BOOK IV: The White Mulberry Tree
The Church has always held that life is for the living. On Saturday,
while half the village of Sainte-Agnes was mourning for Amedee and
preparing the funeral black for his burial on Monday, the other
half was busy with white dresses and white veils for the great
confirmation service to-morrow, when the bishop was to confirm a
class of one hundred boys and girls. Father Duchesne divided his
time between the living and the dead. All day Saturday the church
was a scene of bustling activity, a little hushed by the thought
of Amedee. The choir were busy rehearsing a mass of Rossini, which
they had studied and practised for this occasion. The women were
trimming the altar, the boys and girls were bringing flowers.
On Sunday morning the bishop was to drive overland to Sainte-Agnes
from Hanover, and Emil Bergson had been asked to take the place of
one of Amedee's cousins in the cavalcade of forty French boys who
were to ride across country to meet the bishop's carriage. At
six o'clock on Sunday morning the boys met at the church. As they
stood holding their horses by the bridle, they talked in low tones
of their dead comrade. They kept repeating that Amedee had always
been a good boy, glancing toward the red brick church which had
played so large a part in Amedee's life, had been the scene of his
most serious moments and of his happiest hours. He had played and
wrestled and sung and courted under its shadow. Only three weeks
ago he had proudly carried his baby there to be christened. They
could not doubt that that invisible arm was still about Amedee; that
through the church on earth he had passed to the church triumphant,
the goal of the hopes and faith of so many hundred years.
When the word was given to mount, the young men rode at a walk out
of the village; but once out among the wheatfields in the morning
sun, their horses and their own youth got the better of them. A
wave of zeal and fiery enthusiasm swept over them. They longed
for a Jerusalem to deliver. The thud of their galloping hoofs
interrupted many a country breakfast and brought many a woman and
child to the door of the farmhouses as they passed. Five miles east
of Sainte-Agnes they met the bishop in his open carriage, attended
by two priests. Like one man the boys swung off their hats in a
broad salute, and bowed their heads as the handsome old man lifted
his two fingers in the episcopal blessing. The horsemen closed
about the carriage like a guard, and whenever a restless horse broke
from control and shot down the road ahead of the body, the bishop
laughed and rubbed his plump hands together. "What fine boys!" he
said to his priests. "The Church still has her cavalry."
As the troop swept past the graveyard half a mile east of the
town,--the first frame church of the parish had stood there,--old
Pierre Seguin was already out with his pick and spade, digging
Amedee's grave. He knelt and uncovered as the bishop passed. The
boys with one accord looked away from old Pierre to the red church
on the hill, with the gold cross flaming on its steeple.
Mass was at eleven. While the church was filling, Emil Bergson waited
outside, watching the wagons and buggies drive up the hill. After
the bell began to ring, he saw Frank Shabata ride up on horseback
and tie his horse to the hitch-bar. Marie, then, was not coming.
Emil turned and went into the church. Amedee's was the only empty
pew, and he sat down in it. Some of Amedee's cousins were there,
dressed in black and weeping. When all the pews were full, the
old men and boys packed the open space at the back of the church,
kneeling on the floor. There was scarcely a family in town that was
not represented in the confirmation class, by a cousin, at least.
The new communicants, with their clear, reverent faces, were beautiful
to look upon as they entered in a body and took the front benches
reserved for them. Even before the Mass began, the air was charged
with feeling. The choir had never sung so well and Raoul Marcel,
in the "Gloria," drew even the bishop's eyes to the organ loft.
For the offertory he sang Gounod's "Ave Maria,"-- always spoken of
in Sainte-Agnes as "the Ave Maria."
Emil began to torture himself with questions about Marie. Was she
ill? Had she quarreled with her husband? Was she too unhappy to
find comfort even here? Had she, perhaps, thought that he would
come to her? Was she waiting for him? Overtaxed by excitement
and sorrow as he was, the rapture of the service took hold upon his
body and mind. As he listened to Raoul, he seemed to emerge from
the conflicting emotions which had been whirling him about and
sucking him under. He felt as if a clear light broke upon his
mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger
than evil, and that good was possible to men. He seemed to discover
that there was a kind of rapture in which he could love forever
without faltering and without sin. He looked across the heads of
the people at Frank Shabata with calmness. That rapture was for those
who could feel it; for people who could not, it was non-existent.
He coveted nothing that was Frank Shabata's. The spirit he had
met in music was his own. Frank Shabata had never found it; would
never find it if he lived beside it a thousand years; would have
destroyed it if he had found it, as Herod slew the innocents, as
Rome slew the martyrs.
wailed Raoul from the organ loft;
O--ra pro no-o-bis!
And it did not occur to Emil that any one had ever reasoned thus
before, that music had ever before given a man this equivocal
The confirmation service followed the Mass. When it was over, the
congregation thronged about the newly confirmed. The girls, and
even the boys, were kissed and embraced and wept over. All the
aunts and grandmothers wept with joy. The housewives had much ado
to tear themselves away from the general rejoicing and hurry back
to their kitchens. The country parishioners were staying in town
for dinner, and nearly every house in Sainte-Agnes entertained
visitors that day. Father Duchesne, the bishop, and the visiting
priests dined with Fabien Sauvage, the banker. Emil and Frank
Shabata were both guests of old Moise Marcel. After dinner Frank
and old Moise retired to the rear room of the saloon to play
California Jack and drink their cognac, and Emil went over to the
banker's with Raoul, who had been asked to sing for the bishop.
At three o'clock, Emil felt that he could stand it no longer. He
slipped out under cover of "The Holy City," followed by Malvina's
wistful eye, and went to the stable for his mare. He was at that
height of excitement from which everything is foreshortened, from
which life seems short and simple, death very near, and the soul
seems to soar like an eagle. As he rode past the graveyard he looked
at the brown hole in the earth where Amedee was to lie, and felt
no horror. That, too, was beautiful, that simple doorway into
forgetfulness. The heart, when it is too much alive, aches for
that brown earth, and ecstasy has no fear of death. It is the old
and the poor and the maimed who shrink from that brown hole; its
wooers are found among the young, the passionate, the gallant-hearted.
It was not until he had passed the graveyard that Emil realized
where he was going. It was the hour for saying good-bye. It might
be the last time that he would see her alone, and today he could
leave her without rancor, without bitterness.
Everywhere the grain stood ripe and the hot afternoon was full of
the smell of the ripe wheat, like the smell of bread baking in an
oven. The breath of the wheat and the sweet clover passed him like
pleasant things in a dream. He could feel nothing but the sense of
diminishing distance. It seemed to him that his mare was flying,
or running on wheels, like a railway train. The sunlight, flashing
on the window-glass of the big red barns, drove him wild with joy.
He was like an arrow shot from the bow. His life poured itself
out along the road before him as he rode to the Shabata farm.
When Emil alighted at the Shabatas' gate, his horse was in a lather.
He tied her in the stable and hurried to the house. It was empty.
She might be at Mrs. Hiller's or with Alexandra. But anything
that reminded him of her would be enough, the orchard, the mulberry
tree. . . When he reached the orchard the sun was hanging low over
the wheatfield. Long fingers of light reached through the apple
branches as through a net; the orchard was riddled and shot with
gold; light was the reality, the trees were merely interferences
that reflected and refracted light. Emil went softly down between
the cherry trees toward the wheatfield. When he came to the corner,
he stopped short and put his hand over his mouth. Marie was lying
on her side under the white mulberry tree, her face half hidden in
the grass, her eyes closed, her hands lying limply where they had
happened to fall. She had lived a day of her new life of perfect
love, and it had left her like this. Her breast rose and fell
faintly, as if she were asleep. Emil threw himself down beside
her and took her in his arms. The blood came back to her cheeks,
her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face
and the orchard and the sun. "I was dreaming this," she whispered,
hiding her face against him, "don't take my dream away!"