Ever since there has been no candle when she has been present." Soon after, the forms of three or four women were dimly to be seen; but there was no candle, and the governess would not bring one on any consideration. She was afraid of being found out and excommunicated.
I saw that I was depriving my young friend of a pleasure, and would have gone, but he told me to stay. I passed an hour which interested me in spite of its painfulness. The voice of Menicuccio's sister sent a thrill through me, and I fancied that the blind must fall in love through their sense of hearing. The governess was a woman under thirty. She told me that when the girls attained their twenty-fifth year they were placed in charge of the younger ones, and at thirty-five they were free to leave the convent if they liked, but that few cared to take this step, for fear of falling into misery.
"Then there are a good many old women here?"
"There are a hundred of us, and the number is only decreased by death and by occasional marriages."
"But how do those who go out to get married succeed in inspiring the love of their husbands?"
"I have been here for twenty years, and in that time only four have gone out, and they did not know their husbands till they met at the altar. As might be expected, the men who solicit the cardinal for our hands are either madmen, or fellows of desperate fortunes who want the two hundred piastres. However, the cardinal-superintendent refuses permission unless the postulant can satisfy him that he is capable of supporting a wife."
"How does he choose his bride?"
"He tells the cardinal what age and disposition he would prefer, and the cardinal informs the mother-superior."
"I suppose you keep a good table, and are comfortably lodged."
"Not at all. Three thousand crowns a year are not much to keep a hundred persons. Those who do a little work and earn something are the best off."
"What manner of people put their daughters in such a prison?"
"Either poor people or bigots who are afraid of their children falling into evil ways. We only receive pretty girls here."
"Who is the judge of their prettiness?"
"The parents, the priest, and on the last appeal the cardinal- superintendent, who rejects plain girls without pity, observing that ugly women have no reason to fear the seductions of vice. So you may imagine that, wretched as we are, we curse those who pronounced us pretty."
"I pity you, and I wonder why leave is not given to see you openly; you might have some chance of getting married then."
"The cardinal says that it is not in his power to give permission, as anyone transgressing the foundation is excommunicated."
"Then I should imagine that the founder of this house is now consumed by the flames of hell"
"We all think so, and hope he may stay there. The Pope ought to take some order with the house."
I gave her ten crowns, saying that as I could not see her I could not promise a second visit, and then I went away with Menicuccio, who was angry with himself for having procured me such a tedious hour.
"I suppose I shall never see your mistress or your sister," said I; "your sister's voice went to my heart."
"I should think your ten paistres ought to work miracles."
"I suppose there is another parlour."
"Yes; but only priests are allowed to enter it under pain of excommunication, unless you get leave from the Holy Father."
I could not imagine how such a monstrous establishment could be tolerated, for it was almost impossible, under the circumstances, for the poor girls to get a husband. I calculated that as two hundred piastres were assigned to each as a dowry in case of marriage, the founder must have calculated on two marriages a year at least, and it seemed probable that these sums were made away with by some scoundrel.
I laid my ideas before Cardinal Bernis in the presence of the princess, who seemed moved with compassion for these poor women, and said I must write out a petition and get it signed by all of them, entreating the Holy Father to allow them the privileges customary in all other convents.