The Third Low Mass

“Two turkeys stuffed with truffles?…
– Yes, your Reverence, two magnificent turkeys, crammed full of truffles. I know a bit about them because I helped to stuff them. They say their skins will burst during roasting, they have been stretched so much…
– Jesus and Mary! And don’t I just love truffles!… Quickly now, pass me my surplice, Garrigou… And about those turkeys, what else did you spot in the kitchen?…
– Oh! all sorts of goodies… Since midday we have been doing nothing but plucking pheasants, hoopoes, pullets, grouse. Feathers everywhere… Then from the pond they brought eels, golden carp, trout…
– How big are the trout, Garrigou?
– As big as this, your Reverence… Enormous!…
– Oh! God! I can just imagine them… Have you put the wine in the cruets?
– Yes, your Reverence, I have put the wine in the cruets… But in very truth! That’s nothing compared to what you will be drinking soon after you have said Midnight Mass. If you could only see what they’ve got in the dining room at the chateau, all the glowing carafes full of wines of every colour… And the silver dinner service, the carved table stands, the flowers, the candlesticks!… Never will there have been such a Christmas feast. The Marquis has invited all the gentry in the district. There will be at least 40 guests, not counting the bailiff and the notary… Ah! how lucky you are to be one of them, your Reverence!… After only getting a whiff of those beautiful turkeys the smell of the truffles follows me everywhere… Mmmmm!…
– Now, now, my lad. Let’s be on our guard against the sin of gluttony, especially on Christmas Eve… So off you go now, quickly, light the candles and ring the first bell for Mass. It is almost midnight and we must not be late…”
This conversation took place one Christmas Eve in the year of grace one thousand six hundred and something, between the Reverend Fr. Balagučre, a former Prior, now chaplain to Lord Trinquelage, and his young clerk, Garrigou, or so he believed. Because, you see, that evening the Devil had taken on the round face and the indecisive manner of the young sacristan, all the better to lead the Reverend Father into temptation and get him to commit the dreadful sin of gluttony. And so it was that while the so-called Garrigou (ahem! ahem!) rang the carillon of bells in the chapel of the nobility, his Reverence was donning his vestments in the little sacristy of the chateau, where, his soul already troubled by all the gastronomic descriptions, he repeated to himself while dressing:
“Roast turkeys… golden carp… trout as big as this!…”
Outside, the winds of the night blew the music of the bells far and wide, and, gradually, lights began to appear on the darkened slopes of Mount Ventoux, on whose heights loomed the ancient towers of Trinquelage. They were the tenants and their families coming to hear the Midnight Mass at the chateau. They were singing as they climbed, in groups of five or six, the father leading the way with a lantern in his hand, the women wrapped in big, brown cloaks in which the children pressed close for shelter. In spite of the cold and the lateness of the hour these honest folk tramped along cheerfully, sustained by the thought that when they came out of Mass, there would be a table set for them below in the kitchens, just like every year.
From time to time during the steep ascent, the coach of a lord, preceded by torchbearers, would reflect the moonlight from its windows, or a mule would go trotting by, its bells tinkling, and then, by the light of blazing torches shrouded in mist, the tenants would recognise their bailiff and would greet him as he went past:
“Good evening, good evening, Master Arnoton!
– Good evening, good evening, my children!”
It was a clear night, and the stars seemed burnished by the cold. The north wind was biting and a light fall of snow, slipping over their clothes without wetting them, kept faith with the tradition of Christmas being white. High up on the slope appeared the chateau, their objective, with its great mass of towers and gables, the spire of the chapel rising into the dark blue sky. And there was a myriad of little lights that twinkled, faded, revived, and flickered in all the windows. Against the dark outline of the building, they looked like moving sparks in the embers of burning paper…
Having gone over the drawbridge and through the postern gate, it was necessary, in order to get to the chapel, to cross the first courtyard. It was crowded with coaches, with footmen, and with sedan-chairs, all clearly visible in the light of the flaring torches and the glare from the kitchens. One could hear the creaking of the spits as they turned, the clatter of pots and pans, the clash of glass and silver ware as a meal was being prepared. Over everything hung a warm vapour, smelling deliciously of roast meats and of the many herbs of intricate sauces, which told the farmers – and the chaplain – and the bailiff – and everyone:
“What a wonderful Christmas feast we are going to have after Mass!”
Ring-a-ling! Ring-a-ling!
The Midnight Mass had begun. In the chapel of the chateau, a cathedral in miniature with crisscrossing arches, tapestries had been hung from the wall-high oak wainscotting and every candle was alight. And what a crowd! What styles!
First of all, seated in the carved stalls surrounding the choir, was the Lord of Trinquelage in a salmon-coloured robe of silk and near him were all the noble guests. Opposite, occupying a prie-Dieu adorned with velvet, was the Dowager Marchioness in a dress of fiery brocade and the young Lady of Trinquelage, crowned with a tower of lace crimped in the latest style from the court at Paris. Lower down one could see the bailiff, Thomas Arnoton, and the notary, Master Ambroy. They were both dressed in black with enormous pointed periwigs and shaven faces: they each struck a sombre note among the dazzling silks and the embossed damasks. Then came the fat majordomos, the pages, the grooms, the stewards, and the housekeeper with all her keys hanging at her side from a key-ring of fine silver.
Down below, on the benches, were the lower orders: the servants and the tenants and their families. Finally, right at the back and standing against the door which they would half open and close very discretely, were the scullions who would slip in between two sauces to experience a little of the atmosphere of the Mass, bringing with them to the festive church, warm from so many lighted candles, a scent of the Christmas feast.
Was it the sight of their little white caps which distracted the celebrant? Or was it rather Garrigou’s little bell, that insane little bell which rang at the foot of the altar with such hellish speed. All the time it seemed to be saying:
“Let’s go faster, let’s go faster… The sooner we finish the sooner we will be at table.”
The fact is that every time it rang, that devil’s little bell, the chaplain forgot the Mass and thought only of the Christmas feast. He imagined the cooks and their bustle, the ovens with their fires like forges, the steam rising from partly opened lids and in the steam the two magnificent turkeys, stuffed and stretched and marbled with truffles…
Or again he saw lines of pages passing by carrying plates wreathed in tempting vapours and he went in with them to the large hall now ready for the feast. O what delights! There was the great table completely loaded down and gleaming, the peacocks dressed in their feathers, the pheasants spreading their reddish wings, the decanters the colour of rubies, the pyramids of fruit radiant among green branches, those wondrous fish of which Garrigou had spoken (ah, yes, Garrigou indeed!) displayed on a bed of fennel, and pearly shells looking as if just out of the water, with a bouquet of scented herbs in their monster’s nostrils.
So vivid was the vision of these marvels that it seemed to Father Balagučre as if all of these wonderful dishes were being served before him on the embroidered altar cloth, and two or three times, instead of the Dominus Vobiscum he was surprised to hear himself say the Benedicite. Apart from these slight mistakes, the worthy gentleman fulfilled his office very conscientiously, not skipping a single line, not missing one genuflection, and everything went along quite well until the end of the first Mass. On Christmas Day, you see, the celebrant had to say three Masses, one after the other!
“That’s number one!” said the chaplain to himself with a sigh of relief. Then, without losing a moment, he made a sign to his clerk, or what he thought was his clerk, and…
Ring-a-ling!… Ring-a-ling!
The second Mass began and with it too began the sin of Father Balagučre.
“Quick, quick, we must hurry up.” cried Garrigou’s little bell, in its sour little voice, and this time the unhappy celebrant abandoned himself completely to the demon of gluttony, rushed at the missal and devoured the pages with the voracity of his over-excited appetite. Frantically he bowed and straightened. He sketched the Sign of the Cross and the genuflections in outline only, and curtailed every gesture in order to finish sooner. He hardly extended his arms at the Gospel, and barely struck his breast at the Confiteor. Between him and the clerk it was a question of who could stutter fastest. Verses and responses were rushed as they jostled along. Words were only half pronounced, without opening the mouth, which would take too much time, and ended in unintelligible mutterings.
“Oremus ps… ps… ps…
“Mea culpa .. pa… pa…”
Just like hurried grape harvesters trampling the grapes in a vat, the two of them splashed about in the Latin of the Mass, sending splatters in all directions.
“Dom… scum!… said Balagučre.
–… Stutuo!…” replied Garrigou and all the while the damned little bell was there ringing in their ears, like those clappers they put on post horses to make them run at full speed. You have to remember that at this rate a low Mass is over quickly.
“That’s number two!” said the chaplain, totally winded, then, hardly pausing for breath, red-faced and sweating, he rushed down the altar steps and…
Ring-a-ling!… Ring-a-ling!…
The third Mass began. Only a few paces to go before getting to the banqueting hall, but alas, as the Christmas feast drew near, the unfortunate Balagučre felt himself in the grip of an insane impatience and gluttony. His vision grew more intense, the golden carp and the roast turkeys were there, there… He was touching them… touching… Oh! God!… The steaming plates, the scented wines, and, striking with its insane clapper, the little bell cried out to him:
“Quick, quick, quicker!…”
But how could he go quicker? His lips hardly moved. He no longer pronounced the words… As if to deceive the good God completely and to spirit His Mass away. And that is what the wretch did!… From temptation to temptation… He began by skipping one verse, then two. Then the Epistle was too long and he did not finish it. He skimmed lightly over the Gospel, passed by the Credo without going into it, jumped over the Pater, greeted the Preface from afar, and by leaps and bounds cast himself into eternal damnation, always followed by the infamous Garrigou (Get thee behind me, Satan!) who acted as his second with remarkable skill, raised his chasuble, turned the pages two at a time, toppled the missal stand, spilled the cruets, and endlessly shook the little bell, harder and harder, faster and faster.
You should have seen the bewildered looks of the congregation. Obliged to follow this Mass, of which they could not understand a single word, by mimicking the priest, some stood up as others knelt and some sat while others were on their feet and all the stages of this strange service got confused on the benches as the congregation got completely out of step. The Star of Christmas, travelling along the roads of the sky towards the little stable, paled in horror on seeing this confusion.
“The priest is going too fast… One cannot keep up with him.” murmured the old dowager, shaking her head in bewilderment.
Master Arnoton, with his large steel spectacles on his nose, searched his prayer book to see where the dickens he was supposed to be. But in the main, all those honest people were also thinking about getting their Christmas feast, so they were not at all angry because the Mass was going post haste. So when Father Balagučre, his face beaming, turned to the congregation and cried out with all his strength: “Ite missa est”, the response came with but one voice, “Deo gratias!”, as joyfully and as enthusiastically as if they were already at the table for the first toast of the Christmas feast.
Five minutes later, the lords and ladies were seated in the great hall, the chaplain among them. The chateau, lit up from top to bottom, echoed to the sounds of shouting, laughter and revelry. The venerable Father Balagučre stuck his fork into the wing of a pullet, drowning remorse for his sin in floods of Chateauneuf du Pape and in fine meat juices. The poor holy man ate and drank so much that, without having any time to repent, he died during the night of a dreadful seizure. So in the morning, he arrived, still full of the previous night’s revelry, in Heaven. I leave you to imagine how he was received.
“Get out of my sight, you wicked Christian!” the sovereign Judge, Master of us and of all, said to him. “Your fault is big enough to cancel out a whole life of virtue… Ah! you have stolen one night-Mass from me… All right! you will repay me with three hundred in its place, and you will not enter Paradise until you have celebrated those three hundred Christmas Masses in your own chapel in the presence of all those who have sinned because of you and with you…”
…And there you have the true legend of Father Balagučre as it is told in the land of the olive. Today the chateau of Trinquelage no longer exists, but the chapel still stands tall, high up on Ventoux Mountain, in a grove of green oak trees. The wind beats at its broken door, grass covers the threshold and there are nests in the niches on the altar and in the recesses of the tall windows from which the stained glass has long vanished. It seems, however, that every year, at Christmas, a supernatural light strays among these ruins, and that while going to Mass or to a Christmas feast, the peasants see the spectre of a chapel lit up by invisible candles which burn in the open air, even in snow and wind. Laugh if you will, but a local wine grower, Garrigue by name, doubtless a descendant of Garrigou, has asserted to me that one Christmas Eve, after a drinking bout, he got lost in the mountains in the vicinity of Trinquelage and this is what he saw…
At eleven o’clock, nothing. Everything was silent, dark, lifeless. Suddenly, towards midnight, a peal of bells sounded high up in the spire, an old, old peal which sounded as though it was ten leagues distant. Soon, on the path upwards, Garrigue saw lights glimmering and casting vague shadows. Beneath the porch of the chapel there was movement, there was whispering:
“Good evening, master Arnoton!
– Good evening, good evening, my children!…”
When everyone had gone in, the wine grower, a very brave man, approached quietly and, looking through the broken door, saw a remarkable sight. All the people he had seen pass by were gathered around the choir in the ruined nave as if the old benches were still there. Beautiful ladies in brocade with bonnets of lace, lords embroidered from top to bottom, peasants in flowery tunics just like our grandfathers used to have, everyone looking old, faded, dusty, tired. From time to time, birds of the night, normally guests of the chapel, awakened by all the lights, came and flew around the candles whose flames rose straight and ghostly, as if burning behind a veil. One thing in particular amused Garrigue. There was a certain person wearing big steel spectacles who, every moment, shook his tall, black periwig on which one of the birds, completely entangled, was silently beating its wings.
In the background, a little old man, of childlike appearance, on his knees in the middle of the choir, despairingly shook a tiny bell without clapper or sound while a priest, dressed in old gold-coloured vestments was moving back and forth in front of the altar reciting prayers that no one could hear…
Yes indeed, it was Father Balagučre, in the process of saying his third low Mass…

Alphonse Daudet (1840 - 1897). From his book, Lettres de mon Moulin.
Translation ©: Wales Famine Forum.

Published in The Green DragonNo 5, Winter, 1997.