SPEAKING of our convents, a topic to which I return ever again with special pleasure, I would relate a strangely touching scene of which I once was witness.
Having come for a few days to the regions I loved, I was living in a "cula," a quaint, tower-like old house near the convent Horez. The greater part of my time was spent within the convent's holy precinct, roaming about amidst its ancient treasures, absorbing its world-forgotten charm into my soul, building up dream upon dream, for ever was it my desire one day to make a home for myself in this place of peace.
My constant companion was the mother-abbess, a simple but shrewd old lady, who had never known life outside convent walls. As a child, she had been brought up amidst the holy community, mounting step by step to the position she actually occupied, step by step through long, colourless years of patience, abnegation and prayer. Now she was but a tired old woman, with a body emaciated by many fasts, and a wax-coloured visage, with weary eyes, which would light with joy when I came. Wherever I went she followed me, clinging to my arm, often pressing her hoary head against my shoulder, her sad eyes full of a light that had something of adoration in them.
Hither and thither she trotted with me; no stairs were too steep, no road too long, no sun too hot, if only my hand was in hers. She became young once more, years rolled from her, her foot forgot all fatigue. Astonished at my great appreciation of things amongst which she had always lived, till familiarity had deadened their lustre, she would smile indulgently at my ecstasies, shaking her old head with the resignation of one who has overcome both joy and pain.
Yet my love for her beautiful home flattered her; her tongue would loosen and, little by little, I would glean from her reminiscences from out of the past.
Though halting and artless, her words conjured up pictures before my eyes, faded pictures, like old legends woven upon tapestries, that the passing years had covered with dust. Over some of these pictures she lovingly lingered, her words becoming more expressive, so that I had passing visions of those days that were no more, visions like sudden gleams of light in a dusk-filled corridor to which the key has become rusty.
One name echoed again and again through all her talk—Mamu, the name of the distant convent in which she had been brought up.
Her recollections of the place were imbued with a beauty increasing in proportion to the distance into which it receded. The glamour of youth lay over her remembrances, none the less vivid because colourless had been that youth—for youth is youth, place it where you will; in palace garden or within convent walls, its light has a lustre that not even cloister-rule can destroy. Her voice became soft as she spoke of this place, and such tempting pictures did she evoke that I was filled with a desire of seeing this ancient convent that all but she seemed to have forgotten.
And suddenly I conceived the plan of taking the longing old heart with me, thus giving the old woman a chance of once more treading the paths of her youth.
So, on a sunny summer's morn, off we set in search of Mamu's past glories.
Never before, of course, had the world-excluded recluse been in a motor; distances were for her an insuperable obstacle she had never even thought of overcoming. Her days were fixed in a certain circle—thus had Fate decreed, only untold-of events could lead them elsewhere!
Painfully eager was the old woman to have a last glimpse of what she had loved; with tense excitement, that would have been comic had it not been pathetic, she sat in the rushing car, in itself an event almost beyond her understanding. How was it possible to overcome such distances, consuming mile after mile, in a single day? But so great was her anxiety to get to the place of her dreams, that she heroically suppressed all nervousness at the unwonted speed, her eyes fixed upon the horizon with a longing so great that it was almost akin to dread.
Down towards the plains we flew, through shady forests, past peaceful villages, along more than one valley. Long and twisting was the road, bordered here and there by groups of tall wooden crosses, that seemed almost shocked at the speed at which we dashed past them; the sky was blue, the birds were singing, summer flowers brightened the cottage gardens—and the old nun was hurrying, hurrying towards the haunts of her youth!
No idea had I of what we were going to find at the end of the road. None of our company had ever been to Mamu. It was only known that the convent was in disuse, and that, with the church of Horez, the church of Mamu belonged to the best period of architecture.
The valleys widened more and more as we descended from the hills; by degrees the landscape turned into the landscape of the plains, wide fields lying in summer ripeness, a large view of abundance full of the expectancy of coming harvest. The roads broadened, becoming more dusty and rougher, the air had lost its lightness, and on, on we rushed, devouring space.
The old nun became quite silent the nearer we approached our goal; her hands were clasped, her face set with a tenseness almost painful to behold. One felt her heart was beating, that a great joy and a great fear were upon her.
Then, suddenly, in the distance, the outline of a church... about it walls that even from far had the desolate air of things abandoned and falling to pieces.
At last we halted, and, full of expectation, we left our car. A feeling of disappointment crept over me. The site where the church stood was wanting in charm, especially in comparison with beautiful Horez, whence we had come; a few tiny fields of maize, studded here and there with tall sunflowers with dazzling faces which seemed to attract each ray of light. The high road passed quite near the building; no trees, no garden surrounded it, only the remains of thick, crumbling walls. The sunflowers alone did their best to brighten the spot.
The old nun's hand had slipped into mine. I felt it tremble. Her foot stumbled over a heap of refuse blocking the cracked doorway under which we passed. Now we stood in the once sacred enclosure, staring at the church. And around us all was ruin...! The temple alone stood proud and firm, a noble hermit to whom no one had come for many years.
Speechless was the old abbess, an extraordinary emotion clutching at her throat. She stared about her... her dim eyes wandering from one rubbish-heap to another, vaguely wondering what had come to pass. Where were the houses of yore? The great walls? The gardens she remembered? What had happened? Was she dreaming?... Were her eyes so weary that they could no more see things as once they had been?
Little sounds of distress escaped her lips, her fingers clenched convulsively around mine; with steps become suddenly tottering, she led me from corner to corner, hoping still to discover that which she had come so far to seek.
Nothing! All the glory was gone! All the beauty Only in places the huge walls had resisted time and man's neglect; in others, their strength had crumbled and lay in weed-grown heaps, over which the sunflowers peeped, astonished at being able to look into so secret a place, yet proud of their height, that now enabled them to pry into the enclosure once so jealously guarded from all intruders. Through one of the crevices a pumpkin plant had sent its giant creeper to cover the fallen stones with leaves fantastic in size; golden yellow were its flowers, the shape of a cup; like a long green serpent the huge stalk had pushed its way into the court. Its enormous round fruit vied in colour with the sunflower's glory.
Forgetting all else, I let my eye linger for a while upon this harmony of yellow, my soul satisfied with the sight, for always and in all places does the growth of a plant or flower bring me a delight it were difficult to render in words. A little pull at my sleeve brought me back to the distress at my side.
"I cannot find my house," murmured the old woman. "Yet it was here I lived once! Was it so very long ago? It was such a beautiful place! Why has it been ruined thus?" And once more we began our pathetic round, vainly endeavouring to restore the past.
The once neat, whitewashed habitations were roofless, standing in places like skeletons of which the doors were grinning mouths; weeds covered everything, and even grew inside the rooms that were mercilessly exposed to wind and rain. Large thistles had burst the floors asunder, and from the top of cracked walls bright yellow flowers nodded to us in their unconscious gaiety. There was nothing grand about these ruins; they were still too recent to have acquired any dignity—they were only a piteous evidence of flagrant neglect. One felt that the want of care and the want of love were responsible for this ruin, that, rustic as they had been, the nuns' cells could still have stood; something of this the old abbess understood, and it rendered her grief all the more bitter. "It is all gone," she mumbled, "all gone! What have they done? It has changed, it is destroyed! It is no more the same place!..." And my heart felt some of the anguish which was filling her with cruel distress.
Now I regretted having brought her here, having thus destroyed the visions of her youth, especially as I myself have always dreaded returning after many years to places I had loved.
Our last hope was now the church, so leaving the ruins to their sad fate, towards it we turned our steps.
A noble building it was, harmonious of line and proportion, though sadly marked by neglect; its whitewash was cracked and sullied in places, its windows were broken, its roof was out of repair, nevertheless proud and stolid it stood in the centre of its crumbling surroundings, an ancient monarch having outlived his race.
Still clinging to my hand, the old woman stepped with me over the threshold into the sanctuary whence so many years ago her first prayers had mounted towards God.
I was anxious about what we would find within, anxious lest new disappointments should overcome my humble companion. What we found was chaos! Well-intentioned repairs had been begun and then abandoned, so that not even the peace of oblivion lay over the place.
The sacred order of things had been upset; objects great and small lay about in undignified confusion. The most venerated icons had been removed from their frames and stored away in dark corners, their faces turned toward the walls, or lying on the dust of the floor. The doors leading to the hidden altar were gaping as though sacrilegious steps had not even respected the Holy of Holies. The church in its present state appeared to have been robbed of its mystical meaning, to be cruelly exposed to profane eyes, as the life of a man whose most hidden secrets have been suddenly delivered up to the curiosity of crowds. A mute protest seemed to be mounting from the soiled walls, from the wide-open altar doors, even from the solemn columns that nothing could rob of their dignity, pillars of strength still upholding God's house in spite of man's neglect.
In mute consternation the abbess stood staring at this chaos she could not understand. Clasping her hands together, she kept repeating: "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What have they done?" And again and again, "What have they done?" Then from one side of the church to the other did she drag herself with weary feet, wringing her hands in futile despair, searching about amongst the holy objects heaped up anyhow, none of them in their right place; at each step she uttered fresh exclamations in words confused by distress.
I did not follow, but watched her sadly, pondering over the frailty of human dreams, whilst my eyes rejoiced over the stately proportions of what must once have been a beautiful church.
Little by little, though, I realised that my old companion was searching for something she could not find; her complaints had turned into wailing, "Where is he? Where is he?" Those were her words, and again: "Where is he?" repeated in heart-rending tones.
Taking her hand in mine, I asked her for what she was seeking. "For St. Nicolas," was the answer. "He was the most venerable of all; it was always to St. Nicolas that I said my prayers; being the wisest, he listened best.... I loved him, and now nowhere can I find his face," and away she trotted, resuming her search.
All of a sudden, she knelt down, and a tone of ecstasy broke through her lament. "Here he is, here he is!" Prostrating herself before a picture dragged from some shadowy corner, I saw how she took her handkerchief from her pocket, carefully wiped all dust from the yearned-for face, then beating her forehead three times on the ground, she crossed herself repeatedly, murmuring prayers I could not follow, then once more she kissed the effigy of the most venerated of saints.
All unknowingly she was doing homage before a picture of real artistic value; this I ascertained, having gone over to where she knelt. But it was not the beauty of the painting that moved her, not even the fine old face upon golden background, nor the delicate colours of the draperies so pleasant to the eyes; it was her youth she was kissing, her youth, her hopes, and with them the dear days of yore!
Here, in the forsaken church others had neglected, for a short second, the old woman had become young again—young! Whilst with the lips of love she was kissing her illusions, her hopes, all that once had been hers....