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March 27, 2024

Her Lenten Sacrifice, by Merilani

Published in the Picton Gazette, 5 April 1901

“Oh, Cross of Christ? Is there no other way?”

The voice of the Angelus seemed to moan in answer from the belfry: “No other way, … no other way; … no other way.

“Then it shall be!”

***

Annetta had not slept the whole long night, but had tossed upon her hard bed—the kind of bed she used for penance sake—only falling into a wretched half-slumber toward the darkest hour. Now the six o’clock bell was sounding from the near church as she knelt upon the white fur rug beside the grate.

Candles flickered above the mantel, chasing weird shadows into every corner of the room and gleaming in the gloss of her dark hair. Annetta never lost an opportunity for beautiful effects, even in her heights and depths, in ecstacy and woe; and she loved the soft light of tapers. This was her home altar, and she its white robed priestess.

It was the beginning of Lent, and she had draped the chimney-piece, in this old-fashioned room, with the richest of violet velvet, placing many candles before it. It was like a midnight sky, glowing with unsteady stars.

Her rosary of ebony and gold was wound about a slender wrist, and the gold crucifix she clutches in her wonderful white hand.

Never were hands more expressive. Every turn of them uttered speech, and in her wild mood they cried out appealingly to Heaven, when words would have failed to interpret the depth of her soul’s passion.

Two black braids curved about beautiful shoulders and followed the white gown till they touched the rug on which she knelt. The great lustrous eyes were lit with vestal fires—too holy to be human, too chaste for earth.

She looked about the room alertly, with a hunted, fearful glance. Her grasp loosened; the crucifix slipped to the floor; and being sure that she was alone, she drew from the pocket above her breast a very little thing.

What was it? Will you think her mad? It was but the picture of a hand—his hand, that she had held against her lips, for he was very sacred to her. He did not dream she had it—had cut it from a likeness in which the face did not satisfy her. But the hand! It was so living. She could feel it now upon her hair.

This scrap of pasteboard she held as fiercely as she had but lately held the cross. They were being weighed in a delicate balance.

The outer layer of Annette’s nature was very religious, and in her religion she was sincerely devout; but the depths—only of late stirred—were mightily human. So that the terrible tension between Duty and Desire were striving in the Arena, made her already pale flesh creep, and her eyes throw dangerous lights.

She recalled the last evening with her lover, before he had gone abroad to study in Germany.

“Oh, don’t forget me,” he had begged, with a sob in his voice, for they were to be parted so long and so distantly.

They had slipped from her rose arbor through a by-path into the convent gardens. Hemlocks were all about, and glintings of moonlight came cautiously through the lace-work of leaves.

“No matter what father says, I cannot give you up. Oh, Annette!”

Then they were so still for a very long time, each dreading the parting. But an ugly owl with a shrill cry overhead, startled them both as though they had been children doing wrong.

There is an ill omen connected with the booting of an owl when lovers are together in the moonlight; but Annette bravely shook off her fears and set about to reason her lover, who was deeply superstitious. It required many a tender word to restore the glad light to his dear face, but it was worth all the love she gave. There in the moonlight she softly sang “The Rosary,” and together they kissed the cross.—She promised him to be forever faithful.

Forever faithful! The words mocked her now. How had she kept the faith?

But then she remembered another meeting—a meeting with his father, who guessed she would be keeping tryst, with a ghost of Memory among the hemlocks, and had followed her there.

What a courtly old gentleman he was. What a charming man. His white hair, his godly face, his proud head—these were vivid in her brain.—He was a most devout Catholic, reverenced only second to the Pere in that French Canadian town; and this scholar son he had cherished long as set apart and sacred to the Church. It had been his darling wish for twenty years and more to have this boy a priest.

In faltering tones he pleaded. Oh God! If the voices had not been so alike! Yet not with the vigorous passionate outbursts of the younger:

“Annette, I love you as a daughter. But listen to me!” (this superbly royal). “For his sake do this!” (What fiend impelled him to utter “for his sake?” Nothing else would so have moved her!) “Do not stand between him and the mother Church. What is an earthly marriage compared with this great union?”

Then more gently:

“I know you will heed me, my child.” (He laid a hand tenderly on her hair. Oh, that hand on her hair!)

“It is a noble sacrifice; and only through sacrifice is there any hope hereafter!”

“I cannot—oh, I cannot!”

And she fled away, moaning, to the house, as though every grey ghost in the hemlocks pursued her.

***

It was then she tossed all night upon her bed. She was no woman to weep. Wounds and sacrifices went deeper. Rich, red blood dripped from her heart, which no iron could ever give back to the sinking well of life.

After uttering the final “It shall be!” she saw tall, pale Duty standing conqueror above Desire, who had fallen, but fallen not unbravely.

The sight gladdened her not—it may have gladdened the angels in Heave—and her body sank in abject misery. As she lay there, so still, upon the white rug, the silent watchers saw a tragedy of a soul.

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