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Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-semite (1872) by Thérèse Yelverton


“What do you think about nuns, John?” I said to my husband one day as I sat sewing in his study.

“I don’t think about them at all, my dear; it would not be proper; you know they are vowed to celibacy,” replied the imperturbable Professor.

“How tiresome you are! I mean, of course, as teachers. Some convents, I am told, give first-class education, and the moral training is quite unequaled.”

“Indeed!” he said, dryly.

“Yes, Mrs. Dundas was educated in a convent, and you remember you said that she had more self-control than any woman you had ever known.”

“I adhere to that opinion still, and I think you had better write to her and ascertain what she thinks of the suitability of such a school for Zanita, as I can easily see that her case suggested your inquiry. It is a subject on which I am not qualified to give you the smallest opinion. Conventual life is one which has never interested me.”

In pursuance of this conversation I wrote to our friend, asking her opinion, and describing Zanita as closely as it was possible to define so singular a character.

In course of post the reply came, and was most satisfactory. She said that for such a disposition as I had delineated a convent would be most desirable; that she thought even Zanita would have some difficulty in withstanding the order and resisting the moral discipline in the atmosphere of high honor which pervaded these schools. The great secret, she went on to say, is the trouble the nuns give themselves for the benefit of their young pupils. They make a constant study of each character and disposition, never falling into the common error of believing that all children are alike and must be treated in the same way. A child’s propensities are carefully observed, and every temptation spared her and avoided. The force of example is so strong, and the whole school in such perfect order, that a child must have an unwonted force of character to counterbalance it.

The control of a child is a perfect art, which the nuns of the Ursuline Order make a life-long study; and, like the Jesuits, their success in training the youth is quite marvelous. She ventured to predict that Zanita would not be expelled from the convent. She recommended a beautiful establishment near Santa Clara, and inclosed a letter to the mother superior of that nunnery in case I should wish to communicate with the establishment.

This I did, minutely detailing the points of Zanita’s character, and the reasons for which she had been sent home from the various schools,—leaving entirely to their discretion whether they would undertake the education of my protégé.

I soon received an exquisitely written note, simple and yet elegant in diction, showing that letter-writing was certainly one of the accomplishments possessed by the Ursulines. It stated that they would be happy to receive the child on the usual terms—which, by the way, was little more than half of the terms of other seminaries; that the education and training of young girls to fill their different positions in life was the sole object of the Order of Ursulines; and that, in fulfillment of their vows, they had no choice but to receive all who applied, as far as the extent of their establishment would admit. They expressed a pleasant conviction that they should not have very much trouble, as I had anticipated; as from my statement she had never been subject to bad example, which they feared more than anything else in a child.

A few weeks after, therefore, saw us en route for Santa Clara, Zanita as usual full of wild anticipations and curious projects, especially as we understood there were some thousand acres of land attached to the convent, where there was not only a river but hills and trees. The nuns had a large farm, supplying almost all the wants of the establishment; so Zanita’s prospects were exceedingly pleasing.

The Professor had also promised her that if she remained, and a fair account was rendered of her, he would send her a pony to ride provided the nuns had no objection.

As we drove up to the convent through handsome park-like grounds, my hopes revived; and when we entered the house,—so scrupulously clean, so airy and orderly,—I felt that I had entertained an unjust prejudice all my life against nuns; all my preconceived notions of monastic misery vanished at once before that cool quiet parlor into which we were ushered.

We had time to inspect the room whilst we waited for the lady abbess, or the mother superior, as she is called in this order. The walls of the apartment were tastefully decorated with specimens of penmanship, embroidered tableaux, sketches of the different points of view from their building, and crayon-heads,—performances, no doubt, of the pupils. There was a piano-forte and a harp, two or three magnificently embroidered fauteuils and footstools, the rest of the furniture being plain and neat.

Presently the door opened and the mother superior swept in with a graceful motion that took me by surprise, for I had never seen a nun like that before. She was a tall, distinguished looking woman, with long delicate features, and a soft womanly mouth, bespeaking great purity of character: her eyes were almond shaped and gray, with a steadfast, dignified expression almost overpowering. She wore a long black cloth robe which swept the ground; the sleeves of it, in which her hands were folded, hung long and deep from the shoulder half-way down the dress; a broad stiff collar encircled her throat, and descended low on the breast; a band of white was bound round her forehead, just above her straight penciled eyebrows; upon her head, coming to a sort of point in front, she wore a black opaque veil of some very fine texture; round her waist was fastened a small leathern strap as a waist-band, from which was suspended a large rosary of olive stones brought from the sacred garden of the Mount of Olives, as I afterward understood, together with a large crucifix.

This imposing dress and dignified figure evidently produced some effect upon Zanita as well as myself. The superior received us gracefully, and with the polished manner of a woman of the world accustomed to receive guests. There was an impenetrability and a dearth of emotionality in her bearing which told of a latent power to rule and be obeyed. It was a face that seemed never to have heard of vacillation, though it was neither hard nor cold; a shadow of doubt never seemed to have crossed it. When she held out her hand to Zanita and drew her toward her, and imprinted a soft kiss on her forehead, I felt she had already decided the line of action to be pursued toward her pupil and, I believe, Zanita had some consciousness of this too, for there was an expression in her eyes as though a trifle overawed or puzzled.

She showed us over the house, and displayed Zanita’s miniature bedroom, which was to be her own exclusively. “For,” she explained, “we never allow two girls to room together.”

She next took us into a pleasant little dining-room reserved for guests, and refreshment was served to us by one of the sisters. I was kindly invited to spend the night there if I wished; but I declined, not wishing in any way to influence the first impressions made upon Zanita, and preferring to resign her at once to their charge. I was eager also to tell the Professor all I had seen and the new experience I had passed through.

“I shall be very curious,” said my husband, after we had talked over the day’s event, “to know the result of this new experiment; it will be extremely interesting if those women, whom one is so ready to despise, actually control the child, if they cannot altogether change her. I would give a dollar to witness the first encounter between the superior and Zanita.”

“It would be a study of human nature,” I said. “For the former looks as though she had quite made up her mind about everything above and below the heavens. A woman who, if you told her that a new planet had been discovered, would remark, “I have counted them, and know their number, so you must be mistaken.” She is satisfied that she was born to be superior of that convent, satisfied that it is the best destiny that could be provided for her, satisfied that she has the pleasantest convent in the world, that her community is exactly what it ought to be, and that the academy is the best school; she is not enthusiastic about it, but quietly settled in the belief without attempting to obtrude her views on anybody; a woman who would always do her duty, and even make great sacrifices without feeling them to he sacrifices; she would be kind to all but loving to none. She will never display any affection toward Zanita and never require any.”

“And there will be one great source of power,” remarked the Professor. “Zanita is not a child that requires any display of affection, and misuses it whenever she has the opportunity.”

“And yet,” I resumed, “the mother superior is a thoroughly womanly woman, without the slightest attempt at fostering the feeling of masculineness.”

“That proves,” said my husband, “that a woman may exercise unbounded sway if she have native power without assuming the character of the opposite sex. Your so-called strong-minded woman rarely becomes a ruler or exercises dominion over others; she is in a chronic state of antagonism without achieving any victories. It is the feminine woman who never allows her emotions to overcome her wisdom, and who holds to a purpose without vacillation,—whose power is, and ever will be, felt in the world.”

“Yes,” I replied, “I have no doubt that the mother superior reigns supreme in her little world, and her influence extends far beyond it. We never hear of a revolt in a convent, or under the monastic system; and this must arise from the marvelously sage ruling of the head of the establishment.”

“If anything can upset them Zanita will,” said my husband, laughingly, “for she has an absolute faculty for discovering a loop-hole through which she can create disorder. I do not know what phrenological organ you call it, my dear; I should name it the bump of revolt.”

The mother superior had acceded with a smile to my urgent request that I might be informed weekly of Zanita’s behavior; she thought there would be no necessity. One week was precisely like another in a convent, unless interrupted by some religious festival; but she assured me that everything was so carefully arranged that nothing like monotony was ever felt, either by nuns or pupils; and she doubted not that I should soon feel satisfied that my protégé was progressing well.

The bulletins of conduct came regularly every week for some three months. Zanita’s short-comings and escapades were narrated with faithful accuracy; but no fatal results seemed to arise, or were prognosticated. I had, therefore, the pleasure of going to see her at the end of six months, and of coming away thoroughly delighted with the conventual experiment of training.

We left her there for twelve months without her returning home. She was fast growing into a beautiful girl, brilliant in every way. She had lost much of her ungainly and hoydenish manner, and acquired a graceful style wherever it was compatible with her erratic movements.

Now and then she would astonish her small world by some unimagined freak; but it was treated with impassive cold reprimand by the nuns, and the pupils soon came to regard espiegleries as a matter of course, and remark,—

“O, it is only Zanita at some new freak.”

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