One day a number of people came to the house. The men came in as though they were going into church, and the women made the sign of the cross as they went out.
I slipped into my parents’ bedroom and was surprised to see that my mother had a big lighted candle by her bedside. My father was leaning over the foot of the bed looking at my mother. She was asleep with her hands crossed on her breast.
Our neighbour, la mère Colas, kept us with her all day. As the women went out again she said to them, “No, she would not kiss her children good-bye.” The women blew their noses, looked at us, and la mère Colas added, “That sort of illness makes one unkind, I suppose.” A few days afterwards we were given new dresses with big black and white checks.
La mère Colas used to give us our meals and send us out to play in the fields. My sister, who was a big girl, scrambled into the hedges, climbed the trees, messed about in the ponds, and used to come home at night with her pockets full of creatures of all kinds, which frightened me and made la mère Colas furiously angry.
What I hated most were the earthworms. The red elastic things made me shiver with horror, and if I happened to step on one it made me quite ill. When I had a pain in my side la mère Colas used to forbid my sister to go out. But my sister got tired of remaining indoors and wanted to go out and take me with her. So she used to go and collect earthworms, and hold them up close to my face. Then I said that I wasn’t in pain any more, and la mère Colas used to send us both out of doors. One day my sister threw a handful of earthworms on to my dress. I jumped back so quickly that I fell into a tub of hot water. La mère Colas was very angry while she undressed me. I was not very much hurt. She promised my sister a good slapping, and called to the sweeps, who were passing, to come in and take her away. All three of them came in, with their black bags and their ropes. My sister howled and cried for mercy. I was very much ashamed at being all undressed.
My father often took us to a place where there were men who drank wine. He used to put me on a table among the glasses, and make me sing. The men would laugh and kiss me, and try and make me drink wine. It was always dark when we went home. My father took long steps, and rocked himself as he walked. He nearly tumbled down lots of times. Sometimes he would begin to cry and say that his house had been stolen. Then my sister used to scream. It was always she who used to find the house. One morning la mère Colas got angry with us and told us that we were children of misfortune, and that she would not feed us any longer. She said we could go and look for our father, who had gone away nobody knew where. When her anger had passed she gave us our breakfasts as usual, but a few days afterwards we were put into père Chicon’s cart. The cart was full of straw and bags of corn. I was tucked away behind in a little hollow between the sacks. The cart tipped down at the back, and every jolt made me slip on the straw.
I was very frightened all the way along. Every time I slipped I thought I was going to fall out of the cart, or that the sacks were going to fall on me. We stopped at an inn. A woman lifted us down, shook the straw on our dresses, and gave us some milk to drink. I heard her say to père Chicon, “You really think their father will take care of them, then?” Père Chicon shook his head, and knocked his pipe against the table. Then he made a funny face and said, “He may be anywhere. Young Girard told me he had met him on the Paris road.” After a while père Chicon took us to a big house with a lot of steps leading up to the door. He had a long talk with a gentleman who waved his arms about and talked about the dignity of labour. I wondered what that was. The gentleman put his hand on my head and patted it, and I heard him say several times, “He did not tell me that he had any children.” I understood that he was talking of my father, and I asked if I could not see him. The gentleman looked at me without answering, and then asked père Chicon, “How old is she?” “About five,” said père Chicon. All this time my sister was playing up and down the steps with a kitten. We went back into the cart and to mère Colas again. She was cross with us and pushed us about. A few days afterwards she took us to the railway station, and that evening we went to a big house, where there were a lot of little girls.
Sister Gabrielle separated us at once. She said that my sister was big enough to be with the middle-sized girls, while I was to stay with the little ones. Sister Gabrielle was quite small, quite old, quite thin, and all bent up. She managed the dormitory and the refectory. She used to make the salad in a huge yellow jar. She tucked her sleeves up to her shoulders, and dipped her arms in and out of the salad. Her arms were dark and knotted, and when they came out of the jar, all shining and dripping, they made me think of dead branches on rainy days.
I made a chum at once. She came dancing up to me and looked impudent, I thought. She did not stand any higher than the bench on which I was sitting. She put her elbows on my knees and said: “Why aren’t you playing about?” I told her that I had a pain in my side. “Oh, of course,” she said, “your mother had consumption, and Sister Gabrielle said you would soon die.” She climbed up on to the bench, and sat down, hiding her little legs underneath her. Then she asked me my name and my age, and told me that her name was Ismérie, that she was older than I was, and that the doctor said she would never get any bigger. She told me also that the class mistress was called Sister Marie-Aimée, that she was very unkind, and punished you severely if you talked too much. Then all of a sudden she jumped down and shouted “Augustine.” Her voice was like a boy’s voice, and her legs were a little twisted. At the end of recreation I saw her on Augustine’s back. Augustine was rolling her from one shoulder to the other, as if she meant to throw her down. When she passed me Ismérie said in that big voice of hers, “You will carry me too sometimes, won’t you?” I soon became friends with Augustine.
My eyes were not well. At night my eyelids used to close up tight, and I was quite blind until I had them washed. Augustine was told off to take me to the infirmary. She used to come and fetch me from the dormitory every morning. I could hear her coming before she got to the door. She caught hold of my hand and pulled me along, and she didn’t mind a bit when I bumped against the beds. We flew down the passages like the wind and rushed down two flights of stairs like an avalanche. My feet only touched a step now and again. I used to go down those stairs as if I was falling down a well. Augustine had strong hands and held me tight. To go to the infirmary we had to pass behind the chapel and then in front of a little white house. There we hurried more than ever. One day when I fell on to my knees she pulled me up again and smacked my head saying, “Do be quick, we are in front of the dead house.” After that she was always afraid of my falling again, and used to tell me when we got in front of the dead house. I was frightened chiefly because Augustine was frightened. If she rushed along like that there must be danger. I was always out of breath when I got to the infirmary. Somebody pushed me on to a little chair, and the pain in my side had been gone a long time when they came and washed my eyes. It was Augustine who took me into Sister Marie-Aimée’s classroom. She put on a timid kind of voice, and said, “Sister, here is a new girl.” I expected to be scolded; but Sister Marie-Aimée smiled, kissed me several times, and said, “You are too small to sit on a bench, I shall put you in here.” And she sat me down on a stool in the hollow of her desk. It was ever so comfortable in the hollow of her desk, and the warmth of her woollen petticoat soothed my body, which was bruised all over by tumbling about on the wooden staircases, and on the stone ones. Often two feet hemmed me in on each side of my stool, and two warm legs made a back for me. A soft hand pressed my head on to the woollen skirt between the knees, and the softness of the hand and the warmth of the pillow used to send me to sleep. When I woke up again the pillow became a table. The same hand put bits of cake on it, and bits of sugar and sweets sometimes. And all round me I heard the world living. A voice with tears in it would say, “No, Sister, I didn’t do it.” Then shrill voices would say, “Yes, she did, Sister.” Above my head a full warm voice called for silence. And then there would be the rap of a ruler on the desk. It would make an enormous noise down in my hollow. Sometimes the feet would be drawn away from my little stool, the knees would be drawn together, the chair would move, and down to my nest came a white veil, a narrow chin, and smiling lips with little white pointed teeth behind them. And last of all I saw two soft eyes which seemed to cuddle me and make me feel comfortable.
When my eyes got better I used to get an alphabet as well as sweets and cakes. It was a little book with pictures next to the words. I often used to look at a great big strawberry which I fancied as big as a bun. When it was not cold in the classroom, Sister Marie-Aimée put me on a bench between Ismérie and Marie Renaud, who slept in the two beds next to mine in the dormitory. Now and then she used to let me go back to my hollow again, and I loved that. I used to find books there with pictures, which made me forget all about the time.
One morning Ismérie took me into a corner, and told me with great secrecy that Sister Marie-Aimée was not going to take the class any more. She was going to take Sister Gabrielle’s place in the dormitory and the refectory. She did not tell me who had told her this, but she said it was an awful shame. She was very fond of Sister Gabrielle, who used to treat her like a little child. She did not like “that Sister Marie-Aimée,” as she used to call her when she knew that nobody heard her but ourselves. She said that Sister Marie-Aimée would not let her climb on to our backs, and that we should not be able to make fun of her as we used to of Sister Gabrielle, who always went upstairs sideways. In the evening after prayers Sister Gabrielle told us that she was going. She kissed us all, beginning with the smallest of us. We went up to the dormitory making a dreadful noise. The big girls whispered together and said they would not put up with Sister Marie-Aimée. The little ones snivelled as though they were going into danger. Ismérie, whom I was carrying upstairs on my back, was crying noisily. Her little fingers hurt my throat, and her tears fell down my neck. Nobody thought of laughing at Sister Gabrielle, who went upstairs slowly, saying “Hush, hush,” all the time, without making the noise any less. The servant in the little dormitory was crying too. She shook me a little while she was undressing me and said, “I’m sure you are pleased at having that Sister Marie-Aimée of yours.” We used to call the servant Bonne Esther. I liked her best of the three servants. She was rather rough sometimes, but she was fond of us. When I coughed she used to get up and put a piece of sugar in my mouth. And often she took me out of my bed when I was cold and warmed me in her own.
Next morning we went down to the refectory in dead silence. The servants told us to remain standing. Several of the big girls stood very straight and looked proud. Bonne Justine stood at one end of the table. She looked sad and bent her head. Bonne Néron, who looked like a gendarme, walked up and down in the middle of the refectory. Now and then she looked at the clock, and shrugged her shoulders. Sister Marie-Aimée came in, leaving the door open behind her. She seemed to me to be taller than usual, in her white apron and white cuffs. She walked slowly, looking at us all. The rosary, which hung at her side, made a little clickety sound, and her skirt swung a little as she walked. She went up the three steps to her desk, and made a sign to us to sit down. In the afternoon she took us out for a walk in the country. It was very hot. I went and sat down near her on a little hillock. She was reading a book, and every now and then looked at the little girls who were playing in a field below us. She looked at the sun which was setting, and kept on saying “How lovely it is, how lovely it is.”
That evening the birch which Sister Gabrielle kept in the dormitory was put away in a cupboard, and in the refectory the salad was turned with two long wooden spoons. These were the only changes. We went into class from nine o’clock till twelve, and in the afternoon we cracked nuts, which were sold to an oil merchant. The bigger girls used to crack them with a hammer, and the little ones took them out of the shells. We were forbidden to eat them, and it was not easy, anyhow. One of the girls would always sneak if we did, because she was greedy too, and jealous. Bonne Esther used to peep into our mouths. Sometimes she caught a very greedy girl. Then she used to roll her eyes at her, give her a little smack, and say, “I’ve got my eye on you.” Some of us she trusted. She would make us turn round and open our mouths and pretend to look at them, and then she said, “Shut your beaks, birdies,” and laughed.
I often wanted to eat the nuts. But I would look at Bonne Esther and blush at the idea of cheating her, because she trusted me. But after a time I wanted to eat nuts so badly that I could not think of anything else. Every day I tried to think of some way of eating them without being caught. I tried to slip some into my sleeves, but I was so awkward that I always dropped them. Besides, I wanted to eat a lot of them, a great big lot. I thought I should like to eat a sackful. One day I managed to steal some. Bonne Esther, who was taking us up to bed, slipped on a nutshell and dropped her lantern, which went out. I was close to a big bowl of nuts, and I took a handful and put them in my pocket. As soon as everybody was in bed I took the nuts out of my pocket, put my head under the sheets and crammed them into my mouth. But it seemed to me at once as though everybody in the dormitory must hear the noise that my jaws were making. I did all I could to munch slowly and quietly, but the noise thumped in my ears like the blows of a mallet.
Bonne Esther got up, lit the lamp, stooped down and looked under the beds. When she came to mine I looked out at her trembling. She whispered, “Aren’t you asleep yet?” and went on looking. She went down to the end of the dormitory, opened the door, and closed it again; but she was hardly back in bed with the light out before the latch of the door made a little sound as though somebody were opening it. Bonne Esther lit her lamp again and said, “Whatever is it? It cannot be the cat opening the door by itself.” It seemed to me that she was afraid. I heard her moving about in her bed, and all of a sudden she called out, “Oh dear, oh dear.” Ismérie asked her what the matter was. She said that a hand had opened the door, and she had felt a breath on her face. In the twi-darkness we saw the door half open. I was very frightened. I thought it was the devil who had come to fetch me. We waited a long, long time, but we heard nothing more. Bonne Esther asked if one of us would get up and put the light out, although it was not very far from her own bed. Nobody answered. Then she called me. I got up and she said, “You are such a good little girl that ghosts won’t do any harm to you.” She put her head under the bedclothes, and I blew the lamp out. And directly it was put out I saw thousands of shining specks of light, and felt something cold on my cheeks. I was sure that there were green dragons, with mouths aflame, under the beds. I could feel their claws on my feet, and lights were jumping about on each side of my head. I wanted to sit down, and when I got to my bed I was quite sure that my two feet had gone. When I dared, I stooped down and felt for them. They were very cold. I went to sleep at last holding them in my two hands.
In the morning Bonne Esther found the cat on a bed near the door. She had had kittens during the night. When Sister Marie-Aimée was told about it, she said that the cat had certainly opened the door by jumping at the latch. But we never felt sure about that, and the little girls used to talk about it in low voices for a long time.
Next week all the girls who were eight years old went down to the big dormitory. I had a bed near the window, quite close to Sister Marie-Aimée’s room. Marie Renaud and Ismérie again had their beds on each side of me. When we were in bed Sister Marie-Aimée often used to come and sit by me. She would take one of my hands and pat it, and look out of the window. One night there was a big fire in the neighbourhood, and the whole dormitory was lit up. Sister Marie-Aimée opened the window wide, shook me, and said, “Wake up, come and see the fire.” She took me in her arms, passed her hands over my face to wake me, and said again, “Come and see the fire; see how beautiful it is.” I was so sleepy that my head fell on her shoulder. Then she boxed my ears, and called me a little silly, and I woke up and began to cry. She took me in her arms again, sat down, and rocked me, holding me close to her. She bent her head forward towards the window. Her face looked transparent, and her eyes were full of light. Ismérie hated Sister Marie-Aimée to come to the window. It prevented her from talking, and she always had something to say. Her voice was so loud that one heard it at the other end of the dormitory. Sister Marie-Aimée used to say, “There’s Ismérie talking again;” and Ismérie used to answer, “There’s Sister Marie-Aimée scolding again.” Her daring frightened me, but Sister Marie-Aimée used to pretend not to hear her. But one day she said, “I forbid you to answer me, little dwarf.” Ismérie answered, “No-sums.” This was a word which we had made up ourselves. It meant, “Look at my nose and see if I care.” Sister Marie-Aimée reached for a cane. I was dreadfully afraid she was going to whip Ismérie. But Ismérie threw herself down flat on her stomach and wriggled about and made funny noises. Sister Marie-Aimée pushed her away with her foot, threw the cane away, and said, “Oh, you horrible little thing!” Afterwards I noticed that she used to avoid looking at her, and never seemed to hear the rude things she said. But she forbade us to carry her about on our backs.
That never prevented Ismérie from climbing on to mine like a monkey. I hadn’t the courage to push her away, and I used to stoop down a little to let her get well up. She always wanted to ride when we went up to the dormitory. It was very hard for her to get up the stairs. She used to laugh about it herself, saying that she hopped up like an old hen going to roost. As Sister Marie-Aimée always went upstairs first, I used to wait and go up among the last girls. But sometimes Sister Marie-Aimée would turn round suddenly. Then Ismérie slipped down my body to the ground with wonderful quickness and skill. I always felt a little bit awkward when I caught Sister Marie-Aimée’s eye, and Ismérie always said, “See what a fool you are. You were caught again.” Marie Renaud would never let her climb up on to her back. She used to say that she wore her dress out and made it dirty.
Esmérie was a little chatterbox, but Marie Renaud hardly ever talked at all. Every morning she used to help me to make my bed. She would pass her hands over the sheets to smooth them out, and always refused my help in making her bed, because she said I rolled the sheets all kinds of ways. I never could understand why her bed was so smooth when she got up. One day she told me that she pinned her sheets and her blankets to the mattress. She had all kinds of little hiding-places full of all kinds of things. At table she always used to eat some of yesterday’s dessert. The dessert of the day went into her pocket. She used to finger it there, and would munch a little bit of it from time to time. I often found her sitting in corners making lace with a pin. Her great pleasure was brushing, folding, and putting things in order. That was why my shoes were always well brushed and my Sunday dress carefully folded. But one day a new servant came, whose name was Madeleine. She soon found out that I did not take care of my own things. She got excited, and said I was a great big lazy girl, and that I made other people wait on me as though I were a countess. She said it was a shame to make poor little Marie Renaud work. Bonne Néron agreed with her, and said I was puffed up with pride, that I thought I was better than anybody else, that I never did anything like other girls. They both said, together, that they had never seen a girl like me, and both of them leaned over me and shouted at me together. They made me think of two noisy fairies, a black one and a white one. Madeleine was fresh and fair, with full, open lips, and teeth which were wide apart. Her tongue was broad and thick, and moved about into the corners of her mouth when she talked. Bonne Néron raised her hand to me, and said, “Drop your eyes this minute!” As they went away, I heard her say to Madeleine: “She makes you ashamed of yourself when she looks at you like that.” I had known for a long time that Bonne Néron looked like a bull, but I could not find out what animal Madeleine was like. I thought it over for several days, thinking of all the animals I knew, and at last I gave it up. She was fat, and her hips swayed when she walked. She had a piercing voice, which surprised everybody. She asked leave to sing in church, but as she did not know the hymns. Sister Marie-Aimée told me to teach her. After that Marie Renaud was allowed to brush and smooth out my things without anybody taking any notice of it. She was so pleased that she gave me a safety-pin as a present, so as to fasten up my handkerchief, which I was always losing. Two days later I lost both the safety-pin and the handkerchief. Oh, that handkerchief! It was a perfect nightmare! I used to lose one regularly every week. Sister Marie-Aimée gave us a clean pocket-handkerchief in return for the dirty one which we had to throw down on to the ground in front of her. I never thought of mine till the last moment. And then I turned out all my pockets, I ran about like a mad thing into the dormitory, up and down the passages, and up to the garret hunting for it everywhere. Oh dear, oh dear! if I could only find a handkerchief somewhere! As I passed in front of the picture of the Virgin, I would put my hands together and pray fervently, “Admirable Mother, make me find a handkerchief.” But I never did find one, and I went downstairs again red in the face, out of breath, feeling dreadfully unhappy, and not daring to take the clean handkerchief which Sister Marie-Aimée handed to me. Before she spoke, I could hear the scolding which I knew I deserved. And even when Sister Marie-Aimée said nothing at all, I could see her frown, and her eyes looked crossly at me and followed me about. I felt crushed with shame, so crushed that I could scarcely lift my feet. I tried to hide in the corners as I walked; and, in spite of it all, next time I had lost my handkerchief again. Madeleine used to look at me with sham compassion. But she could not always prevent herself from telling me that I deserved to be punished severely. She seemed very fond of Sister Marie-Aimée. She waited on her always, and she would burst into tears at her slightest word. Then Sister Marie-Aimée had to soothe her by patting her cheeks, and she would laugh and cry at the same time, and move her shoulders about, showing her white neck. Bonne Néron used to say that she looked like a cat.
Bonne Néron left one day after a scene in the middle of luncheon. It happened during a dead silence. All of a sudden she shouted out, “Yes; I want to go, and I am going!” Sister Marie-Aimée looked at her in astonishment, and Bonne Néron faced her, putting her head down, shaking it, butting at her almost, and shouting all the time that she would not be ordered about by a bit of a baby. She walked backwards as she shouted, got to the door, and pulled it open. Before she went out of the room she threw one of her long arms out at Sister Marie-Aimée, and shrieked, “She isn’t even twenty-five!” Some of the little girls were frightened, others burst out laughing. Madeleine got quite hysterical. She threw herself on to the floor at Sister Marie-Aimée’s knees, kissing her dress, and winding her arms round her legs. She got hold of her two hands and mumbled over them with her big, moist mouth, screaming all the time as though some terrible catastrophe had happened. Sister Marie-Aimée could not shake her off. At last she got angry. Then Madeleine fainted, and fell on her back. As she was undoing her Sister Marie-Aimée made a sign towards the part of the room where I was. I thought she wanted me, and ran to her; but she sent me back again, “No; not you. Marie Renaud,” she said. She gave her keys to Marie, and, although she had never been in Sister Marie-Aimée’s room, she found the bottle of salts which Sister Marie-Aimée wanted without any loss of time.
Madeleine soon got better, and took Bonne Néron’s place. She got more authority over us. She was still timid and submissive to Sister Marie-Aimée, but she made up for that by shouting at us, for any reason and no reason, that she was “there to look after us,” and was “not our servant.” The day she fainted I had seen her neck. I had never dreamt of anything so beautiful. But she was a stupid girl, and I never minded what she said to me. That used to make her very angry. She used to say all kinds of rude things to me, and always finished up by calling me “Miss Princess.” She could not forgive me for Sister Marie-Aimée’s affection for me, and whenever she saw the Sister kissing me she got quite red with anger.
I began to grow, and my health was pretty good. Sister Marie-Aimée said that she was proud of me. She used to squeeze me so tight when she kissed me that she sometimes hurt me. Then she would say, putting her fingers on my forehead, “My little girl; my little child.” During recreation I often used to sit near her, and listen to her reading. She read in a deep voice, and when the people in the book displeased her more than usual, she used to shut it up angrily, and come and play games with us.
She wanted me to be quite faultless. She would say: “I want you to be perfect. Do you hear, child? Perfect.” One day she thought I had told a lie. There were three cows which used to graze on some land in the middle of which was a great big chestnut tree. The white cow was wicked, and we were afraid of it, because it had knocked a little girl down once. That day I saw the two red cows, and just under the chestnut tree I saw a big black cow. I said to Ismérie:
“Look; the white cow has been sent away because she was wicked, I expect.” Ismérie, who was cross that day, screamed, and said that I was always laughing at the others, and trying to make them believe things which were not true. I showed her the cow. She said it was a white one. I said, “No, it is a black one.” Sister Marie-Aimée heard us. She was very angry, and said, “How dare you say that the cow is black?” Then the cow moved. She looked black and white now, and I understood that I had made a mistake because of the shadow of the chestnut tree. I was so surprised that I could not find anything to say. I did not know how to explain it. Sister Marie-Aimée shook me. “Why did you tell a lie?” she said. I answered that I did not know. She sent me into a corner in the shed, and told me that I should have nothing but bread and water that day. As I had not told a lie, the punishment did not worry me. The shed had a lot of old cupboards in it, and some garden tools. I climbed from one thing on to the other, and got right up and sat on the top of the highest cupboard. I was ten years old, and it was the first time that I had ever been alone. I felt pleased at this. I sat there, swinging my legs, and began to imagine a whole invisible world. The old cupboard with rusty locks became the entrance gate to a magnificent palace. I was a little girl who had been left on the top of a mountain. A beautiful lady dressed like a fairy had seen me up there, and came to fetch me. Three or four lovely ducks ran in front of her. They had just come up to me when I saw Sister Marie-Aimée standing in front of the cupboard with the rusty locks and looking about for me everywhere. I did not know that I was sitting on the cupboard. I still believed myself to be on the top of the mountain, and I felt cross because Sister Marie-Aimée’s arrival had made the palace and the lovely lady disappear. She saw my legs swinging, and just as she saw me I remembered that I was sitting on the cupboard. She stood there for a moment looking up at me. Then she took a piece of bread, a piece of sausage, and a little bottle of wine out of the pocket of her dress, showed me one thing after the other, and in an angry voice said, “This was for you. There!” And she put it all back into her pocket and went away. A moment afterwards Madeleine brought me some bread and water, and I remained in the shed till evening.
Sister Marie-Aimée had been growing sadder and sadder for some time. She never played with us any more, and she even used to forget our dinner time. Madeleine would send me to the chapel to fetch her, and I would find her there on her knees with her face hidden in her hands. I had to pull at her dress before she took any notice of me. Often I thought that she had been crying, but I never dared to look at her closely for fear she would get angry. She seemed lost in thought, and when we spoke to her, she answered “Yes” or “No” quite sharply.
But she took a great interest in the little feast which we had at Easter every year. She had the cakes brought in, and we put them on a table and covered them with a white cloth, so that the greedy girls should not see them all at the same time. On feast days we were allowed to talk as much as we liked at table, and we made a tremendous noise. Sister Marie-Aimée waited on us with a smile and a word for each of us. That day she was going to serve the cakes, and Madeleine, who was helping her, was taking off the cloth which covered them. Then a cat, which had been under the cloth, jumped down and ran away. Sister Marie-Aimée and Madeleine both said “Oh,” and Madeleine said, “The dirty beast has been nibbling all the cakes.” Sister Marie-Aimée did not like the cat. She stood perfectly still for a minute, then ran to the corner, took a stick and ran after it. It was horrible. The cat was frightened out of its wits, and jumped this way and that out of the way of the stick with which Sister Marie-Aimée kept hitting the benches and the walls. All the little girls were frightened, and ran towards the door. Sister Marie-Aimée stopped them. “Nobody is to go out,” she said. I hardly knew her. Her lips were pressed together, her cheeks were as white as her cap, and her eyes, which seemed to flame, frightened me so that I hid my face in the hollow of my arm. I did not want to do so, but I soon looked up again. The cat hunt was still going on. Sister Marie-Aimée, with her stick in the air, ran after the cat without saying a word. Her lips were open, and I could see her little pointed teeth. She ran about, jumping over the benches, and climbed up on to the table, lifting her petticoats as she did so. When she was going to hit the cat it jumped and ran up a curtain right on to the top of the window. Madeleine, who had been following Sister Marie-Aimée about, wanted to go and fetch a longer stick, but Sister Marie-Aimée stopped her, and said, “It is lucky to have got away.” Bonne Justine, who was standing near me, hid her eyes and murmured, “Oh, it is shameful, shameful!” and I thought it was shameful, too. I felt as though Sister Marie-Aimée had grown smaller. I had always thought her quite faultless. I compared this scene with another one, which had happened one day when there was a big storm. That day Sister Marie-Aimée had been wonderful. While she was chasing the cat I could see her, that other day, as she stood on a bench, and closed the windows quietly, lifting her lovely arms. Her wide sleeves fell down on her shoulders, and while we shivered and shook in terror at the lightning and the whistling wind she said quietly, “It is quite a storm.” Sister Marie-Aimée made the little girls stand on the other side of the room. She opened the door wide, and the cat rushed out.
One afternoon I was surprised to see that it was not our old priest who was saying vespers. This one was a tall, fine man. He sang with a strong, jerky voice. We talked about him all the evening. Madeleine said he was a handsome man, and Sister Marie-Aimée thought, she said, that he had a young voice, but that he pronounced his words like an old man, and that he was distinguished looking. When he came to pay us a visit two or three days afterwards, I saw that he had white hair in little curls round his neck, and that his eyes and his eyebrows were very black. He asked for those of us who were preparing their catechism, and wanted to know everybody’s name. Sister Marie-Aimée answered for me. She put her hand on my head and said, “This is our Marie Claire.” When Ismérie came up in her turn he looked at her in surprise, and made her turn round and walk for him to see. He said that she was no bigger than a child of three, and when he asked Sister Marie-Aimée if she was intelligent, Ismérie turned round sharply and said that she was not as stupid as the rest of us. He burst out laughing, and I saw that his teeth were very white. When he spoke he jerked himself forward as though he wanted to catch his words again. They seemed to drop out of his mouth in spite of himself. Sister Marie-Aimée took him as far as the gate of the courtyard. She never used to take any visitors further than the door of the room. She came back, climbed up to her desk again, and after a moment she said, without looking at anybody, “He really is a very distinguished man.”
Our new priest lived in a little house near the chapel. In the evening he used to walk in the avenue of linden trees. He often passed close to the playground where we were playing, and he always used to bow very low to Sister Marie-Aimée. Every Thursday afternoon he came to see us. He sat down, leaning against the back of his chair, and crossing his legs, he told us stories. He was very pleasant, and Sister Marie-Aimée used to say that he laughed as though he enjoyed it. Sometimes Sister Marie-Aimée was ill. Then he used to go up and see her in her room. We would see Madeleine passing with a teapot and two cups. She was red in the face and very busy.
When the summer was over, M. le Curé came to see us after dinner and spent the evenings with us. When nine o’clock struck he used to go, and Sister Marie-Aimée always went with him down the passage to the big front door.
He had been with us for a year, and I could never get used to making confession to him. He often used to look at me and laugh in a way that made me think that he remembered my faults. We went to confession on fixed days. Each one of us took her turn. When there were only one or two to go in before me I began to tremble. My heart beat dreadfully fast, and I got cramp in my stomach, which prevented me from breathing properly. When my turn came I got up and felt my legs trembling under me. My head buzzed, and my cheeks turned cold. I fell on my knees in the confessional and M. le Curé’s voice, which sounded as though it came from a long way off, gave me confidence. But he always had to help me to remember my faults. If he hadn’t, I should have forgotten half of them. At the end of confession he always asked me what my name was. I longed to tell him another name, but while I was wondering if I dare, my own name used to slip out of my mouth.
It was getting near the time for our Communion. It was to be in May, and preparations for it were beginning. Sister Marie-Aimée composed some new hymns. She had made one, which was a sort of thanksgiving for M. le Curé. A fortnight before the ceremony they separated us from the others. We had prayed all day long. Madeleine was supposed to see that we were not disturbed at prayer, but she often used to disturb us herself by quarrelling with one of us. My fellow communicant was called Sophie. She was a quiet little girl, and we always kept out of the quarrels. We used to talk over serious matters. I often told her how much I hated confession, and how frightened I was that I should pass through my communion badly. She was very good, and she did not understand what I had to be afraid of. She thought that I was not pious enough, and she had noticed that I used to go to sleep during prayers. She confessed to me that she was very frightened of death. She used to talk about it in a low voice, and looked very frightened. Her eyes were green, and her hair was so lovely that Sister Marie-Aimée would never have it cut short like that of the other girls.
At last the great day came. My general confession had passed off all right. It gave me the same feeling that a bath does. I felt very clean after it, but I trembled so when I was given the holy wafer that a bit of it stuck in my teeth. A sort of dizziness came over me, and I felt as though a big black curtain had dropped in front of my eyes, I thought I heard Sister Marie-Aimée’s voice asking “Are you ill,” and I seemed to know that she went with me as far as my fald-stool, and that she put my taper into my hand and said, “Hold it tight.” My throat had grown so tight that I could not swallow, and I felt a liquid dropping from my mouth into my throat. Then I was wildly frightened, for Madeleine had warned us that if we bit the holy wafer the blood of Christ would stream from our mouths, and that nobody would be able to stop it. Sister Marie-Aimée wiped my face and whispered quite low, “Take care, dear. Are you ill?” My throat loosened, and I swallowed the wafer. Then at last I dared to look down to see the blood on my dress, but I saw only a little grey spot like a drop of water. I put my handkerchief to my lips and wiped my face. There was no blood on it. I did not feel quite sure yet, but when we got up to sing I tried to sing with the others. When M. le Curé came to see us later in the day Sister Marie-Aimée told him that I had almost fainted at Communion. He took my chin in his hand and tipped my face up towards him. Then, after looking into my eyes, he began to laugh, and said that I was a very sensitive little girl.
After our first communion we did not attend class any more. Bonne Justine taught us to sew. We made caps for peasant women. It was not very difficult, and as it was something new I worked hard. Bonne Justine said that I should make a very good needle-woman. Sister Marie-Aimée used to kiss me and say, “So you would, if you could only get over your laziness.” But when I had made a few caps and had to go on doing the same thing over and over again, my laziness got the better of me. The work bored me, and I could not make up my mind to do it. I could have remained for hours and hours without moving, watching the others work. Marie Renaud never spoke to us while she was sewing. Her stitches were so small and so close together that one needed good eyes to see them. Ismérie sang all the time she sewed, and nobody ever scolded her. Some of the girls sewed with bent backs and a frown on their foreheads. Their fingers were moist, and their needles squeaked. Others sewed slowly and carefully, without getting tired or bored, counting their stitches under their breath. That is the way I should have liked to sew. I used to scold myself for not doing so, and then I used to imitate them for a few minutes. But the least sound disturbed me, and I would stop and listen, or look at what was going on all round me. Madeleine said that my nose was always in the air. I spent most of my time imagining needles which would sew all by themselves. For a long time I hoped that an old woman, whom nobody would see but I, would come out of the big fireplace and sew my cap for me very quickly. At last I took no notice of Sister Marie-Aimée’s scolding, and she didn’t know what to do to make me work. One day she decided that I was to read aloud twice a day. It was a great joy for me. The time to begin reading never seemed to come quickly enough, and I was always sorry when I closed the book.
When I had finished reading Sister Marie-Aimée used to make Colette the cripple sing to us. She always sang the same songs, but her voice was so lovely that we never got tired of listening to it. She sang quite simply, without stopping her work, and she kept time with her needle as she sang. Bonne Justine, who knew all about everybody, told us that Colette had been brought in with both legs broken, when she was quite a tiny child. She was twenty now. She walked with great difficulty, helping herself with two sticks, and she would never use crutches because she was afraid of looking like an old woman. During recreation I always used to see her alone on a bench. She kept on throwing herself back and stretching. Her dark eyes had such big pupils that one hardly saw the whites at all. I felt drawn towards her. I should have liked to have been her friend. She seemed very proud, and whenever I did any little thing for her she had a way of saying, “Thank you, little one,” which made me remember that I was only twelve years old. Madeleine told me, mysteriously, that we were not allowed to talk to Colette alone, and when I wanted to know why, she reeled out a long complicated story which told me nothing at all. I asked Bonne Justine, who used a lot of words which I didn’t understand, but told me that a little girl like me must not be alone with Colette. I could never understand why. I noticed that every time one of the big girls gave her her arm to help her to walk about a little, three or four other girls always came up and talked and laughed with them. I thought that she had no friends. A feeling of great pity drew me to her, and one day when she was all alone I asked her to take my arm for a little walk. I was standing in front of her timidly, but I knew that she would not refuse. She looked at me and said, “You know it is not allowed.” I nodded “Yes.” She looked at me again. “Aren’t you afraid of being punished?” she said. I shook my head to say “No.” I wanted to cry and it made my throat feel tight. I helped her to get up. She leaned on her stick with one hand and put all her weight on my shoulder. I could see how difficult it was for her to walk. She did not say a word to me while we were walking, and when I had taken her back to her bench she looked at me and said, “Thank you, Marie Claire.” When she saw me with Colette, Bonne Justine raised her arms to heaven and made the sign of the cross. At the other end of the playground Madeleine shook her fist at me and shouted.
When evening came I saw that Sister Marie-Aimée knew what I had done, but she never said a word about it. At recreation next day she drew me towards her, took my head in her two hands and bent towards me. She didn’t say anything to me, but her eyes plunged right into my face. I felt as though I were wrapped up in her eyes. I felt as though a soft warmth was all round me, and I felt comfortable. She gave me a long kiss on the forehead, then smiled at me and said, “There. You are my beautiful white lily.” I thought her so beautiful, and her eyes shone so with several colours in them, that I said to her, “And you, too, mother; you are a lovely flower.” She said in an off-hand way, “Yes; but I don’t count among the lilies now.” Then she said almost roughly, “Don’t you love Ismérie any more?” “Yes, mother.” “Really. Then what about Colette?” “I love Colette too.” “Oh, you love everybody!” she said.
I used to give Colette my arm nearly every day. She never talked to me much, and then only about the other girls. When I sat down next to her she used to look at me queerly. She said she thought I was a queer little thing. One day she asked me if I thought her pretty. Directly she said it, I remembered that Sister Marie-Aimée said that she was as black as a mole. I saw, however, that she had a broad forehead, fine big eyes, and the rest of her face was small and refined. Whenever I looked at her, I didn’t quite know why, but I thought of a well, deep and dark, and full of hot water. No, I didn’t think her pretty, but I wouldn’t tell her so because she was a cripple. I said she would be much prettier if her skin were whiter. Little by little I became her friend. She told me that she hoped to go away and get married like Nina had done. Nina used to come and see us on Sundays with her child. Colette took hold of my arm and said, “You see, I must get married. I must.” Then she stretched herself, bending her whole body forward. Sometimes she used to cry, and was in such deep trouble that I could not find anything to say to her. She would look at her poor twisted legs, and groan out, “There would have to be a miracle for me to get away from here.”
All of a sudden I got the idea that the Virgin could bring this miracle about. Colette thought it a splendid idea. She was quite surprised that she had never thought of it. It was only fair that she should have legs like the others. She wanted to see about it at once. She explained to me that several girls would be necessary for the nine days’ prayer, and said that we must go and purify ourselves at communion, and that during nine days we would pray all the time, so as to get help from Our Lady in heaven. This had to be done in the greatest secrecy. It was arranged that Sophie should be one of us because she was so very good, and Colette said she would talk to some of the big girls who were good, too. Two days afterwards it was all arranged. Colette was to fast during the nine days. On the tenth day, which would be a Sunday, she would go to communion as usual, leaning on her stick and the arm of one of us. Then, when she had taken the holy wafer, she would make a vow to bring up her children in the love of the Virgin, and after that she would rise up straight and would sing the “Te Deum” in her beautiful voice, and we would all sing it with her.
For nine days I prayed more fervently than I had ever prayed before. The ordinary prayers seemed insipid. I recited the Virgin’s Litany. I hunted up the most beautiful hymns of praise that I could find, and repeated them without getting tired. “Star of the Morning, make Colette whole.” The first time, I remained on my knees for so long that Sister Marie-Aimée scolded me. Nobody noticed the little signs which we made to one another, and the nine days of prayer passed off without any one knowing anything about them.
Colette was very pale when she came to mass. Her cheeks were thinner than ever, and she stood with her eyes cast down. Her eyelids were deep violet. I thought to myself that the end of her martyrdom had come, and I was filled with a deep joy. Quite close to me, the picture of the Virgin in a flowing white robe smiled as it looked at me, and in an outburst of all my faith my thoughts cried out, “Oh, Mirror of Justice, make Colette whole!” My temples were stretched tightly. I was straining every nerve to keep my thoughts from wandering, and I went on saying, “Oh, Mirror of Justice, make Colette whole!” Colette went up to the communion table. Her stick made a little clickety noise on the flagstones. When she was on her knees the girl who had gone up to the table with her came back to us with the stick. She knew that it would be of no further use.
Colette tried to get up, and fell back again on to her knees. Her hand reached out to take her stick, and when she didn’t find it by her side, she tried again to raise herself without it. She clung to the Holy Table and caught hold of the arm of one of the Sisters, who was taking communion with her. Then her shoulders rocked and she fell over, pulling the Sister down with her. Two of us rushed forward and dragged poor Colette to her bench. But I was still hoping against hope, and until mass was over I was hoping to hear the Te Deum. As soon as I could, I went back to Colette. The big girls were round her trying to console her, and advising her to give herself to God for ever. She was crying gently, not sobbing. Her head was bent a little forward, and her tears fell on her hands, which were crossed one over the other. I kneeled down in front of her, and when she looked at me, I said:
“Perhaps you can get married even though you are a cripple.” Colette’s story was soon known to everybody. Everybody felt so sad about it that we stopped playing noisy games. Ismérie thought she was telling me a tremendous piece of news when she told me all about it. Sophie told me that we must submit to the will of Our Lady, because She knew what was necessary for Colette’s happiness better than we did.
I should have liked to have known whether Sister Marie-Aimée knew about Colette. I did not see her till the afternoon, when we were out walking. She did not look sad. She looked almost pleased. I had never seen her look so pretty. Her whole face shone. While we were out I noticed that she walked as though something was lifting her up. I never remembered to have seen her walk like that. Her veil fluttered a little at the shoulders, and her stomacher didn’t hide all her neck. She paid no attention to us. She was looking at nothing, but she seemed to be seeing something. Every now and then she smiled as though somebody were talking to her from inside.
In the evening after dinner I found her sitting on the old bench under the big linden tree. M. le Curé was sitting next to her with his back against the tree. They looked serious. I thought they were talking about Colette, and I remained standing some distance from them. Sister Marie-Aimée was saying, as though she were answering a question, “Yes, when I was fifteen.” M. le Curé said, “You had no vocation at fifteen.” I didn’t hear what Sister Marie-Aimée answered, but M. le Curé went on, “Or, rather, at fifteen you had every possible vocation. A kind word, or a little indifference would be enough to change your whole life.” He said nothing for a moment, and then, in a lower tone, he said, “Your parents were very much to blame.” Sister Marie-Aimée answered, “I regret nothing.” They remained for a long time without saying a word. Then Sister Marie-Aimée raised one finger as though she were impressing something on him, and said, “Everywhere, in spite of all and always.” M. le Curé stretched his hand out a little way, laughed, and repeated, “Everywhere, in spite of all and always.”
The goodnight bell sounded all of a sudden, and M. le Curé went off, down the avenue of linden trees. For a long time afterwards I used to repeat the words I had heard them say, but I could never fit them in to poor Colette’s story.
Colette had given up all hopes of a miracle to take her away, and yet she could not make up her mind to remain. When she saw all the girls of her own age go one by one, she began to rebel. She would not go to confession anymore, and she would not take holy communion. She used to go to mass because she sang there, and she was fond of music. I often stopped with her and consoled her. She explained to me that marriage meant love.
Sister Marie-Aimée, who had not been well for some time, became quite ill. Madeleine nursed her devotedly and treated us dreadfully badly. She was particularly unkind to me, and when she saw me tired of sewing she would say, trying to turn her nose up, “If mademoiselle objects to sewing, she had better take a broom and sweep.” One Sunday she hit upon the idea of making me clean the stairs during mass. It was January. A damp cold which came up from the passages climbed the steps and got under my dress. I swept as hard as I could to keep warm. The sound of the harmonium came from the chapel out to me. From time to time I recognized Madeleine’s thin piercing tones, and M. le Curé’s jerky notes. I could follow mass by the singing. All of a sudden Colette’s voice rose above all the others. It was strong and pure. It broadened, drowned the sound of the harmonium, drowned everything else, and then seemed to fly away over the linden trees, over the house, and over the church spire itself. It made me tremble, and when the voice came down to earth, trembling a little as it went back into the church and was swept up by the sound of the harmonium again, I began to cry, sobbing as though I were quite a little girl. Then Madeleine’s sharp voice pierced through the others once more, and I swept and swept hard as though my broom could scratch out the voice which was so disagreeable to me.
That was the day Sister Marie-Aimée called me to her. She had been up in her room for two months. She was a little better, but I noticed that her eyes did not shine at all. They made me think of a rainbow which had almost melted away. She made me tell her funny little stories about what had been going on, and she tried to smile while she was listening to me, but her lips only smiled on one side of her mouth. She asked me if I had heard her screaming. “Oh yes,” I said, I had heard her during her illness. She had screamed so dreadfully in the middle of the night that the whole dormitory had been kept awake. Madeleine was coming and going. We heard her splashing water about, and when I asked her what was the matter with Sister Marie-Aimée, she said, as she hurried past, that she had rheumatism. I remembered at once that Bonne Justine used to have rheumatism too, but she had never screamed like that, and I remember wondering whether poor Sister Marie-Aimée’s legs were swollen to three times their size, like those of Bonne Justine. Her cries got worse and worse. One of them was so terrible that it seemed to come right out of her vitals. Then we had heard her moaning, and that was all. A few moments afterwards Madeleine had come up and whispered to Marie Renaud, Marie Renaud had put on her dress, and I heard her go downstairs; Directly afterwards she came back with M. le Curé. He rushed into Sister Marie-Aimée’s room, and Madeleine closed the door behind him. He did not remain very long, but he went away again much more slowly than he had come. He walked with his head sunk down between his shoulders, and his right hand was holding his cloak over his left arm, as though he were carrying something valuable. I thought to myself that he was taking away the holy oils, and I did not dare ask whether Sister Marie-Aimée were dead. I have never forgotten the blow I got from Madeleine’s fist when I clung to her dress. She knocked me right over and whispered, as she ran past, “She is better.” As soon as Sister Marie-Aimée was well again, Madeleine was kinder, and everything went on as before.
I disliked sewing as much as ever, and my hatred for it began to make Sister Marie-Aimée uneasy. She mentioned it in front of me to M. le Curé’s sister. M. le Curé’s sister was an old maid with a long face and big faded eyes. We called her Mademoiselle Maximilienne. Sister Marie-Aimée told her how anxious she was about my future. She said that I learned things easily, but that no kind of sewing interested me. She had noticed for some time that I was fond of study, and she had made inquiries to find out whether I had no distant relatives who would look after me, she said. But the only relation I had was an old woman who had adopted my sister, but refused to take me. Mademoiselle Maximilienne offered to take me into her dressmaking business. M. le Curé thought that was a very good idea, and said that he would be pleased to go and teach me a little, twice a week. Sister Marie-Aimée seemed really happy at this. She did not know what to say to thank them. It was agreed that I should go to Mademoiselle Maximilienne as soon as M. le Curé returned from a journey to Rome, which he had to make. Sister Marie-Aimée would get my outfit ready for me, and Mademoiselle Maximilienne would go to the Mother Superior and ask her permission, she said. I felt dreadfully uncomfortable at the idea that the Mother Superior was to have anything to do with it. I could not forget the unkind look she always gave me when she passed the old bench and saw me sitting there with Sister Marie-Aimée and M. le Curé. So I waited impatiently to hear what she would say to Mademoiselle Maximilienne. M. le Curé had been away for a week, and Sister Marie-Aimée used to talk to me every day about my new work. She told me how glad she would be to see me on Sundays. She gave me all kinds of good advice, told me to be good and to take care of my health.
The Mother Superior sent for me one morning. When I went into her room I noticed that she was sitting in a big red armchair. I began to remember some ghost stories which I had heard the girls tell about her, and when I saw her sitting there, all black in the middle of all that red, I compared her in my mind to a huge poppy which had grown in a cellar. She opened and closed her eyelids several times. She had a smile on her face which was like an insult. I felt myself blushing, but I did not turn my eyes away. She gave a little sneering chuckle, and said, “You know why I sent for you?” I answered that I thought it was to talk to me about Mademoiselle Maximilienne. She sneered again, “Oh, yes; Mademoiselle Maximilienne,” she said. “Well, my child, you must undeceive yourself. We have made up our minds to place you on a farm in Sologne.” She half closed her eyes and snapped out, “You are to be a shepherdess, young woman.” Then she added, rapping the words out, “You will look after the sheep.” I said simply, “Very well, mother.” She pulled herself up out of the depths of her armchair and asked me, “Do you know what looking after the sheep means?” I answered that I had seen shepherdesses in the fields. She bent her yellow face towards me and went on, “You will have to clean the stables. They smell very unpleasantly, and the shepherdesses are dirty. You will help in the work of the farm, and be taught to milk the cows and look after the pigs.” She spoke very loud, as though she were afraid I should not understand her. I answered as I had answered before, “Very well, mother.” She pulled herself up by the arms of her chair, fastened her shining eyes on me, and said, “You don’t mean to tell me that you are not proud?” I smiled, and said, “No, mother.” She seemed very much surprised, but, as I went on smiling, her voice grew softer. “Really, my child?” she said. “I always thought you were proud.” She dropped back into her chair again, hid her eyes under their lids, and began talking quickly in a monotonous voice, as she did when she said prayers. She said that I must obey my masters, that I must never forget my religious duties, and that the farmer’s wife would come and fetch me the day before the feast of St. John.
I went out of her room with feelings which I could not express. But I felt horribly afraid of hurting Sister Marie-Aimée’s feelings. How could I tell her? I had no time to think. Sister Marie-Aimée was waiting for me in the passage. She took hold of my two shoulders, bent her face towards me, and said, “Well?” She looked anxious. I said, “She wants me to be a shepherdess.” She did not understand, and frowned, “A shepherdess,” she said. “What do you mean?” I hurried on, “She has found a place for me in a farm, and I am to milk cows and look after the pigs.” Sister Marie-Aimée pushed me away so roughly that I bumped against the wall. She ran towards the door. I thought she was going to the Mother Superior’s room, but she went out, and came back again, and began walking up and down the passage, taking long steps. Her fists were clenched, and she kept tapping with her foot on the floor. She was breathing hard. Then she leaned up against the wall, let her arms fall as though she were overcome, and, in a voice which seemed to come from a long way off, she said: “She is revenging herself. Yes, she is revenging herself.” She came back to me, took my two hands affectionately in hers, and asked, “Didn’t you tell her that you would not go? Didn’t you beg her to let you go to Mademoiselle Maximilienne?” I shook my head and repeated in her own words exactly what the Mother Superior had said to me. She listened without interrupting me. Then she told me to say nothing about it to the other girls. She thought that everything would be all right when M. le Curé came back.
Next Sunday, as we were getting into line to go to mass, Madeleine ran into the room like a mad thing. She threw her arms up in the air, cried out, “M. le Curé is dead!” and fell right down across the table near her. Everybody stopped talking, and we all ran to Madeleine, who was screaming and crying. We wanted to know all about it. But she rocked herself up and down on the table, and kept on repeating, “He is dead! he is dead!” I could not think at all. I did not know whether I was sorry or not, and all the time mass was going on, Madeleine’s voice sounded in my ears like a bell. There was no walk that day. Even the little girls kept quite quiet. I went to look for Sister Marie-Aimée. She had not been at mass, and I knew from Marie Renaud that she was not ill. I found her in the refectory. She was sitting on her little platform. She was leaning her head sideways on the table, and her arms were hanging down beside her chair. I sat myself down some distance away from her. But when I heard her moaning I began to sob too, hiding my face in my hands. But I did not sob long, and I knew that I was not as sorry as I wanted to be. I tried to cry, but I could not shed a single tear. I was a little bit ashamed of myself because I believed that one ought to cry when somebody died, and I didn’t dare uncover my face for fear that Sister Marie-Aimée should think that I was hard hearted. I listened to her crying. Her moaning reminded me of the wind at winter-time in the big fireplace. It went up and down as if she were trying to compose a kind of song. Then her voice stumbled and broke, and ended up in deep trembling notes. A little before dinner-time, Madeleine came into the refectory. She took Sister Marie-Aimée away with her, putting her arm round her, and taking care of her as they walked. In the evening she told us that M. le Curé had died in Rome, and that he would be brought back to be buried with his family.
Next day Sister Marie-Aimée looked after us as usual. She didn’t cry any more, but she would not let us talk to her. She walked along with her eyes on the ground, and seemed to have forgotten me. I had only one day more, as the Mother Superior had told me I should be fetched next day, for the day after was the feast of St. John. In the evening, at the end of prayers, when Sister Marie-Aimée had said, “Lord, be pitiful to exiles and give your aid to prisoners,” she added, in a loud voice, “We will say a prayer for one of your companions who is going out into the world.” I understood at once that she was talking of me, and I felt that I was as much to be pitied as the exiles and the prisoners were. I could not get to sleep that night. I knew that I was going next day, but I didn’t know what Sologne was like. I imagined it to be a country very far off, where there were large plains with flowers on them. I imagined myself the shepherdess of a troop of beautiful white sheep, with two dogs by my side which kept the sheep in order at a sign from me. I would not have dared to tell Sister Marie-Aimée so, but just then I liked the idea of being a shepherdess much better than the idea of being in a shop. Ismérie, who was snoring loud, next to me, reminded me of my comrades again.
It was such a bright night that I could see all the beds quite distinctly. I looked at one after the other, stopping a little at those of the girls I was fond of. Almost opposite me I saw my friend Sophie, with her magnificent hair. It was scattered about over the pillow, and lighted up the bed quite brightly. A little further down the room were the beds of Chemineau the Proud, and her twin sister, the Fool. Chemineau the Proud had a big smooth white forehead and gentle eyes. She never said it was not true when she was accused of doing anything wrong. She simply shrugged her shoulders and looked round her with contempt. Sister Marie-Aimée used to say that her conscience was as white as her forehead. Chemineau the Fool was half as tall again as her sister. Her hair was coarse, and came down nearly to her eyebrows. Her shoulders were square, and her hips were broad. We used to call her the sister’s watch-dog. And down at the other end of the dormitory was Colette. She still believed that I was going to Mademoiselle Maximilienne. She was quite sure that I should get married very soon, and she had made me promise to come and fetch her as soon as I was married. I thought about her for a long time. Then I looked at the window and the shadows of the linden trees were thrown in my direction. It was as though they had come to say good-bye to me, and I smiled at them. On the other side of the lindens I could see the infirmary. It looked as though it were trying to hide itself, and its little windows made me think of weak eyes. I looked at the infirmary for some time, thinking of Sister Agatha. She was so bright and so good that the little girls always laughed when she scolded them. She did the doctoring. When one of us went to her with a bad finger, she always had something funny to say, and she always knew whether we were greedy or vain, and would promise us a cake or a ribbon accordingly. She used to pretend to look for it, and while we were looking to see where it was, the bad place on the finger would be pricked, washed, and tied up. I remember a chilblain that I had on my foot which would not get well. One morning Sister Agatha said to me solemnly, “Listen, Marie Claire. I must put something miraculous on this, and if your foot is not better in three days, we shall have to cut it off.” For three days I was very careful not to walk on that foot so as not to disturb this miraculous something. I thought it must be a piece of the true cross, or perhaps a piece of the veil of the Holy Virgin. On the third day my foot was completely cured, and when I asked Sister Agatha what the miraculous remedy was that she had put on it, she laughed, called me a little silly, and showed me a box of ointment which was called “miraculous ointment.”
It was late at night when I went to sleep, and I began to expect the farmer’s wife directly morning came. I wanted her to come, and I was afraid of her coming. Sister Marie-Aimée looked up quickly every time the door opened. Just as we were finishing dinner, the porteress came and asked if I were ready to go. Sister Marie-Aimée said that I should be ready in a moment. She got up and told me to go with her. She helped me to dress, gave me a little bundle of linen, and all of a sudden she said, “They will bring him back to-morrow, and you will not be there.” Then she looked into my eyes, “Swear to me,” she said, “that you will say a De Profundis for him every night.” I promised to do so. Then she pulled me to her quite roughly, pressed me to her hard, and ran off to her room. I heard her saying as she went, “My God! this is too much!” I crossed the courtyard by myself, and the farmer’s wife, who was waiting for me, took me away.
Categories: English Literature