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Arachne. No. 2

The Convent

The Convent

The Town Always mentioned it with a certain uneasiness. Nobody, however, could have said exactly why. Very old stories were still whispered around. Others which had been quite forgotten, more terrible ones perhaps, and which people sometimes tried to surmise, had left a sort of persistent and indefinite suspicion behind, of a degree of intensity long since fixed and unchanging, which, it was well-known, would never stop now without yet ever growing or decreasing. Thus rare or beautiful rumours pass from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation, and they will always be rumours as nobody desires to know more than their mere existence.

Perched high upon the craggy hill, or mound rather, but it was curiously steep, stood the black convent. What stone had been used to build it? What dust had been carried by the winds that had for centuries blown against it? It rather seemed as if it had not always served for a convent: it was no doubt a quaint old castle from before the middle ages, a primeval building, one of the first ever to be designed, sprung from the naive wayward fancy of a restless lord, or rather some refuge for brigands who had made a fortune and who, after their adventures, had suddenly settled there through the exigencies of new mystery.

The convent was black and dominated the town. What could happen in such a convent? Almoners were seen entering. The curious lay in watch, peering patiently. After long hours the almoners came out and returned to their own homes, but with their faces incredibly changed, their eyes downcast and averted, twisted with pain and stepping quickly and jerkily, seeming to flee forever from a forbidden domain, where yet, as they well knew, they were soon to return free and determined. And people also wondered from where all those visiting girls might come, seen in the town especially on winter evenings, when the sun sets early, mournfully dressed and seeming to be lost on the pavements, stumbling against passers-by, never the same ones but for ever vanishing at the end of a few days, after no more than wandering through the suburbs page 24 and around the station, as if gone astray, while nobody, however bold, dared to say a word to them or make any proposals. Small towns sometimes have such mysteries which all accept but obstinately refuse to plumb.

Had not one morning a thief, not knowing the town or the stories, suddenly put himself in the hands of the police? He admitted haveng scaled the convent walls at night and, as he crossed the central garden towards the buildings, he had been terror stricken at a ghastly sight: a group of vague figures were moving in the light of two torches; chants, barely murmured, came forth from this group. Between the two torches was a ditch, beside it the white body of a small child, a few days old at the most. The child was placed in the ditch, the ditch filled in and the place marked only by a mound of earth. And, as the shapes departed murmuring their last chant, preceded by the two torches, the frightened thief had been able to see that the garden lane along which they advanced, was bordered on both sides by a countless number of little knolls such as the one that had just been made. And the thief had given himself up: they had expelled him from the town, treating him as a madman.

The friend whom after long separation I was visiting with my wife, had told me all these tales without my feeling more than a curiosity unmixed with irritation, but also with that unthoughtful pleasure which had, it seemed, possessed so many. My wife appeared rather impressed by this story. The conversation, however, had passed from this topic to another with uncommon abruptness: the daughter of the house had an unexpected fit of anger, suddenly got up and, asserting an amazing personality, which she had never shown before, to her parents' consternation, had cried:

'If I could, I would go away.'

Her father had promptly answered in the most simple and natural manner:

'Go, you have my permission.'

The girl had then looked at her father for a long time and had not left. It seemed that yet all had been sincere and considered and that everyone was inwardly convinced of this. There was absolutely no justification for the girl to have remained in that house. None at all. I took care not to take part in these happenings in any way and signalled my wife to say and manifest nothing.

We were not slow to leave. I had the impression that my wife left that house with some regrets. However, there are feelings which cannot be talked about. Their realm is elsewhere, in occurrences repeated or recognized, in gestures believed to be accidental but in fact the calculated and precise manifestations of the great power we obstinately refuse to control from generation to generation.

The communications are never verbal. Then they are but a dreadful parody, sluggish and prepared, a perfect counterfeit, a masterly pattern of impostures and errors to which the minds of the weak and the satisfied restrict themselves.

The station was not very far: down to our right at the end of the street. To our left was the hill and one of the high convent walls which, recalling the conversation, I carefully scrutinized on the way. Suddenly, above the wall, I saw a white object in rapid movement, appearing and vanishing. Its identity soon became clear: it was an arm, a hand which, in a curious way, brandished a large white sheet of paper, definitely trying to attract the attention of someone outside the convent. I turned round. There was nobody. It must have been me at whom this was aimed. Then I saw a nun's head in her white cornet appear. I stopped, amazed. She saw I had noticed her and signalled wildly at me, asking me to come close to the foot of the wall. I hesitated. My wife had seen the design and thinking I know not what, strangely kept her eyes on me. I did not feel page 25 at ease. There was something indefinite against which I was powerless. Then the nun seemed rapidly to rumple the paper around some object, a stone most likely, threw it in front of her over the wall towards us, and disappeared. I dashed forwards but my wife held me strongly by the arm.

'Do not go.'

Perplexed, I looked at her.

'Do not go,' she repeated with an air of authority I had never seen from her before.

I stayed with her and we continued on our way to the station.

At the end of the road on the left we caught sight of the great massive convent gate. It was wide open and inside the sisters were busying themselves in the yard.

'I made enquiries,' said my wife. 'The door is never closed. Is it then necessary to be always so uneasy?'

(Published first in "84", No. 13; translation: E. Schwimmer)