THE LITTLE CONVENT
In this enclosure of the Petit-Picpus there were three perfectly
distinct buildings,--the Great Convent, inhabited by the nuns,
the Boarding-school, where the scholars were lodged; and lastly,
what was called the Little Convent. It was a building with a garden,
in which lived all sorts of aged nuns of various orders, the relics
of cloisters destroyed in the Revolution; a reunion of all the black,
gray, and white medleys of all communities and all possible varieties;
what might be called, if such a coupling of words is permissible,
a sort of harlequin convent.
When the Empire was established, all these poor old dispersed and
exiled women had been accorded permission to come and take shelter
under the wings of the Bernardines-Benedictines. The government
paid them a small pension, the ladies of the Petit-Picpus received
them cordially. It was a singular pell-mell. Each followed her
own rule, Sometimes the pupils of the boarding-school were allowed,
as a great recreation, to pay them a visit; the result is,
that all those young memories have retained among other souvenirs
that of Mother Sainte-Bazile, Mother Sainte-Scolastique, and Mother Jacob.
One of these refugees found herself almost at home. She was a nun
of Sainte-Aure, the only one of her order who had survived.
The ancient convent of the ladies of Sainte-Aure occupied,
at the beginning of the eighteenth century, this very house
of the Petit-Picpus, which belonged later to the Benedictines
of Martin Verga. This holy woman, too poor to wear the magnificent
habit of her order, which was a white robe with a scarlet scapulary,
had piously put it on a little manikin, which she exhibited with
complacency and which she bequeathed to the house at her death.
In 1824, only one nun of this order remained; to-day, there remains
only a doll.
In addition to these worthy mothers, some old society women
had obtained permission of the prioress, like Madame Albertine,
to retire into the Little Convent. Among the number were Madame
Beaufort d'Hautpoul and Marquise Dufresne. Another was never known
in the convent except by the formidable noise which she made when
she blew her nose. The pupils called her Madame Vacarmini (hubbub).
About 1820 or 1821, Madame de Genlis, who was at that time editing
a little periodical publication called l'Intrepide, asked to be
allowed to enter the convent of the Petit-Picpus as lady resident.
The Duc d'Orleans recommended her. Uproar in the hive; the vocal-mothers
were all in a flutter; Madame de Genlis had made romances.
But she declared that she was the first to detest them, and then,
she had reached her fierce stage of devotion. With the aid of God,
and of the Prince, she entered. She departed at the end of six
or eight months, alleging as a reason, that there was no shade
in the garden. The nuns were delighted. Although very old,
she still played the harp, and did it very well.
When she went away she left her mark in her cell. Madame de Genlis
was superstitious and a Latinist. These two words furnish a tolerably
good profile of her. A few years ago, there were still to be seen,
pasted in the inside of a little cupboard in her cell in which she
locked up her silverware and her jewels, these five lines in Latin,
written with her own hand in red ink on yellow paper, and which,
in her opinion, possessed the property of frightening away robbers:--
Imparibus meritis pendent tria corpora ramis:
Dismas et Gesmas, media est divina potestas;
Alta petit Dismas, infelix, infima, Gesmas;
Nos et res nostras conservet summa potestas.
Hos versus dicas, ne tu furto tua perdas.
 On the boughs hang three bodies of unequal merits:
Dismas and Gesmas, between is the divine power. Dismas seeks
the heights, Gesmas, unhappy man, the lowest regions; the highest
power will preserve us and our effects. If you repeat this verse,
you will not lose your things by theft.
These verses in sixth century Latin raise the question whether
the two thieves of Calvary were named, as is commonly believed,
Dismas and Gestas, or Dismas and Gesmas. This orthography might
have confounded the pretensions put forward in the last century
by the Vicomte de Gestas, of a descent from the wicked thief.
However, the useful virtue attached to these verses forms an article
of faith in the order of the Hospitallers.
The church of the house, constructed in such a manner as to separate
the Great Convent from the Boarding-school like a veritable intrenchment,
was, of course, common to the Boarding-school, the Great Convent,
and the Little Convent. The public was even admitted by a sort
of lazaretto entrance on the street. But all was so arranged,
that none of the inhabitants of the cloister could see a face
from the outside world. Suppose a church whose choir is grasped
in a gigantic hand, and folded in such a manner as to form, not,
as in ordinary churches, a prolongation behind the altar, but a sort
of hall, or obscure cellar, to the right of the officiating priest;
suppose this hall to be shut off by a curtain seven feet in height,
of which we have already spoken; in the shadow of that curtain,
pile up on wooden stalls the nuns in the choir on the left,
the school-girls on the right, the lay-sisters and the novices at
the bottom, and you will have some idea of the nuns of the Petit-Picpus
assisting at divine service. That cavern, which was called the choir,
communicated with the cloister by a lobby. The church was lighted
from the garden. When the nuns were present at services where their
rule enjoined silence, the public was warned of their presence
only by the folding seats of the stalls noisily rising and falling.