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   Chapter 28 THE SOUL'S STRUGGLE.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 22161

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


That same evening, while the vesper bells were ringing, Salome dressed herself, and, leaning on the arm of the mother-superior headed the procession of the sisterhood as they marched to the chapel and took their seats in the recess behind the screen, which was so cunningly devised, that, while it afforded the nuns a full view of the altar, the priests, the interior of the pews and the whole congregation, it effectually concealed the forms and faces of the sisterhood seated within it.

Father Francois, the confessor of the convent, officiated at the altar.

A rustic congregation of the faithful filled the pews in the body of the church. They came from farm-houses and villages in the immediate neighborhood of the convent.

The vesper hymn was raised by the nuns.

Salome joined in singing it. She had a rich, sweet, clear soprano voice.

Many were the heads in the rustic assemblage that turned to listen to the new singer in the nuns' choir.

Salome saw them, and shrank back as if she herself could have been seen, though she was quite invisible to them, for the screen, which was transparent to her eyes, was impenetrable to theirs. She remembered this, at length, and recovered her composure.

The sweet vesper service soothed her soul, and when it was over, and the benediction was given, the "peace that passeth all understanding" descended upon her troubled spirit.

She left the chapel, leaning on the mother-superior's arm.

When she reached her room door she kissed the lady's hand in bidding her good-night.

"This has done you good, my daughter," said the abbess, gently.

"It has done me good. Thanks for your wise counsel, holy mother. I will follow it still. I will go again tomorrow. Bless me, my mother," said Salome, bowing her head before the abbess, who blessed her again, and then softly withdrew.

Salome entered her room and retired to rest, and slept more calmly than she had done for many days and nights.

She arose on Sunday morning refreshed; but it seemed as if her stony apathy had passed off, only to leave her more keenly sensitive to her cause of grief; for as she dressed herself, a flood of tender memories overflowed her soul, and she threw herself, weeping freely, on her cot.

In this condition she was found by the abbess, who was pleased to see her weep, knowing that the keenness of sorrow is much softened by tears.

She sat down in silence by the cot, and waited until the paroxysm was past.

"Good mother, I could not help it," said Salome, with a last convulsive sob, as she wiped her eyes, and arose.

"Nor did I wish you to do so. Thank the Lord for the gift of tears. Have you had breakfast, my daughter?"

"Yes, dear mother. Sister Francoise brought it to me before I was up. This is the last time I will allow myself such an indulgence. To-morrow morning, if you will permit me, I will join you in the refectory."

"I am rejoiced to hear you say so my child. Your recovery depends much upon yourself. Every exertion that you make helps it forward. And now I came to tell you that in ten minutes we shall go on to the chapel. Will you be ready to accompany us?"

"Yes, dear mother, I will come on and join you almost immediately," said Salome standing up and shaking down her black robe into shape.

The abbess softly slipped out of the room and left the guest to complete her toilet.

In a few minutes Salome passed out and joined the procession of nuns to the chapel.

As soon as they were seated in the screened choir, Salome looked through the screen, to see if the English priest was at the altar. He was not there yet; but the body of the little chapel was filled with an expectant crowd of small country gentry, farmers and laborers with their families, all drawn together by the fame of the great Oratorian.

Presently the procession entered-six boys, in white surplices, preceding a pale, thin, intellectual-looking young man in priestly robes.

The priest took his place before the altar, the boys kneeling on his right and left, and the solemn celebration of the high mass was begun.

The nuns sang well within their screened choir; but the new soprano voice that sang the solos, and rose elastic, sweet and clear, soaring to the heavens in the Gloria in Excelsis, seemed to carry all the worshipers with it.

"Who is she?" inquired one of another, in hushed whispers, when the divine anthem had sunk into silence.

"Who is she?"

No one in the congregation could tell; but many surmised that she must be some young postulant of St. Rosalie, just beginning, or about to begin, her novitiate.

At length the pale priest passed into the pulpit, and, amid a breathless silence of expectancy, gave out his text:

"God is love."

A truth revealed to us by the Divine Saviour, and confirmed to our hearts by the teachings of His Holy Spirit.

The preacher spoke of the divine love, "never enough believed, or known, or asked," yet the source of all our life, light and joy; he spoke of human love, a derivative from the divine, in all its manifestations of family affection, social friendship, charity to the needy, forgiveness of enemies.

And while he spoke of love, "the greatest good in the world," his tones were full, sweet, deep and tender, his pale face radiant, his manner affectionate, persuasive, winning.

He was listened to with rapt attention, and even when he had brought his sermon to a close, and his eloquent voice had ceased, his hearers still, for a few moments, sat motionless under the spell he had wrought upon them.

As soon as the benediction had been pronounced, the abbess arose from her seat in the choir, drew the arm of her still feeble guest within her own, and, followed by her nuns, walking slowly in pairs, left the choir.

She took Salome to the door of her room in perfect silence, and would have left her there but that the girl stopped her by saying:

"Holy mother, I wish to speak to you, if you can give me a few minutes, before we go to the refectory."

"Surely, my daughter," answered the abbess, kindly, as she followed her guest into the chamber.

"Sit down in the easy-chair, good mother," said Salome, drawing the soft, white-cushioned seat toward her.

"No, sit you there, poor child," answered the abbess, taking her guest kindly and seating her in the easy-chair. "I shall be well enough here," she added, as she sat down on one of the painted, wooden seats. "Now, tell me what you wish to say, daughter," she concluded.

"Dear mother, I have been very deeply interested in Father F. this morning."

"You should be interested in the message only, not in the messenger, my child," gravely replied the elder lady.

"In the message alone I believe I was most concerned; but the message was most eloquently delivered by the messenger," said Salome, as her pale cheeks flushed.

"Well, my daughter, go on in what you were about to say."

"Holy mother, that message, so earnestly spoken, has moved me to greater diligence in what I have purposed to do. You know that I have intended to take the vail in this convent, and devote my life and my fortune to good works."

"Yes, my child, I know that such has been your pious purpose. What then?"

"I wish to use all diligence in carrying out that purpose. I wish to enter upon my novitiate immediately."

"My good daughter, far be it from me to throw any stumbling-block in the way of such praise-worthy intentions; but the strict rules of our order require that a postulant should remain in the convent twelve calendar months, to test her vocation, before she is suffered to bind herself by any vows," said the abbess, very gravely.

"As if my vocation had not been sufficiently tested," sighed Salome.

"It may have been so, my daughter. This probation may not be necessary in your case, yet we can make no exception to our rules even in your favor. You will, therefore, if you wish, remain with us for one year, unfettered by any vows. At the end of this year of probation, if you shall still desire to do so, you may be permitted to take the white vail and commence your novitiate. In the meantime you need not, and ought not, to be idle. You may be as zealous and diligent in good works while a postulant as you possibly could be as a white-vailed novice or a black-vailed nun."

"Show me how I may be so, holy mother, and I will bless you," exclaimed Salome.

"I will very gladly be your guide, my child. Listen, Salome. Hitherto, you have been very charitable in giving alms. You have given liberally of your means; but you have never yet given your personal services to the poor and needy. That was not our Lord's way, whose servants we are. He gave alms, indeed, and he performed miracles to supply them, as in the case of the loaves and fishes; but most of all, better than all, He gave His personal ministrations; He taught the ignorant; He anointed the eyes of the blind; He laid His hands on the leper; He shrank from no personal contact with disease, however loathsome; distress, however ignominious; nor must we, His children, do so. We must give our personal services to the poor."

"Tell me what to do, and how to do it, good mother, and I will gladly obey your instructions. Tell me, for I am so very ignorant."

"To-morrow, the Monday before Christmas, you may go with me the rounds of our asylums and schools, and see for yourself destitute old age, destitute childhood and abandoned infancy; and you may choose your work among these poor, needy, helpless ones," said the abbess, gravely.

"And are laborers wanted in that vineyard, mother?"

"Always."

"Then here am I, for one, poor one. I am longing to go to work."

"At first your work shall be a very bright and pleasant labor, dear child. This is the joyous week of preparation for the glad, Christmas festival. This week we are all, young and old, engaged in the delightful recreations of charity. Our Lord Himself, who, in His Divine benignity, blessed the marriage feast of Cana with a miracle, smiles on our recreations of charity, which with us just now consist in the preparation of Christmas gifts to gladden the hearts of our poor these Christmas times. To-morrow, if you please, I will take you to our work-rooms, where you may choose your own task."

"Oh, how willingly I will do that!" said Salome, earnestly.

A bell had been ringing for a few moments; and so the abbess arose and said:

"That is the dinner-bell. You promised to join us in the refectory, and I think it is best you should do so, my daughter."

"I will follow your counsels in everything, holy mother," answered Salome, sweetly, as she arose and put her hand on the offered arm of her friend.

The abbess led her protegee down a long passage and deep flights of stairs to the refectory, where, at each side of a very long table, running down the length of the room, stood about fifty nuns waiting for their mother-superior.

The abbess gave her guest a seat next to her own, then crossed herself and sat down.

The nuns all made the sign of t

he cross upon their breasts, and seated themselves at the table.

This was the first occasion upon which Salome sat down at the nuns' table; but it was not the last, for from this day she regularly appeared there, and, though she was given to frequent and violent fits of weeping, her health and spirits steadily improved under the regimen of the abbess.

On Monday morning the lady-superior took Salome through all the asylums on the east side of the convent.

They went first into the aged men's home, where, in a large, clean, well-warmed and well-lighted hall, furnished with arm-chairs, tables, and many plain and cheap conveniences, were gathered about thirty gray-haired or bald-headed patriarchs, whose ages ranged from seventy to a hundred years. Yet not one of them was idle. They were all engaged in plaiting chip-mats, baskets, hampers and other useful articles that could be made out of reeds or cane. The oldest man among them, a centenarian, was employed in plaiting straw for hats.

"They look very happy and busy," said Salome, after she had responded to their respectful nods and smiles of welcome.

"Yes, and they nearly half pay expenses by their handicrafts. Even they, aged and infirm as they are, can half support themselves if they have only shelter, protection and guidance."

"And there seems to be no sick among them," said Salome.

"Ah, yes," answered the abbess, gravely, "there are five in the infirmary connected with this home; but we will not go there now. Let us pass on to the aged women's home."

They entered the next house, where, in a large, warm, light room, plainly furnished, about twenty old women, from sixty to ninety years of age, were collected. They were neatly dressed in gray stuff gowns, white aprons, white kerchiefs, and white Normandy caps. And all were busy-some knitting, some sewing, some tatting.

They bowed and smiled a welcome to the visitor, who responded in the same manner.

"These, also, half support themselves by their work," said the abbess; "but the proportion of sick among them is greater than among the men. There are ten in the infirmary."

They went next to the orphan boys' asylum, where fifty male children of ages from three to twelve years were lodged, fed, clothed, and educated.

"What becomes of these when they leave here?" inquired Salome.

"We send them out as apprentices to learn trades; and we find homes for them," answered the abbess.

"Can you always find good homes and masters for them?"

"Yes, always. We do it through the secular clergy. Now let us go into the girls' asylum," said the abbess, leading the way to the next institution.

The orphan girls' asylum was, in many respects, similar to the boys' home.

"Do you wish to know what becomes of these, when they leave here?" inquired the abbess, anticipating the question of her companion. "I will tell you. The greater number of them are sent out to service as cooks, chambermaids, seamstresses, or nursery governesses. Some few, who show unusual intelligence, are educated for teachers. If any one among their number evinces talent for any particular art, she is trained in that art. My child, we have sent out more than one artist from our orphan girls' asylum," said the abbess.

"How much good you do!" exclaimed Salome.

"Let us go into the Foundling," said the mother-superior, leading the way to the last house of the eastern row of buildings.

Ah! here was a sight sorrowful enough to make the "angels weep!"

The abbess led her companion into a long room, clean, warm, light and airy, with about thirty narrow little cots, arranged in two rows against the walls, fifteen on each side, with a long passage between them. About half a dozen of these cots were empty. On the others lay about twenty-four of the most pitiable of all our Lord's poor-young infants abandoned by their unnatural parents. All these were under twelve months old, and were pale, thin, and famished-looking. Some were sleeping, and seemingly, ah! so aged and care-worn in their sleep; some were clasping nursery-bottles in their skeleton hands, and sucking away for dear life; one little miserable was wailing in restless pain, and sending its anguished eyes around in appealing looks for relief.

Four women of the sisterhood were on duty here, and each one sat with a pining infant on her lap, while there was no one to attend to the wants of that wailing little sufferer on the bed.

"Oh, merciful Father in Heaven! what a sight!" cried Salome, overcome with compassionate sorrow.

"Yes, it is piteous! most piteous!" said the mother-superior, in a mournful tone. "We do the very best we can for these poor, deserted babes; but young infants, bereft of their mother's milk, which is their life, and of their mother's tender love and intuitive care, suffer more than any of us can estimate, and are almost sure to perish, out of this life, at least. With all our care and pains, more than two-thirds of them die."

"Is there no help for this?" sadly inquired the visitor.

"No help within ourselves. But the peasant women in our neighborhood have Christian spirits and tender hearts. When any one among them loses her sucking child, she comes to us and asks for one of our motherless babes. We select the most needing of them and give it to her, and the nurse child has then a chance for its life; but even then, if it lives, it is because some other child has died and made room for it."

"Oh, it is piteous! it is piteous, beyond all words to express! Destitute childhood, destitute old age, are both sorrowful enough, Heaven knows! But they have power to make their sufferings known, and to ask for help! But destitute infancy! Oh! look here! look here! Can anything on earth be so pathetic as this?

"They are so innocent; they have not brought their evils on themselves. They are so helpless! They have not even words to tell their pain, or ask for relief! Mother! You said that I might choose my work! I have chosen it. It is here. And I begin it from this moment," said Salome.

And she threw off her hat and cloak, and drew her gloves and cast them all on a chair, and went and took up the wailing infant from the cot.

The abbess sat down and watched her.

She soothed the baby's plaints upon her bosom as she walked it, up and down the floor, singing a sweet, nursery song in a low and tender voice, until it fell asleep. Then she came and laid it sleeping on its cot.

"My dear daughter," said the abbess, gravely, "before you select this field of duty, I must warn you that it is, and it must needs be, of all charitable administrations, the most laborious and trying."

"It may be so; but it is also the most divine," said Salome, with a grave, sweet smile. "Listen, dear mother. I know not how it is, but-with all its pathos-the sphere of this room is heavenly. And while I held that baby to my bosom and soothed it to sleep, its little, soft form seemed to draw all the fever and soreness from my own aching heart as well. Here is my earthly work, dear mother! Nay, rather, here is my heavenly mission and consolation. Leave me here."

The mother-superior took the votaress at her word, and left her then and there.

In the course of the same day a small closet, communicating with the infants' dormitory, was fitted up as a sleeping berth for Salome, and her few personal effects were conveyed from the convent and arranged within her new dwelling.

Salome had not mistaken her vocation. To serve these forsaken and suffering children was to her a labor of love; to relieve them, a work of joy.

She never left her charge, except to go to chapel, or to her meals, which she took at the nuns' table, in their refectory.

On Christmas Eve, as she returned from dinner, Sister Francoise invited her to look into the work-room and see the Christmas presents in process of preparation.

To please the kind sister, she followed her into a long hall, furnished with little tables, at each of which sat two or three of the nuns at work.

As Salome, with her conductor, walked down the room, she saw that on one table was a pile of children's illustrated books of great variety to suit little ones, from three years old to thirteen. The two nuns seated at the table were busy writing in the books the names of those for whom they were intended.

Another table was piled with woolen scarfs, socks, gloves, and night-caps for the aged men and women, which the two nuns seated there were employed in rolling up into separate little parcels, and labeling with the names of the intended recipients.

Still another, and a longer table, was bright and gay with party-colored scraps of silk, satin, velvet, ribbon, muslin, lace and linen, with which half a dozen young nuns seated there were cheerfully engaged in making dresses for a basket full of dolls, for the Christmas gifts to the infants.

The blooming young nun Felecitie presided at this table. Seeing Salome approach with Sister Francoise, she accosted her:

"Our holy mother told us that you would come in and help us dress these dolls."

"And so I would have done, only I found some living and suffering dolls to dress and feed," said Salome, smiling.

"Yes, I know, the babies of the Foundling. Well, we are dressing these dolls for your babies," said the smiling sister.

"But do you suppose my tiny little ones will care for dolls?" inquired Salome.

"Be sure they will; from six months old, up, boys or girls, sick or well, babies will love dolls. I have seen a sick baby hug her doll, just as I have seen a sick mother clasp her child," answered the sister.

"These are the recreations of charity the holy mother told me of," said Salome, as she passed out of the work-room and went back to her own sphere of duty.

On Christmas morning after matins, the Christmas gifts were distributed in every one of the asylums, and every inmate was made happy by an appropriate present.

At ten o'clock high mass was celebrated in the chapel of the convent, and all the sisterhood assembled in their screened choir.

Three priests in their sacerdotal robes, and a dozen boys in white surplices, were expected to serve at the altar. The chapel was profusely decorated with holly, and the shrines were dressed with flowers. The pews were filled with a congregation of a rather better social position than usually assembled there in the convent chapel.

The services had not yet commenced. Salome bent forward with all the interest and curiosity of a recluse, to look, for a moment, upon the strangers.

She gave but one glance through the screen, and then suddenly, with a low cry, she sank back upon her seat.

"What is the matter, my daughter? Are you ill?" inquired the mother-superior, in a whisper.

Salome lifted up a face ashen pale with dismay, and gasped:

"I have seen him! I have seen him! He is there-there in the congregation below!"

"Who?" inquired the abbess, in vague alarm.

"My husband?-yet, no; oh, Heaven! not my husband, but the Duke of Hereward!"

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