Catholic Distance University

The Return to Magdalen Montague

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

4 August 1902
L— house, Yorkshire

My dear R.,

I apologize for my tardiness in responding—I have been rather ill.

Marvel once again at my address, dear fellow! After a tedious journey and fitful rest, I am reconciled with my father, and drawn back into the suffocating familial bosom. At the moment, the said bosom consists of my revered Pater (hitherto to be known by the respectful initials m.r.p., like some grandiloquent Latinate abbreviation) and sundry ill-kempt servants. M.r.p. looks upon Domokos, who has followed me home from Budapest like some gargoylean guardian angel, with undisguised suspicion. I could more easily explicate the purpose of the boy’s existence on earth than I could provide an adequate explanation for his attendance on me; therefore I make no explanation at all and laugh at the uproar he unconsciously causes. The servants are both terrified and fascinated by him. The slatternly scullery maid is ever to be seen peering at him around corners and through windows, eager to catch him in the performance of a Satanic rite. The only reward she receives for these efforts is a well-deserved cuff on the ear, courtesy of the vile poisoner who calls herself our cook.

It is a wonder that I found m.r.p. at home as he spends most of the remaining years of his lonely life (thirty-some-odd years since the death of his wife, an occasion which left him the questionable legacy of my good self) at the club, smoking other men’s cigars and blustering against Catholic Emancipation (which bill, having been passed three years before his birth, he feels it is his special province to condemn in spirited terms). In season and out of season, he avoids the pestilential and sodden ancestral home.

And now, my friend, a question: what should you think if I were to return to the faith of my fathers? Not literally, of course. M.r.p. would consider himself honor bound to die before submitting to the autocratic tyranny contained in a single Papist blessing, and would fight gallantly for the sake of the family escutcheon—which, you may be surprised to learn, is still, despite my better efforts, intact enough to feel threatened by Popish taint. Oh! If you could have seen the look upon my revered patriarch’s face when I broached the topic!

First he goggled. Then he stared. Soon he glowered… and he glared! Immediately following this lively display of emotion, he commenced sputtering like a frustrated kettle, his face turned a regal shade, and he swore at me soundly, starting with, “Damnation!” and concluding with a series of expletives beyond even my ken. I was confounded everywhere but Rome (unless you reflect on the fact that m.r.p. considers the Vatican and Pandemonium as one and the same; I was consigned to the latter repeatedly and although, due to my newborn religious fervor, I am reluctant to make such a blasphemous correlation, I welcome you to do so).

“Damnation!” roared m.r.p. so vociferously that the books on the shelves rattled about like rocks on the tracks, anticipating an approaching train. We were sitting in the library at the time, relaxing in enjoyment of our reconciliation and a fine Madeira. His hand shook so that some of the wine spilled.

“Damnation!” he roared again, as if I had not heard the first half dozen iterations. “What do you say, sir? Eh? What do you mean, sir? Eh? Eh?”

I spoke respectfully but firmly, and tried to show in a glance my concern for his health and for the sacrilegious (barbarous!) waste of the Madeira: “I am considering becoming a Roman Catholic, father.”

M.r.p. turned a deeper shade and spluttered out a confused mass of curses, disbelief, and disgust. He cast up before me a rather melodramatic although surprisingly comprehensive litany of my misdeeds: “It’s not yer’ women I objected to so much. Sort of thing… to be expected… Young men… Spending money right and left, disgracing the family… The disgrace! The shame! Harumph! Fraternizing with greasy foreigners who won’t eat meat like any healthy Englishman! Sitting around all day… striking attitudes… bunch of damn poseurs… artists and whores!” (He said this last as if I had personally invented that most notorious breed of female). Pointed references to the more infamous episodes of my youth surfaced—the police raid in Soho in ’94, the fire in Paris a few years ago when D’Aubigne was killed, and that girl who rather theatrically collapsed and died on the family doorstep, holding in her arms the corpse of the child she insisted was mine—they are buried nearby, you know. The grave is well-tended.

I felt dreadfully sorry for the old man. How painful it must be to lose your son to a socially acceptable ill such as debauchery (at least one can talk about it at the club) and regain him (further source of conversation if not open triumph over similarly situated fathers whose sons have not yet recovered from the standard initiatory bout with sin), only to lose him again to the Scarlet Lady (a brutal shame to any true Englishman and not at all the thing a man wants discussed by the other members)! At the same time I must confess to a degree of selfish delight. It is not often that one has the opportunity to play a starring role in a Gothic melodrama, although I seem to have had my share of such opportunities of late. The horrified father, confronted with the dishonorable conduct of his unfortunate son, reads off a catalogue of transgressions—set to music, high-brow fare for the Alhambra. I was fiercely tempted to begin composing the necessary lyrics (rhyming pairs aplenty came readily to mind—whores/doors, sin/begin, wine/dine, waste/taste, Rome/tomb, Pope/interlope and so on), but I restrained my glee and was sincerely deferential. “Father,” I said, and had to repeat myself several times before I caught his attention. He was rather enjoying himself too, I think.

“Eh? Eh?”

“Father, I should like your blessing.”

There was a moment of silence. “My what?” snorted m.r.p. in astonishment.

“Your blessing, father.”

He growled but I think he was surprised and perhaps somewhat pleased.

“My blessing. My blessing, eh?” He grunted, still mildly belligerent. “What would you want it for, sir? You flout my will every way you can! Do you just want the details quite clear so you can flout it in every particular? Eh, sir? Eh?”

“Perhaps so, father. I know I have been an undutiful son…” (an emphatic snort indicated his concurrence with this self-criticism) “and have given you pain” (m.r.p. barely restrained himself from striking a martyr’s pose) “…but I desire your forgiveness, yet again, and ask for your blessing.”

My father sat, silent. When he spoke, his voice was a mixture of acerbity and gruff sarcasm. “I can’t do a Popish blessing,” he said. “I haven’t enough candles in the place and I don’t know any bibble babble spells for the business!” And then he roared with laughter at the joke he thought he had made, clapped me on the back until my brain rattled about in my skull, and repeated his jest at least four dozen times more. Ah, m.r.p.! What a fellow you are! A mere song will not suffice. There really should be a comic opera written about the man! Perhaps the Sullivanless Gilbert could be persuaded to produce one more libretto to grace the Savoy.

My chamber is fast becoming that of a credulous and cluttered devotee. During our journey back to England, even in my weakened and dazed state, I managed to collect many of the necessary accessories. I have candles in abundance so I might easily lend some to m.r.p. for his “bibble babble spells,” crosses, beads, a scapular (which is thoroughly uncomfortable, and as such makes up for the lack of a hair shirt admirably), several scraps of blessed palms that were given me by a beggar woman in Brussels, and a handful of holy ribbons thrust upon Domokos “for zee seek Eengleesh” by a tall, thin French girl with sympathetic eyes.

Domokos is instructing me in the telling of beads. It is a thoroughly complicated business, saved only by powerfully mnemonic repetition. During those rare occasions when I am actually able to stay awake, I feel gloriously peon. Domokos has brought with him a small picture—an icon of the Madonna. I must confess that I do not entirely like this picture. What need have we for pallid pastel virgins when we have such goddesses as Magdalen Montague? That tawdry little image is an aesthetic insult.

But I do not say so to the devoted boy. I would not deprive him of his innocent idolatry.

Now I am being lectured by my Hungarian horror who insists (in broken language too vehement to be misunderstood) that I overtax my strength. The truth of the matter is that I have been chuckling over my own cleverness and Domokos thinks this private hilarity must be a sign of returning fever.

Therefore, from my harried sickbed, and with the shrewish din of the boy resounding in my ears,

I remain,
Yours, etc.

* * *

8 August 1902
L— house, Yorkshire

My dear fellow,

Shake your head and look upon me with disapproving scorn, but I must inflict my enthusiasm upon you. I realize that I have not allowed you ample time to respond to my last tender missive, but I must tell you of the latest fascinating experiences of my infant religiosity—vignettes of my encounters with Popery and Papists!

First I must briefly inscribe upon the page of history the tragic saga of the scullery maid’s pious obsession. She followed Domokos about in the most marked manner (as I believe I mentioned in my last letter), succeeding only in catching the attention of every other resident of the house. I have no idea what Domokos thought or thinks of it (who can know what goes on behind that hideous physiognomy!) but she startled me several times by appearing suddenly from behind doors, and even once scrambled out from under the bed when I returned to my room for an enforced rest. This all concluded a few days ago when she managed to lock herself in the cellar. It seems that she suspected Domokos of hiding carcasses of dead animals (for ritual sacrifices, I suppose, although I always thought live victims were preferable) in dark corners among the preserves. She was looking for these tools of the occult (the carcasses, not the preserves) when the door swung to and left her in darkness. The girl screamed herself into a fit and, even though she was confined for a mere half minute while the very startled cook fumbled with the lock, it took a great deal of sherry to calm her. Then the cook dealt the scullery maid a resounding box on the ear and sent her back to her mother, taking with her an astonishingly diverse collection of penny dreadfuls.

Now for my burgeoning religious fervor. The nearest Popish installation is quite small and of recent construction. Of course the larger, more ancient churches nearby bear the all the marks of Tudor reclamation. I never thought much of Elizabethan losses except as a sound lesson to tyrannous priests, lecherous monks, and sinister nuns, but now the emptiness of that lost, once-hallowed space is both painfully serious and poignantly sad—so many churches, once Catholic, stripped by royal edict or destroyed in a mob’s frenzy.

But enough of my empathy with suffering long past! I spoke with the priest. He is a thoroughly stupid person in many ways, but one imagines many of the original Twelve were tedious when in company. I really think the tax collector must have been pedantic, Thaddaeus was a nonentity, and we know full well the multifarious flaws of the Iscariot. What a paradox! Can a man be so thoroughly unworthy of existence and at the same time celebrate the Divine Sacrifice? He calls me “monsieur” and “signor”—as if my travels had transformed me into a sort of honorary foreigner.

There is a little old woman who frequents the church—a modern Miss Bates with all the noxious prattling and ingratiating mannerisms guaranteed to drive every sane soul to distraction. Some days when I see her I really understand why Raskolnikov chose an old woman as the target for his Napoleonic hatchet work. Always dithering away about the insufferably dull events in her drab little life, with her silly little ways, and her affectations to intellectualism. They cannot all be Magdalen Montagues, but must they be so primitive? She is forever lighting votive candles. The simple creature looks like a child with her rheumy eyes raised in supplication to the plaster saints.

I must go. I am summoned to dine with my father. Since I first announced my religious interests, m.r.p. has insisted on loading down the table with candles to support me when I “pray a Popish blessing” over the food. I think that he enjoys the contemplation of my “perversion” more than I do.

Yours, etc.

* * *

15 August 1902
L— house, Yorkshire

Dear R.,

Again I must anticipate your letter (which I hope will arrive soon?). I must tell you of the strange and wonderful experience of this morning. Shall I call it “a memorable fancy?” It is true that I have stood within the visionscape of a world of delights closed to my senses five.

It was early and I was possessed by that aimless restlessness characteristic of the convalescent. I left the house in the brusque chill of a grey dawn, and wandered, not discontentedly or wildly, about the damp lawn. I passed through neglected gardens (the Capability Browns of this world have ever been beyond our income) and trudged irreverently through the dew-crested grass, disrupting the lacy film of morning cobwebs, hitherto unspoilt. I was not unhappy, but I was not entirely contented. My peace was not materially disrupted, but it was ruffled. I had slept badly and half-remembered dreams or the dim impression of lost memories troubled me. So I walked on.

There is a place in the far corner of the lawn—a cluster of aged trees, where oaks and elms crowd together in the most inartistic manner (no Sledmere is our ancestral abode), closely hemmed in by brush and seemingly impenetrable. It is the sort of place that one generation declares beautiful, and the next condemns as hideous, but which all generations are disinclined to change—not out of affection or any sentiment beyond the dislike of parting with one’s money for the sake of rearranging an arboreal scene.

I know the place well. This closely thicketed and secret bower was a favorite haunt of my childhood. There is an entrance hidden amongst the boughs and bushes—a tight fit, but not one beyond the powers of a slender boy, nor yet of a slim man made leaner by illness.

A momentary discomfort endured and I was in the playhouse of my childhood imaginings. My ship, my castle, my prison, my stage, my place of quiet thoughts, exuberant joys, and oppressive sorrows. I sat upon a well-loved rock, leaned against a well-loved tree trunk, and gazed about at the extent of my childish kingdom, my eyes often roving upward towards the silent trees, far hidden from the intruding sky. I was soon lost in fitful remembering.

A voice startled me from daydreams of the past. Not a voice from heaven (not with Old Testament directness, at any rate), nor yet the voice of my diseased mind. It was the voice of Domokos. At first I thought he was seeking me with all the righteous indignation of a protective nurse and prepared myself for chastisement, but his voice was not angry or full of sick-bed concern. It was calm; he pronounced the words with cadenced regularity. He was telling his beads, murmuring the words rhythmically and without undue emphasis, as if they were merely the backdrop of his quiet meditation as he slowly paced the lawn outside my dear nook. Ave Maria… and Ave Maria again.

My own beads were in my pocket. I took them out and looked at them casually. Strange things, with the power to stir a man’s soul to ecstatic contemplation—I thought of Domokos, not of myself. I sat, staring into the middle distance, listening to the soothing repetition. Ave Maria… and Ave Maria again.

I say I did not sleep; my eyes were wide open, and yet I saw nothing of the physical world before me. The bower was lost… transformed into a high, barren, and desolate place. Not desolate. Not barren. There, standing before me in brutal starkness against an angry sky, was a dark, shadowy cross, and upon it a despised, neglected figure, gazing down upon me. It was so disfigured it scarcely seemed a human form, yet it was a body—bruised, broken and bleeding, suspended from unfeeling wood and unrelenting iron. My soul cried out at the sight.

I was not frightened. I did not cringe. I know my Lord now, and could not but recognize Him. I collapsed in the dust before His bloody glory, yearning to be washed clean, to drown in that blood, to cleanse my unworthiness of the love in His gaze. The effect upon my soul is palpable, even now. This strange, reviled corpse was a wondrous sight in my eyes. I am overwhelmed with love at the very thought of it. A vision of Christ triumphant.

And as I knelt before my Lord, trembling with love in that mighty Presence, I felt the presence of another. A lesser presence, but only as all things must be to Him. Someone stood behind me. And as with a soaring melody that rises to meet the steady pulse of an already glorious song, the lesser joined with the Greater in an exquisite harmony.

It was the Montague. Whence else could come that palpable strength? That extraordinary personality, reverberating in the very air? I could sense her magnificent beauty, splendid in the swelling of love as she too gazed upon the crucified Christ. She who had been my hidden guide to that place.

I turned to face her… and was amazed.

It was the Virgin. Quiet, unshrinking, uncringing. Gazing up, like me, upon the spectacle of Omnipotent Humility. My expectations had been disappointed, and yet it somehow seemed as if her presence surpassed that of the imagined Montague. I looked—with impertinent curiosity, it must be owned—into the eyes of the Virgin. Bright, luminous eyes they were—eyes that might be any color (and have been, under the imaginative brush of the artist for centuries gone by), and a gaze that pierced through the heart, down into the secret recesses of the naked soul, dispelling the darkness there with an unflinching light, a light to lay all things bare with brutal justice, and to soothe the ache of long-hidden sorrows with the gentle caress of a mother’s smile. The Son had eyes like His mother, but the gaze in her eyes was His.

She looked at me and whispered my name, gently, and my heart, broken long ago and forced away into forgetfulness (how else could I survive?), became too heavy to bear. I cried out and called her by a name I have never called living woman, and have withheld from the dead woman who, by the laws of science and of family feeling, deserves it. The Virgin took me in her arms and embraced me.

Slowly, gently, the vision passed away, and I was left kneeling, clasping the beads to my lips. Far in the distance (or was it nearby?) I heard Domokos singing the Salve.

You will scoff loudly at my visions—indeed, I can almost hear you now, canting and crowing in angry disgust. You think me mad, you think me soft, you think me cowardly, you think me addled in my senses. You would have me before you for a mere five minutes that you might talk sense back into me. You imagine the scene, and plan the very phrases with which you would berate me out of my madness.

This is not madness. The madness was in the delusion that there was ever aught of joy in an orphan’s desolation. In spite of my vanities, debaucheries, selfishnesses, cruelties, flippancies, and willful rejection, I am embraced. I am the least worthy of such love, but I am beloved. I can only hope and pray that someday you will have share in this most happy wrack.

I shall not begrudge you your fatted calf. I now enjoy such a feast, kneeling at my Lord’s feet, and held in my Mother’s arms.

Believe me to be, as ever,
Your devoted friend, etc.

* * *

14 September 1902
L— house, Yorkshire

Dear R.,

I received your letter a fortnight ago. It is just as I expected. I tried to prepare my reply in anticipation—to articulate my defense and give an account of myself, to meet each thrust of your satirical critique with a parry so clever and reasonable that even the fortress of skepticism in which you reside could not withstand the truth. But I know it can make no difference. I have struggled long and deeply before finding the courage to take up my pen. I shall tell you, but you will not understand. Only if you are taken unawares as I have been, dragged kicking and screaming and thrown off the cliff, down into the precipice, into the void… only to discover that you have been suffocating in the void all along and only now are you truly alive, only now you are able to breathe—only then could you understand.

You have chastised me, denouncing my letters as “the narrative of a puerile romance,” called me coward, and urged me to return to the “sacred texts” of my apprenticeship in decadence—Pater, Wilde, Swinburne, Baudelaire, Gautier, Rodenbach, Huysmans… I read the novels of Durtal, long ago. I did not understand them. How could I with a mind so shallow and a heart so perverse? I lacked the breadth of vocabulary, the breadth of soul.

You may be outraged and offended by my frankness (seen by you as unfamiliar presumption from your usually docile henchman), but I am moved by the affection I bear you to challenge you thus. There is nothing original or lasting in your determined embrace of rebellion; on the contrary, I fear it does a great deal of harm.

My life till now has been a hollow thing. I tried to fill the aching want, the grasping need, with pleasure. Empty pleasure. How dull and senseless we found it. What drives a man to wallow in dreary despair? Sloth? Or is it evil? True, tangible evil? I have not turned Puritan. On the contrary! My soul, enriched by encounter with the Divine, moves and delights my body more truly than tawdry indulgence ever could. Not pleasure. Joy.

It seems that certain moments in one’s life are chiefly defined by the irrepressible need a man feels to reorganize his library. A certain branch of my collection—the most colorful branch, from Cleland to Beardsley and beyond—has been destroyed, as have been all the decorative postcards. I knew it must be so. Domokos would not even touch the box in which the pictures were housed. Had he known what sort of books they were, I am sure he would not have gone near those tainted shelves either. You will see this as a sign of weakness, and diagnose an early demise to my convictions. It is not so. I have no need or desire for these things. They haunted and hampered my precious peace.

And Magdalen Montague—for you have thrown her up to me as well, although you cloaked it in as many and as offensive terms as you could concoct. I know any chastisement or defense will seem like hypocrisy on my part. Have I not maligned that lady with my perverse, willful fancies? I will not explicate Magdalen Montague to you. I never could.

Forgive me, my dear friend.

— J.

* * *

1 October 1902
L— house, Yorkshire

Dear R.,

You have not understood at all and do not understand. Of course, you could not.

I was sorry to receive your “cadeaux.” Do not attempt to replenish my discarded shame. All like parcels shall be destroyed. I would not quarrel with you, but I shall not turn from this unsought certitude, however much you cast up records of my past infamy. You shall not shame me away from Him. I know too well the full extent of my sin. I am degraded in the dust, worse than a brute animal for I know what it is that I have done. But I glory in this past; not for what it is, but for its transformation. Shall I cower in mortification and self-pity, turning away from love itself?

How petty are your cheap erotica in the face of this reality.

I shall pray for you.

— J.

* * *

1 December 1902
Sackville Street, London

To Mr. R. at Paris.

Dear Sir,

Your letters of 11 October, 25 October, and 16 November 1902 and the package of the 5th inst. having been forwarded to this address from L— house, Yorkshire, are hereby returned to you with the notification that the gentleman to whom they were sent no longer resides at this establishment. We have no forwarding address.

Very respectfully,
John Q. Owens, Esq.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a Dappled Things assistant editor and a UVa alumna (M.A., English ‘07), works as a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. Her writing has also appeared in The Saint Austin Review. More of her work is available at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.

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