WE were on the eve of a “spiritual retreat,”— four whole days of silence,— and, in consideration of this fact, were enjoying the unusual indulgence of an hour’s recreation after supper. The gravity of the impending change disturbed our spirits, and took away from us — such is the irony of fate — all desire to talk. We were not precisely depressed, although four days of silence, of sermons, of “religious exercises,” and examinations of conscience, might seem reasonably depressing. But, on the other hand, — happy adjustment of life’s burdens,— we should have no lessons to study, no dictations to write, no loathsome arithmetic to fret our peaceful hearts. The absence of French for four whole days was, in itself, enough to sweeten the pious prospect ahead of us. Elizabeth firmly maintained she liked making retreats; but then Elizabeth regarded her soul’s perils with a less lively concern than I did She was not cursed with a speculative temperament. What we all felt, sitting silent and somewhat apprehensive in the lamplight, was a desire to do something outrageous, — something which should justify the plunge we were about to make into penitence and compunction of heart. It was the stirring of the Carnival spirit within us, the same intensely human impulse which makes the excesses of Shrove Tuesday a prelude to the first solemn services of Lent. The trouble with us was that we did not know what to do. Our range of possible iniquities was at all times painfully limited. When I recall it, I am fain to think of a pleasant conceit I once heard from Professor Royce, concerning the innocence of baby imps. Thanks to the closeness of our guardianship, and to the pure air we breathed, no little circle of azure-winged cherubim were ever more innocent than we; yet there were impish promptings in every guiltless heart. Is it possible to look at those cheerful, snubnosed angels that circle around Fra Lippo Lippi’s madonnas, without speculating upon the superfluity of naughtiness that must be forgiven them day by day ?

“We might blow out the lights,” suggested Lilly feebly.

Elizabeth shook her head, and the rest of us offered no response. To blow out the schoolroom lamps was one of those heroic misdeeds which could be attempted only in moments of supreme excitement, when some breathless romping game had raised our spirits to fever pitch. It was utterly out of keeping with our present mood, and besides it was not really wrong, — only forbidden under penalties. We were subtle enough — at least some of us were, nobody expected subtlety from Lilly — to recognize the difference.

A silence followed. Tony’s chin was sunk in the palm of her hand. When she lifted her head, her brown eyes shone with a flickering light. An enchanting smile curved her crooked little mouth. “Let’s steal the straws from under the Bambino in the corridor.” she said.

We rose swiftly and simultaneously to our feet. Here was a crime, indeed, a crime which offered the twofold stimulus of pillage and impiety. The Bambino, a little waxen image we all ardently admired, reposed under a glass case in the wide hall leading to the chapel. He lay with his dimpled arms outstretched on a bed of symmetrically arranged straws ; not the common, fuzzy, barnyard straws, but those large, smooth cylinders, through which all children love to suck up lemonade and soda water. Soda water was to us an unknown beverage, and lemonade the rarest of indulgences; but we had always coveted the straws, though the unblessed thought of taking them had never entered any mind before. Now, welcoming the temptation, and adding deceit to all the other sins involved, we put on our black veils, and made demure pretence of going to the chapel to pray. Except to go to the chapel, five little girls would never have been permitted to leave the schoolroom together; and, under ordinary circumstances, this sudden access of piety might have awakened reasonable suspicions in the breast of the Mistress of recreation. But the impending retreat made it seem all right to her (she was no great student of human nature), and her friendly smile, as we curtsied and withdrew, brought a faint throb of shame to my perfidious soul.

Once outside the door, we scuttled swiftly to the chapel hall. It was silent and empty. Tony lifted the heavy glass cover which protected the Bambino,—the pretty, helpless baby we were ruthlessly going to rob. For a moment my inborn reverence conquered, and I stooped to kiss the waxen feet. Then, surging hotly through my heart, came the thought, — a Judas kiss; and with a shudder I pulled myself away. By this time, I did n’t want the straws, I did n’t want to take them at all; but, when one sins in company, one must respect one’s criminal obligations. “Honor among thieves.” Hurriedly we collected our spoils, — ten shining tubes, which left horrid gaps in the Bambino’s bed. Then the case was lowered, and we stood giggling and whispering in the corridor.

“Let’s — ’’said Tony.

But what new villainy she meditated, we never knew. The chapel door opened, — it was Madame Bouron, — and we fled precipitately back to the schoolroom. As we reached it, the clanging of a bell struck dolorously upon our ears. Our last free hour was over, and silence, the unbroken silence of four days, had fallen like a pall upon the convent. We took off our veils, and slipped limply into line for prayers.

The next morning a new order of things reigned throughout the hushed school. The French conversation, which ordinarily made pretence of enlivening our breakfast hour, was exchanged for a soothing stillness. In place of our English classes, we had a sermon from Father Santarius, some chapters of religious reading, and a quiet hour to devote to any pious exercise we deemed most profitable to our souls. Dinner and supper were always silent meals, and one of the older girls read aloud to us, — a pleasant and profitable custom. Now the travels of Père Huc — a most engaging book — was laid aside in favor of Montalembert’s Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, — which also had its charm. Many deficiencies there were in our educational scheme, — it was so long ago, — but the unpardonable sin of commonplaceness could never be counted its shortcoming. After dinner there was an “instruction” from one of the nuns, and more time for private devotions. Then came our threeo’clock goûter, followed by a second instruction, Benediction, and the Rosary. After supper, Father Santarius preached to us again in the dimly lit chapel, and our fagged little souls were once more forcibly aroused to the contemplation of their imminent peril. Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven — which the catechism says are “the four last things to be remembered ” — were the subjects of the four night sermons. Those were not days when soothing syrup was administered in tranquillizing doses from the pulpit.

A sense of mystery attached itself to Father Santarius, attributable, I think, to his immense size, which must have equalled that of St. Thomas Aquinas. It was said that he had not seen his own feet for twenty years (so vast a bulk intervened), and this interesting legend was a source of endless speculation to little, lean, elastic girls. He was an eloquent and dramatic preacher, versed in all the arts of oratory, and presenting a striking contrast to our dull and gentle chaplain, one of the kindest and most colorless of men, to whose sermons we had long ceased to listen very attentively. We listened to Father Santarius, listened trembling while he thundered his denunciations against worldliness, and infidelity, and pride of place, and many dreadful sins we stood in no immediate danger of committing. The terrors of the Judgment Day were unfurled before our startled eyes with the sympathetic appreciation of a fifteenth-century fresco, and the dead weight of eternity oppressed our infant souls. Father Santarius knew his Hell as well as did Dante, and his Heaven (but we had not yet come to Heaven) a great deal belter. Moreover, while Dante’s Hell was arranged for the accommodation of those whom he was pleased to put in it, Father Sanlarius’s Hell was prepared for the possible accommodation of us, — which made a vast difference in our philosophy. Perhaps a similar sense of liability might have softened the poet’s vision. The second night’s sermon reduced Annie Churchill to hysterical sobs; Marie was very white, and Elizabeth looked grave and uncomfortable. As for me, my troubled heart must have found expression in my troubled eyes, when I raised them to Madame Rayburn’s face as we filed out of the chapel. She was not given to caresses, but she laid her long, delicate fingers gently on my black-veiled head. “Not for you, Agnes,” she said, “not for you. Don’t be fearful, child!” thus undoing in one glad instant the results of an hour’s hard preaching, and sending me comforted to bed.

The next afternoon I was seated at my desk in the interval between an instruction on “human respect” — which we accounted a heavy failing — and Benediction. We were all of us to go to confession on the following day; and, by way of preparation for this ordeal, I was laboriously examining my conscience, and writing down a list of searching questions, which were supposed to lay bare the hidden iniquities of my life, and to pave the way to those austere heights of virtue I hopefully expected to climb. It was a lengthy process, and threatened to consume most of the afternoon.

“Is my conversation always charitable and edifying ?”

“ Do I pride myself upon my talents and accomplishments ?”

“Have I freed my heart from all inordinate affection for created things?”

“Do I render virtue attractive and pleasing to those who differ from me in religion ?” — I wrote slowdy in my little, cramped, legible hand.

At this point Elizabeth crossed the schoolroom, and touched me on the shoulder. She carried her coral rosary, which she dangled before my eyes for a minute, and then pointed to the door, an impressive dumb show which meant that we should go somewhere, and say our beads together. There were times when the sign language we used in retreat became as animated as conversation, and a great deal more distracting, because of the difficulty we had in understanding it; but the discipline of those four days demanded above all things that we should not speak an unnecessary word. We became fairly skilled in pantomime by the time the days were over.

On the present occasion, Elizabeth’s rosary gave its own message, and I alacritously abandoned my half-tilled conscience for this new field of devotion. We meant to walk up and down the chapel hall (past the despoiled Bambino) but at the schoolroom door we encountered Madame Rayburn.

“Where are you going, children?” she asked.

This being an occasion for articulate speech, Elizabeth replied that we were on our way to the corridor to say our beads.

“You had better be out of doors,” Madame Rayburn said. “You look as if you needed fresh air. Go into the avenue until the bell rings for Benediction. No farther, remember, or you may be late. You had better take your veils with you to save time.”

This was being treated with distinction. Sent out of doors by ourselves, just as if we were First Cours girls, — those privileged creatures whom we had seen for the last three days pacing gravely and silently up and down the pleasant walks. No such liberty had ever been accorded to us before, and I felt a thrill of pride when Julia Reynolds — walking alone in the avenue — raised her eyes from the Pensées Chretiennes of Madame Swetchine (I recognized its crimson cover, having been recently obliged to translate three whole pages of it as a penance), and stared at us with the abstract impersonal gaze of one engrossed in high spiritual concerns. It was a gray day in early June, a soft, windless day, and, as we walked sedately under the big mulberry trees, a sense of exquisite well-being stole into my heart; a faint appreciation of the tranquillity that breathed around me, some dim groping after the mystery of holiness, some recognizable content in the close companionship of my friend. I forgot that I was going to free myself from all inordinate affection for created things, and only knew that it was pleasant to walk by Elizabeth’s side.

“ Let us contemplate in this second joyful mystery the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin St. Elizabeth,” she said.

Why, there it was! The Blessed Virgin’s cousin was named Elizabeth, too. Of course they were friends; perhaps they were very fond of each other; only St. Elizabeth was so much too old. Could one have a real friend, years older than oneself ? My mind was wandering over this aspect of the case while I pattered my responses, and my pearl beads — not half so pretty as Elizabeth’s coral ones — slipped quickly through my fingers. When we had finished the five decades, and had said the De profundis for the dead, there was still time on our hands. The chapel bell had not yet rung. We walked for a few minutes in silence, and then I held up my rosary as a suggestion that we should begin the sorrowful mysteries. But Elizabeth shook her head.

“Let’s have a little serious conversation,” she said.

Not Balaam, when he heard the remonstrance of his ass, not Albertus Magnus, when his brazen head first opened its lips and spoke, was more startled and discomfited than I. Such a proposal shook my moral sense to its foundations. But Elizabeth’s light blue eyes — curiously light, by contrast with her dark skin and hair — were raised to mine with perfect candor and good faith. It was plain that she did not hold herself a temptress.

“A little serious conversation,” she repeated with emphasis.

For a moment I hesitated. Three speechless days made the suggestion a very agreeable one, and I was in the habit of consenting to whatever Elizabeth proposed. But conversation, even serious conversation, was a daring innovation for a retreat, and I was not by nature an innovator. Then suddenly a happy thought came to me. I had brought along my Ursuline Manual (in those days we went about armed with all our spiritual weapons), and I opened it at a familiar page.

“Let’s find out our predominant passions,” I said.

Elizabeth consented joyfully. Her own prayer-book was French, a Paroissien Romain, and the predominant passions had no place in it. She was evidently flattered by the magnificence of the term, as applied to her modest transgressions. It was something to know — at twelve — that one was possessed of a passion to predominate.

“We’ll skip the advice in the beginning?” she said.

I nodded, and Elizabeth, plunging, as was her wont, into the heart of the matter, read with impressive solemnity : —

“The predominant passion of many young people is pride, which never fails to produce such haughtiness of manner and self - sufficiency as to render them equally odious and ridiculous. Incessantly endeavoring to attract admiration, and become the sole objects of attention, they spare no pains to set themselves off, and to outdo their companions. By their conceited airs, their forwardness, their confidence in their own opinions, and neglect or contempt of that timid, gentle, retiring manner, so amiable and attractive in youth, they defeat their own purpose, and become as contemptible as they aim at being important.”

There was a pause. The description sounded so little like either of us that I expected Elizabeth to go right on to more promising vices. But she was evidently turning the matter over in her mind.

“I think that’s Adelaide Harrison’s predominant passion,” she said at length.

Somewhat surprised, I acquiesced. It had not occurred to me to send my thoughts wandering over the rest of the school, or I should, perhaps, have reached some similar conclusion.

“Yes, it’s certainly Adelaide Harrison’s passion,” Elizabeth went on thoughtfully. “You remember how she behaved about that composition of hers, ‘The Woods in Autumn,’ that Madame Duncan thought so fine. She said she ought to be able to write a good composition when her mother had written a whole volume of poems, and her brother had written something else, I don’t remember what. That’s what I call pride.”

“She says they are a talented family,” I added maliciously. (“Is my conversation always charitable and edifying?”) “That she taught herself to read when she was six years old, and that they all speak French when they are together. I don’t believe that.”

“It must be horrid, if they do,” said Elizabeth. “I’m glad I’m not one of them. Vous ne mangez rien, ma chere Adelaide. Est-ce que vous etes malade ?”

“Helas! oui, mon pere. J’ai peur que j etude trop. Go on, Elizabeth, I’m afraid the bell will ring.”

Thus adjured, Elizabeth continued: “There are many young people whose predominant passion is a certain ill-humor, fretfulness, peevishness, or irritability, which pervades their words, manners, and even looks. It is usually brought into action by such mere trifles that there is no chance of peace for those who live in the house with them. Even their best friends are not always secure from their ill - tempered sallies, their quarrelsome moods. Pettish and perverse, they throw a gloom over the gayest hour, and the most innocent amusement. As this luckless disposition is peculiarly that of women, young girls cannot be too earnestly recommended to combat the tendency in youth, lest they become, when older, the torment of that society they are intended to bless and ornament.”

Another pause, — a short one this time. Elizabeth’s eyes met mine with an unspoken question, and I nodded acquiescence. “Tony!” we breathed simultaneously.

It was true. Tony’s engaging qualities were marred by a most prickly temper. We knew her value well. She played all games so admirably that the certainty of defeat modified our pleasure in playing with her. She was fleet of foot, ready of wit, and had more fun in her little brown head than all the rest of us could muster. She would plunge us into abysses of mischief with one hand, and extricate us miraculously with the other. She was startlingly truthful, and lived nobly up to our wayward but scrupulous standard of schoolgirl honor, to the curious code of ethics by which we regulated our lives. She might have been Elizabeth’s vice-regent; she might even have disputed the authority of our constitutional sovereign, and have led us Heaven knows whither, had it not been for her pestilential quarrelsomeness. How often had she and I started out at the recreation hour in closest amity, and returned, silent and glowering, with the wide gravel walk between us. If she were in a fractious mood, no saint from Paradise could have kept the peace. Therefore, when Elizabeth looked at me, we said “ Tony! ” and then stopped short. She was our friend, one of the band, and though we granted her derelictions, we would not discuss them. We could be ribald enough at Adelaide Harrison’s expense, but not at Tony’s.

“Why don’t you lend her this book ?” said Elizabeth kindly.

I shook my head. I knew why very well. And I rather think Elizabeth did, too.

By this time it looked as if we were going to fit. the whole school with predominant. passions, and not find any for ourselves; but the next line Elizabeth read struck a chill into my soul, and, as she went on, every word seemed like a barbed arrow aimed unswervingly at me.

“A propensity to extravagant partialities is a fault which frequently predominates in some warm, impetuous characters. These persons are distinguished by a precipitate selection of favorites in every society; by an overflow of marked attentions to the objects of their predilection, whose interests they espouse, whose very faults they attempt to justify, whose opinions they support, whether right or wrong, and whose cause they defend, often at the expense of good sense, charity, moderation, and even common justice. Woe to him who ventures to dissent from them. The friendship or affection of such characters does not deserve to be valued, for it results, not from discernment of merit, but from blind prejudice. Besides, they annoy those whom they think proper to rank among their favorites by expecting to engross their whole attention, and by resenting every mark of kindness they may think proper to show to others. However, as their affections are in general as short-lived as they are ardent, no one person is likely to be long tormented with the title of their friend.”

I was conscious of two flaming cheeks as we walked for a moment in silence, and I glanced at Elizabeth out of the tail of my eye to see if she were summing up my case. It was n’t true, it could n’t be true that extravagant partialities (when they were my partialities) were short-lived. I was preparing to combat this part of the accusation when Elizabeth’s cool voice dispelled my groundless fears.

“I think that’s silly,” she said. “Nobody is like that.”

The suddenness of my relief made me laugh outright, and then,— Oh, baseness of the human heart! I sought to strengthen my own position by denouncing some one else. “Not Annie Churchill ?” I asked.

Elizabeth considered. “No, not even Annie Churchill. What makes you think of her ? ”

It was an awkward question. How could I say that two nights before the retreat Annie had slipped into ray alcove, — a reprehensible habit she had, — and, with an air of mystery, had informed me she was “trying to do something,” — she did n’t like to tell me what, because she thought that maybe I was trying to do it, too. Upon my intimating that I was trying to go to bed, and nothing else that I knew of, she had said quite solemnly, “ I am trying to gain Elizabeth’s affections.” As it was impossible for me to adduce this piece of evidence (even an unsought confidence we held sacred), I observed somewhat lamely: “Oh, she does seem to get suddenly fond of people.”

“Who’s she fond of?” asked the unsuspecting — and ungrammatical — Elizabeth.

“Oh, do go on! ” I urged, and even as I said it, the Benediction bell rang. A score of girls, serious, black-veiled young penitents, appeared, as if by magic, hastening to the chapel. We joined them silently, and filed into rank. Already my conscience was pricking. Had our “ serious” conversation been either charitable or edifying ? Was it for this that Madame Rayburn had sent us out to walk under the mulberry trees ?

It pricked harder still — this sore little conscience — the next day, when Lilly came to me, looking downcast and miserable. “Madame Duncan said I might speak to you,” she whispered, “because it was about something important. It is important, very. Father Santarius is sure to tell us we must put those straws back, and I’ve broken one of mine.”

Straws! I stared at her aghast. Where were my straws ? I did n’t know, I had n’t the faintest idea. I had lost them both, as I lost, everything else, except the empty head so firmly,yet so uselessly, fixed upon my shoulders. It was really wonderful that a little girl who had only three places in the world in which to put anything,— a desk, a washstand drawer, and a japanned dressing-case (our clothes were all kept for us with exquisite neatness in the vestry), — should not have known where her few possessions were; but I could have lost them all in any of these receptacles, and never have found one of them again. When a mad scramble through my desk had furnished incontestable proof that no straws were there, and Lilly had departed, somewhat comforted by my more desperate case, I sat gloomily facing the complicated problem before me. I must confess my sin, I would be called upon to make restitution, and I had nothing to restore. The more I thought about it, the more hopeless I grew, and the more confused became my sense of proportion. If I had stolen the Bambino himself — as a peasant woman, it is said, once stole the Baby of Ara-Cœli — I could not have felt guiltier.

“Agnes,” said Madame Rayburn’s voice, “you had better go to the chapel now, and prepare for confession.”

She was looking dowm on me, and, as I rose to my feet, a light broke in upon my darkness. I knew where to turn for help.

“If you’ve taken a thing, and you have n’t got it any more to give it back, what can you do ?” I asked.

The suddenness with which my query was launched (I always hated roundabout approaches) startled even this seasoned nun. “If you’ve taken a thing,” she echoed. “Do you mean stolen ?”

“Yes,” I answered stolidly.

She looked astonished for a moment, and then the shadow of a smile passed over her face. “Is it something you have eaten ?” she asked, “and that is why you cannot give it back ?”

I laughed a little miserable laugh. It was natural that this solution of the problem should have presented itself to Madame Rayburn’s mind, albeit we were not in the fruit season. But then, it had once happened that a collation had been set for the Archbishop and some accompanying priests in the conference room, and that Elizabeth, Lilly, and I, spying through a half-open door the tempting array of sandwiches and cake, had descended like Harpies upon the feast. This discreditable incident lingered, it was plain, in Madame Rayburn’s memory, and prompted her question.

“No, it was n’t anything to eat,” I said; and then, recognizing the clemency of her mood (she was not always clement), I revealed the sacrilegious nature of my spoliation. “And I’ve lost them, and can’t put them back,” I wound up sorrowfully.

Madame Rayburn looked grave. Whether it was because she was shocked, or because she was amused and wanted to conceal her amusement, I cannot say. “ Did you do this by yourself ? ” she said; and then, seeing my face, added hastily; “No, I won’t ask you that question. It is n’t fair, and besides, I know you won’t answer. But if there are any more straws in anybody’s possession, I want you to bring them to me to-night. That’s all. Now go to confession. Say you’ve told, and that it’s all right.”

I was dismissed. With a light heart I sped to the chapel. To see one’s way clear through the intricacies of life, to be sure of one’s next step, and of a few steps to follow, — at eleven, or at threescore and ten, this is beatitude.

It was Saturday morning when we emerged from retreat, a clear, warm Saturday in June. Mass was over, and we filed down in measureless content to the refectory. Because of our four days’ silence, we were permitted to speak our blessed mother tongue at breakfast time. Therefore, instead of the dejected murmur which was the liveliest expression of our Gallic eloquence, there rose upon the startled air a clamorous uproar, a full, deep, joyous torrent of sound. A hundred girls were talking last and furiously to make up for lost time. We had hot rolls for breakfast, too, a luxury reserved for such special occasions; and we were all going to the woods in the afternoon, both First and Second Cours, — going for two long, lovely hours, which would give us time to reach the farthest limits of our territory. Elizabeth came and squeezed herself on the bench beside me, to propose a private search for the white violets that grew in the marshy ground beyond the lake. Tony shouted across two intervening benches that she did n’t see why we could not secure the boat, and have a row, — as if the Second Cours girls were at all likely to get possession of the boat when the First Cours girls were around. “We can, if we try,”persisted Tony, in whom four days of peaceful meditation had bred the liveliest inclination for a brawl. As for me, I ate my roll, and looked out of the window at the charming vista stretching down to the woods; and my spirits mounted higher and higher with the rising tide of joy, with the glad return to the life of every day. Heaven, an assured hereafter, had receded comfortably into the dim future. Hell was banished from our apprehensions. But, oh, how beautiful was the world !