Chapter 9




It rained during the afternoon, and Dalrymple sat in his small laboratory, among his books and the simple apparatus he used for his experiments. His little window was closed, and the southwest wind drove the shower against the clouded panes of glass, so that the rain came through the ill-fitted strips of lead which joined them, and ran down in small streams to the channel in the stone sill, whence the water found its way out through a hole running through the wall. He sat in his rush-bottomed chair, sideways by the deal table, one long leg crossed over the other. His hand lay on an open book, and his fingers occasionally tapped the page impatiently, while his eyes were fixed on the window, watching the driving rain.

He was not thinking, for he could not think. Over and over again the scene of the morning came back to him and sent the hot blood rushing to his throat. He tried to reflect, indeed, and to see whether what he had done was to have any consequences for him, or was to be left behind in his life, like a lovely view seen from a carriage window on a swift journey, gone before it is half seen, and never to be seen again, except in dreams. But he was utterly unable to look forward and reason about the future. Everything dragged him back, up the steep ascent to the convent, through the arched ways and vaulted corridors, to the room in which he had passed the supreme moments of his life. The only distinct impression of the future was the strong desire to feel again what he had felt that day; to feel it again and again, and always, as long as feeling could last; to stretch out his hands and take, to close them and hold, to make his, indubitably, what had been but questionably his for an instant, to get the one thing worth having, for himself, and only for himself. For the passion of a strong man is loving and taking, and the passion of a good woman is loving and giving. Dalrymple reasoned well enough, later,—too well, perhaps,—but during those hours he spent alone on that day, there was no power of reasoning in him. The world was the woman he loved, and the world's orbit was but the circle of his clasping arms. Beyond them was chaos, without form and void, clouded as the rain-streaked panes of his little window.

He looked at his watch more than once. At last he rose, threw a cloak over his shoulders and went out, locking the door of the little laboratory behind him as he always did, and thrusting the unwieldy key into his pocket.

He climbed the hill to the convent, taking the short cut through the narrow lanes. The rain had almost ceased, and the wet mist that blew round the corners of the dark houses was pleasant in his face. But he scarcely knew what he saw and felt on his way. He reached the convent church and went in, and stood by one of the pillars near the door.

It was a small church, built with a great choir for the nuns behind the high altar; from each side of the latter a high wooden screen extended to the walls, completely cutting off the space. It was dark, too, especially in such weather, and almost deserted, save for a number of old women who knelt on the damp marble pavement, some leaning against the backs of chairs, some resting one arm upon the plastered bases of the yellow marble columns. There were many lights on the high altar. Two acolytes, rough-headed boys of Subiaco, knelt within the altar rail, dressed in black cassocks and clean linen cottas. Two priests and a young deacon sat side by side on the right of the altar, with small black books in their hands. The nuns were chanting, unseen in the choir. No one noticed Dalrymple, wrapped in his cloak, as he leaned against the pillar near the door. His head was a little inclined, involuntarily respectful to ceremonies he neither believed in nor understood, but which had in them the imposing element of devout earnestness. Yet his eyes were raised and looked up from under his brows, steadily and watchfully, for he knew that Maria Addolorata was behind the screen, and from the first moment of entering the church it seemed to him that he could distinguish her voice from the rest.

He knew that it was hers, though he had never heard her sing. There was in all those sweet, colourless tones one tone that made ringing harmonies in his strong heart. Amongst all those mingling accents, there was one accent that touched his soul. Amidst the echoes that died softly away under the dim arches, there was one echo that died not, but rang on and on in his ears. There was a voice not like other voices there, nor like any he had ever heard. Many were strong and sweet; this one was not sweet and strong only, but alive with a divine life, winged with divine wings, essential of immortality, touching beyond tears, passionate as the living, breathing, sighing, dying world, grand as a flood of light, sad as the twilight of gods, full as a great water swinging to the tide of the summer's moon, fine-drawn as star-rays—a voice of gold.

As Dalrymple stood there in the shadow, he heard it singing to him and telling him all that he had not been told in words, all that he felt, and more also. For there was in it the passion of the woman, and the passionate remorse of the nun, the towering love of Maria Braccio, woman and princess, and the deep despair of Maria Addolorata, nun and sinner, unfaithful spouse of the Lord Christ, accused and self-accusing, self-wronged, self-judged, but condemned of God and foretasting the ultimate tragedy that is eternal—the tragedy of supreme hell.

The man who stood there knew that it was his doing, and the burden of his deeds bowed him bodily as he stood. But still he listened, and, as she sung, he watched her lips in the dark, inner mirror of sin's memory, and they drew him on.

Little by little, he heard only her voice, and the others chanted but faintly as from an infinite distance. And then, not in his thought, but in deed, she was singing alone, and the words of 'O Salutaris Hostia,' sounded in the dim church as they had never sounded before, nor could ever sound again, the appeal of a lost soul's agony to God, the glory of golden voice, the accent of transcendent genius, the passion, the strength, the despair, of an ancient race.

In the dark church the coarse, sad peasant women bowed themselves upon the pavement. One of them sobbed aloud and beat her breast. Angus Dalrymple kneeled upon one knee and pressed his brow against the foot of the pillar, kneeling neither to God, nor to the Sacred Host, nor to man's belief in Heaven or Hell, neither praying nor blaspheming, neither hoping nor dreading, but spell-bound upon a wrack of torture that was heart-breaking delight, his senses torn and strained to the utmost of his strong endurance, to the very scream of passion, his soul crucified upon the exquisite loveliness of his sin.

Then all was still for an instant. Again there was a sound of voices, as the nuns sang in chorus the 'Tantum Ergo.' But the voice of voices was silent among them. The solemn Benediction blessed the just and the unjust alike. The short verses and responses of the priests broke the air that still seemed alive and trembling.

Dalrymple rose slowly, and wrapped his cloak about him. Above the footsteps of the women going out of the church, he could hear the soft sound of all the nuns moving together as they left the choir. He knew that she was with them, and he stood motionless in his place till silence descended as a curtain between him and what had been. Then, with bent head, he went out into the rain that poured through the dim twilight.




 



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