Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,
Volume 2, Book Eighth, Chapter 3
About a quarter of an hour elapsed. The prioress returned and seated herself once more on her chair.
The two interlocutors seemed preoccupied. We will present a stenographic report of the dialogue which then ensued, to the best of our ability.
"Do you know the chapel?"
"I have a little cage there, where I hear the mass and the offices."
"And you have been in the choir in pursuance of your duties?"
"Two or three times."
"There is a stone to be raised."
"The slab of the pavement which is at the side of the altar."
"The slab which closes the vault?"
"It would be a good thing to have two men for it."
"Mother Ascension, who is as strong as a man, will help you."
"A woman is never a man."
"We have only a woman here to help you. Each one does what he can. Because Dom Mabillon gives four hundred and seventeen epistles of Saint Bernard, while Merlonus Horstius only gives three hundred and sixty-seven, I do not despise Merlonus Horstius."
"Neither do I."
"Merit consists in working according to one's strength. A cloister is not a dock-yard."
"And a woman is not a man. But my brother is the strong one, though!"
"And can you get a lever?"
"That is the only sort of key that fits that sort of door."
"There is a ring in the stone."
"I will put the lever through it."
"And the stone is so arranged that it swings on a pivot."
"That is good, reverend Mother. I will open the vault."
"And the four Mother Precentors will help you."
"And when the vault is open?"
"It must be closed again."
"Will that be all?"
"Give me your orders, very reverend Mother."
"Fauvent, we have confidence in you."
"I am here to do anything you wish."
"And to hold your peace about everything!"
"Yes, reverend Mother."
"When the vault is open – "
"I will close it again."
"But before that – "
"What, reverend Mother?"
"Something must be lowered into it."
A silence ensued. The prioress, after a pout of the under lip which resembled hesitation, broke it.
"You know that a mother died this morning?"
"Did you not hear the bell?"
"Nothing can be heard at the bottom of the garden."
"I can hardly distinguish my own signal."
"She died at daybreak."
"And then, the wind is not blowing in my direction this morning."
"It was Mother Crucifixion. A blessed woman."
The prioress paused, moved her lips, as though in mental prayer, and resumed: –
"Three years ago, Madame de Bethune, a Jansenist, turned orthodox, merely from having seen Mother Crucifixion at prayer."
"Ah! yes, now I hear the knell, reverend Mother."
"The mothers have taken her to the dead-room, which opens on the church."
"No other man than you can or must enter that chamber. See to that. A fine sight it would be, to see a man enter the dead-room!"
"What do you say?"
"I say more often."
"More often than what?"
"Reverend Mother, I did not say more often than what, I said more often."
"I don't understand you. Why do you say more often?"
"In order to speak like you, reverend Mother."
"But I did not say 'more often.'"
At that moment, nine o'clock struck.
"At nine o'clock in the morning and at all hours, praised and adored be the most Holy Sacrament of the altar," said the prioress.
"Amen," said Fauchelevent.
The clock struck opportunely. It cut "more often" short. It is probable, that had it not been for this, the prioress and Fauchelevent would never have unravelled that skein.
Fauchelevent mopped his forehead.
The prioress indulged in another little inward murmur, probably sacred, then raised her voice: –
"In her lifetime, Mother Crucifixion made converts; after her death, she will perform miracles."
"She will!" replied Father Fauchelevent, falling into step, and striving not to flinch again.
"Father Fauvent, the community has been blessed in Mother Crucifixion. No doubt, it is not granted to every one to die, like Cardinal de Berulle, while saying the holy mass, and to breathe forth their souls to God, while pronouncing these words: Hanc igitur oblationem. But without attaining to such happiness, Mother Crucifixion's death was very precious. She retained her consciousness to the very last moment. She spoke to us, then she spoke to the angels. She gave us her last commands. If you had a little more faith, and if you could have been in her cell, she would have cured your leg merely by touching it. She smiled. We felt that she was regaining her life in God. There was something of paradise in that death."
Fauchelevent thought that it was an orison which she was finishing.
"Amen," said he.
"Father Fauvent, what the dead wish must be done."
The prioress took off several beads of her chaplet. Fauchelevent held his peace.
She went on: –
"I have consulted upon this point many ecclesiastics laboring in Our Lord, who occupy themselves in the exercises of the clerical life, and who bear wonderful fruit."
"Reverend Mother, you can hear the knell much better here than in the garden."
"Besides, she is more than a dead woman, she is a saint."
"Like yourself, reverend Mother."
"She slept in her coffin for twenty years, by express permission of our Holy Father, Pius VII. – "
"The one who crowned the Emp – Buonaparte."
For a clever man like Fauchelevent, this allusion was an awkward one. Fortunately, the prioress, completely absorbed in her own thoughts, did not hear it. She continued: –
"Saint Didorus, Archbishop of Cappadocia, desired that this single word might be inscribed on his tomb: Acarus, which signifies, a worm of the earth; this was done. Is this true?"
"Yes, reverend Mother."
"The blessed Mezzocane, Abbot of Aquila, wished to be buried beneath the gallows; this was done."
"That is true."
"Saint Terentius, Bishop of Port, where the mouth of the Tiber empties into the sea, requested that on his tomb might be engraved the sign which was placed on the graves of parricides, in the hope that passers-by would spit on his tomb. This was done. The dead must be obeyed."
"So be it."
"The body of Bernard Guidonis, born in France near Roche-Abeille, was, as he had ordered, and in spite of the king of Castile, borne to the church of the Dominicans in Limoges, although Bernard Guidonis was Bishop of Tuy in Spain. Can the contrary be affirmed?"
"For that matter, no, reverend Mother."
"The fact is attested by Plantavit de la Fosse."
Several beads of the chaplet were told off, still in silence. The prioress resumed: –
"Father Fauvent, Mother Crucifixion will be interred in the coffin in which she has slept for the last twenty years."
"That is just."
"It is a continuation of her slumber."
"So I shall have to nail up that coffin?"
"And we are to reject the undertaker's coffin?"
"I am at the orders of the very reverend community."
"The four Mother Precentors will assist you."
"In nailing up the coffin? I do not need them."
"No. In lowering the coffin."
"Into the vault."
"Under the altar."
"The vault under the altar?"
"Under the altar."
"But – "
"You will have an iron bar."
"Yes, but – "
"You will raise the stone with the bar by means of the ring."
"But – "
"The dead must be obeyed. To be buried in the vault under the altar of the chapel, not to go to profane earth; to remain there in death where she prayed while living; such was the last wish of Mother Crucifixion. She asked it of us; that is to say, commanded us."
"But it is forbidden."
"Forbidden by men, enjoined by God."
"What if it became known?"
"We have confidence in you."
"Oh! I am a stone in your walls."
"The chapter assembled. The vocal mothers, whom I have just consulted again, and who are now deliberating, have decided that Mother Crucifixion shall be buried, according to her wish, in her own coffin, under our altar. Think, Father Fauvent, if she were to work miracles here! What a glory of God for the community! And miracles issue from tombs."
"But, reverend Mother, if the agent of the sanitary commission – "
"Saint Benoit II., in the matter of sepulture, resisted Constantine Pogonatus."
"But the commissary of police – "
"Chonodemaire, one of the seven German kings who entered among the Gauls under the Empire of Constantius, expressly recognized the right of nuns to be buried in religion, that is to say, beneath the altar."
"But the inspector from the Prefecture – "
"The world is nothing in the presence of the cross. Martin, the eleventh general of the Carthusians, gave to his order this device: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis."
"Amen," said Fauchelevent, who imperturbably extricated himself in this manner from the dilemma, whenever he heard Latin.
Any audience suffices for a person who has held his peace too long. On the day when the rhetorician Gymnastoras left his prison, bearing in his body many dilemmas and numerous syllogisms which had struck in, he halted in front of the first tree which he came to, harangued it and made very great efforts to convince it. The prioress, who was usually subjected to the barrier of silence, and whose reservoir was overfull, rose and exclaimed with the loquacity of a dam which has broken away: –
"I have on my right Benoit and on my left Bernard. Who was Bernard? The first abbot of Clairvaux. Fontaines in Burgundy is a country that is blest because it gave him birth. His father was named Tecelin, and his mother Alethe. He began at Citeaux, to end in Clairvaux; he was ordained abbot by the bishop of Chalon-sur-Saone, Guillaume de Champeaux; he had seven hundred novices, and founded a hundred and sixty monasteries; he overthrew Abeilard at the council of Sens in 1140, and Pierre de Bruys and Henry his disciple, and another sort of erring spirits who were called the Apostolics; he confounded Arnauld de Brescia, darted lightning at the monk Raoul, the murderer of the Jews, dominated the council of Reims in 1148, caused the condemnation of Gilbert de Porea, Bishop of Poitiers, caused the condemnation of Eon de l'Etoile, arranged the disputes of princes, enlightened King Louis the Young, advised Pope Eugene III., regulated the Temple, preached the crusade, performed two hundred and fifty miracles during his lifetime, and as many as thirty-nine in one day. Who was Benoit? He was the patriarch of Mont-Cassin; he was the second founder of the Saintete Claustrale, he was the Basil of the West. His order has produced forty popes, two hundred cardinals, fifty patriarchs, sixteen hundred archbishops, four thousand six hundred bishops, four emperors, twelve empresses, forty-six kings, forty-one queens, three thousand six hundred canonized saints, and has been in existence for fourteen hundred years. On one side Saint Bernard, on the other the agent of the sanitary department! On one side Saint Benoit, on the other the inspector of public ways! The state, the road commissioners, the public undertaker, regulations, the administration, what do we know of all that? There is not a chance passer-by who would not be indignant to see how we are treated. We have not even the right to give our dust to Jesus Christ! Your sanitary department is a revolutionary invention. God subordinated to the commissary of police; such is the age. Silence, Fauvent!"
Fauchelevent was but ill at ease under this shower bath. The prioress continued: –
"No one doubts the right of the monastery to sepulture. Only fanatics and those in error deny it. We live in times of terrible confusion. We do not know that which it is necessary to know, and we know that which we should ignore. We are ignorant and impious. In this age there exist people who do not distinguish between the very great Saint Bernard and the Saint Bernard denominated of the poor Catholics, a certain good ecclesiastic who lived in the thirteenth century. Others are so blasphemous as to compare the scaffold of Louis XVI. to the cross of Jesus Christ. Louis XVI. was merely a king. Let us beware of God! There is no longer just nor unjust. The name of Voltaire is known, but not the name of Cesar de Bus. Nevertheless, Cesar de Bus is a man of blessed memory, and Voltaire one of unblessed memory. The last arch-bishop, the Cardinal de Perigord, did not even know that Charles de Gondren succeeded to Berulle, and Francois Bourgoin to Gondren, and Jean-Francois Senault to Bourgoin, and Father Sainte-Marthe to Jean-Francois Senault. The name of Father Coton is known, not because he was one of the three who urged the foundation of the Oratorie, but because he furnished Henri IV., the Huguenot king, with the material for an oath. That which pleases people of the world in Saint Francois de Sales, is that he cheated at play. And then, religion is attacked. Why? Because there have been bad priests, because Sagittaire, Bishop of Gap, was the brother of Salone, Bishop of Embrun, and because both of them followed Mommol. What has that to do with the question? Does that prevent Martin de Tours from being a saint, and giving half of his cloak to a beggar? They persecute the saints. They shut their eyes to the truth. Darkness is the rule. The most ferocious beasts are beasts which are blind. No one thinks of hell as a reality. Oh! how wicked people are! By order of the king signifies to-day, by order of the revolution. One no longer knows what is due to the living or to the dead. A holy death is prohibited. Burial is a civil matter. This is horrible. Saint Leo II. wrote two special letters, one to Pierre Notaire, the other to the king of the Visigoths, for the purpose of combating and rejecting, in questions touching the dead, the authority of the exarch and the supremacy of the Emperor. Gauthier, Bishop of Chalons, held his own in this matter against Otho, Duke of Burgundy. The ancient magistracy agreed with him. In former times we had voices in the chapter, even on matters of the day. The Abbot of Citeaux, the general of the order, was councillor by right of birth to the parliament of Burgundy. We do what we please with our dead. Is not the body of Saint Benoit himself in France, in the abbey of Fleury, called Saint Benoit-sur-Loire, although he died in Italy at Mont-Cassin, on Saturday, the 21st of the month of March, of the year 543? All this is incontestable. I abhor psalm-singers, I hate priors, I execrate heretics, but I should detest yet more any one who should maintain the contrary. One has only to read Arnoul Wion, Gabriel Bucelin, Trithemus, Maurolics, and Dom Luc d'Achery."
The prioress took breath, then turned to Fauchelevent.
"Is it settled, Father Fauvent?"
"It is settled, reverend Mother."
"We may depend on you?"
"I will obey."
"That is well."
"I am entirely devoted to the convent."
"That is understood. You will close the coffin. The sisters will carry it to the chapel. The office for the dead will then be said. Then we shall return to the cloister. Between eleven o'clock and midnight, you will come with your iron bar. All will be done in the most profound secrecy. There will be in the chapel only the four Mother Precentors, Mother Ascension and yourself."
"And the sister at the post?"
"She will not turn round."
"But she will hear."
"She will not listen. Besides, what the cloister knows the world learns not."
A pause ensued. The prioress went on: –
"You will remove your bell. It is not necessary that the sister at the post should perceive your presence."
"What, Father Fauvent?"
"Has the doctor for the dead paid his visit?"
"He will pay it at four o'clock to-day. The peal which orders the doctor for the dead to be summoned has already been rung. But you do not understand any of the peals?"
"I pay no attention to any but my own."
"That is well, Father Fauvent."
"Reverend Mother, a lever at least six feet long will be required."
"Where will you obtain it?"
"Where gratings are not lacking, iron bars are not lacking. I have my heap of old iron at the bottom of the garden."
"About three-quarters of an hour before midnight; do not forget."
"If you were ever to have any other jobs of this sort, my brother is the strong man for you. A perfect Turk!"
"You will do it as speedily as possible."
"I cannot work very fast. I am infirm; that is why I require an assistant. I limp."
"To limp is no sin, and perhaps it is a blessing. The Emperor Henry II., who combated Antipope Gregory and re-established Benoit VIII., has two surnames, the Saint and the Lame."
"Two surtouts are a good thing," murmured Fauchelevent, who really was a little hard of hearing.
"Now that I think of it, Father Fauvent, let us give a whole hour to it. That is not too much. Be near the principal altar, with your iron bar, at eleven o'clock. The office begins at midnight. Everything must have been completed a good quarter of an hour before that."
"I will do anything to prove my zeal towards the community. These are my orders. I am to nail up the coffin. At eleven o'clock exactly, I am to be in the chapel. The Mother Precentors will be there. Mother Ascension will be there. Two men would be better. However, never mind! I shall have my lever. We will open the vault, we will lower the coffin, and we will close the vault again. After which, there will be no trace of anything. The government will have no suspicion. Thus all has been arranged, reverend Mother?"
"What else remains?"
"The empty coffin remains."
This produced a pause. Fauchelevent meditated. The prioress meditated.
"What is to be done with that coffin, Father Fauvent?"
"It will be given to the earth."
Another silence. Fauchelevent made, with his left hand, that sort of a gesture which dismisses a troublesome subject.
"Reverend Mother, I am the one who is to nail up the coffin in the basement of the church, and no one can enter there but myself, and I will cover the coffin with the pall."
"Yes, but the bearers, when they place it in the hearse and lower it into the grave, will be sure to feel that there is nothing in it."
"Ah! the de – !" exclaimed Fauchelevent.
The prioress began to make the sign of the cross, and looked fixedly at the gardener. The vil stuck fast in his throat.
He made haste to improvise an expedient to make her forget the oath.
"I will put earth in the coffin, reverend Mother. That will produce the effect of a corpse."
"You are right. Earth, that is the same thing as man. So you will manage the empty coffin?"
"I will make that my special business."
The prioress's face, up to that moment troubled and clouded, grew serene once more. She made the sign of a superior dismissing an inferior to him. Fauchelevent went towards the door. As he was on the point of passing out, the prioress raised her voice gently: –
"I am pleased with you, Father Fauvent; bring your brother to me to-morrow, after the burial, and tell him to fetch his daughter."