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"The cap St. Vincent gave you?"
"Rather that which Louis XIII. gave him for
us," she answered smiling. "Have you heard our tradition about our cap?"
"Ah! well, St. Vincent was sitting down to dinner one day with the King, when there passed by the windows one of his daughters; we had then only this crown to our cap, there was no front projecting over the face as a screen. Now, this sister was here the speaker raised her hand to her own face, and moved it about and about, with an expressiveness that clearly said-she was a very good-looking, handsome, striking sort of a person; but not liking perhaps, to use such mundane words-she finished the expressive motions of the hands and eyes with the words "in short, my dear, she could not help it, the girl was as God made her. But his majesty seeing her pass by with her face so much exposed, and only a little white linen skull cap on her head, said to St. Vincent, 'Who is that girl there?'
"Sire,' he replied, she is one of my daughters.' "The King took up his napkin, and throwing it to St. Vincent, said, 'There! take that, and make a covering for her head.' He did exactly what he was desired, and you see to-day the cap he gave that girl."
There it was sure enough; a slightly disarranged dinner napkin, half unfolded, with its curious peak remaining in front.
Now there are those of the French Protestants who deny that Vincent de Paul was the first projector of the work of Christian charity which has carried his name to the ends of the earth. They say it began on their side; that it was the Protestants of France who began it and set him the example he followed. The author of the good work is, I believe, only know in the unhappy annals of their long suffering people. I think his name was Robert Le Marc. What I have been told by some of them is, that soon after the Bible in their own tongue began to be known, Robert Le Marc wishing to revive the scriptural institutions of which some hints are scattered in the Bible, especially in the Epistles, established an institution which was, I suppose, to be founded on that of which St. Paul seems to say Phoebe was a member when he commended her as a servant of the Church. And it is, I believe, on this authority, and to revive this defunct order that the interesting, and very Protestant Institution of Deaconesses was founded about thirteen years ago in Paris.
What became of the original one instituted by Robert Le Marc, or Robert Marc, I do not think is now known; it probably underwent the fate which institutions among ourselves frequently do, and ceased to exist. Mere zeal will not keep such things alive, for zeal itself will die. If dependent on the zeal, the protection, the guidance, direction of anything external to itself, a religious work has no security, no source of uninterrupted action; it must,
it is evident, be liable to a succession of change, varying with the various characters, talents, or it may be notions or doctrines of those who are set over it, or on whose direction it depends. It is only when its own inherent constitution is made its real director that any corporation, above all a religious one, can subsist unchanged.
This, however, may be wandering from the matter in hand. I referred to the lost institution of Robert Le Marc founded sixty years before that of Vincent de Paul, merely because, as persons of all shades of opinion in England appear now to admit the want of Sisters of Charity, it may be consolatory to some of them to know that their Protestant brethren of France tenaciously dispute the palm of priority with Vincent de Paul; and assert that a similar order was called into existence in aid of Protestantism in France, and for the relief of its sufferers, before Vincent had even come into the world. Such, I believe, their history proves to have been the case; and thus we might conclude that Vincent only turned the enemy's arms upon themselves, at least in forming his auxiliary corps on the model they gave him.
Perhaps there will be nothing new to you in a brief and rapid sketch of the rise of this now veteran corps, and in the circumstances that led to its formation. It will not however, occupy much time, and I want to show you that the Lady of Charity which preceded Vincent de Paul's Sister of Charity,
so much activity in her habits, that precisely when any levity might have arisen there was some call to work, some duty to be attended to. If you were not of the same Church, it is possible that you may even have argued, and been yourself unhesitatingly condemned; yet there is no sense of angry disturbance on your mind. If the condemnation was not pronounced with a degree of feeling that won your affection, it is ten to one it was pronounced in the most good humoured and good natured manner. You walk with her in the streets; she nods to the children, returns the respectful salutations of ladies, and if she meets any of the other sex connected with the charitable, or officially charitable works of the place, she stops and speaks to them as she would do to the others, having perhaps her hand in her apron pocket and a great bunch of keys at her side.
There is no formality about her; none in appearance, none in manner, none in speech. Her dress is known, her work understood, her character respected. She is a privileged person, and can pass scot free where no other woman could. What is it that makes her so like all a true woman is, yet so unlike what many women are? I suppose it is the atmosphere she has breathed; an atmosphere the Sisters of Charity have breathed for nearly two hundred and fifty years; for with them what is has ever been.
I have heard of Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and in England too; but I have not heard of Sisters of
Charity; and I believe that the English notion of her is something like that of a Nun, or of something like a widow in weeds, something all in black, with black bonnet and veil, downcast looks, and pallid face, measured steps, tones and gestures. The primitive Sister of Charity has not a bit of black about her except her shoes. She walks with a very active step, an upright head, and usually a good degree of colour in her cheeks. I have seen some who have brought back that colour even from Africa and China. The Sister of Charity is not a Nun; there is no cloister, no grille in her case; she wears no veil; she shuns not the face of man, on the contrary, if necessary, she looks straight up to it, and speaks and acts as one who had nothing to fear, and was not naturally given to fear.
The Sister of Charity is not an ascetic; she eats and drinks very much like other people of her Church; the chief difference that I have found out being that she cannot take any refreshment where she visits as a matter of civility; a wise regulation perhaps, but one only made known to me upon trying the experiment; for to tell you the truth all I know of these Sisters has been drawn from personal acquaintance with some of them, and not from inquiring after their rules and customs, which might appear an impertinent curiosity. The Sister of Charity is not a penitent; not a contemplative being; she has nothing to do with silence, mortification and seclusion. Except at night, and to sus