September 30, 2020

Anne – Part 32

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We continue our serialisation of Anne by Constance Fenimore Woolson

“You mean that I am dull?”

“There goes Père Michaux,” said the half-breeds, as the broad sail of his boat went gleaming by in the summer night, or the sound of his sledge bells came through their closed doors; “he has been to see the dying wife of Jean,” or “to carry medicine to François.” On the wild nights and the dark nights, when no one could stir abroad, the old priest lighted his lamp, and fed his mind with its old-time nourishment. But he had nothing modern; no newspapers. The nation was to him naught. He was one of a small but distinctly marked class in America that has a distaste for and disbelief in the present, its ideals, thoughts, and actions, and turn for relief to the past; they represent a reaction. This class is made up of foreigners like the priest, of native-born citizens with artistic tastes who have lived much abroad, modern Tories who regret the Revolution, High-Church Episcopalians who would like archbishops and an Establishment, restless politicians who seek an empire—in all, a very small number compared with the mass of the nation at large, and not important enough to be counted at all numerically, yet not without its influence. And not without its use too, its members serving their country, unconsciously perhaps, but powerfully, by acting as a balance to the self-asserting blatant conceit of the young nation—a drag on the wheels of its too-rapidly speeding car.  They are a sort of Mordecai at the gate, and are no more disturbed than he was by being in a minority. In any great crisis this element is fused with the rest at once, and disappears; but in times of peace and prosperity up it comes again, and lifts its scornful voice.

Père Michaux occupied himself first with the boys. The religious education of Louis, Gabriel, and André was not complex—a few plain rules that three colts could have learned almost as well, provided they had had speech. But the priest had the rare gift of holding the attention of children while he talked with them, and thus the three boys learned from him gradually and almost unconsciously the tenets of the faith in which their young mother had lived and died. The rare gift of holding the attention of boys—O poor Sunday-school teachers all over the land, ye know how rare that gift is! —ye who must keep restless little heads and hands quiet while some well meaning but slow, long- winded, four-syllabled man “addresses the children.” It is sometimes the superintendent, but more frequently a visitor, who beams through his spectacles benevolently upon the little flock before him, but has no more power over them than a penguin would have over a colony of sparrows.

But if the religion of the boys was simple, that of Tita was of a very different nature; it was as complex, tortuous, unresting, as personal and minute in detail, as some of those religious journals we have all read, diaries of every thought, pen-photographs of every mood, wonderful to read, but not always comfortable when translated into actual life, where something less purely self-engrossed, if even less saintly, is apt to make the household wheels run more smoothly.  Tita’s religious ideas perplexed Anne, angered Miss Lois, and sometimes wearied even the priest himself. The little creature aspired to be absolutely perfect, and she was perfect in rule and form. Whatever was said to her in the way of correction she turned and adjusted to suit herself; her mental ingenuity was extraordinary. Anne listened to the child with wonder; but Père Michaux understood and treated with kindly carelessness the strong selfism, which he often encountered among older and deeply devout women, but not often in a girl so young. Once the elder sister asked with some anxiety if he thought Tita was tending toward conventual life.

“Oh no,” replied the old man, smiling; “anything but that.”

“But is she not remarkably devout?”

“As Parisiennes in Lent.”

“But it is Lent with her all the year round.”

“That is because she has not seen Paris yet.”

“But we can not take her to Paris,” said Anne, in perplexity.

“What should I do if I had to reply to you always, mademoiselle?” said the priest, smiling, and patting her head.

“You mean that I am dull?” said Anne, a slight flush rising in her cheeks. “I have often noticed that people thought me so.”

“I mean nothing of the kind. But by the side of your honesty we all appear like tapers when the sun breaks in,” said Père Michaux, gallantly.  Still, Anne could not help thinking that he did think her dull.

To day she sat by the window, looking out over the ice. The boys, dismissed from their bench, had, with the sagacity of the dogs, gone immediately to the kitchen. The soft voice of Tita was repeating something, which sounded like a litany to the Virgin, full of mystic phrases, a selection made by the child herself.

 

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