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A Fair Penitent

By Wilkie Collins

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A Fair Penitent

By Wilkie Collins

A Fair Penitent

Charles Pineau Duclos was a French writer of biographies and novels, who lived and worked during the first half of the eighteenth century. He prospered sufficiently well, as a literary man, to be made secretary to the French Academy, and to be allowed to succeed Voltaire in the office of historiographer of France. He has left behind him, in his own country, the reputation of a lively writer of the second class, who addressed the public of his day with fair success, and who, since his death, has not troubled posterity to take any particular notice of him.

Among the papers left by Duclos, two manuscripts were found, which he probably intended to turn to some literary account. The first was a brief Memoir, written by himself, of a Frenchwoman, named Mademoiselle Gautier, who began life as an actress and who ended it as a Carmelite nun. The second manuscript was the lady's own account of the process of her conversion, and of the circumstances which attended her moral passage from the state of a sinner to the state of a saint. There are certain national peculiarities in the character of Mademoiselle Gautier and in the narrative of her conversion, which are perhaps interesting enough to be reproduced with some chance of pleasing the present day.

It appears, from the account given of her by Duclos, that Mademoiselle Gautier made her appearance on the stage of the Theatre Francois in the year seventeen hundred and sixteen. She is described as a handsome woman, with a fine figure, a fresh complexion, a lively disposition, and a violent temper. Besides possessing capacity as an actress, she could write very good verses, she was clever at painting in miniature, and, most remarkable quality of all, she was possessed of prodigious muscular strength. It is recorded of Mademoiselle, that she could roll up a silver plate with her hands, and that she covered herself with distinction in a trial of strength with no less a person than the famous soldier, Marshal Saxe.

Nobody who is at all acquainted with the social history of the eighteenth century in France, need be told that Mademoiselle Gautier had a long list of lovers, – for the most part, persons of quality, marshals, counts, and so forth. The only man, however, who really attached her to him, was an actor at the Theatre Francois, a famous player in his day, named Quinault Dufresne. Mademoiselle Gautier seems to have loved him with all the ardour of her naturally passionate disposition. At first, he returned her affection; but, as soon as she ventured to test the sincerity of his attachment by speaking of marriage, he cooled towards her immediately, and the connection between them was broken off. In all her former love affairs, she had been noted for the high tone which she adopted towards her admirers, and for the despotic authority which she exercised over them even in her gayest moments. But the severance of her connection with Quinault Dufresne wounded her to her heart. She had loved the man so dearly, had made so many sacrifices for him, had counted so fondly on the devotion of her whole future life to him, that the first discovery of his coldness towards her broke her spirit at once and for ever. She fell into a condition of hopeless melancholy, looked back with remorse and horror at her past life, and abandoned the stage and the society in which she had lived, to end her days repentantly in the character of a Carmelite nun.

So far, her history is the history of hundreds of other women before her time and after it. The prominent interest of her life, for the student of human nature, lies in the story of her conversion, as told by herself. The greater part of the narrative – every page of which is more or less characteristic of the Frenchwoman of the eighteenth century – may be given, with certain suppressions and abridgments, in her own words. The reader will observe, at the outset, one curious fact. Mademoiselle Gautier does not so much as hint at the influence which the loss of her lover had in disposing her mind to reflect on serious subjects. She describes her conversion as if it had taken its rise in a sudden inspiration from Heaven. Even the name of Quinault Dufresne is not once mentioned from one end of her narrative to the other.

On the twenty-fifth of April, seventeen hundred and twenty-two (writes Mademoiselle Gautier), while I was still leading a life of pleasure – according to the pernicious ideas of pleasure which pass current in the world – I happen to awake, contrary to my usual custom, between eight and nine o'clock in the morning. I remember that it is my birthday; I ring for my people; and my maid answers the bell, alarmed by the idea that I am ill. I tell her to dress me that I may go to mass. I go to the Church of the Cordeliers, followed by my footman, and taking with me a little orphan whom I had adopted. The first part of the mass is celebrated without attracting my attention; but, at the second part the accusing voice of my conscience suddenly begins to speak. "What brings you here?" it says. "Do you come to reward God for making you the attractive person that you are, by mortally transgressing His laws every day of your life?" I hear that question, and I am unspeakably overwhelmed by it. I quit the chair on which I have hitherto been leaning carelessly, and I prostrate myself in an agony of remorse on the pavement of the church.

The mass over, I send home the footman and the orphan, remaining behind myself, plunged in inconceivable perplexity. At last I rouse myself on a sudden; I go to the sacristy; I demand a mass for my own proper advantage every day; I determine to attend it regularly; and, after three hours of agitation, I return home, resolved to enter on the path that leads to justification.

Six months passed. Every morning I went to my mass: every evening I spent in my customary dissipations.

A Fair Penitent

Some of my friends indulged in considerable merriment at my expense when they found out my constant attendance at mass. Accordingly, I disguised myself as a boy, when I went to church, to escape observation. My disguise was found out, and the jokes against me were redoubled. Upon this, I began to think of the words of the Gospel, which declare the impossibility of serving two masters. I determined to abandon the service of Mammon.

The first vanity I gave up was the vanity of keeping a maid. By way of further accustoming myself to the retreat from the world which I now began to meditate, I declined all invitations to parties under the pretext of indisposition. But the nearer the Easter time approached at which I had settled in my own mind definitely to turn my back on worldly temptations and pleasures, the more violent became my internal struggles with myself. My health suffered under them to such an extent that I was troubled with perpetual attacks of retching and sickness, which, however, did not prevent me from writing my general confession, addressed to the vicar of Saint Sulpice, the parish in which I lived.

Just Heaven! what did I not suffer some days afterwards, when I united around me at dinner, for the last time, all the friends who had been dearest to me in the days of my worldly life! What words can describe the tumult of my heart when one of my guests said to me, "You are giving us too good a dinner for a Wednesday in Passion Week;" and when another answered, jestingly, "You forget that this is her farewell dinner to her friends!" I felt ready to faint while they were talking, and rose from table pretexting as an excuse, that I had a payment to make that evening, which I could not in honour defer any longer. The company rose with me, and saw me to the door. I got into my carriage, and the company returned to table. My nerves were in such a state that I shrieked at the first crack of the coachman's whip; and the company came running down again to know what was the matter. One of my servants cleverly stopped them from all hurrying out to the carriage together, by declaring that the scream proceeded from my adopted orphan. Upon this they returned quietly enough to their wine, and I drove off with my general confession to the vicar of Saint Sulpice.

My interview with the vicar lasted three hours. His joy at discovering that I was in a state of grace was extreme. My own emotions were quite indescribable. Late at night I returned to my own house, and found my guests all gone. I employed myself in writing farewell letters to the manager and company of the theatre, and in making the necessary arrangements for sending back my adopted orphan to his friends, with twenty pistoles. Finally, I directed the servants to say, if anybody enquired after me the next day, that I had gone out of town for some time; and after that, at five o'clock in the morning, I left my home in Paris never to return to it again.

By this time, I had thoroughly recovered my tranquility. I was as easy in my mind at leaving my house as I am now when I quit my cell to sing in the choir. Such already was the happy result of my perpetual masses, my general confession, and my three hours' interview with the vicar of Saint Sulpice.

Before taking leave of the world, I went to Versailles to say good-bye to my worthy patrons, Cardinal Fleury and the Duke de Gesvres. From them, I went to mass in the King's Chapel; and after that, I called on a lady of Versailles whom I had mortally offended, for the purpose of making my peace with her. She received me angrily enough. I told her I had not come to justify myself, but to ask her pardon. If she granted it, she would send me away happy. If she declined to be reconciled, Providence would probably be satisfied with my submission, but certainly not with her refusal. She felt the force of this argument; and we made it up on the spot. I left Versailles immediately afterwards, without taking anything to eat; the act of humility which I had just performed being as good as a meal to me.

Towards evening, I entered the house of the Community of Saint Perpetua at Paris. I had ordered a little room to be furnished there for me, until the inventory of my worldly effects was completed, and until I could conclude my arrangements for entering a convent. On first installing myself, I began to feel hungry at last, and begged the Superior of the Community to give me for supper anything that remained from the dinner of the house. They had nothing but a little stewed carp, of which I eat with an excellent appetite. Marvellous to relate, although I had been able to keep nothing on my stomach for the past three months, although I had been dreadfully sick after a little rice soup on the evening before, the stewed carp of the sisterhood of Saint Perpetua, with some nuts afterwards for dessert, agreed with me charmingly, and I slept all through the night afterwards as peacefully as a child!

When the news of my retirement became public, it occasioned great talk in Paris. Various people assigned various reasons for the strange course that I had taken. Nobody, however, believed that I had quitted the world in the prime of my life (I was then thirty-one years old), never to return to it again. Meanwhile, my inventory was finished and my goods were sold. One of my friends sent a letter, entreating me to reconsider my determination. My mind was made up, and I wrote to say so. When my goods had been all sold, I left Paris to go and live incognito as a parlour boarder in the Convent of the Ursuline nuns of Pondevaux. Here I wished to try the mode of life for a little while before I assumed the serious responsibility of taking the veil. I knew my own character – I remembered my early horror of total seclusion, and my inveterate dislike to the company of women only; and, moved by these considerations, I resolved, now that I had taken the first important step, to proceed in the future with caution.

The nuns of Pondevaux received me among them with great kindness.

to be continued...

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