I DO not know how Marianus ever came to leave his native land, nor what turn of fate brought him to flutter the dovecotes of a convent school. At eleven one does not often ask why things happen, because nothing seems strange enough to provoke the question. It was enough for me — it was enough for all of us — that one Sunday morning he appeared in little Peter’s place, lit the candles on the altar, and served Mass with decent and devout propriety. Our customary torpor of cold and sleepiness — Mass was at seven, and the chapel unheated — yielded to a warm glow of excitement. I craned my white-veiled head (we wore black veils throughout the week and white on Sundays) to see how Elizabeth was taking this delightful novelty. She was busy passing her prayer-book, with something evidently written on the fly-leaf, to Emily Goring on the bench ahead. Emily, oblivious of consequences, was making telegraphic signals to Marie. Lilly and Viola Milton knelt staring openmouthed at the altar. Tony was giggling softly. Only Annie Churchill, her eyes fixed on her Ursuline Manual, was thumping her breast remorsefully, in unison with the priest’s “mea maxima culpa.” There was something about Annie’s attitude of devotion which always gave one a distaste for piety.
Breakfast afforded no opportunity for discussion. At that Spartan meal, French conversation alone was permitted; and even had we been able or willing to employ the hated medium, there was practically no one to talk to. By a triumph of monastic discipline, we were placed at table, at our desks, and at church, next to girls to whom we had nothing to say; — good girls, with medals around their necks, and blue or green ribbons over their shoulders, who served as insulating mediums, as non-conductors, separating us from cheerful currents of speech, and securing, on the whole, a reasonable degree of decorum. I could not open my bursting heart to my neighbors, who sat stolidly consuming bread and butter as though no wild light had dawned upon our horizon. When one of them (she is a nun now) observed painstakingly, “ J’espère que nous irons aux bois après midi; ” I said “oui,” which was the easiest thing to say, and conversation closed at that point. We always did go to the woods on Sunday afternoons, unless it rained. During the week, the big girls — the arrogant and unapproachable First Cours — assumed possession of them as an exclusive right, and left us only Mulberry Avenue in which to play prisoner’s base and Saracens and Crusaders; but on Sundays the situation was reversed, and the Second Cours was led joyously out to those sweet shades which in our childish eyes were vast as Epping Forest, and as full of mystery as the Schwarzwald. No one could have valued this weekly privilege more than I did; but the day was clear, and we were sure to go. I felt the vapid nature of Mary Rawdon’s remark to be due solely to the language in which it was uttered. All our inanities were spoken in French; and those nuns who understood no other tongue must have conceived a curious impression of our intelligence.
There was a brief recreation of fifteen minutes at ten o’clock, which sufficed for a rapturous exchange of confidences and speculations. Only those who have been at a convent school understand how the total absence of masculinity enriches it with a halo of illusion. Here we were, seven absurdly romantic little girls, who had been put to such sore straits that we had pretended for weeks at a time that our mistress of class was a man, and that we were all in love with her; and here was a tall Italian youth, at least eighteen, sent by a beneficent Providence to thrill us with emotions. Was he going to stay ? we asked with bated breath. Was he going to serve Mass every morninginstead of Peter ? We could not excite ourselves over Peter, who was a small, frecklefaced country boy, awkwardly shy, and — I should judge — of a saturnine disposition. We had met him once in the avenue, and had asked him if he had any brothers or sisters. “Naw,” was the reply. “I had a brother wanst, but he died; — got out of it when he was a baby. He was a cute one, he was.” A speech which I can only hope was not so Schopenhauerish as it sounds.
And now, in Peter’s place, came this mysterious, dark-eyed, and altogether adorable stranger from beyond the seas. Annie Churchill, who, for all her prayerfulness, had been fully alive to the situation, opined that he was an “exile,” and the phrase smote us to the heart. We had read Elizabeth; or the Exile of Siberia, — it was in the school library, — and here was a male Elizabeth under our ravished eyes. “That’s why he came to a convent,” continued Annie, following up her advantage; “to be hidden from all pursuit.”
“ No doubt he did,” said Tony breathlessly, “ and we’ll have to be very careful not to say anything about him to visitors. We might be the occasion of his being discovered and sent back.”
This thought was almost too painful to be borne. Upon our discretion depended perhaps the safety of a heroic youth who had fled from tyranny and cruel injustice. I was about to propose that we should bind ourselves by a solemn vow never to mention his presence, save secretly to one another, when Elizabeth — not the Siberian, but our own unexiled Elizabeth — observed with that biting dryness which was the real secret of her ascendency, “ We’d better not say much about him, anyway. On our own account, I mean.” Which pregnant remark — the bell for “Christian Instruction” ringing at that moment — sent us silent and meditative to our desks.
So it was that Marianus came to the convent, and we gave him our seven young hearts with unresisting enthusiasm. Viola’s heart, indeed, was held of small account, she being only ten years old; but Elizabeth was twelve, and Marie and Annie were thirteen, ages ripe for passion, and remote from the taunt of immaturity. It was understood from the beginning that we all loved Marianus with equal right and fervor. We shared the emotion fairly and squarely, just as we shared an occasional box of candy, or any other benefaction. It was our common secret, — our fatal secret, we would have said, — and must be guarded with infinite precaution from a cold and possibly disapproving world; but no one of us dreamed of setting up a private romance of her own, of extracting from the situation more than one sixth — leaving Viola out — of its excitement and ecstasy.
We discovered in the course of time our exile’s name and nationality, — it was the chaplain who told us, — and also that he was studying for the priesthood; this last information coming from the mistress of recreation, and being plainly designed to dull our interest from the start. She added that he neither spoke nor understood anything but Italian, a statement which we determined to put to the proof as soon as fortune should favor us with the opportunity. The possession of an Italian dictionary became meanwhile imperative, and we had no way of getting it. We could n’t write home for one, because our letters were all read before they were sent out, and any girl would be asked why she had made such a singular request. We could n’t beg our mothers, even when we saw them, for dictionaries of a language they knew we were not studying. Lilly said she thought she might, ask her father for one, the next time he came to the school. There is a lack of intelligence, or at least of alertness, about fathers, which makes them invaluable in certain emergencies; but which, on the other hand, is apt to precipitate them into blunders. Mr. Milton promised the dictionary, without putting any inconvenient questions, though he must have been a little surprised at the scholarly nature of the request; but just as he was going away, he said loudly and cheerfully: —
“Now what is it I am to bring you next time, children ? Mint candy, and handkerchiefs, — your Aunt Helen says you must live on handkerchiefs, — and gloves for Viola, and a dictionary?”
He was actually shaking hands with Madame Bouron, the Mistress General, as he spoke, and she turned to Lilly, and said: —
“Lilly, have you lost your French dictionary, as well as all your handkerchiefs?”
“No, madame,” said poor Lilly.
“It’s an Italian dictionary she wants this time,” corrected Mr. Milton, evidently not understanding why Viola was poking him viciously in the back.
“Lilly is not studying Italian. None of the children are,” said Madame Bouron. And then, very slowly, and with an emphasis which made two of her hearers quake, “Lilly has no need of an Italian dictionary, Mr. Milton. She had better devote more time and attention to her French.”
“I nearly fainted on the spot,” said Lilly, describing the scene to us afterwards; “and father looked scared, and got away as fast as he could; and Viola was red as a beet; and I thought surely Madame Bouron was going to say something to me; but, thank Heaven! Eloise Didier brought up her aunt to say goodby, and we slipped off. Do you think, girls, she’ll ask me what I wanted with an Italian dictionary?”
“Say you’re going to translate Dante in the holidays,” suggested Tony with unfeeling vivacity.
“Say you’re going to Rome, to see the Pope,” said Marie.
“Say you’re such an accomplished French scholar, it’s time you turned your attention to something else,” said Emily.
“Say you’re making a collection of dictionaries,” said the imp, Viola.
Lilly looked distressed. The humors of the situation were, perhaps, less manifest to her perturbed mind. But Elizabeth, who had been thinking the matter over, observed gloomily, “Oh, Boots” (our opprobrious epithet for the Mistress General) “won’t bother to ask questions. She knows all she wants to know. She’ll just watch us, and see that we never get a chance to speak to Marianus, It was bad enough before, but it will be worse than ever now. He might almost as well be in Italy.”
Things did seem to progress slowly, considering the passionate nature of our sentiments. Never was there such an utter absence of opportunity. From the ringing of the first bell at quarter past six in the morning to the lowering of the dormitory lights at nine o’clock at night, we were never alone for a moment, but moved in orderly squadrons through the various duties of the day. Marianus served Mass every morning, and on Sundays assisted at Vespers and Benediction. Outside the chapel, we never saw him. He lived in “Germany,” — a name given, Heaven knows why, to a farmhouse on the convent grounds, which was used as quarters for the chaplain and for visitors; but though we cast many a longing look in its direction, no dark Italian head was ever visible at window or at door. I believe my own share of affection was beginning to wither under this persistent blight, when something happened which not only renewed its fervor, but thrilled my heart with a grateful sentiment which is not wholly dead to-day.
It was May, — a month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and fuller than usual of church-going, processions, and hymns. We were supposed to be, or at least expected to be, particularly obedient and studious during these four weeks; and by way of incentive, each class had its candle, tied with the class color, and standing amid a lovely profusion of Spring flowers, on the Madonna’s altar. There were six of them: white for the graduates, purple for the first class, blue for the second, red for the third, green for the fourth, and pink for the fifth, — the very little girls, for whom the discipline of school life was mercifully relaxed. All the candles were lighted every morning during Mass, unless some erring member of a class had, by misconduct the day before, forfeited the honor, not only for herself, but for her classmates. These tapers were my especial abhorrence. The laudable determination of the third class to keep the red-ribboned candle burning all month maddened me, both by the difficulties it presented, and by the meagre nature of the consequences involved. I could not bring myself to understand why they should care whether it were lit or not. To be sent downstairs to a deserted music-room, there to spend the noon recreation hour in studying Roman history or a French fable; — that was a penalty, hard to avoid, but easy to understand. Common sense and a love of enjoyment made it clear that no one should lightly run such risks. But I had not imagination enough to grasp the importance of a candle more or less upon the altar. It was useless to appeal to my love for the Blessed Virgin. I loved her so well and so confidently, I had placed my childish faith in her so long, that no doubt of her sympathy ever crossed my mind. My own mother might side with authority. Indeed, she represented the supreme, infallible authority, from winch there was no appeal. But in every trouble of my poor little gusty life, the Blessed Mother sided with me. Of that, thank Heaven! I felt sure.
This month my path was darkened by a sudden decision on Elizabeth’s part that our candle should not be once extinguished. Elizabeth, to do her justice, did not often incline to virtue; but when she did, there was a scant allowance of cakes and ale for any of us. She never deviated from her chosen course, and she never fully understood the sincere but fallible nature of our unkept resolutions. I made my usual frantic, futile effort to follow her lead, with the usual melancholy failure. Before the first week was out, I had come into collision with authority (it was a matter of arithmetic, which always soured my temper to the snapping point); and the 6th of May saw five candles only burning at the veiled Madonna’s feet. I sat, angry and miserable, while Madame Duncan, who had charge of the altar, lit the faithful five, and retired with a Rhadamanthine expression to her stall. Elizabeth, at the end of the bench, looked straight ahead, with an expression, or rather an enforced absence of expression, which I perfectly understood. She would not say anything, but none the less would her displeasure be made chillingly manifest. Mass had begun. The priest was reading the Introit, when Marianus lifted a roving eye upon the Blessed Virgin’s altar. It was not within his province; he had nothing to do with its flowers or its tapers; but when did generous mind pause for such considerations ? He saw that one candle, a candle with a drooping scarlet ribbon, was unlit; and, promptly rising from his knees, he plunged into the sacristy, reappeared with a burning wax-end, and repaired the error, while we held our breaths with agitation and delight. Madame Duncan’s head was lowered in seemly prayer; but the ripple of excitement communicated itself mysteriously to her, and she looked up, just as Marianus had deftly accomplished his task. For an instant she half rose to her feet; and then the absurdity of reattacking the poor little red candle seemed to dawn on her (she was an Irish nun, not destitute of humor), and with a fleeting smile at me, — a smile in which there was as much kindness as amusement, — she resumed her interrupted devotions.
But I tucked my crimson face into my hands, and my soul shouted with joy. Marianus, our idol, our exile, the one true love of our six hearts, had done this deed for me. Not only was I lifted from disgrace, but raised to a preëminence of distinction; for had I not been saved by him ? Oh, true knight! Oh, chivalrous champion of the unhappy and oppressed! When I recall that moment of triumph, it is even now with a stir of pride, and of something more than pride, for I am grateful still.
That night, that very night, I was just sinking into sleep when a hand was laid cautiously upon my shoulder. I started up. It was too dark to see anything clearly, but I knew that the shadow by my side was Elizabeth. “Come out into the hall,” she whispered softly. “You had better creep back of the beds. Don’t make any noise! ” — and without a sound she was gone.
I slipped on my wrapper, — nightgowns gleam so perilously white, — and with infinite precaution stole behind my sleeping companions, each one curtained safely into her little muslin alcove. At the end of the dormitory I was joined by another silent figure, — it was Marie, — and very gently we pushed open the big doors. The hall outside was flooded with moonlight, and by the open window crouched a bunch of girls pressed close together, — so close it was hard to disentangle them. A soft gurgle of delight bubbled up from one little throat, and was instantly hushed down by more prudent neighbors. Elizabeth hovered on the outskirts of the group, and without a word, she pushed me to the sill. Beneath, leaning against a tree, not thirty feet away, stood Marianus. His back was turned to us, and he was smoking. We could see the easy grace of his attitude, — was he not an Italian ? — we could smell the intoxicating fragrance of his cigar. Happily unaware of his audience, he smoked, and contemplated the friendly moon, and wondered, perhaps, why the Fates had cast him on this desert island, as remote from human companionship as Crusoe’s. Had he known of the six young hearts that had been given him unbidden, it would probably have cheered him less than we imagined.
But to us it seemed as though our shadowy romance had taken form and substance. The graceless daring of Marianus in stationing himself beneath our windows, — or at least beneath a window to which we had possible access; the unholy lateness of the hour, — verging fast upon half-past nine; the seductive moonlight; the ripe profligacy of the cigar; — what was wanting to this night’s exquisite adventure! As I knelt breathless in the shadow, my head bobbing against Viola’s and Marie’s, I thought of Italy, of Venice, of Childe Harold, of everything that was remote, and beautiful, and unconnected with the trammels of arithmetic. I heard Annie Churchill murmur that it was like a serenade; I heard Tony’s whispered conjecture as to whether the silent serenader really knew where we slept; — than which nothing seemed less likely; — I heard Elizabeth’s warning “hush!” whenever the muffled voices rose too high above the stillness of the sleeping convent; but nothing woke me from my dreams until Marianus slowly withdrew his shoulder from the supporting tree, and sauntered away, without turning his head once in our direction. We watched him disappear in the darkness; then, closing the window, moved noiselessly back to bed. “Who saw him first?” I asked at the dormitory door.
“I did,” whispered Elizabeth; “and I called them all. 1 did n’t intend letting Viola know; but, of course, sleeping next to Lilly, she managed to find out. She ought to be up in the Holy Child dormitory with the other little girls. It’s ridiculous having her following us about everywhere.”
And, indeed, Viola’s precocious pertinacity made her a difficult problem to solve. There are younger sisters who can be snubbed into impotence. Viola was no such weakling.
But now the story which we thought just begun was drawing swiftly to its close. Perhaps matters had reached a point when something had to happen; yet it did seem strange — it seems strange even now — that the crisis should have been precipitated by a poetic outburst on the part of Elizabeth. Of all the six, she was the least addicted to poetry. She seldom read it, and never spent long hours in copying it in a blank-book, as was our foolish and laborious custom. She hated compositions, and sternly refused the faintest touch of sentiment when compelled to express her thoughts upon “The First Snowdrop,” or “My Guardian Angel,” or the “Execution of Mary Queen of Scots.” Tony wrote occasional verses of a personal and satiric character, which we held to sparkle with a biting wit. Annie Churchill had once rashly shown to Lilly and to me some feeble lines upon “The Evening Star.” Deep hidden in my desk, unseen by mortal eye save mine, lay an impassioned “ Soliloquy of Jane Eyre,” in blank verse, which was almost volcanic in its fervor, and which perished the following year, unmourned, because unknown to the world. But Elizabeth had never shown the faintest disposition to write anything that could be left unwritten, until Marianus stirred the waters of her soul. That night, that moonlit night, and the dark figure smoking in the shadows, cast their sweet spell upon her. With characteristic promptness, she devoted her French study hour the following afternoon to the composition of a poem, which was completed when we went to class, and which she showed me secretly while we were scribbling our dictée. There were five verses, headed “To Marianus,” and beginning,
which was a poetic license, as the chapel aisle was short, and Marianus had never glided up it since he came. He always — in virtue of his office — entered by the sacristy door.
But realism was then as little known in literature as in art, and poetry was not expected to savor of statement rather than emotion. Elizabeth’s masterpiece expressed in glowing numbers the wave of sentiment by which we were submerged. Before night it had passed swdftly from hand to hand, and before night the thunder-bolt had fallen. Whose rashness was to blame I do not now remember; but, thank Heaven! it was not mine. Some one’s giggle was too unsuppressed. Some one thrust the paper too hurriedly into her desk, or dropped it on the floor, or handed it to some one else in a manner too obviously mysterious not to arouse suspicion. I only know that it fell into the hands of little Madame Davide, who had the eyes of a ferret and the heart, of a mouse, and who, being unable to read a word of English, sent it forthwith to Madame Bouron. I only know that, after that brief and unsatisfactory glimpse in French class, I never saw it again; which is why I can now recall but one line out of twenty, — a circumstance I devoutly regret.
It was a significant proof of Madame Bouron’s astuteness that, without asking any questions, or seeking any further information, she summoned six girls to her study that evening after prayers. She had only the confiscated poem in Elizabeth’s writing as a clue to the conspiracy, but she needed nothing more. There we were, all duly indicted, save Viola, whose youth, while it failed to protect us from the unsought privilege of her society, saved her, as a rule, from any retributive measures. Her absence on this occasion was truly a comfort, as her presence would have involved the added and most unmerited reproach of leading a younger child into mischief. Viola was small for her age, and had appealing brown eyes. There was not a nun in the convent who knew her for the imp she was. Lilly, gay, sweet, simple, generous, and unselfish, seemed as wax in her little sister’s hands.
There were six of us, then, to bear the burden of blame; and Madame Bouron, sitting erect in the lamplight, apportioned it with an unsparing hand. Her fine face (she was coldly handsome, but we did not like her well enough to know it) expressed contemptuous displeasure; her words conveyed a somewhat exaggerated confidence in our guilt. Of Elizabeth’s verses she spoke with icy scorn; — she had not been aware that so gifted a writer graced the school; but the general impropriety of our behavior was unprecedented in the annals of the convent. That we, members of the Society of St. Aloysius, should have shown ourselves so unworthy of our privileges, and so forgetful of our patron, was a surprise even to her; though (she was frankness itself) she had never entertained a good opinion either of our dispositions or of our intelligence. The result of such misconduct was that the chaplain’s assistant must leave at once and forever. Not that he had ever wasted a thought upon any girl in the school. His heart was set upon the priesthood. Young though he was, he had already suffered for the Church. His father had fought and died in defense of the Holy See. His home had been lost. He was a stranger in a far land. And now he must be driven from the asylum he bad sought, because we could not be trusted to behave with that modesty and discretion which had always been the fairest adornment of children reared within the convent’s holy walls. She hoped that we would understand how grievous was the wrong we had done, and that even our callous hearts would bleed when we went to our comfortable beds, and reflected that, because of our wickedness and folly, a friendless and pious young student was once more alone in the world.
It was over! We trailed slowly up to the dormitory, too bewildered to understand the exact nature of our misdoing. The most convincing proof of our mental confusion is that our own immaculate innocence never occurred to any of us. We had looked one night out of the window at Marianus, and Elizabeth had written the five amorous verses. That was all. Not one of us had spoken a word to the object of our affections. Not one of us could boast a single glance, given or received. We had done nothing; yet so engrossing had been the sentiment, so complete the absorption of the past two months, that we, living in a children’s world of illusions, — “passionate after dreams, and unconcerned about realities,” — had deemed ourselves players of parts, actors in an unsubstantial drama, intruders into the realms of the forbidden. We accepted this conviction with meekness, untempered by regret; but we permitted ourselves a doubt as to whether our iniquity were wholly responsible for the banishment of Marianus. The too strenuous pointing of a moral breeds skepticism in the youthful soul. When Squire Martin (of our grandfathers’ reading-books) assured Billy Freeman that dogs and turkey-cocks were always affable to children who studied their lessons and obeyed their parents, that innocent little boy must have soon discovered for himself that virtue is but a weak bulwark in the barnyard. We, too, had lost implicit confidence in the fine adjustments of life; and, upon this occasion, we found comfort in incredulity. On the stairs Elizabeth remarked to me in a gloomy undertone that Marianus could never have intended to stay at the convent, anyhow, and that he probably had been “ sent for.” She did not say whence, or by whom; but the mere suggestion was salve to my suffering soul. It enabled me, at least, to bear the sight of Annie Churchill’s tears, when, ten minutes later, that weak-minded girl slid into my alcove (as if we were not in trouble enough already), and, sitting forlornly on my bed, asked me in a stifled whisper, “did I think that Marianus was really homeless, and could n’t we make up a sum of money, and send it to him ? ”
“How much have you got?” I asked her curtly. The complicated emotions through which I had passed had left me in a savage humor; and the peculiar infelicity of this proposal might have irritated St. Aloysius himself. We were not allowed the possession of our own money, though in view of the fact that there was ordinarily nothing to buy with it, extravagance would have been impossible. Every Thursday afternoon the “Bazaar” was opened; our purses, carefully marked with name and number, were handed to us, and we were at liberty to purchase such uninteresting necessities as writing paper, stamps, blank-books, pencils, and sewing materials. The sole concession to prodigality was a little pile of pious pictures, — small French prints, ornamented with lace paper, which it was our custom to give one another upon birthdays and other festive occasions. They were a great resource in church, where prayer-books, copiously interleaved with these works of art, were passed to and fro for mutual solace and refreshment.
All these things were as well known to Annie as to me, but she was too absorbed in her grief to remember them. She mopped her eyes, and said vacantly that she thought she had a dollar and a half.
“I have seventy-five cents,” I said; “ and Elizabeth has n’t anything. She spent all her money last Thursday. We might be able to raise five dollars amongst us. If you think that much would be of any use to Marianus, all you have to do is to ask Madame Bouron for our purses, and for his address, and see if she would mind our writing and sending it to him,”
Annie, impervious at all times to sarcasm, looked dazed for a moment, her wet blue eyes raised piteously to mine. “Then you think we couldn’t manage it?” she asked falteringly.
But I plunged my face into my washbasin, as a hint that the conversation was at an end. I, too, needed the relief of tears, and was waiting impatiently to be alone.
For Marianus had gone. Of that, at least, there was no shadow of doubt. We should never see him again; and life seemed to stretch before me in endless grey reaches of grammar, and arithmetic, and French conversation; of getting up early in the morning, uncheered by the thought of seeing Marianus serve Mass; of going to bed at night, with never another glance at that dark shadow in the moonlight. I felt that for me the page of love was turned forever, the one romance of my life was past. I cried softly and miserably into my pillow; and resolved, as I did so, that the next morning I would write on the fly-leaves of my new French prayer-book and my Thomas a Kcmpis the lines: —
Than never to have loved at all.”