Authors: Norman Collins
The Little Procession passed along the avenue under the oozing lime flowers, and turned in the direction of the cemetery.
There were only two mourning carriages and the windows of these were down, letting in the soft air which came in gentle waves over the neat gardens and terraces. In the first carriage sat the priest, his eyes closed, his plump hands like a baby's clasped beatifically upon his silk waistcoat: he rode alone like a pontiff, his feet sprawled out on the seat opposite, lounging in solitude. The rest of the tiny party of mourners were Anglicans, and they left him politely to himself.
The second carriage contained two spinster ladies and a widow. They rode bolt upright, these ladies, fanning themselves discreetly every time the afternoon sunlight slanted into the coach, and fiddled with their black gloves which they had opened at the wrists and now wore half-peeled off. It was a pity, they reflected, that today should have been so hot: in some obscure fashion it seemed that perspiration was positively disrespectful to the departed.
They had all been fond of the dead woman. And in their various ways they had been sorry for herâshe had been so much alone. In consequence they did not talk. They sat just there in silence and remembered. One of themâthe widowâremembered someone else as well for a moment, and shed a tear which rolled down under her black veil. She wiped it away as if ashamed of it.
“It all seems so much worse somehow on a beautiful day like this,” she remarked to no one in particular.
But the tear had passed unnoticed; and the remark, too, went ignored. The heat drowsed everything. Even the funeral horses, black, splendid animals like creatures in a dream, seemed to be stepping carefully, as though to avoid waking the sleeping terrace of shuttered houses which stretched before them.
“â¦blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus â¦”
the priest in the front carriage was saying.
But the words died peacefully away on his lips, and his head nodded forward. It was not until the note of movement changed and the carriage wheels began grinding into the gravel of the cemetery-drive that the Father awoke. He blinked for a moment, staring into the bright sunlight around him, and then sat up very straight, smoothing out the creases in his waistcoat.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,”
he continued from the point where sleep had interrupted him.
The presbytery was of red brick, square and flat-fronted like a doll's house: it might have opened on hinges from the side. In the small, bare room where he worked and ate and prayed at times, the priest was standing with his back to the mantelpiece, his black, clerical coat removed and a grey alpaca jacket across his shoulders.
“As a matter of fact they were almost the last words she spoke,” he was saying. “She knew that she was passing and she asked me to take this in memory of her.”
He held up the ivory and enamel rosary that was in his hand and let the light play on it for a moment.
“One can't refuse the dying,” he added half-apologetically.
“Indeed, no,” the housekeeper answered as though shocked by the suggestion. “I only said that it looked foreign.”
foreign,” the priest continued, almost as if he were speaking to himself. “Spanish or Italian maybe. They have rosaries like this in Rome: I've seen them so small they could be folded up into a locket.”
“Your Reverence's tea is getting cold,” the housekeeper reminded him.
The priest went over to the table and lifted the dish-cover obediently. But he was still thinking of the woman he had just buried.
born abroad,” he continued meditatively. “Somewhere on the borders of France, I think it was. Nobody round here knew much about her. She was always a quiet, reserved sort of lady. She must have led a very sheltered life.”
He paused, and gazed for a moment out of the window. Then he crossed himself.
“And now she's gone to the last shelter of all,” he said.
Leaning forward, he spooned the dishful of eggs and spinachâ it was a meatless day, a Fridayâneatly on to his plate.
Then he crossed himself once more and said grace. The housekeeper saw that he had everything he wanted, passed the bottle of sauce a little nearer to his hand, and withdrew.
The room seemed hotter than ever. For a while the priest ate desultorily, picking at his food like a woman. Finally he leant back, not eating, not thinking very much even, and sat back there gazing out of the window into the still golden summer of nineteen-twenty.
She stood in the doorway of her father's house and paused for a moment drawing on her long gloves, which seemed too fine, too fashionable somehow, for the dusty street.
On the opposite pavement a young man; carefully dressed in sombre black, half-turned and raised his hat politely, even shyly. But she ignored him. She knew that he was already dedicated to the priesthood, and he was without interest to her. She allowed him to go his precise unmasculine way, unnoticed. Adjusting the broad-flowing cape that she was wearing, she set off past the faded row of unimposing shops.
“I never see anyone. Anyone,” she repeated. “It is not like being alive at all having to live in Rhinehausen.”
But someone else was raising his hat to her: it was Herr Doktor Kapp, the veterinary surgeon. An elderly man and very fat, he had invented, while still at college, a preparation against glanders and mucous swellings in horses: he was one of the principal inhabitants of the place and lived importantly on his reputation. For nearly thirty years he had faced the future on that one moment of veterinary genius in his early youth.
At the corner of the street by the Market Hall a beggar was standing, his blind eyes wide open, their pupils fluttering. He came every week and stood there all day, his tin slung round his neck, his lips muttering. When anyone approached he would begin singing. It was always the same song that he sang, a nursery lullaby that had broken the hearts of passers-by in towns as far apart as Hanover and Nuremberg. Anna stood still, looking at him. Suffering of any kind always affected herâbirds with broken wings, strayed dogs, unhappy children. Reaching into her handbag she dropped a five pfennig piece into his tin. And when he thanked her, she smiled back at him as charmingly as if he could have seen her.
The act of giving brought with it a special pleasure as she remembered it. It was consoling and spiritual. Often she had wondered whether she should not have devoted her whole life to spiritual things. In her imagination she had constantly seen herself in the veil and coif of some holy Order. And once, when very
($$$) she had draped her head and shoulders in a black dust sheet from the music room and regarded herself in the mirror. It had been positively astonishing the way in which the jet folds of the fabric had set off her features, making her, even to her own eyes, seem something unearthly and unattainable, a very symbol of the supreme object of man.
It particularly pleased her that she should be in a spiritual mood at this moment. Too often when she had attended confession her mind had been full of frivolous and trivial things. She had knelt in the gloom of the confessional and, instead of the consciousness of the Presence, there had come to her glimpses of things remote and happyâa picnic by the river, a column of soldiers marching in tight buckskin trousers, Fabrizio's escape down the prison-wall in the
Chartreuse de Parme.
But to-day she felt contrite and remorseful: she was filled with gratitude to God for having placed charity within her grasp. She even sang under her breath as she walked along.
The Church was squat and square-towered. Its stones had weathered so blissfully during the centuries that it seemed rather to have risen out of the damp earth than to have been erected there. Inside, the air was close and damp as though the building had been sweating quietly through the ages; the heavy magnificence of the incense did nothing to dispel it. The light, too, had a dim aqueous quality: it seeped in through the leaded windows and, where a shaft was formed, made a pale, yellow pool in the aisle.
Anna removed her glove and dipped her finger into the Holy Water bowl by the door. Then, with her eyes cast meekly to the ground, she approached the confessional.
Father Julian, who was hearing confessions, was an old man. So old that he lived a life that seemed separate from the rest of existence. It was as though, knowing that he had overstayed his time, he was careful to intrude as little as possible. A slight breathlessness, which might have been asthma, and a running and unpleasant cold that was with him from one winter to the next, had conspired to isolate him. He now seemed intent on one thing onlyâ the privacy of his sitting-room in the presbytery. It was to return there as soon as possible that he gabbled the Mass as though he were clockwork. That it
been said, was the most that could be claimed for it.
The fact of his age made it easy to confess to himâand difficult. He understood nothing, and forgave everything. To confess her real desires would, of course, have been as unthinkable as confessing them to a child. And what else but desires, Anna asked herself,
had she to confess? At seventeen, she reflected, it is difficult to have been really wicked.
She entered the box and knelt on the dusty hassock, carefully spreading out the skirt of her dress so that it should not be creased. Mechanically she crossed herself.
“Please, Father, give me your blessing,” she said, “for I have sinned.”
A movement, the faintly discernible signature of the Cross, on the other side of the grille, told her that she had been noticed. She paused, and collected her thoughts together; she must confess everything,
“I have been undutiful towards my father,” she began. “I have been disobedient and rebellious.”
There was silence from the other human being behind the screen. It was like confessing to the empty air.
“I have been guilty of the sin of greed,” she continued.
There was still silence.
“And vanity,” she went on, taking pleasure this time in confessing something that she knew was real, was truthful. “I allow my mind to dwell upon clothes and raiment.” Raiment! She had thought of the word while she was speaking. It was a beautiful word: after disobedience to her father, and greed, it seemed to elevate her confession into something noble and important.
There was still silence from Father Julian; a longer and more thoughtful silence. Anna, her confession over, remained with head bent, waiting.
Then the rattling intake of breath began.
“Have you searched your heart, my daughter ” the priest in-quired.
“I have, Father,” Anna answered.
Already her mind felt easier for the confession. It was as though weights had been lifted from her soul.
“And you have no further confession to make”
“No, Father,” she assured him. “None that I can think of.”