Daphne du Maurier

“Marie went slowly to the rails and knelt down.  The altar was bare of flowers and alone in the centre stood the figure of the Sainte-Vierge. Her golden crown was crooked on her head, and covered in cobwebs. Her right arm had been lost, and then the other she has the little figure of the infant Jesus, who had no fingers on His hands. Her robe had once been blue, but the colour has come off long ago, and it was now a dirty brown. Her face was round and expressionless, the face of a cheap doll. She had large blue eyes that looked vacantly before her, while her scarlet cheeks clashed with her cracked painted lips. Her mouth was set in a silly smile, and the plaster was coming off at the corners. Around her neck she wore string up on string of glass beads, the offerings of the fishermen, and someone had even hung a wreath over her baby's head. It dangled sideways and hid his face

Marie knelt by the rails and gazed at the Sainte-Vierge. The figure was the most beautiful and sacred thing in her life. She did not notice the dust and the broken plaster, the toppling crown and the silly painted smile – to Marie she was the fulfiller of all prayers, the divine mother of the fishermen.  Avvs she knelt she prayed , not in words but in the thoughts that wandered at will through her mind, and her prayers were all for Jean, for his safety and his return.

‘Oh! Mother,’ she said, ‘if it is wrong for me to love him so much, then punish me as you will, but bring him safely back to me. He is young and brave, yet helpless as a child, he would not understand death. I care not if my heart breaks, nor if he should cease to love me and should ill-treat me, it is only his happiness I ask, and that he shall never know pain or hardship.’

A fly settled on the nose of the Sainte-Vierge, and brushed a scrap of coloured plaster off her cheek.

‘I have put all my trust in you,’ said Marie ‘and I know that you will watch over him when he is at sea. Though waves rise up and threaten his boat, if you protect him I shall have no fear. I will bring fresh flowers every morning and lay them at the feet of the little Jesus. When I am working in the day I will sing songs and be gay, and these will be prayers to you for his safety. Oh! Mother, if you could only show me by a sign that all will be well!’

A drip of water from the roof fell down upon the Sainte-Vierge and left a dirty streak across her left eye.

It was very dark now. Away across the fields a woman was calling to a child. A faint breeze stirred in the trees, and far in the distance the waves broke dully on the shingle beach.

Marie gazed upon the figure until she dropped from weariness, and everything was blurred and strange before her eyes. The walls of the chapel lay in shadow; even the altar sank into nothingness. All that remained was the image of the St Sainte-Vierge, her face lit up by a chance ray of Moonlight. And as Marie watched the figure it seems to her that the cracked, painted smile became a thing of beauty, and that the dolls eyes looked down upon her with tenderness and love. The tawdry crown shone in the darkness, and Marie was filled with awe and wonder.

She did not know that it shone only by the light of the moon. She lifted up her arms and said: ‘Mother of pity, show me a sign that you have heard my prayers.’ Then she closed her eyes and waited. It seemed an eternity that she knelt there, her head bowed in her hands.

Slowly she was aware of a feeling of peace and great comfort, as if the place were sanctified by the presence of something holy. She felt that if she opened her eyes she would look up on a vision. Yet she was afraid to obey her impulse, lest the thing she would see should blind her with its beauty. The longing grew stronger and stronger within her, until she was forced to give way. Unconscious of her surroundings, unconscious of what she was doing, Marie opened her eyes. The low window beside the altar was filled with the pale light of the moon, and just outside she saw the vision.

She saw Jean kneeling upon the grass, gazing at something, and there was a smile on his face, and slowly from the ground rose a figure which Marie could not see distinctly, for it was in shadow, but it was the figure of a woman. She watched her place two hands on Jean’s shoulders, as if she were blessing him, and he buried his head in the folds of her gown. Only for a moment they remained like this, and then a cloud passed over the face of the moon, and the chapel was filled with darkness.

Marie closed her eyes and sank to the ground in worship. She had seen the blessed vision of the Sainte-Vierge. She had prayed for a sign, and it had been given her, Notre Dame des Bonnes Nouvelles had appeared unto her, and with her own hands had blessed Jean, and assured him of her love and protection. There was no longer fear in Marie’s heart; she felt she would never be afraid again. She had put all her faith in the Sainte-Vierge, and her prayers had been answered.

She rose unsteadily from the ground and found her way to the door. Once more she turned, and looked for the last time at the figure on the altar. It was in shadow now, and the crown was no longer gold. Marie smiled and bowed her head; she knew that no one else would ever see what she had seen. In the chapel the Sainte-Vierge still smiled her painted smile, and the vacant blue eyes gazed into nothing. The faded wreath slipped a little over the ear of the infant Jesus.

Marie stepped out into the evening. She was very tired and could scarcely see where she was going, but her heart was at peace and she was filled with a great happiness.

In the corner of the narrow field, sheltered by the chapel window, Jean whispered his desires to the sister of Jacques the fisherman.”

The Sainte-Vierge.

From The Rendezvous and other stories

Daphne du Maurier.