But to the woman who, while she had been in the world, had been known as Catherine Vallincourt, the name of Magda Wielitzska was as familiar as her own. In the dark, slender girl before her, whose pale, beautiful face called to mind some rare and delicate flower, she recognised the living embodiment of her brother’s transgression—that brother who had made Diane Wielitzska his wife and the mother of his child.
All she had anticipated of evil consequence at the time of the marriage had crystallised into hard fact. The child of the “foreign dancing-woman”—the being for whose existence Hugh’s mad passion for Diane had been responsible—had on her own confession worked precisely such harm in the world as she, Catherine, had foreseen. And now, the years which had raised Catherine to the position of Mother Superior of the community she had entered had brought that child to her doors as a penitent waveringly willing to make expiation.
Catherine was conscious of a strange elevation of spirit. She felt ecstatically uplifted at the thought that it might be given to her to purge from Hugh’s daughter, by severity of discipline and penance, the evil born within her. In some measure she would thus be instrumental in neutralising her brother’s sin.
She was supremely conscious that to a certain extent—though by no means altogether—her zealous ardour had its origin in her rooted antipathy to Hugh’s wife and hence to the child of the marriage. But, since beneath her sable habit there beat the heart of just an ordinary, natural woman, with many faults and failings still unconquered in spite of the austerities of her chosen life, a certain very human element of satisfaction mingled itself with her fervour for Magda’s regeneration.
With a curious impassivity that masked the intensity of her desire she had told Magda that, by the rules of the community, penitents who desired to make expiation were admitted there, but that if once the step were taken, and the year’s vow of penitence voluntarily assumed, there could be no return to the world until the expiration of the time appointed.
Somehow the irrevocability of such a vow, undertaken voluntarily, had not struck her in its full significance until Catherine had quietly, almost tonelessly, in the flat, level voice not infrequently acquired by the religious, affirmed it.
“Supposing”—Magda looked round the rigidly bare room with a new sense of apprehension—“supposing I felt I simply couldn’t stand it any longer? Do you mean to say, then, that I should not be allowed to leave here?”
“No, you would not be permitted to. Vows are not toys to be broken at will.”
“A year is a long time,” murmured Magda.
The eyes beneath the coifed brow with its fine network of wrinkles were adamant.
“The body must be crucified that the soul may live,” returned the cold voice unflinchingly.
Magda’s thoughts drew her this way and that. A year! It was an eternity! And yet, if only she could emerge purified, a woman worthy to be Michael’s wife, she felt she would be willing to go through with it.