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   Chapter 27 IN THE CONVENT.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 18406

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


Salome was tenderly nursed by the nuns during the nine days in which her fever raged with unabated violence.

At the end of that time, having spent all its force, the fever went off, leaving her weak as a child, in mind as well as in body.

As soon as she was convalescent the abbess had her carefully removed from the infirmary in which she had lain ill, to a spacious chamber, with windows overlooking the convent garden-a gloomy outlook now, however, with its seared grass and withered foliage, shivering under the dreary November sky.

The room was very clean and very scantily furnished; the walls were whitewashed and the floor was painted gray. The two windows were shaded with plain white linen; the cot bedstead, which stood against the wall opposite the windows, was covered with a coarse, white, dimity spread.

Between the windows stood a small table, covered with a white cloth, and furnished with a white, earthen-ware basin and ewer. On each side of this table sat two wooden chairs, painted gray.

In one corner of the room stood a little altar, draped with white linen, and adorned with a crucifix, surrounded with small pictures of saints and angels.

In the opposite corner stood a small, porcelain stove, which barely served to temper the coldness of the air.

There were few articles of comfort, and none of luxury, in the room-a strip of gray carpet, laid down beside the bed, an easy-chair with soft, padded back, arms, and seat, covered with white dimity, drawn up to the window nearest the stove, and a footstool of gray tapestry on the floor before it. These comforts were allowed to none but invalids.

The abbess came in to see her every day.

One morning Salome said to her visitor:

"Mother, I have left this affair with the Duke of Hereward incomplete. I must complete it, that I may have peace."

"I do not understand you, my child," said the abbess, in some uneasiness.

"I have left him as in duty bound. I must write to him to let him know why I left him; but I must not let him know the place of my retreat. I think I heard you say that our father-director was going to Rome this week?"

"Yes, my child."

"Then I will write to the Duke of Hereward for the last time, and bid him an eternal farewell. I will not date my letter from any place; but I will give it to the father-director that he may post it from Rome. You shall read my letter before I close it, dear mother. And now, on these terms, will you let me have writing materials?"

"Certainly, my child. I will send them to you; or rather I will bring them," answered the meek lady-superior, as she arose and left the room.

In a very few minutes she returned with the required articles.

Salome wrote her letter, and then submitted it to the perusal of the abbess, who accorded it her full approval.

"Now, dear mother, if the father-director will take that with him and post it from Rome, all will be over between the Duke of Hereward and myself! We shall be dead to each other," said Salome, as the abbess took the letter and left the room.

Then the invalid sank back, exhausted, in her easy-chair.

In this easy-chair by the window, with her feet upon the footstool, Salome sat day after day of her convalescence; sometimes for hours together, with her hands clasped upon her lap, and her eyes fixed upon the floor, in a sort of stupor; sometimes with her sad gaze turned upon the sear garden, as she murmured to herself:

"Withered like my life!"

Some one among the nuns was always with her; but she took no notice of her companion, seeming quite unconscious of the sister's presence.

The abbess had taken care to have books of devotion laid upon her little table, but Salome never opened one of them.

Apathy, lethargy, like a moral death, had fallen upon her.

The story of her sorrows, known only to the abbess, to whom she had confided it on the eve of her illness, was never alluded to.

Salome seemed to have buried it in silence. The abbess feared to raise it from the dead.

Not one in the convent suspected the real circumstances of the case.

All the sisterhood knew Miss Salome Levison, the young English heiress, who had been educated within their walls; all knew that in leaving the convent, three years before she had declared her intention to return at the end of three years and take the vail. She had returned, according to her word, and no one was surprised. Her sickness they considered purely accidental. They had no knowledge of her marriage. She was to them still Miss Salome Levison, who had once been their pupil, and was now soon to be their sister.

No newspapers were taken in at the convent, or the nuns might have seen repeated notices of her approaching marriage before it took place, as well as a long account of the ceremony and the breakfast, after they had come off.

The abbess tried many gentle expedients to arouse Salome from her moral torpor, but all her efforts were fruitless.

Salome had once been an enthusiast in music, and a very accomplished performer on several instruments. Her favorite had always been the harp, and next to that the guitar.

She was not yet strong enough to play on the former, but she might very well manage the latter.

So the abbess caused a light and elegant little guitar to be placed in her room.

Salome never even noticed it; but sat with her eyes fixed on her clasped hands that lay on her lap.

So November and a good part of December passed, with very little change.

The abbess, whose rule was absolute in her own house, had most solemnly warned the whole sisterhood that they were not to speak of "Miss Levison's" presence in the convent to any visitor, or pupil, or any other person whatever, or to write of it to any correspondent. The nuns had obeyed their abbess so well, that not a whisper of Salome's presence in the house had been heard outside its walls.

At length Christmas drew near.

The academy was closed for the season, and the pupils all went home to spend their holidays.

After the departure of their young charges, the sisterhood were very busy in making preparations to celebrate the joyous anniversary of our Lord's birth.

There were so many delightful little duties to be done; the chapel to be decorated with evergreens and exotics; the shrines of the saints to be decked; extra dainties to be made for the sick in the Infirmary; presents to be got up for the aged men and women of the "Home" attached to the convent; entertaining books to be selected and inscribed with the names of the boys and girls of their Orphan Asylum; doll-babies to be dressed and toys to be chosen for the infants of their Foundling; and, finally, a great Christmas-tree to be mounted and decorated for the delight of the whole community within their walls.

The sisterhood took so much pleasure in all these preparations for Christmas, that it occurred to the abbess she might be able so far to interest her unhappy guest in the work as to arouse her from that fearful lethargy which seemed to be destroying both her mind and body.

Salome Levison, while she had been a pupil in the convent, had never performed any services for the charities of the community except by giving liberally from her ample means.

Gladly would she have ministered in person to the needs of old age, illness, or infancy; but for her to have done so would have been against the rules of the establishment. The pupils of the academy were not permitted to hold any intercourse whatever with the inmates of the charitable institutions of the convent. This was a concession to the prudence of parents, who feared all manner of contaminations from any communication between their children and such miserables.

The convent was so planned as to effect a complete separation between the academy and the asylums.

The buildings were erected around a hollow square. They measured a hundred feet on each side, and arose to a height of four stories.

In the centre of the front, or northern, face, stood the chapel, a beautiful little Gothic temple, surmounted by a steeple and a gilded cross; on each hand, in a line with the chapel, stood the buildings containing the cloisters, dormitories, and refectories of the nuns and novices.

On the east front stood the Foundling for abandoned infants; the Asylum for orphan boys and girls, and the Home for aged men and women.

On the south end were the offices, kitchens, laundries, store-houses, gas-house, and so forth, for the whole establishment.

Finally, on the west front, farthest removed from the asylums, were the academy buildings, containing school and class-rooms, dormitories and refectory for the accommodation of pupils.

It was in these west buildings that Salome had lived and learned during the years she had spent at the Convent of St. Rosalie. She had never entered any other part of the establishment except the chapel, and on the north front, which was reached by a long passage running with an angle from the school-hall to the chapel aisle.

The square courtyard within the enclosure of these buildings was paved with gray flag-stones, and adorned in the centre by a marble fountai

n. But no footstep ever crossed it except that of some lay sister occasionally sent from the cloisters to the office, on some household errand. So no opportunity was afforded of making the courtyard a place of meeting between the "young ladies" of the academy and the poor little children of the asylums.

The academy opened from its front upon its own gardens, lawns, shrubberies, and other pleasure-grounds, the resort of its pupils during their hours of recreation.

Thus Salome Levison, with all her school-mates, had been completely cut off from all intercourse with the objects of the convent's charity during the whole period of her residence at the academy, which, indeed, covered the greater portion of her young life.

Now, however, since her return to the convent, she had been domiciliated in the nun's house on the right of the chapel, and possessed, if she pleased to exercise it, the freedom of the establishment.

On the Saturday before Christmas (which would also come on Saturday that year) the abbess went into the room occupied by her invalid guest.

Salome was seated in the white easy-chair beside the window, and near the porcelain stove. She was dressed in a deep mourning wrapper of black bombazine, and an inside handkerchief and undersleeves of white linen. Her pallid face and plain hair, and the severe, funereal black and white of her surroundings, made a very ghastly picture altogether.

The Sister Francoise sat there in attendance on her.

The mother-superior dismissed the nun, took her vacated seat, and looked in the face of her guest.

Salome seemed utterly unconscious of the superior's presence. She sat with her hands clasped upon her lap and her eyes fixed upon the floor.

"Salome, my daughter, how is it with you?" softly inquired the abbess, taking one of the limp, thin hands within her own, and tenderly pressing it.

"I am the queen of sorrow, crowned and frozen on my desert throne," murmured the girl, in a trance-like abstraction.

"Salome, my child!" said the mother-superior, gazing anxiously into her stony face, whose eyes had never moved from their fixed stare; "Salome, my dear daughter, look at me."

"'I am the star of sorrow, pale and lonely in the wintry sky.'"

"My poor girl, what do you mean?"

"I read that somewhere, long ago,-oh, so long ago, when I was a happy child, and yet I wept then for that solitary mourner as I am not able to weep now for myself, though it suits me just as much," murmured Salome, in the same trance-like manner, still staring on the floor, as she continued:

"Yes, just as much, just as much, for-

"Never was lament begun

By any mourner under sun

That e'en it ended fit but one!"

"Salome, look at me, speak to me, my dear daughter," said the abbess, tenderly pressing her hand, and seeking to catch her fixed and staring eyes.

Salome slowly raised those woeful eyes to the lady's face, and asked:

"Mother, good mother, did you ever know any one in all your life so heavily stricken as I am?"

The abbess put her arms around the young girl and drew her head down upon her own pitying bosom, as she replied:

"Have I ever known one so heavily stricken as you? My child, I cannot tell. 'The heart knoweth its own bitterness,' and one cannot weigh the grief of another. Salome, you have been heavily smitten; but so have many others. Daughter! I never do speak of my own sorrows. They are past, and 'they come not back again.' But I think it might do you good to hear of them now. Child! like you, I never knew a mother's love; but there were three beings in the world whom I loved, as you love, with inordinate and idolatrous affection. They were my noble father, my only brother, and my affianced husband. Salome, in the Revolution of '48, my father was assassinated in the streets of Paris, as yours was in his chamber at Lone. My brother, true as steel to his sovereign, was guillotined as a traitor to the Republican party. Last, and hardest to bear, my affianced lover-he on whom my soul was stayed in all my troubles, as if any one weak mortal could be a lasting stay to another in her utmost need-my affianced lover, false to me as yours to you, was shot and killed in a duel by the lover, or husband, of a woman, for whom he had left his promised bride! Daughter, did I ever know any one who was so heavily stricken as yourself?" gravely inquired the abbess, laying her hand upon the bowed head of her guest.

"Oh, yes, good mother, you have," murmured the weeping girl, in a voice full of tears. "Your fate has been very like my own-you, like me, were motherless from your infancy; you, like me, spent your childhood and youth in this very convent school. Your father, like mine, met his death at the hands of an assassin; your lover, false as mine, abandoned you for a guilty love. Ah! your sorrows have been very like mine, only much heavier and harder to bear." And Salome drew the caressing hands of the abbess to her lips and kissed them over and over again, as she repeated, "Oh, yes, good mother, much heavier and harder to bear than mine."

"I do not know that, my daughter; but I do know, if I had set myself down a grieving egotist, to brood over my own individual troubles, in a world full of troubles, needing ministrations, I should have lost my reason, if not my soul."

"But you came back to your convent, as I have come, for refuge," said Salome.

"Yes, I came here to give my life to the Lord; not in idle, selfish prayers and meditations for my own soul's sake; no, but in an active, useful life of work. And I have found deep peace, deep joy. So will you, my beloved child, if you take the same way. But you must begin by shutting the doors of your soul against the thoughts of your sorrow, and especially by banishing the image of your false and guilty lover every time it presents itself to your mind."

"Oh, mother! mother! I loved him so! I loved him so!" cried Salome, bursting into a paroxysm of sobs and tears, the first tears she had been able to shed over her awful sorrows.

The abbess was glad to see them; they broke up the fatal apathy as a storm disperses malaria. She gathered the weeping girl to her bosom, and let her sob and cry there to her heart's content.

When the gust of grief had spent itself, Salome lifted her head and dried her eyes, murmuring:

"Yes, I loved him! I loved him! but it is past! it is past! I must forget him, henceforth and forever!"

"Yes, daughter, you must forget him, for to remember him would be a grievous sin. And you must forgive him, though he meditated against you the deepest wrong," said the abbess, solemnly.

"I will try to forgive the wrong-doer and forget the wrong, but oh! mother, mother, it will be very hard to overlive it! Oh, I hope, I hope, if it be Heaven's will, that I shall not have to live very long," said Salome, with a heavy sigh.

"That is the way I felt in the first bitterness of my sorrow: but the feeling passed away in duty-doing. And now, although I know that in the next life every need and aspiration of the soul will be fulfilled, yet I find such peace and joy here, that I am willing, yes and glad, to live in this world as long as my Lord has any work for me to do in his vineyard."

"Tell me what I ought to do, and I will try to do it," said Salome, with another deep sigh; for her very breathing was sighing now.

"You know that this is Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas," said the abbess.

"Is it? I did not know, I have taken no note of time."

"And to-morrow is Sunday, the last Sunday before Christmas."

"Yes, of course."

"Daughter, you have not been to chapel once since your arrival among us."

"Ah, no! I came from the infirmary here, and I have not left this room to go anywhere since!" sighed Salome.

"That is not because you are not able to do so, but because you are not willing. You have allowed yourself to sink into a sinful and dangerous lethargy of mind and body in which you have brooded morbidly over your afflictions. You must do so no longer. You must rouse yourself from this moment. You must go with us to-night to vespers. To-morrow morning you will attend high mass. A fellow-countryman of yours, Father F--, an Oratorian priest from Norwood, England, will preach. He will do you good. Since the days of St. John, the beloved disciple, no wiser, more loving, or more eloquent soul ever spoke to sinners," said the abbess.

"But-coming from England!-If he should recognize me!" exclaimed Salome.

"Why, do you know him?"

"Oh, no, not at all; but then there are sometimes people with whom we have no sort of acquaintance, who yet know us by sight from seeing us in public places, or meeting us on public occasions."

"That is very true, my child; but you need have no fear of being recognized by the officiating priest to-morrow, whoever he may be, for you will sit with us behind the screen."

"Thanks, dear mother; I will go with you this very evening."

"You are a good and obedient child. Receive my benediction," said the mother-superior, rising.

Salome bent her head, and the abbess solemnly blessed her, and then withdrew from the room.

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