The White Chapel

“Tell me again, Susan, how beautiful Midnight Mass is, tell me again!”

It was Christmas Eve, little Peter’s parents had just returned from the fields, the woman was milking the cows, the man was arranging the farming tools in the barn, and Peter, while awaiting his supper, was sitting on his little stool, in the corner of the big fire‑place in the kitchen opposite his sister Susan.

He was stretching his hands to the clear, twinkling flames, which made his hands and his face quite rosy, while his hair gleamed like gold, Susan was thoughtfully knitting a pair of blue, woollen stockings.

Above the big fire of vine‑shoots the big pot was singing, and the cover allowed a little white vapour to escape, that smelt of cabbage.

“Tell me again, Susan, how beautiful it is!”

“Oh”, said Susan, ‘there are such numbers of blessed candles, that you would think yourself in Paradise. And then they sing such beautiful hymns, and then, there is the Infant Jesus, dressed in such beautiful clothes, oh, so beautiful, lying on the straw, and the Blessed Virgin in a blue robe, and St. Joseph, with his plane, all in red; and then the shepherds with flocks of sheep. And then the ass and the ox, and then the three kings in soldier’s clothes, with great big beards, and they bring to the Infant Jesus such presents, oh, such wonderful things, and then the shepherds bring them some of their food. After that the shepherds, and the Three Kings, and the parish priest, the ass and the ox, the choir, the people and the sheep ask the Infant Jesus for His blessing, and, above all, there are the angels who bring stars to the Infant Jesus”.

Susan had been last year to Midnight Mass and perhaps she thought she had seen all this. Little Peter listened with an air of wondering astonishment and then said, when she had finished :

“I want to go to Midnight Mass”.

“You are too little”, said his mother, entering at that moment, you will go when you are big, like Susan”.

“I want to go!” said Peter, puckering his eyebrows.

“But, my poor little boy, the church is too far off, and it is snowing outside. If you are good and sleep well, you will hear Midnight Mass, without leaving your bed, in the White Chapel”.

“I want!” repeated Peter, clenching his little fists.

* * * *

Who is it that says “I want?” said a deep voice.

It was his father. Peter did not insist. He was a very wise child and already understood that it is better to obey, when you cannot do otherwise.

They sat down at table. Peter ate without appetite, He was thinking and said nothing.

“Susan, go put your little brother to bed!”

Susan led Peter into a room with red tiles, where there was a wardrobe, and even a dressing table with a marble top; on the wall, in a frame, was a little child’s sample, a square of canvas on which Susan had cross stitched in red and blue cotton, the twenty four letters of the alphabet, a vase of flowers, a steeple and a cat. At the foot of the parents’ bed was a rug, with roses, but they bore more resemblance to peonies or cabbages. Facing this were two little beds for the brother and sister, surrounded by white calico curtains.

Having put the child to bed and tucked him up, Susan closed the curtains of the cot.

“You will find”, said she, “how pretty is the Midnight Mass, in the White Chapel”.

Peter did not answer.

He did not sleep. He did not wish to sleep and remained with his eyes wide open.

He listened to the coming and going of his parents in the kitchen, and then to the high‑pitched voice of Susan, stammering out from an old almanac, “The Story of the Thieves of Orgères. At one time, it seemed to him that they were eating chestnuts, and his heart grew very full.

A little later, his mother entered the room, opened the curtains and leaned over him. But he shut his eyes and did not stir.

At length, he heard them go out, the doors were shut; then silence.

* * * *

Then Peter got out of his cot.

He searched for his clothes in the darkness. It was slow work. He found his knickers and his blouse, but not his knitted vest. He dressed himself as well as he could, but though his little fingers did their best, not a single button was in its own buttonhole.

He could only find one of his stockings. Leaning against the wall, he put it on crookedly, the heel making a lump, so that the badly dressed foot only half fitted into the wooden sabot, while the little bare foot slipped about in the other.

Feeling his way, hobbling and clattering, he discovered the door of the room, then he crossed the kitchen which was lighted, through the uncurtained windows, by the reflected light of the snowy night.

Very wisely, Peter did not go to the door which opened on the street, which he knew was locked, but he easily opened that which led from the kitchen into the stable.

A cow stirred in its stall. A goat rose up and, dragging on her cord, came to lick the hands of little Peter, murmuring “Mee” in a sweet and plaintive tone. She seemed to say to him :

“Stay with us where it is warm. What are you. little one, going to do in all that snow?”

By the feeble glimmer from the skylight, half covered with ragged clothes, he could, by rising on his toes, draw the inside bolt of the stable door,

Suddenly, he found himself outside, in the profound and frozen whiteness.

The house where Peter lived nestled down at the side, about a thousand yards from the church. First, there was a road bordered by orchards, then one turned to the right, and straight in front was the village steeple.

Peter, without hesitation, began to walk.

Everything was white with snow, the road, the bushes and the trees in the fields. The snow drifted about in the air, like light chaff before a winnowing fan.

Peter sank in the snow up to his ankles, his little sabots became heavy with snow; snow powdered his hair and his shoulders. But he felt nothing, because he saw at the end of his journey, in a great golden light, the Infant Jesus, and the Virgin, and the Three Kings, and the angels who hold stars in their hands.

He kept going, going, drawn by the vision. But already he was walking more slowly. The snow blinded him, filling with its soft whiteness the entire sky. He recognised nothing. He no longer knew where he was.

But his little feet were weighing like lead; his hands, his nose, his ears were all aching terribly, the snow passed down his neck, and his blouse and shirt were all wet.

He fell over a stone, and lost one of his sabots. He searched for it for a long time, with his benumbed hands, on his knees in the snow.

He no longer saw the Infant Jesus, nor the Blessed Virgin, nor the Angels carrying stars.

* * * *

He was afraid of the silence, afraid of the white veiled trees which broke here and there the great white carpet of snow, and which no longer resembled trees, but rather ghosts.

His heart was overburdened with anguish. He wept and cried through his tears, “Mama! Mama!’

The snow ceased to fall.

Little Peter, looking around him, saw the pointed belfry and the windows of the church, all gleaming in the night. His vision returned to him, and strength and courage. There—there it was—the longed for marvel, the beautiful vision of Paradise!

He did not wait for the turning in the road, but walked straight towards the illuminated church. He tumbled into a ditch, knocked against a tree stump and left there his other sabot. Across fields, limping along, the child dragged himself, his eyes fixed on the gleams. And as his steps became slower and slower, the chain of little footprints that he left behind him grew closer and closer together in the white immensity.

The church appeared larger as he drew nearer. The voices even reached little Peter—

“Come, Saviour Divine.”

With hands stretched out, eyes dilated with ecstasy, sustained only by the beauty of his dream drawing near, he entered the cemetery surrounding the church. the great gothic window gleamed above the porch. There, quite near, something ineffable was being accomplished. The voices were singing—

“I hear down there in the plain

The angels descending from heaven.”

Little Peter went stumbling on, with all the remaining strength of his little exhausted body, towards this glory and these hymns.

All at once, he fell at the foot of a box tree; shrouded with snow. He fell, with closed eyes, suddenly asleep, smiling at the song of the angels.

The voices took up the strain—

“He is born, the Child Divine.”

At the same moment, the soft and gentle snowflakes began once more to fall. The snow, with its white veils, covered the tiny body, slowly but thickly.

And it was thus that little Peter heard Midnight Mass in the White Chapel.

Jules Lemaître (1853 – 1914 ). Translated from French by ‘R.H’, and first published in the St. Peter’s Magazine (Cardiff), in January, 1925.

Christmas Box