She had read "Paul and Virginia," and she had dreamed of the little bamboo-
house, the nigger Domingo, the dog Fiddle, but above all of the sweet friendship
of some dear little brother, who seeks red fruit for you on trees taller than
steeples, or who runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird's nest.
When she was thirteen, her father himself took her to town to place her in the
convent. They stopped at an inn in the St. Gervais quarter, where, at their
supper, they used painted plates that set forth the story of Mademoiselle de la
Valliere. The explanatory legends, chipped here and there by the scratching of
knives, all glorified religion, the tendernesses of the heart, and the pomps of
Far from being bored at first at the convent, she took pleasure in the society of
the good sisters, who, to amuse her, took her to the chapel, which one entered
from the refectory by a long corridor. She played very little during recreation
hours, knew her catechism well, and it was she who always answered Monsieur
le Vicaire's difficult questions. Living thus, without every leaving the warm
atmosphere of the classrooms, and amid these pale-faced women wearing
rosaries with brass crosses, she was softly lulled by the mystic languor exhaled
in the perfumes of the altar, the freshness of the holy water, and the lights of the
tapers. Instead of attending to mass, she looked at the pious vignettes with their
azure borders in her book, and she loved the sick lamb, the sacred heart pierced
with sharp arrows, or the poor Jesus sinking beneath the cross he carries. She
tried, by way of mortification, to eat nothing a whole day. She puzzled her head
to find some vow to fulfil.
When she went to confession, she invented little sins in order that she might stay
there longer, kneeling in the shadow, her hands joined, her face against the
grating beneath the whispering of the priest. The comparisons of betrothed,
husband, celestial lover, and eternal marriage, that recur in sermons, stirred
within her soul depths of unexpected sweetness.
In the evening, before prayers, there was some religious reading in the study. On
week-nights it was some abstract of sacred history or the Lectures of the Abbe
Frayssinous, and on Sundays passages from the "Genie du Christianisme," as a
recreation. How she listened at first to the sonorous lamentations of its romantic
melancholies reechoing through the world and eternity! If her childhood had been
spent in the shop-parlour of some business quarter, she might perhaps have
opened her heart to those lyrical invasions of Nature, which usually come to us
only through translation in books. But she knew the country too well; she knew
the lowing of cattle, the milking, the ploughs.
Accustomed to calm aspects of life, she turned, on the contrary, to those of
excitement. She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green
fields only when broken up by ruins.