A translation, with slight adaptation, of ‘Les Trois Messes Basses’, a short story from Contes du Lundi by Alphonse Daudet, published in 1873.
‘Two stuffed turkeys, Garrigou?’
‘Yes, Reverend, two magnificent turkeys crammed full of truffles. And I should know; I helped stuff them. They looked as though their skin might burst while roasting, they were so tightly packed…’
‘Sweet Jesus! I love truffles! Quick, give me my surplice, Garrigou. And what else did you see in the kitchen?’
‘Oh! All sorts of good things. Since midday we’ve done nothing but pluck pheasants, starlings, red grouse, black grouse…the feathers were flying everywhere. Then from the pond they brought eels, golden carp, trout, some…’
‘How big were the trout, Garrigou?’
‘This big, Reverend, enormous!’
‘Oh God! I can almost see them! Have you put the wine in the communion cruets?’
‘Yes, Reverend, but by God it’s not a patch on the one you’ll be drinking after midnight Mass. If you could see the dining room at the manor, all the carafes overflowing with wine in every colour… and the silver dishes, the engraved silver centrepieces, the flowers, the candelabras! I’ve never seen a Christmas Eve feast like it! The Marquis has invited every landowner in the neighbourhood. There’ll be at least forty people at the table, not counting the bailiff and the notary. Ah! You’re really lucky to be one of them, Reverend. All I’ve had of those beautiful turkeys is a sniff, and the smell of truffles is following me everywhere. Bah!’
‘Come now, my child. Let us beware the sin of gluttony, especially the night before we celebrate Christ’s birth. Quickly, light the candles and ring the bells for Mass, it’s nearly midnight and we mustn’t get behind schedule.’
This conversation took place one Christmas Eve in the year of our Lord 1600 or so, between the Reverend dom Balaguère, former Prior of Barnabites, current chaplain to the lords of Trinquelague, and his altar boy Garrigou, or at least someone he thought was Garrigou, because, as you will discover, that evening the devil had taken hold of his round face and vague features to lead the Reverend Father into temptation and make him commit an appalling act of gluttony. So, while the so-called Garrigou (ha!) rang the bells in the manor house chapel with all his might, the Reverend finished putting on his outer robe in the little vestry. His spirit was already agitated by all these gastronomic descriptions and as he dressed, he repeated to himself:
‘Roast turkeys, golden carp, trout this big!’
Outside, the evening breeze carried the music of the bells, and gradually lights appeared in the shadows on the slopes of Mount Ventoux, on the top of which rose up the old towers of Trinquelague. It was the tenant farmers and their families coming to hear midnight Mass at the manor. Despite the late hour and the cold, these decent people all walked cheerfully, sustained by the thought that after leaving the Mass there would be, as there was every year, a table set for them below stairs, in the kitchens.
Across the drawbridge, through the back gate, through the courtyard full of carriages, footmen and sedan chairs, lit up by torch-light and the blaze from the kitchens. You could hear the crank of the roasting spits, the clatter of saucepans, the tinkle of glass and silverware as the table was set, and above it rose a warm fug smelling of roasting flesh and strong herbs in complicated sauces, calling to the tenant farmers, the chaplain, the bailiff, to all:
‘What a glorious Christmas Eve feast we’ll have after mass!’
Ting ting! Ting ting!
Midnight Mass began. In the manor chapel, a miniature cathedral with intersecting vaults and oak panelling to the top of the walls, the tapestries had been hung and the candles lit. At the front, in the carved stalls which surrounded the choir, sat the Marquis of Trinquelague, dressed in salmon taffeta, and near him sat all the noble guests. Opposite, on a velvet-covered kneeler, was the old dowager Marquess in her fire-coloured brocade dress, and the young Marquess of Trinquelague, on her head a high tower of embossed lace in the latest fashion of the Royal court of France. Further back, dressed in black with huge perriwigs and clean-shaven faces, the bailiff, Thomas Arnoton and the master notary, Ambroy, sounded two serious notes among the showy silks and damasks. Then came the fat stewards, the footmen, the overseers, the grooms, and Lady Barbe, her keys hanging at her side on a fine silver keychain. At the very back, on the benches, sat the lower servants, the tenant farmers with their families, and finally, right against the door that they were discreetly half-opening and closing, stood the kitchen scullions, who came for a taste of the mass and brought the smell of the Christmas Eve feast into the festive church, warm from all the candles.
Was it the sight of their little white caps that distracted the officiant? More likely it was Garrigou’s little altar bell, pealing madly with an infernal urgency which seemed to keep saying ‘let’s hurry, the sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll be at the table.’ The fact is that each time this devilish bell rang, the chaplain forgot his Mass and thought only of the immense table laden with bronzed pheasants, jewel-coloured glasses, pyramids of fruit and marvellous fish with sprigs of fragrant herbs in their monstrous nostrils.
It seemed to dom Balaguère that all the fabulous dishes were set before him on the lace altar cloth, and two or three times instead of blessing the people he found himself blessing the communion. Apart from these minor mistakes, the honourable man carried out his duties very conscientiously, without missing a line, or omitting a genuflexion, and everything passed smoothly until the end of the first Mass, because of course on Christmas Eve the officiant must celebrate three consecutive Masses.
“That’s one done” the chaplain said to himself with a sigh of relief, then, without missing a beat, he made a sign to his altar boy, and…
Ting ting! Ting ting!
The second Mass began, and with it began dom Balaguère’s sinning. ‘Quick, quick, let’s hurry!’ cried the voice of Garrigou’s bell, and this time the officiant surrendered to the demon of gluttony and raced through the missal book, dashing off the pages in a fevered anticipation of greed. Frantically he bowed, straightened up, made the sign of the cross and genuflected, shortening the gestures, to finish as soon as possible. He had scarcely held up the Gospel than he struck himself on the chest for the confession. Between him and the altar boy it was difficult to say who muttered the quickest. They half-enunciated words, scarcely opening their mouths to save time, resulting in incomprehensible murmurs.
‘Let us pray mn nn mn.’
“I confess mm nn mn.”
Like time-pressed grape-pickers trampling grapes in a trough, they splashed through the Mass, splattering words in all directions.
‘The Lord b – w-oo!’ said Balaguère.
‘An-spirt!’ responded Garrigou, and all the while that damned little bell rang in their ears, like bells put onto mail horses to make them gallop at full speed. At that pace, a Mass is quickly dispatched.
‘That’s two done,’ said the chaplain to himself, gasping for breath, then, without pausing, red, sweating, he stumbled down the altar steps and…
Ting ting! Ting ting!
The third Mass began. Only a few steps stood between him and the dining room; but alas, as the Christmas Eve feast drew nearer, the unfortunate Balaguère was consumed by a frenzy of impatience and gluttony. His vision grew even brighter, the golden carp, the roast turkeys were right in front of him. He touched them, he… oh God! The dishes were steaming, the wines scented the air, and the little bell rang madly, crying, ‘Quick, quick, even quicker!’
But how could he go any faster? His lips were scarcely moving. He was no longer enunciating the words. He was close to cheating the good Lord by glossing over his Mass. And that’s what he did, the unfortunate soul. One temptation led to another; he began by skipping one verse, then two. Then the epistle was too long, he didn’t finish it, he skimmed over the Gospel, passed the Creed without going into it, jumped over the Our Father, waved at the Preface from afar, and thus in leaps and bounds plunged himself into eternal damnation, followed doggedly by the infernal Garrigou. With impressive understanding, he turned the pages two at a time, relieved dom Balaguère of his outer robe, shoved aside the lectern, and emptied out the cruets, while the little bell rang ceaselessly.
You should have seen the aghast faces of the congregation! Obliged to keep up with the priest, in this incomprehensible mass, some were getting up from their knees while others were kneeling down, some were sitting down when others were standing up. The Christmas star, moving through the heavens towards the little stable, dimmed after seeing such chaos.
‘The abbot’s going too quickly, we can’t keep up’ murmured the old dowager, shaking her head in bewilderment. Sir Arnoton, his large steel spectacles on his nose, hunted like hell in his prayer book to find where they were. But at the back, all those decent folk, who were likewise thinking about the Christmas Eve feast, were not angry that the Mass was going post-haste, and when dom Balaguère turned his shiny face towards the congregation and shouted with all the strength in his lungs “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” the whole chapel responded with one voice ‘thanks be to God’ in such a joyous, lively way that they sounded like people already at the table toasting Christmas Eve.
Five minutes later, all the noblemen and women were seated in the great room, the chaplain in the middle of them. The manor, lit up from top to bottom, resounded with singing, shouts, laughter and gossip, and the venerable dom Balaguère jabbed his fork into a grouse wing, drowning the remorse of his sin in floods of fine wine and gravy. This saintly man ate and drank so much that he died from a terrible heart attack, without having time to repent, and when he arrived in heaven in the morning, still stinking of the night before, you can imagine how that was received.
‘Get out of my sight, wicked Christian!’ our sovereign lord and master said to him, ‘your sin is enough to wipe out a lifetime of virtue. You robbed me of an evening Mass! You will pay by only entering paradise when you have celebrated 300 Christmas Eve Masses in the presence of all those you caused to sin with you!’
Every year at Christmas, as they’re going to Mass and to Christmas Eve feasts, the country folk see the ruined chapel lit up by invisible candles, burning even in wind and snow. Laugh all you want, but a grape-picker named Garrigue, doubtless a relative of Garrigou, confirmed to me that one Christmas Eve, while a little intoxicated, he got lost on the mountainside near Trinquelague. Until eleven o’clock all was silent, dark, still. Suddenly, about midnight, an old, old bell rang from the top of the tower, as if from far away. Garriugue saw flickering lights and indistinct shadows moving along the path. People walked through the chapel porch, whispering: ‘good evening, Sir Arnoton!’ ‘Good evening, my good people!’
When everyone had gone in, the brave grape-picker crept up to the broken doorway and watched a peculiar spectacle. All the people who had passed him were sitting around the quire, in the ruined nave, as through the ancient pews still existed. Beautiful ladies in silks and damasks with lace headdresses, noblemen, country people in coats like our grandfathers wore, all with a dusty, tired, and faded air.
A wizened child, on his knees in the middle of the quire, desperately rang a silent altar bell, while a priest dressed in old gold walked backwards and forwards in front of the altar, silently reciting prayers.
Josephine Murray is a French to English literary translator on the UEA MA Literary Translation course, an award-nominated journalist, and teacher of foreign languages and creative writing. A Cordon Bleu qualified cook, she particularly enjoys translating books about food, and children’s literature. She lives with her husband and daughter in Gloucestershire. She tweets @MsJHMurray