The Legend of Sister Beatrix
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Title: The Legend of Sister Beatrix
Author: Charles Nodier
Translator: Michael Wooff
Release Date: May 22, 2018 [EBook #57202]
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Produced by Michael Wooff
The Legend of Sister Beatrix
Charles Nodier (1780-1844)
Not far from the highest peak in the Jura, but descending alittle down its slope facing west, one could still see, goingon for half a century ago, a mass of ruins that had belongedto the church and the convent of Our Lady of the Flowering Thorns.It is at one end of a deep and narrow gorge, much more shelteredto the north, which produces each year, thanks to its favourableaspect, the rarest flowers of that region. Half a league fromthere, from the opposite end of the gorge, the debris of anancient manor house is visible which has itself disappearedlike the house of God. We only know that it used to be livedin by a family renowned for its feats of arms and that the lastof the noble knights to bear its name died in winning back thetomb of Jesus Christ for Christians without an heir to propagatehis line. His inconsolable widow would not abandon a place soconducive to the upkeep of her melancholy, but the rumour ofher piety spread far and wide as did her works of charity anda glorious tradition has perpetuated her memory for futuregenerations of Christians. The people, who have forgotten allher other names, still call her THE SAINT.
On one of those days when winter, coming to an end, suddenlyrelaxes its rigour under the influence of a temperate sky, THESAINT was walking, as usual, down the long driveway leading toher castle, her mind given over to pious meditations. She camein this way to the thorny bushes that still mark its end, andsaw, with no little surprise, that one of these shrubs hadtaken on already all its springtime finery. She hastened toget nearer to it in order to assure herself that this semblancewas not produced by a remnant of snow that had failed to melt,and, delighted to see it crowned, in effect, by an innumerablemultitude of beautiful little white stars with rays of crimson,she carefully detached a branch to hang it in her oratory beforea picture of the Virgin Mary she had held in great reverencesince childhood, and went back joyfully to take to her thisinnocent offering. Whether this modest tribute really pleasedthe divine mother of Jesus or whether a special pleasure, whichit is difficult to define, is reserved for the least outpouringof a tender heart to the object of its affection, never had thesoul of the chatelaine been as open to more ineffable emotionsthan those she felt that mild evening. She promised herself,with a joy that was ingenuous, to go back every day to the bushin bloom in order to daily bring back a fresh garland. We maywell believe that she was faithful to that promise.
One day, however, when her care for the poor and sick had kepther busy longer than usual, it was in vain that she hurried toreach her wild flowerbed. Night got there before her, and it issaid that she started to regret having let herself be taken overquite so much by this solitary place, when a clarity calm andpure, like that which comes to us with daylight, suddenly showedher all her flowering thorns. She stopped walking for a moment,struck by the thought that this light might emanate from a campfire made by bandits, for it was impossible to imagine it havingbeen produced by myriads of glow-worms, hatched before their time.The year was not far gone enough for the warm and peaceful nightsof summer. Nevertheless, her self-imposed obligation came to mindand gave her courage. She walked lightly, holding her breath,towards the bush with the white flowers, seized in a trembling handa branch which seemed to fall of itself between her fingers, solittle resistance it offered to her, and went back to her manorhouse without daring to look behind her.
For the whole of the subsequent night, the saintly lady ponderedthis phenomenon without being able to explain it, and, as she wasdetermined to solve this mystery, no sooner than the following day,at the same time in the evening, she went back to the bushes with afaithful servant and her old personal chaplain. The gentle lightshone there as it had the day before, and seemed, as they drewnear to it, to grow brighter and more radiant. They stopped thenand knelt down, as it seemed to them this light was coming downfrom heaven. After they had done this, the good priest got up byhimself and took a few respectful steps towards the floweringthorns singing a hymn of the church and brushed them aside easilyfor they opened like a veil. The spectacle that offered itselfto their sight at that moment inspired such admiration in themthat they stayed for a long time without moving, totally filledwith joy and gratitude. It was an image of the Virgin Mary,simply carved in common wood, brought to life by colours givento it by a brush that was rudimentary and wearing clothes thatgave a naive idea of luxury, but it was from her that emanatedthe wondrous splendour that illumined these precincts. "HailMary, full of grace," said the chaplain, who had now prostratedhimself, at last, and, to judge by the harmonious murmur whichpromptly arose through all the woods thereabouts after he haduttered these words, one could have thought them taken up by achoir of angels. He then solemnly proceeded to recite thoseadmirable litanies in which faith has, unknowingly, spoken thelanguage of the most elevated poetry, and, following on fromnew acts of worship, he picked the statue up so as to take itto the castle, where it was to find a sanctuary worthy of it,while the lady and the servant, hands joined together and withheads slightly bowed, slowly came after, merging their prayerswith his.
I do not need to say that the wonderful image was placed in anelegant niche, that it was surrounded by odorous candles, bathedin perfumes, laden with a rich crown, and acknowledged, till halfway through the night, by the hymns of the faithful. But, in themorning, it could no longer be found and all the Christians who,by gaining her, had been filled with such pure happiness, weremuch alarmed. What secret sin could have brought down this disgraceon the manor house of THE SAINT? Why had the Virgin Mary left it?What new resting place had she chosen? We may doubtless guess.The blessed mother of Jesus preferred the modest shadow of herfavourite bushes to the dazzle of an earthly dwelling. She hadgone back, in the midst of the coolness of the woods, to tastethe peace of solitude and the sweet exhalations of the flowers.All the people who lived in the castle went there at dusk andfound her there, even more resplendent than she had been theprevious night. They fell on their knees in respectful silence.
"Potent queen of angels!" said the chatelaine. "This is the abodeyou prefer. Your will be done."
And indeed, not long afterwards, a shrine embellished by all theadornments that an inspired architect could lavish on it in thosecenturies of feeling and imagination rose around that veneratedimage. The great and good of the earth wanted to enrich it withtheir gifts. Kings endowed it with a tabernacle of pure gold.The fame of Our Lady's miracles spread far and wide throughoutthe Christian world and summoned to the valley a multitude ofpious women who dwelt there according to a monastic rule. Thesaintly widow, more touched than ever by the light of grace,could not refuse the title of mother superior of this convent.She died there full of days after a life of good works, goodexamples and sacrifices which rose up like a perfume from thefoot of Our Lady's altars.
Such was, according to the handwritten records of the province,the origin of the church and convent of Our Lady of the FloweringThorns.
Two centuries had passed since the death of THE SAINT, and a youngvirgin in her extended family was still, according to custom, thesister custodian of the holy tabernacle, which means that she tookcare of it, and that it was her job to open the tabernacle on feastdays when the miraculous image was shown to the faithful. She itwas who had the care of maintaining the ever new elegance of OurLady's ornaments, of removing the dust from them and the harmfulinsects, of picking, to compose her crown or to adorn her altar,the most gracious flowers in the garden in their growth and themost chaste in their colour, forming chains, garlands and bouquetsthat attracted in their turn, through the great stained glass windowopen to the rising sun, a multitude of purple and azure butterflies,aerial flowers indicative of solitude. Among these tributes theflowering thorn was always given preference when in season, and,imitated in lieu of all the others with an art that the good nunshad stolen the secret of from nature, it rested on the breast ofthe beautiful Madonna as a thick clump knotted with a silver ribbon.The butterflies themselves might have slipped up sometimes, but theydid not dare to dwell on these celestial flowers which were not madefor them.
The sister custodian at that time was called Beatrix. Eighteenyears old at most, she had scarcely been told how pretty she was,for she had entered Our Lady's house when she was only fifteen,as pure and unspoilt as her flowers.
There is a happy or disastrous age at which a young girl's heartunderstands that it was created to love, and Beatrix had reachedit. But this need, initially vague and anxious, had only madeher duties more dear to her. Unable to explain then the secretmotions that agitated her so much, she had taken them to be thesymptoms of a pious fervour which accuses itself of not beingardent enough, and which feels obliged to love enthusiasticallyand to the point of madness. The unknown object of these lovingtendencies eluded her lack of experience, and among the objectsthat occupied the senses of her ingenuous heart, if we can putit like that, Our Lady alone seemed to her worthy of that deepadoration for which life itself could scarcely suffice. Thiscult of every passing moment had become the one thing her minddwelt on, the one thing that charmed her solitude. It filledeven her dreams with mysterious languors and ineffable acts ofworship. She was often to be seen stretched out in front ofthe tabernacle, breathing out to her divine patron prayers thatwere interspersed with sobs, or wetting the space around thealtar with her tears, and the celestial Virgin smiled no doubt,from the top of her eternal throne, at that happy and tendermistake on the part of the innocent, for the Holy Virgin lovedBeatrix and liked to be loved by her. Besides, she had perhapsdiscerned in Beatrix's heart that she always would be loved byher.
About that time there occurred an event that raised the veilunder which Beatrix's secret had remained so long hidden toherself. A young lord in those parts, having been attacked bymurderous footpads, was left in the forest for dead, and, thoughhe had only preserved at most the feeble semblance of a lifeabout to be extinguished, the convent servants transported himto their infirmary. As the daughters of chatelaines