Above the door of the refectory this prayer, which was called
the white Paternoster, and which possessed the property of bearing
people straight to paradise, was inscribed in large black letters:--
"Little white Paternoster, which God made, which God said,
which God placed in paradise. In the evening, when I went
to bed, I found three angels sitting on my bed, one at the foot,
two at the head, the good Virgin Mary in the middle, who told
me to lie down without hesitation. The good God is my father,
the good Virgin is my mother, the three apostles are my brothers,
the three virgins are my sisters. The shirt in which God was born
envelopes my body; Saint Margaret's cross is written on my breast.
Madame the Virgin was walking through the meadows, weeping for God,
when she met M. Saint John. `Monsieur Saint John, whence come you?'
`I come from Ave Salus.' `You have not seen the good God; where is he?'
`He is on the tree of the Cross, his feet hanging, his hands nailed,
a little cap of white thorns on his head.' Whoever shall say this
thrice at eventide, thrice in the morning, shall win paradise at
In 1827 this characteristic orison had disappeared from the wall
under a triple coating of daubing paint. At the present time it
is finally disappearing from the memories of several who were young
girls then, and who are old women now.
A large crucifix fastened to the wall completed the decoration
of this refectory, whose only door, as we think we have mentioned,
opened on the garden. Two narrow tables, each flanked by two
wooden benches, formed two long parallel lines from one end
to the other of the refectory. The walls were white, the tables
were black; these two mourning colors constitute the only variety
in convents. The meals were plain, and the food of the children
themselves severe. A single dish of meat and vegetables combined,
or salt fish--such was their luxury. This meagre fare, which was
reserved for the pupils alone, was, nevertheless, an exception.
The children ate in silence, under the eye of the mother whose
turn it was, who, if a fly took a notion to fly or to hum against
the rule, opened and shut a wooden book from time to time.
This silence was seasoned with the lives of the saints, read aloud
from a little pulpit with a desk, which was situated at the foot of
the crucifix. The reader was one of the big girls, in weekly turn.
At regular distances, on the bare tables, there were large,
varnished bowls in which the pupils washed their own silver cups
and knives and forks, and into which they sometimes threw some scrap
of tough meat or spoiled fish; this was punished. These bowls were
called ronds d'eau. The child who broke the silence "made a cross
with her tongue." Where? On the ground. She licked the pavement.
The dust, that end of all joys, was charged with the chastisement
of those poor little rose-leaves which had been guilty of chirping.
There was in the convent a book which has never been printed except
as a unique copy, and which it is forbidden to read. It is the rule
of Saint-Benoit. An arcanum which no profane eye must penetrate.
Nemo regulas, seu constitutiones nostras, externis communicabit.
The pupils one day succeeded in getting possession of this book,
and set to reading it with avidity, a reading which was often
interrupted by the fear of being caught, which caused them to close
the volume precipitately.
From the great danger thus incurred they derived but a very moderate
amount of pleasure. The most "interesting thing" they found
were some unintelligible pages about the sins of young boys.
They played in an alley of the garden bordered with a few shabby
fruit-trees. In spite of the extreme surveillance and the severity
of the punishments administered, when the wind had shaken the trees,
they sometimes succeeded in picking up a green apple or a spoiled
apricot or an inhabited pear on the sly. I will now cede the privilege
of speech to a letter which lies before me, a letter written five
and twenty years ago by an old pupil, now Madame la Duchesse de----
one of the most elegant women in Paris. I quote literally:
"One hides one's pear or one's apple as best one may.
When one goes up stairs to put the veil on the bed before supper,
one stuffs them under one's pillow and at night one eats them
in bed, and when one cannot do that, one eats them in the closet."
That was one of their greatest luxuries.
Once--it was at the epoch of the visit from the archbishop to the convent--
one of the young girls, Mademoiselle Bouchard, who was connected
with the Montmorency family, laid a wager that she would ask for
a day's leave of absence--an enormity in so austere a community.
The wager was accepted, but not one of those who bet believed that she
would do it. When the moment came, as the archbishop was passing
in front of the pupils, Mademoiselle Bouchard, to the indescribable
terror of her companions, stepped out of the ranks, and said,
"Monseigneur, a day's leave of absence." Mademoiselle Bouchard
was tall, blooming, with the prettiest little rosy face in the world.
M. de Quelen smiled and said, "What, my dear child, a day's leave
of absence! Three days if you like. I grant you three days."
The prioress could do nothing; the archbishop had spoken.
Horror of the convent, but joy of the pupil. The effect may
This stern cloister was not so well walled off, however, but that the
life of the passions of the outside world, drama, and even romance,
did not make their way in. To prove this, we will confine
ourselves to recording here and to briefly mentioning a real
and incontestable fact, which, however, bears no reference
in itself to, and is not connected by any thread whatever with
the story which we are relating. We mention the fact for the
sake of completing the physiognomy of the convent in the reader's mind.
About this time there was in the convent a mysterious person
who was not a nun, who was treated with great respect, and who
was addressed as Madame Albertine. Nothing was known about her,
save that she was mad, and that in the world she passed for dead.
Beneath this history it was said there lay the arrangements of fortune
necessary for a great marriage.
This woman, hardly thirty years of age, of dark complexion
and tolerably pretty, had a vague look in her large black eyes.
Could she see? There was some doubt about this. She glided rather
than walked, she never spoke; it was not quite known whether
she breathed. Her nostrils were livid and pinched as after yielding
up their last sigh. To touch her hand was like touching snow.
She possessed a strange spectral grace. Wherever she entered,
people felt cold. One day a sister, on seeing her pass, said to
another sister, "She passes for a dead woman." "Perhaps she is one,"
replied the other.
A hundred tales were told of Madame Albertine. This arose from the
eternal curiosity of the pupils. In the chapel there was a gallery
called L'OEil de Boeuf. It was in this gallery, which had only
a circular bay, an oeil de boeuf, that Madame Albertine listened
to the offices. She always occupied it alone because this gallery,
being on the level of the first story, the preacher or the
officiating priest could be seen, which was interdicted to the nuns.
One day the pulpit was occupied by a young priest of high rank,
M. Le Duc de Rohan, peer of France, officer of the Red Musketeers
in 1815 when he was Prince de Leon, and who died afterward,
in 1830, as cardinal and Archbishop of Besancon. It was the first
time that M. de Rohan had preached at the Petit-Picpus convent.
Madame Albertine usually preserved perfect calmness and complete
immobility during the sermons and services. That day, as soon
as she caught sight of M. de Rohan, she half rose, and said, in a
loud voice, amid the silence of the chapel, "Ah! Auguste!" The whole
community turned their heads in amazement, the preacher raised
his eyes, but Madame Albertine had relapsed into her immobility.
A breath from the outer world, a flash of life, had passed for an
instant across that cold and lifeless face and had then vanished,
and the mad woman had become a corpse again.
Those two words, however, had set every one in the convent who
had the privilege of speech to chattering. How many things were
contained in that "Ah! Auguste!" what revelations! M. de Rohan's
name really was Auguste. It was evident that Madame Albertine
belonged to the very highest society, since she knew M. de Rohan,
and that her own rank there was of the highest, since she spoke
thus familiarly of so great a lord, and that there existed between
them some connection, of relationship, perhaps, but a very close
one in any case, since she knew his "pet name."
Two very severe duchesses, Mesdames de Choiseul and de Serent,
often visited the community, whither they penetrated, no doubt,
in virtue of the privilege Magnates mulieres, and caused great
consternation in the boarding-school. When these two old ladies
passed by, all the poor young girls trembled and dropped their eyes.
Moreover, M. de Rohan, quite unknown to himself, was an object of
attention to the school-girls. At that epoch he had just been made,
while waiting for the episcopate, vicar-general of the Archbishop
of Paris. It was one of his habits to come tolerably often to celebrate
the offices in the chapel of the nuns of the Petit-Picpus. Not one
of the young recluses could see him, because of the serge curtain,
but he had a sweet and rather shrill voice, which they had come
to know and to distinguish. He had been a mousquetaire, and then,
he was said to be very coquettish, that his handsome brown hair
was very well dressed in a roll around his head, and that he had
a broad girdle of magnificent moire, and that his black cassock
was of the most elegant cut in the world. He held a great place
in all these imaginations of sixteen years.
Not a sound from without made its way into the convent. But there
was one year when the sound of a flute penetrated thither.
This was an event, and the girls who were at school there at the time
still recall it.
It was a flute which was played in the neighborhood. This flute
always played the same air, an air which is very far away
nowadays,--"My Zetulbe, come reign o'er my soul,"--and it was heard
two or three times a day. The young girls passed hours in listening
to it, the vocal mothers were upset by it, brains were busy,
punishments descended in showers. This lasted for several months.
The girls were all more or less in love with the unknown musician.
Each one dreamed that she was Zetulbe. The sound of the flute
proceeded from the direction of the Rue Droit-Mur; and they would
have given anything, compromised everything, attempted anything
for the sake of seeing, of catching a glance, if only for a second,
of the "young man" who played that flute so deliciously, and who,
no doubt, played on all these souls at the same time. There were some
who made their escape by a back door, and ascended to the third story
on the Rue Droit-Mur side, in order to attempt to catch a glimpse
through the gaps. Impossible! One even went so far as to thrust
her arm through the grating, and to wave her white handkerchief.
Two were still bolder. They found means to climb on a roof, and risked
their lives there, and succeeded at last in seeing "the young man."
He was an old emigre gentleman, blind and penniless, who was playing
his flute in his attic, in order to pass the time.