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The Mystery of Massabielle by William D. Wood

It was a mild and pleasant day in the middle of February, and the bright sunlight streamed through the windows of the poor little room where Madame Soubirons sat alone. The table, with its dishes neatly arranged for the noonday meal, stood in the middle of the room. A pot hung in the large fireplace, and a skillet sat upon the few remaining coals. There was nothing with which to replenish the fire, and Madame Soubirons sat gazing at the flickering embers with a rueful face. "A cold hearth is more chilling than the mountains," she said; and she rose and went out of the poor little apartment, which, with all its poverty, would not have been cheerless had a bright fire glowed upon the neatly-kept hearth, and sat down upon the doorstep, where the sunlight fell warmly.

From this position was afforded a view of a picturesque and romantic landscape, presenting in the foreground a portion of the quaint village of Lourdes, with the cross of the old church brightly gleaming in the sunlight above the thickly-clustered cottage roofs. Farther away stood the great mill, and grimly from its rocky seat frowned the ancient castle, of which the people of Lourdes never wearied of telling that it had been besieged by Charlemagne centuries ago. In the distance glanced the river Gave, fighting its rock-riven way to the sea. The prospect, growing continually more grand as it receded, was finally hedged about by the majestic Pyrenees, which lifted their glimmering snows against the pale winter sky.

But Madame Soubirons was familiar with these scenes, and had no eyes for them. She sat leaning her cheek upon her hand, and as she glanced down the crooked walk she murmured, "They have had time to get back, if they hurried as I charged them." Presently a cheery whistle rang out upon the air, and looking up she saw a man in miller's dress approaching. It was Jean Soubirons, her husband, coming home to dinner. She waited until he arrived, and they then went into the house together.

"Can you eat a cold dinner to-day, Jean?" she asked. "I have only bread and milk to give you."

"Yes, with thanks, Louise," he replied; "but where are Bernadette and Marie?"

"They went with Jeanne Abadie to gather fagots, but they should have been back long since. You might then have had a warm dinner."

"All is well if they come to no harm, but it is somewhat chilly for our Bernadette."

"I gave her a pair of stockings to wear. She can't go like Marie, poor child! who can hardly endure her sabots, even in winter. But I do not see what detains them."

They sat down and ate in silence, the two vacant places seeming to fill them with a feeling of desolation.

"I am sorry," said Jean Soubirons as he rose from the table, "that I am so poor a man that my little girls must bring the wood for the pot."

"Perhaps we shall be richer some day, Jean," said Louise, as if she had hope.

"Perhaps so—in heaven," said he sadly, "where there are no poor;" and he went back to his work.

Meantime the three girls had been wandering. Of the two sisters, Marie was rosy and strong, but Bernadette pale and delicate, being afflicted with asthma. Bernadette appeared to be only ten years old, but was fourteen. Previous to this time almost all her life had been passed away from home, she having lived at Bastres with a friend of her mother, where she had been provided with a home for the small sum of five francs a month and her service in tending the sheep: she was not strong enough for more laborious work. Here Bernadette lived a calm and uneventful life, her duties causing her to be much in solitude, which she whiled away in petting her lambs. Very often the time had been set when she was to return home, but it was as often postponed. Her friends at Bastres could not bear to give her up, and year after year she had lingered with them. She had been at home only two weeks upon that day when she went with Jeanne and Marie to gather sticks.

The three girls, dressed in their black woolen frocks, white capulets and wooden shoes—Bernadette alone having stockings, in consideration of her health—trudged on, enjoying the pure air. They crossed the bridge of the Gave, passed the mill and went on through the meadow, turning their steps toward the grotto of Massabielle, which was not far distant. There are, properly speaking, several grottoes in the rocks of Massabielle, which consist of numerous excavations formed by Nature in the great crags. One of these, however, is usually referred to as "The Grotto," and is a cavern of quite extensive dimensions, being about thirteen feet high by fifty wide. There are two other excavations in the rock above this cavern, one of which rudely resembles the broken window of a ruined church—suggesting that idea the more forcibly perhaps from the fact that it admits light into the lower cavern.

Before reaching the entrance of the grotto, however, there was a small stream to be crossed. There was no bridge, but this was only a slight hindrance to Jeanne and Marie, who took off their shoes, and, springing from stone to stone, were soon over. They were in advance of Bernadette, who stopped frequently to cough, and when she came up to the stream they were putting on their wooden shoes.

"How cold the water is!" she heard one say, and she hesitated to step into the cold stream. Jeanne saw her pausing upon the brink, and called out, "Cross as we did: give long leaps and come over." She called to them then to throw stones in for her to step upon, but they were busily engaged piling up sticks, and paid no attention to her, so she began to pull off her shoes and stockings. When she bent down she heard a great rushing sound, as of the water and the wind. It seemed as if a great storm were breaking, but when she looked up all was calm. The leaves scarcely stirred in the breeze, and the trails of ivy that hung over the rocky windows of the grotto swayed gently to and fro. So she proceeded to pull off her stockings unalarmed. After a few seconds the noise increased, and when Bernadette again looked up she saw a beautiful vision standing in the window or upper entrance of the grotto, which was filled with the lustre of its halo. The apparition was dressed in pure white, and bore a chaplet upon its arm, and had no resemblance to Bernadette's ideal of the Virgin. The child was filled with awe, but felt no fear, and reverently kneeling she continued to gaze at the vision, which smiled upon her and made the sign of the cross. Bernadette did likewise. The appearance then vanished, and for some time Bernadette remained spell-bound and still kneeling and gazing abstractedly into the grotto, from which the luminous quality had faded. After a short time she recovered from her transport, and looking around her found the appearance of nothing changed. The stream rushed on, the trees were the same, and in the hollow of the grotto the wild brier grew in its accustomed place, and the clinging moss and the ivy trails were unchanged.

Bernadette made her way across the stream as quickly as she could, and hastening onward soon overtook Marie and Jeanne, who looked up in surprise at her haste. When she had reached them their surprise deepened into wonder as they observed the emotion depicted in her face.

"Have you seen nothing?" inquired Bernadette, her eyes all aglow with excitement.

"No: what is it?" said Marie.

"It is something strange," said Bernadette.

"It could not have been stranger than you look now, with your staring eyes and your flying hair," said Jeanne.

"What have you seen, Bernadette?" asked Marie.

"Some one in white, bright and gleaming," said Bernadette.

"What did it do? Describe it," exclaimed Jeanne.

"I cannot describe it. If you haven't seen it, I can't tell you what it was like," she said.

The two other girls were frightened. "Will it hurt us?" asked Marie.

"I am afraid of such things," said Jeanne: "let us hurry home as fast as we can."

Bernadette was not afraid, but, habitually passive, she hurried with them without protest. When they arrived at home she told her mother her experience, and Madame Soubirons, being incredulous, attempted to convince Bernadette that her vision was only a creature of her fancy; but with no avail. The child was silenced, but not convinced. Madame Soubirons said she would not allow her daughter to go to the grotto any more, as it filled her with such ideas; and she expected to hear no more about the matter. But the next day Bernadette talked incessantly of her "Dame," and on the following day, when some one inquired what her vision was like, she replied that she had seen such a face at church; and on the third day, which was Sunday, she prevailed upon her mother to allow her to go to the grotto again.

Marie and Jeanne accompanied her as before. Having arrived at the grotto, Bernadette knelt before the aperture: Marie and Jeanne followed her example, and when they turned to look at her they were amazed at her appearance. She seemed to be transfigured. Her face was radiant. With her eyes fixed, her lips partly open and her hands clasped, she appeared to listen with the greatest attention. Her companions were frightened by her strange behavior, and implored her to rise and go home with them.

"Bernadette, get up! Come: we are afraid of you when you look so strange."

She seemed to hear them no more than if she had been a statue, and for a few moments the group remained silent and motionless. There was no sound except the swirling of the stream and the rustling of the leaves, and to Marie and Jeanne the very silence seemed to be a spell of enchantment. Presently the rapturous light died out of the face of Bernadette, and she appeared as usual, much to the relief of the others.

Upon their arrival at home the same story was told by Bernadette as before, and again it was disbelieved. No restriction was placed upon her going to the grotto, however, and she continued to visit it, when her vision arose before her again and again. In course of time the singular event became much talked about, especially among the peasantry of that vicinity, who believed implicitly that the Virgin Mary appeared to the child.

People began to accompany Bernadette upon her visits to the grotto, and the number and interest of her observers daily increased. Many who were entirely skeptical went for the purpose of gratifying their curiosity. Among this class were Madame Millet and Mademoiselle Antoinette Peyret, who accompanied the little girl one day with the intention of questioning her after they had studied her conduct. On this occasion she excited their suspicions by leading them by an unaccustomed route down a steep and rocky path, where they had great difficulty in following her. They finally arrived at the grotto, and were astounded to observe the change that came over her. She seemed to be in a state of ecstatic awe.

The ladies were so solemnly impressed by her appearance that they felt deep regret for having intruded upon so reverent a scene.

"It is a profanation for us to be here," said one.

"You must remain," said Bernadette immediately, as if she had been directed to stop them.

"Ask who she is," exclaimed Madame Millet, greatly excited. "Here, take this card and pencil, and beg of her that she will write down her wishes."

Bernadette took them, and the ladies heard her repeat the request as she approached the excavation and the divine radiance lighted up her face. She paused, and for several moments remained in an apparent state of rapture: then she returned to them, and in reply to their inquiries said that her "Dame" had said that she saw no necessity to write her wishes, for she knew Bernadette would obey.

"Obey what?" asked Mademoiselle Peyret. "What did she command you to do?"

"To come to meet her at the grotto every day for fifteen days."

"Why?"

"I don't know why."

"But did she not say anything more?"

"Yes, madame."

"What?"

"She promised that if I did so I should be happy in a future world."

Madame Millet and Mademoiselle Peyret went home mystified. The story of their futile attempt to discover deception in Bernadette got abroad, "and still the wonder grew." The interest in the visions intensified, and vast crowds, numbered not by tens, but by hundreds, assembled to watch Bernadette during the appointed fifteen days. The entire population of Lourdes appeared to be included in the crowd. The presence of this observing multitude exerted no influence whatever upon Bernadette, who passed among them as they made way for her without looking to the right or to the left, as if she had too great thoughts on her mind to give any heed to the people. Day after day she repeated her visits, kneeling in her accustomed place and giving herself up to a state of ecstasy.

About this time, so great had become the popular excitement over the child, the attention of the authorities was attracted by it. Accordingly, M. Massy, prefect of the commune, and M. Jacomet, commissaire de police, conferred together, and decided to arrest Bernadette as an impostor. It was on the 11th of February, 1858, when the girl had her first vision, and about ten days thereafter, in the presence of a great crowd, a police-officer approached her, and laying his hand upon her shoulder took her to the commissaire for examination.

Imagine this simple and artless child boldly confronting the commissaire, who must have been, in her eyes, a person of high dignity! M. Jacomet plied her with questions and cross-questions, and used all his power to implicate her in some inconsistency or contradiction; but his efforts were futile, and he was obliged to confess that he could not make out any case against the child, whom he allowed to go home. Still, his dignity required some show of authority; so he commanded Jean Soubirons that he should not permit Bernadette to go to the grotto of Massabielle, under penalty of imprisonment. Then he wrote to M. Rouland, minister of public instruction, for advice.

Soubirons kept his daughter at home for a day or two: then, observing her to grieve under the restraint, decided to risk the wrath of M. Jacomet, and allowed her to go where she wished. The people upheld Soubirons, and the crowds at the grotto assembled again. It was then proposed by some to consult Peyramale, the curé, who was known to discredit the stories of Bernadette, and it was thought might disabuse her mind of its illusions or detect her imposture, as the case might be; but Peyramale would not make any efforts in that direction. However, Bernadette, of her own accord, came to him one day, saying she wished to speak to him.

"Are you the daughter of the miller Soubirons?" asked Peyramale.

"Yes, monsieur le curé," she said.

"What is it you wish?"

"I came to say that the Lady who appears to me in the grotto of Massabielle—"

"Hush, child!" interrupted Peyramale. "Do not repeat this foolish tale to me. You have stirred the whole country round with the story of your vision, but do not bring such tales to me. What do you mean by this? I tell you, child, the Virgin sees you now, and if you practice imposture the door of heaven will be for ever shut against you."

Bernadette was in no wise disturbed, and resumed her narrative without faltering.

"What, then, is the name of your vision?" asked Peyramale when she had told him the story of her experience.

"I don't know," she replied.

"Was it the Virgin?"

"I do not say that it was the Virgin," said Bernadette, "but I know that I see her as plainly as I see you now, and she speaks to me distinctly; and she commanded me to say to you that she wishes a church to be built on the rock of Massabielle."

Peyramale was astonished at the strange language and the firmness of the child, and replied: "Your story, Bernadette, is beyond reason: still, your manner is honest. Do not give yourself up, I pray you, to an illusion of your mind. You have some fancy, it may be, that deceives you. The Virgin could command me as well as yourself. You say there is a brier growing in the grotto: if your vision wants me to build a church on the cliff, tell her she must first cause that brier to bring forth roses in this winter season."

Having received this reply, Bernadette withdrew. When she next saw her vision she delivered the message of Peyramale, but it was not regarded. The apparition commanded her to go as far as she could on her hands and knees, and when Bernadette had done so, to the great wonder of her observers she was commanded to drink. She rose, and was about to go to the stream, when the vision called her back and told her to drink of the fountain, not of the stream. Now, there was no fountain, but Bernadette instinctively dug a small hole in the earth with her hands, and a very small stream of water flowed forth from the earth and filled it. She dipped some up with her hands and drank. This little stream continued to flow, and increased in size. On the following day it was many times its original size. Travelers are to this day shown the stream near the grotto of Massabielle, which, it is declared, thus sprang from a miraculous source. Three hundred people are declared to have seen this miracle, and in different regions of France many people may still be found who declare that they were present upon that occasion.

After this, still greater crowds flocked to the grotto of Massabielle, and again the authorities interfered. MM. Massy and Jacomet for a long time waged their war with the people until the emperor telegraphed, ordering that all interference should be stopped. Thus the people were left in peaceful possession of their fountain, and reports of its marvelous cures filled all the papers, and visitors came from far and near, bringing cans and bottles to fill at the wondrous stream.

It will be remembered that Peyramale had demanded that the brier should blossom before a church should be built. In spite of his decision there now stands not far from the grotto a church that has already cost two and a half millions of francs, though not completed, and numerous convents are projected to occupy sites in the vicinity. A statue of the Virgin stands in the grotto where the vision appeared, and on the rock are hung numerous crutches and staffs, which it is claimed were left there by those cripples whom the waters of the spring have healed.

Bernadette became day by day an object of still greater interest—in some cases of reverence. Many offers were made to provide for herself and her family, but they were declined, and both her parents died poor, her mother so late as December 18, 1866. Marie Soubirons and a brother, it is said, still live at Lourdes, but Bernadette became a Sister of Charity, and is now an inmate of the Hospice of Nevers, under the name of Sister Marie Bernard. At this institution she took the veil, and she occupies herself, when health admits, in tending the sick. She lives a life of great seclusion, and is almost utterly ignorant of all that occurs outside the hospice walls. From the letter of a graphic writer I quote as follows: "She is now twenty-five. She is not beautiful in feature, but in expression. Her look has a soft, melting attraction. She is a great sufferer, and is tried by cruel pains in her chest, which she bears very patiently, saying the Virgin told her she should be happy in heaven."

Early in October, 1872, a cable despatch from Paris appeared in all the dailies, announcing that fifty thousand pilgrims were then journeying through France toward Lourdes. Their object was to assemble at the grotto of Massabielle to pray for the salvation and regeneration of France, so lately desolated by war. A large proportion of the pilgrims came from Paris, where their journey had been inaugurated by services at Notre Dame des Victoires. Indeed, it may be said that their entire journey was one long religious service, for litanies were chanted unceasingly upon the route. The grand service at the grotto took place October 6th, when five bishops conducted mass and vespers at five altars reared among the rocks; and other services were conducted at numerous chapels and shrines among the mountains for miles around by various pilgrim priests. A sermon was delivered to the great host by the bishop of Tarbes, the subject being the disasters of the nation. He closed by exhorting them to patriotism. Raising his arms to the multitude, he asked, "Will you promise to serve and love your country as I mean?"

"Yes! yes! yes!" answered the vast host in thunderous response.

"Will you cry 'Vive la France!' as children should who have been nurtured from the breast of a cherishing mother?"

"Vive la France!" resounded from rock and valley.

Then turning toward the statue of the Virgin, the bishop cried, "Vive the Church, the Rock of Ages!" Again the mighty voice of the crowd responded, and with the final cry of "Vive the Holy Father, Pius IX.!" the assemblage broke up.

Probably there were no scenes incidental to the pilgrimage more imposing than its processions, formed in the public square of Lourdes. One of them was a mile long, and the van had entered the meadow before the rear had left the square. It was composed of people of all classes, who sang hymns as with one mighty voice. It bore banners of violet, green, rose, blue and other colors, magnificently decorated with gilding, paintings and embroidery. These banners numbered nearly three hundred, and came from various parts of the country. Even far-off Algeria was represented. The banner of Alsace and Lorraine was in mourning, and was borne by girls in white. As it passed many persons pressed forward to kiss its hanging tassels. The banner from Nantes was so profusedly embellished with gold and other decorations that six strong men labored to support it; and those from Paris, Bordeaux, Rheims, Lille, etc. were not greatly inferior to it in elegance. The sun shone brightly, and with the grandeur of the banners and the pomp of the prelates in their rich sacerdotal robes formed a scene of indescribable splendor.

At the farther end of the meadow or valley an altar had been erected. Here the banners drew up in a vast semicircle enclosing the great audience, and vespers were sung, after which the fifty thousand worshipers knelt and received the benediction, which was pronounced by eight bishops simultaneously. The services before the altar being thus concluded, the bearers of the banners again formed in procession for the purpose of carrying them to the church upon the rock, in which they were to be placed. At this time the sun was sinking behind the blue Pyrenean peaks, and as it threw its last red gleams upon the splendid train that wound in and out along the craggy mountain-path it lighted up a picture of resplendent glory. As fast as the banners arrived at the church they were placed upon its walls, which were soon completely covered with their gorgeous hangings. Owing to the length of the procession, it was after sunset when the last banner had been placed in the church, which, with its brilliant adornments flashing in the blaze of wax tapers, was one grand glow of glittering splendor. After a brief service of thanksgiving the congregation withdrew, and descended the mountain in the light of bonfires that burned upon numerous cliffs.

A spectacle of equal brilliancy, though less pompous, was presented by the grand torchlight procession which formed one evening in the square of Lourdes, where all were provided with candles. Thirty thousand persons were in this procession. They marched to the grotto of Massabielle and to the church upon the rock, moving slowly and singing hymns. As they moved they formed a great stream of glittering light, which rolled on and on and up and up, across the meadow and up the sinuous mountain-path. This impressive display lasted until midnight, when the greater number of the lights had died out and their bearers retired. But a goodly company still remained in the crypt of the church at prayer, in some instances fighting off sleep by marching up and down in companies, chanting night-prayers.

Thus a nation's ardent worshipers assembled in devotion at the spot sanctified by the visions of Bernadette Soubirons. And what shall we say of her? Her professed visions cannot be set aside as impostures against the voice of thousands whose skepticism, as great as ours, has been abashed. It could not have been in the nature of this artless child, unencouraged and alone, to have been an impostor. Such would have been a rôle thoroughly foreign to her character. Perhaps there may have been illusion, a self-nourished fancy, evoked from the silent reveries of those solitary days at Bastres, when her mind was for long periods given up to undisturbed imaginings. Who can say?