Sister Josepha by Alice Dunbar
Sister Josepha told her beads mechanically, her fingers numb with
the accustomed exercise. The little organ creaked a dismal "O
Salutaris," and she still knelt on the floor, her white-bonneted head
nodding suspiciously. The Mother Superior gave a sharp glance at the
tired figure; then, as a sudden lurch forward brought the little
sister back to consciousness, Mother's eyes relaxed into a genuine
The bell tolled the end of vespers, and the sombre-robed nuns
filed out of the chapel to go about their evening duties. Little
Sister Josepha's work was to attend to the household lamps, but there
must have been as much oil spilled upon the table to-night as was put
in the vessels. The small brown hands trembled so that most of the
wicks were trimmed with points at one corner which caused them to
smoke that night.
"Oh, cher Seigneur," she sighed, giving an impatient polish to a
refractory chimney, "it is wicked and sinful, I know, but I am so
tired. I can't be happy and sing any more. It doesn't seem right
for le bon Dieu to have me all cooped up here with nothing to see but
stray visitors, and always the same old work, teaching those mean
little girls to sew, and washing and filling the same old lamps.
Pah!" And she polished the chimney with a sudden vigorous jerk which
They were rebellious prayers that the red mouth murmured that
night, and a restless figure that tossed on the hard dormitory bed.
Sister Dominica called from her couch to know if Sister Josepha were
"No," was the somewhat short response; then a muttered, "Why can't
they let me alone for a minute? That pale-eyed Sister Dominica never
sleeps; that's why she is so ugly."
About fifteen years before this night some one had brought to the
orphan asylum connected with this convent, du Sacre Coeur, a round,
dimpled bit of three-year-old humanity, who regarded the world from a
pair of gravely twinkling black eyes, and only took a chubby thumb out
of a rosy mouth long enough to answer in monosyllabic French. It was
a child without an identity; there was but one name that any one
seemed to know, and that, too, was vague,--Camille.
She grew up with the rest of the waifs; scraps of French and
American civilization thrown together to develop a seemingly
inconsistent miniature world. Mademoiselle Camille was a queen among
them, a pretty little tyrant who ruled the children and dominated the
more timid sisters in charge.
One day an awakening came. When she was fifteen, and almost fully
ripened into a glorious tropical beauty of the type that matures
early, some visitors to the convent were fascinated by her and asked
the Mother Superior to give the girl into their keeping.
Camille fled like a frightened fawn into the yard, and was only
unearthed with some difficulty from behind a group of palms. Sulky
and pouting, she was led into the parlour, picking at her blue
pinafore like a spoiled infant.
"The lady and gentleman wish you to go home with them, Camille,"
said the Mother Superior, in the language of the convent. Her voice
was kind and gentle apparently; but the child, accustomed to its
various inflections, detected a steely ring behind its softness, like
the proverbial iron hand in the velvet glove.
"You must understand, madame," continued Mother, in stilted
English, "that we never force children from us. We are ever glad to
place them in comfortable--how you say that?--quarters
--maisons--homes--bien! But we will not make them go if they do not
Camille stole a glance at her would-be guardians, and decided
instantly, impulsively, finally. The woman suited her; but the man!
It was doubtless intuition of the quick, vivacious sort which
belonged to her blood that served her. Untutored in worldly
knowledge, she could not divine the meaning of the pronounced leers
and admiration of her physical charms which gleamed in the man's face,
but she knew it made her feel creepy, and stoutly refused to go. Next
day Camille was summoned from a task to the Mother Superior's parlour.
The other girls gazed with envy upon her as she dashed down the
courtyard with impetuous movement. Camille, they decided crossly,
received too much notice. It was Camille this, Camille that; she was
pretty, it was to be expected. Even Father Ray lingered longer in his
blessing when his hands pressed her silky black hair.
As she entered the parlour, a strange chill swept over the girl.
The room was not an unaccustomed one, for she had swept it many
times, but to-day the stiff black chairs, the dismal crucifixes, the
gleaming whiteness of the walls, even the cheap lithograph of the
Madonna which Camille had always regarded as a perfect specimen of
art, seemed cold and mean.
"Camille, ma chere," said Mother, "I am extremely displeased with
you. Why did you not wish to go with Monsieur and Madame Lafaye
The girl uncrossed her hands from her bosom, and spread them out
in a deprecating gesture.
"Mais, ma mere, I was afraid."
Mother's face grew stern. "No foolishness now," she exclaimed.
"It is not foolishness, ma mere; I could not help it, but that man
looked at me so funny, I felt all cold chills down my back. Oh, dear
Mother, I love the convent and the sisters so, I just want to stay and
be a sister too, may I?"
And thus it was that Camille took the white veil at sixteen years.
Now that the period of novitiate was over, it was just beginning to
dawn upon her that she had made a mistake.
"Maybe it would have been better had I gone with the funny-looking
lady and gentleman," she mused bitterly one night. "Oh, Seigneur, I 'm
so tired and impatient; it's so dull here, and, dear God, I'm so
There was no help for it. One must arise in the morning, and help
in the refectory with the stupid Sister Francesca, and go about one's
duties with a prayerful mien, and not even let a sigh escape when
one's head ached with the eternal telling of beads.
A great fete day was coming, and an atmosphere of preparation and
mild excitement pervaded the brown walls of the convent like a
delicate aroma. The old Cathedral around the corner had stood a
hundred years, and all the city was rising to do honour to its age
and time-softened beauty. There would be a service, oh, but such a
one! with two Cardinals, and Archbishops and Bishops, and all the
accompanying glitter of soldiers and orchestras. The little sisters
of the Convent du Sacre Coeur clasped their hands in anticipation of
the holy joy. Sister Josepha curled her lip, she was so tired of
The day came, a gold and blue spring day, when the air hung heavy
with the scent of roses and magnolias, and the sunbeams fairly
laughed as they kissed the houses. The old Cathedral stood gray and
solemn, and the flowers in Jackson Square smiled cheery birthday
greetings across the way. The crowd around the door surged and
pressed and pushed in its eagerness to get within. Ribbons stretched
across the banquette were of no avail to repress it, and important
ushers with cardinal colours could do little more.
The Sacred Heart sisters filed slowly in at the side door,
creating a momentary flutter as they paced reverently to their seats,
guarding the blue-bonneted orphans. Sister Josepha, determined to see
as much of the world as she could, kept her big black eyes opened
wide, as the church rapidly filled with the fashionably dressed,
perfumed, rustling, and self-conscious throng.
Her heart beat quickly. The rebellious thoughts that will arise
in the most philosophical of us surged in her small heavily gowned
bosom. For her were the gray things, the neutral tinted skies, the
ugly garb, the coarse meats; for them the rainbow, the ethereal
airiness of earthly joys, the bonbons and glaces of the world. Sister
Josepha did not know that the rainbow is elusive, and its colours but
the illumination of tears; she had never been told that earthly
ethereality is necessarily ephemeral, nor that bonbons and glaces,
whether of the palate or of the soul, nauseate and pall upon the
taste. Dear God, forgive her, for she bent with contrite tears over
her worn rosary, and glanced no more at the worldly glitter of
The sunbeams streamed through the high windows in purple and
crimson lights upon a veritable fugue of colour. Within the seats,
crush upon crush of spring millinery; within the aisles erect lines of
gold-braided, gold-buttoned military. Upon the altar, broad sweeps of
golden robes, great dashes of crimson skirts, mitres and gleaming
crosses, the soft neutral hue of rich lace vestments; the tender heads
of childhood in picturesque attire; the proud, golden magnificence of
the domed altar with its weighting mass of lilies and wide-eyed roses,
and the long candles that sparkled their yellow star points above the
reverent throng within the altar rails.
The soft baritone of the Cardinal intoned a single phrase in the
suspended silence. The censer took up the note in its delicate clink
clink, as it swung to and fro in the hands of a fair-haired child.
Then the organ, pausing an instant in a deep, mellow, long-drawn
note, burst suddenly into a magnificent strain, and the choir sang
forth, "Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison." One voice, flute-like,
piercing, sweet, rang high over the rest. Sister Josepha heard and
trembled, as she buried her face in her hands, and let her tears fall,
like other beads, through her rosary.
It was when the final word of the service had been intoned, the
last peal of the exit march had died away, that she looked up meekly,
to encounter a pair of youthful brown eyes gazing pityingly upon her.
That was all she remembered for a moment, that the eyes were youthful
and handsome and tender. Later, she saw that they were placed in a
rather beautiful boyish face, surmounted by waves of brown hair,
curling and soft, and that the head was set on a pair of shoulders
decked in military uniform. Then the brown eyes marched away with the
rest of the rear guard, and the white-bonneted sisters filed out the
side door, through the narrow court, back into the brown convent.
That night Sister Josepha tossed more than usual on her hard bed,
and clasped her fingers often in prayer to quell the wickedness in
her heart. Turn where she would, pray as she might, there was ever a
pair of tender, pitying brown eyes, haunting her persistently. The
squeaky organ at vespers intoned the clank of military accoutrements
to her ears, the white bonnets of the sisters about her faded into
mists of curling brown hair. Briefly, Sister Josepha was in love.
The days went on pretty much as before, save for the one little
heart that beat rebelliously now and then, though it tried so hard to
be submissive. There was the morning work in the refectory, the
stupid little girls to teach sewing, and the insatiable lamps that
were so greedy for oil. And always the tender, boyish brown eyes,
that looked so sorrowfully at the fragile, beautiful little sister,
haunting, following, pleading.
Perchance, had Sister Josepha been in the world, the eyes would
have been an incident. But in this home of self-repression and
retrospection, it was a life-story. The eyes had gone their way,
doubtless forgetting the little sister they pitied; but the little
The days glided into weeks, the weeks into months. Thoughts of
escape had come to Sister Josepha, to flee into the world, to merge
in the great city where recognition was impossible, and, working her
way like the rest of humanity, perchance encounter the eyes again.
It was all planned and ready. She would wait until some morning
when the little band of black-robed sisters wended their way to mass
at the Cathedral. When it was time to file out the side-door into the
courtway, she would linger at prayers, then slip out another door, and
unseen glide up Chartres Street to Canal, and once there, mingle in
the throng that filled the wide thoroughfare. Beyond this first plan
she could think no further.
Penniless, garbed, and shaven though she would be, other
difficulties never presented themselves to her. She would rely on
the mercies of the world to help her escape from this torturing life
of inertia. It seemed easy now that the first step of decision had
The Saturday night before the final day had come, and she lay
feverishly nervous in her narrow little bed, wondering with wide-eyed
fear at the morrow. Pale-eyed Sister Dominica and Sister Francesca
were whispering together in the dark silence, and Sister Josepha's
ears pricked up as she heard her name.
"She is not well, poor child," said Francesca. "I fear the life
is too confining."
"It is best for her," was the reply. "You know, sister, how hard
it would be for her in the world, with no name but Camille, no
friends, and her beauty; and then--"
Sister Josepha heard no more, for her heart beating tumultuously
in her bosom drowned the rest. Like the rush of the bitter salt tide
over a drowning man clinging to a spar, came the complete submerging
of her hopes of another life. No name but Camille, that was true; no
nationality, for she could never tell from whom or whence she came; no
friends, and a beauty that not even an ungainly bonnet and shaven head
could hide. In a flash she realised the deception of the life she
would lead, and the cruel self-torture of wonder at her own identity.
Already, as if in anticipation of the world's questionings, she was
asking herself, "Who am I? What am I?"
The next morning the sisters du Sacre Coeur filed into the
Cathedral at High Mass, and bent devout knees at the general
confession. "Confiteor Deo omnipotenti," murmured the priest; and
tremblingly one little sister followed the words, "Je confesse a Dieu,
tout puissant--que j'ai beaucoup peche par pensees--c'est ma
faute--c'est ma faute--c'est ma tres grande faute."
The organ pealed forth as mass ended, the throng slowly filed out,
and the sisters paced through the courtway back into the brown convent
walls. One paused at the entrance, and gazed with swift longing eyes
in the direction of narrow, squalid Chartres Street, then, with a
gulping sob, followed the rest, and vanished behind the heavy door.