The Painted Veil Chapter 60

Though the Mother Superior talked with Kitty not more than three or four times and once or twice for but ten minutes the impression she made upon Kitty was profound. Her character was like a country which on first acquaintance seems grand, but inhospitable; but in which presently you discover smiling little villages among fruit trees in the folds of the majestic mountains, and pleasant ambling rivers that flow kindly through lush meadows. But these comfortable scenes, though they surprise and even reassure you, are not enough to make you feel at home in the land of tawny heights and windswept spaces. It would have been impossible to become intimate with the Mother Superior; she had that something impersonal about her which Kitty had felt with the other nuns, even with the good-humoured, chatty Sister St. Joseph, but with her it was a barrier which was almost palpable. It gave you quite a curious sensation, chilling but awe-inspiring, that she could walk on the same earth as you, attend to mundane affairs, and yet live so obviously upon a plane you could not reach. She once said to Kitty:

‘It is not enough that a religious should be continually in prayer with Jesus; she should be herself a prayer.’

Though her conversation was interwoven with her religion, Kitty felt that this was natural to her and that no effort was made to influence the heretic. It seemed strange to her that the Mother Superior, with her deep sense of charity, should be content to leave Kitty in a condition of what must seem to her sinful ignorance.

One evening the two of them were sitting together. The days were shortening now and the mellow light of the evening was agreeable and a little melancholy. The Mother Superior looked very tired. Her tragic face was drawn and white; her fine dark eyes had lost their fire. Her fatigue perhaps urged her to a rare mood of confidence.

‘This is a memorable day for me, my child,’ she said, breaking from a long reverie, ‘for this is the anniversary of the day on which I finally determined to enter religion. For two years I had been thinking of it, but I had suffered as it were a fear of this calling, for I dreaded that I might be recaptured by the spirit of the world. But that morning when I communicated I made the vow that I would before nightfall announce my wish to my dear mother. After I had received the Holy Communion I asked Our Lord to give me peace of mind: Thou shalt have it only, the answer seemed to come to me, when thou hast ceased to desire it.’

The Mother Superior seemed to lose herself in thoughts of the past.

‘That day, one of our friends, Madame de Viernot, had left for the Carmel without telling any of her relatives. She knew that they were opposed to her step, but she was a widow and thought that as such she had the right to do as she chose. One of my cousins had gone to bid farewell to the dear fugitive and did not come back till the evening. She was much moved. I had not spoken to my mother, I trembled at the thought of telling her what I had in mind, and yet I wished to keep the resolution I had made at Holy Communion. I asked my cousin all manner of questions. My mother, who appeared to be absorbed in her tapestry, lost no word. While I talked I said to myself: If I want to speak to-day I have not a minute to lose.

‘It is strange how vividly I remember the scene. We were sitting round the table, a round table covered with a red cloth, and we worked by the light of a lamp with a green shade. My two cousins were staying with us and we were all working at tapestries to re-cover the chairs in the drawing-room. Imagine, they had not been recovered since the days of Louis XIV, when they were bought, and they were so shabby and faded, my mother said it was a disgrace.

‘I tried to form the words, but my lips would not move; and then, suddenly, after a few minutes of silence my mother said to me: “I really cannot understand the conduct of your friend. I do not like this leaving without a word all those to whom she is so dear. The gesture is theatrical and offends my taste. A well-bred woman does nothing which shall make people talk of her. I hope that if ever you caused us the great sorrow of leaving us you would not take flight as though you were committing a crime.”

‘It was the moment to speak, but such was my weakness that I could only say: “Ah, set your mind at rest, maman, I should not have the strength.”

‘My mother made no answer and I repented because I had not dared to explain myself. I seemed to hear the word of Our Lord to St. Peter: “Peter, lovest thou me?” Oh, what weakness, what ingratitude was mine! I loved my comfort, the manner of my life, my family and my diversions. I was lost in these bitter thoughts when a little later, as though the conversation had not been interrupted, my mother said to me: “Still, my Odette, I do not think that you will die without having done something that will endure.”

‘I was still lost in my anxiety and my reflections, while my cousins, never knowing the beating of my heart, worked quietly, when suddenly my mother, letting her tapestry fall and looking at me attentively, said: “Ah, my dear child, I am very sure that you will end by becoming a religious.”

‘ “Are you speaking seriously, my good mother,” I answered. “You are laying bare the innermost thought and desire of my heart.”

‘ “Mais oui,’ cried my cousins without giving me time to finish, “For two years Odette has thought of nothing else. But you will not give your permission, ma tante, you must not give your permission.”

‘ “By what right, my dear children, should we refuse it,” said my mother, “if it is the Will of God?”

‘My cousins then, wishing to make a jest of the conversation, asked me what I intended to do with the trifles that belonged to me and quarrelled gaily about which should take possession of this and which of that. But these first moments of gaiety lasted a very little while and we began to weep. Then we heard my father come up the stairs.’

The Mother Superior paused for a moment and sighed. ‘It was very hard for my father. I was his only daughter and men often have a deeper feeling for their daughters than they ever have for their sons.’

‘It is a great misfortune to have a heart,’ said Kitty with a smile.

‘It is a great good fortune to consecrate that heart to the love of Jesus Christ.’

At that moment a little girl came up to the Mother Superior and confident in her interest showed her a fantastic toy that she had somehow got hold of. The Mother Superior put her beautiful, delicate hand round the child’s shoulder and the child nestled up to her. It moved Kitty to observe how sweet her smile was and yet how impersonal.

‘It is wonderful to see the adoration that all your orphans have for you, Mother,’ she said. ‘I think I should be very proud if I could excite so great a devotion.’

The Mother Superior gave once more her aloof and yet beautiful smile.

‘There is only one way to win hearts and that is to make oneself like unto those of whom one would be loved.’