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The Spinner's Book of Fiction

by Various

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ISTER TERESA had wept bitterly for two days. The vanity for which she did penance whenever her madonna loveliness, consummated by the white robe and veil of her novitiate, tempted her to one of the little mirrors in the pupil's dormitory, was powerless to check the blighting flow. There had been moments when she had argued that her vanity had its rights, for had it not played its part in weaning her from the world?—that wicked world of San Francisco, whose very breath, accompanying her family on their monthly visits to Benicia, made her cross herself and pray that all good girls whom fate had stranded there should find the peace and shelter of Saint Catherine of Siena. It was true that before Sister Dominica toiled up Rincon Hill on that wonderful day—here her sobs became so violent that Sister María Sal, praying beside her with a face as swollen as her own, gave her a sharp poke in the ribs, and she pressed her hands to her mouth lest she be marched away. But her thoughts flowed on; she could pray no more. Sister Dominica, with her romantic history and holy life, her halo of fame in the young country, and her unconquerable beauty—she had never seen such eyelashes, never, never!—what was she thinking of at such a time? She had never believed that such divine radiance could emanate from any mortal; never had dreamed that beauty and grace could be so enhanced by a white robe and a black veil——Oh, well! Her mind was in a rebellious mood; it had been in leash too long. And what of it for once in a way? No ball dress she had ever seen in the gay disreputable little city—where the good citizens hung the bad for want of law—was half as becoming as the habit of the Dominican nun, and if it played a part in weaning frivolous girls from the world, so much more to the credit of Rome. God knew she had never regretted her flight up the bays, and even had it not been for the perfidy of—she had forgotten his name; that at least was dead!—she would have realized her vocation the moment Sister Dominica sounded the call. When the famous nun, with that passionate humility all her own, had implored her to renounce the world, protested that her vocation was written in her face—she really looked like a juvenile mater dolorosa, particularly when she rolled up her eyes—eloquently demanded what alternative that hideous embryo of a city could give her—that rude and noisy city that looked as if it had been tossed together in a night after one of its periodical fires, where the ill-made sidewalks tripped the unwary foot, or the winter mud was like a swamp, where the alarm bell summoned the Vigilance Committee day and night to protect or avenge, where a coarse and impertinent set of adventurers stared at and followed an inoffensive nun who only left the holy calm of the convent at the command of the Bishop to rescue brands from the burning; then had Teresa, sick with the tragedy of youth, an enchanting vision of secluded paths, where nuns—in white—walked with downcast eyes and folded hands; of the daily ecstasy of prayer in the convent chapel misty with incense.

And in some inscrutable way Sister Dominica during that long conversation, while Mrs. Grace and her other daughters dispensed egg-nog in the parlor—it was New Year's Day—had made the young girl a part of her very self, until Teresa indulged the fancy that without and within she was a replica of that Concha Argüello of California's springtime; won her heart so completely that she would have followed her not only into the comfortable and incomparably situated convent of the saint of Siena, but barefooted into that wilderness of Soledad where the Indians still prayed for their lost "Beata." It was just eight months tonight since she had taken her first vows, and she had been honestly aware that there was no very clear line of demarcation in her fervent young mind between her love of Sister Dominica and her love of God. Tonight, almost prostrate before the coffin of the dead nun, she knew that so far at least all the real passion of her youth had flowed in an undeflected tide about the feet of that remote and exquisite being whose personal charm alone had made a convent possible in the chaos that followed the discovery of gold. All the novices, many of the older nuns, the pupils invariably, worshipped Sister Dominica; whose saintliness without austerity never chilled them, but whose tragic story and the impression she made of already dwelling in a heaven of her own, notwithstanding her sweet and consistent humanity, placed her on a pinnacle where any display of affection would have been unseemly. Only once, after the beautiful ceremony of taking the white veil was over, and Teresa's senses were faint from incense and hunger, ecstasy and a new and exquisite terror, Sister Dominica had led her to her cell and kissing her lightly on the brow, exclaimed that she had never been happier in a conquest for the Church against the vileness of the world. Then she had dropped the conventional speech of her calling, and said with an expression that made her look so young, so curiously virginal, that the novice had held her breath: "Remember that here there is nothing to interrupt the life of the imagination, nothing to change its course, like the thousand conflicting currents that batter memory and character to pieces in the world. In this monotonous round of duty and prayer the mind is free, the heart remains ever young, the soul unspotted; so that when——" She had paused, hesitated a moment, then abruptly left the room, and Teresa had wept a torrent in her disappointment that this first of California's heroines—whose place in history and romance was assured—had not broken her reserve and told her all that story of many versions. She had begged Sister María Sal—the sister of Luis Argüello's first wife—to tell it her, but the old nun had reproved her sharply for sinful curiosity and upon one occasion boxed her ears. But tonight she might be in a softer mood, and Teresa resolved that when the last rites were over she would make her talk of Concha Argüello....