angel, "not to risk his salvation and my own. Once or twice I even told him that the spinach was dressed with gravy when it was not. Was I wrong, father?"

"There are pious falsehoods which the Church excuses, for in such cases it only takes into consideration the intention and the greater glory of God. I can not, therefore, say that you have done wrong. You have not, have you, been guilty toward your husband of any of those excusable acts of violence which may escape a Christian soul when it is struggling against error? For it really is not natural that an honest man should refuse to follow the prescription of the Church. Make a few concessions at first."

"I have, father, and perhaps too many," she said, contritely.

"What do you mean?"

"Hoping to bring him back to God, I accorded him favors which I ought to have refused him. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that I ought to have refused him."

"Do not be alarmed, my dear child, everything depends upon degrees, and it is necessary in these matters to make delicate distinctions."

"That is what I say to myself, father, but my husband unites with his kindness such a communicative gayety-he has such a graceful and natural way of excusing his impiety-that I laugh in spite of myself when I ought to weep. It seems to me that a cloud comes between myself and my duties, and my scruples evaporate beneath the charm of his presence and his wit. My husband has plenty of wit," she added, with a faint smile, in which there was a tinge of pride.

"Hum! hum!" (the blackness of this man's heart revolted me). "There is no seductive shape that the tempter does not assume, my child. Wit in itself is not to be condemned, although the Church shuns it as far as she is concerned, looking upon it as a worldly ornament; but it may become dangerous, it may be reckoned a veritable pest when it tends to weaken faith. Faith, which is to the soul, I hardly need tell you, what the

bloom is to the peach, and-if I may so express myself, what the-dew is-to the flower-hum, hum! Go on, my child."

"But, father, when my husband has disturbed me for a moment, I soon repent of it. He has hardly gone before I pray for him."

"Good, very good."

"I have sewn a blessed medal up in his overcoat." This was said more boldly, though still with some timidity.

"And have you noticed any result?"

"In certain things he is better, yes, father, but as regards abstinence he is still intractable," she said with embarrassment.

"Do not be discouraged. We are in the holy period of Lent. Make use of pious subterfuges, prepare him some admissible viands, but pleasant to the taste."

"Yes, father, I have thought of that. The day before yesterday I gave him one of these salmon pasties that resemble ham."

"Yes, yes, I know them. Well?"

"Well, he ate the salmon, but he had a cutlet cooked afterward."

"Deplorable!" I exclaimed, almost in spite of myself, so excessive did the perversity of this man seem to me. "Patience, my child, offer up to Heaven the sufferings which your husband's impiety causes you, and remember that your efforts will be set down to you. You have nothing more to tell me?"

"No, father."

"Collect yourself, then. I will give you absolution."

The dear soul sighed as she joined her two little hands.

Hardly had my penitent risen to withdraw when I abruptly closed my little shutter and took a long pinch of snuff-snuff-takers know how much a pinch soothes the mind-then having thanked God rapidly, I drew from the pocket of my cassock my good old watch, and found that it was earlier than I thought. The darkness of the chapel had deceived me, and my stomach had shared my error. I was hungry. I banished these carnal preoccupations from my mind, and after shaking my hands, on which some grains of snuff had fallen, I slackened one of my braces that was pressing a little on one shoulder, and opened my wicket.

"Well, Madame, people should be more careful," said the penitent on my left, addressing a lady of whom I could only see a bonnet-ribbon; "it is excusable."

My penitent's voice, which was very irritated, though restrained by respect for the locality, softened as if by magic at the creaking of my wicket. She knelt down, piously folded her two ungloved hands, plump, perfumed, rosy, laden with rings-but let that pass. I seemed to recognize the hands of the Countess de B., a chosen soul, whom I had the honor to visit frequently, especially on Saturday, when there is always a place laid for me at her table.

She raised her little lace veil and I saw that I was not mistaken. It was the Countess. She smiled at me as at a person with whom she was acquainted, but with perfect propriety; she seemed to be saying, "Good-day, my dear Abbe, I do not ask how your rheumatism is, because at this moment you are invested with a sacred character, but I am interested in it all the same."

This little smile was irreproachable. I replied by a similar smile, and I murmured in a very low tone, giving her, too, to understand by the expression of my face that I was making a unique concession in her favor, "Are you quite well, dear Madame?"

"Thanks, father, I am quite well." Her voice had resumed an angelic tone. "But I have just been in a passion."

"And why? Perhaps you have taken for a passion what was really only a passing moment of temper?"

It does not do to alarm penitents.

"Ah! not at all, it was really a passion, father. My dress had just been torn from top to bottom; and really it is strange that one should be exposed to such mishaps on approaching the tribunal of--"

"Collect yourself, my dear Madame, collect yourself," and assuming a serious look I bestowed my benediction upon her.

The Countess sought to collect herself, but I saw very well that her troubled spirit vainly strove to recover itself. By a singular phenomenon I could see into her brain, and her thoughts appeared to me one after the other. She was saying to herself, "Let me collect myself; our Father, give me grace to collect myself," but the more effort she made to restrain her imagination the more it became difficult to restrain and slipped through her fingers. "I had made a serious examination of my conscience, however," she added. "Not ten minutes ago as I was getting out of my carriage I counted up three sins; there was one above all I wished to mention. How these little things escape me! I must have left them in the carriage." And she could not help smiling to herself at the idea of these three little sins lost among the cushions. "And the poor Abbe waiting for me in his box. How hot it must be in there! he is quite red. Good Heavens! how shall I begin? I can not invent faults? It is that torn dress which has upset me. And there is Louise, who is to meet me at five o'clock at the dressmaker's. It is impossible for me to collect myself. O God, do not turn away your face from me, and you, Lord, who can read in my soul-Louise will wait till a quarter past five; besides, the bodice fits-there is only the skirt to try on. And to think that I had three sins only a minute ago."

All these different thoughts, pious and profane, were struggling together at once in the Countess's brain, so that I thought the moment had come to interfere and help her a little.

"Come," I said, in a paternal voice, leaning forward benevolently and twisting my snuff-box in my fingers. "Come, my dear Madame, and speak fearlessly; have you nothing to reproach yourself with? Have you had no impulses of-worldly coquetry, no wish to dazzle at the expense of your neighbor?"

I had a vague idea that I should not be contradicted.

"Yes, father," she said, smoothing down her bonnet strings, "sometimes; but I have always made an effort to drive away such thoughts."

"That good intention in some degree excuses you, but reflect and see how empty are these little triumphs of vanity, how unworthy of a truly poor soul and how they draw it aside from salvation. I know that there are certain social exigencies-society. Yes, yes, but after all one can even in those pleasures which the Church tolerates-I say tolerates-bring to bear that perfume of good-will toward one's neighbor of which the Scriptures speak, and which is the appanage-in some degree... the glorious appanage. Yes, yes, go on."

"Father, I have not been able to resist certain temptations to gluttony."

"Again, again! Begin with yourself. You are here at the tribunal of penitence; well, promise God to struggle energetically against these little carnal temptations, which are not in themselves serious sins-oh! no, I know it-but, after all, these constant solicitations prove a persistent attachment-displeasing to Him-to the fugitive and deceitful delights of this world. Hum, hum! and has this gluttony shown itself by more blameworthy actions than usual-is it simply the same as last month?"

"The same as last month, father."

"Yes, yes, pastry between meals," I sighed gravely.

"Yes, father, and almost always a glass of Capri or of Syracuse after it."

"Or of Syracuse after it. Well, let that pass, let that pass."

I fancied that the mention of this pastry and those choice wines was becoming a source of straying thoughts on my part, for which I mentally asked forgiveness of heaven.

"What else do you recall?" I asked, passing my hand over my face.

"Nothing else, father; I do not recollect anything else."

"Well let a sincere repentance spring up in your heart for the sins you have just admitted, and for those which you may have forgotten; commune with yourself, humble yourself in the presence of the great act you have just accomplished. I will give you absolution. Go in peace."

The Countess rose, smiled at me with discreet courtesy, and, resuming her ordinary voice, said in a low tone, "Till Saturday evening, then?"

I bowed as a sign of assent, but felt rather embarrassed on account of my sacred character.

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