The Three Low Masses A Christmas Story by Guest Author Jim Gaines

By Alphonse Daudet

Translated by James F. Gaines

“Two stuffed turkeys, Garrigou?”
“Yes, reverend father, two magnificent turkeys stuffed with truffles. I know all about it, since it was I who helped stuff them. You would have thought their skin was going to crack in the roasting, it was so tight…”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and I love truffles so much! Quick, hand me my surplice, Garrigou. And besides the turkeys, what else did you see in the kitchen?”
“Oh, all kinds of wonderful things. Since noon we’ve been doing nothing but plucking pheasants, grouse, game hens. There were feathers everywhere. Then from the pond they brought trout, golden carp, eels…”
“How big were the trout, Garrigou?”
“Big as this, reverend father, enormous!” he declared, spreading his arms wide.
“Oh, my God, I can just see them. Have you put the wine in the cruets?”
“Yes, reverend father, I’ve put wine in the cruets. But by golley, it’s not as good as the wine you’ll be drinking as soon as the midnight mass is over. If you could see the castle banquet hall and all the pitchers filled with wine gleaming in so many colors! And the silverware, and the lace, and the flowers and candlesticks! There’ll never be the like of this Christmas feast. Milord the marquis has invited all the nobility of the countryside. You’ll be at least forty at table, not counting the bailiff and the notary. Ah, you’re so fortunate to be invited, reverend father! Why, just from having sniffed those turkeys once, the aroma of the truffles follows me everywhere. Yum!”
Come now, come now, my boy. Let us not succumb to the sin of gluttony, especially on the night of Christ’s birth! Rush out now and light the candles on the altar and sound the first bells for mass, for midnight is approaching fast and we must not be late.”
This conversation took place one Christmas night in the year of our Lord sixteen hundred something between the reverend father Balaguère, formerly prior of the Barnabite abbey and presently appointed chaplain to the house of Trinquelage, and his altar boy Garrigou, or at any rate the one he took for his altar boy Garrigou, for you’ll see that the Devil that night had taken on the round face and plain looks of the little sacristan the better to lead the priest into temptation and to make him commit the heinous sin of gluttony. Therefore, while the so-called Garrigou (ha hah!) rang the bells of the castle chapel with all his might, the reverend father finished putting on his chasuble in the tiny sacristy. His mind already troubled by the descriptions of all those gastronomic wonders, he repeated to himself while dressing: “Roast turkey with stuffing, golden carps, trout as big as this!”
Outside the howling wind swept over the music of the bells and gradually folks appeared around the base of Mount Ventoux, beneath the ancient towers of the castle of Trinquelage. It was the peasant families of the neighborhood coming to hear midnight mass. They scaled the steep slopes in groups of five or six, with the father in front holding a lantern, the women wrapped in their great gray mantles where the children huddled to shelter from the wind. Despite the hour and the cold, all those good souls marched happily, sustained by the thought that when the mass was over there would be, as every year, a table set for them downstairs in the kitchens. From time to time a nobleman’s carriage rumbled up the rocky road, preceded by footmen with torches, its glass windows flashing in the moonlight. Or else a mule trotted up, tinkling with bells, and in the brightness of the firebrands surrounded by smoke the peasants would recognize their bailiff and hail him as he passed, “Good evening, Mister Arnoton!” And he would answer, “Good evening to you, friends.”
The night was crystal clear, the stars twinkling in the cold. The breeze was penetrating and sparse flurries landed on the clothes without dampening them, faithfully preserving the tradition of a white Christmas. High up on the mountainside the castle loomed as their goal, with its enormous mass of turrets, spires, and gables, and the bell tower rising in the inky sky. A myriad of little lights came and went and flashed in the windows against the dark background of the buildings like sparkles from the ashes of burning papers. Over the drawbridge and inside past the postern gate, the visitors on their way to the chapel crossed the outer courtyard full of carriages, sedan chairs, porters, and footmen, all lit up by the torches and the lights from the kitchen. They could hear the clanking of roasting forks, the rattle of pots and pans, the clink of crystal goblets and silverware as the feast was prepared. A rising warm fragrance, carrying the hints of roasting meats and elaborate sauces met the peasants, as it did the chaplain, and the bailiff, and everyone else, making them say, “What a fine supper we will have this night after mass!”

“Ding-a-ling! Ding-a-ling!” The midnight mass was about to begin. In the castle chapel, a veritable miniature cathedral with vaulted arches and old chestnut paneling the height of the walls, the tapestries had been hung all around and the candles lighted. What a crowd! And what splendid clothes! First of all, here in the sculpted stalls around the choir were the the Lord of Trinquelage dressed in pink taffeta and all his invited friends of the nobility. Facing them, at prayer stands upholstered in velvet, were the old dowager marquise in robe of scarlet brocade and the young Lady of Trinquelage, her hair dressed in a tower of fine lace in the latest fashion of the royal court. Further down sat the bailiff Thomas Arnoton and the notary Mister Ambroy, dressed in black with vast wigs over their clean-shaven faces, two solemn notes in the symphony of colorful silks and damask. Then came the grave butlers, the pages, the gamekeepers, the overseers, and Mistress Barbara, chief maid of the establishment, with all the castle keys hung on a chain of fine silver. Lower still, on benches, sat the rank and file of servants, the cleaning and cooking staffs, and the peasant farmers with their families, and finally, way down by the door that they opened and closed very discreetly, the kitchen boys who came up between two sauces to breath in a little air of the mass and brought a whiff of the feast into the festive church, warmed by innumerable candles.
Was it the sight of their little white caps that so distracted the priest? Or perhaps it was Garrigou’s hand bells, those crazy little hand bells going ting-a-ling at the foot of the altar with such infernal haste, always seeming to say, “Let’s go, hurry up; the sooner we’re finished, the quicker we sit down to table!”
The fact was that every time those bells rang – those diabolical bells – the priest forgot all about his mass and could think of nothing but dinner. He imagined the cooks running about mumbling to each other, the great chimneys lit up like a forge, the steam rising from the covered pots, and in the midst of that divine mist two magnificent turkeys stuffed and stretched to the bursting point, chock full of truffles.
Or else he saw in his mind’s eye a procession of pages carrying in the dishes enveloped in tempting aromas, and he followed them into the banqueting hall prepared for the meal. Oh, wonders! There was the immense, illuminated table groaning with fare. Roast peacocks dressed in their plumes, pheasants served up with their wings stretched out as if to fly away, pitchers of wine glittering like rubies, pyramids of fruits popping out between green leaves, and those fantastic fish Garrigou had mentioned (ah, yes, little Garrigou!), resting on a bed of fennel greens, their scales pearly as though they had just emerged from the water, with little herb bouquets stuffed in their sea-monster nostrils. The vision of all these marvels seemed so utterly real to Father Balaguère that they might have been served to him right there on the lace napkins of the altar. Two or three times, he caught himself saying, instead of “Dominus vobiscum,” “Bless us now for what we are about to receive…” Apart from these little lapses, however, the good father recited his mass very conscientiously, without omitting a single line or genuflection, and thus, all went well for the first service, for as you know, on Christmas day the officiating priest must saw not one, not two, but three consecutive low masses.
“One down!” muttered the chaplain with a sigh of relief. Then, without taking a second to rest, he signaled to his altar boy – or the one he took for his altar boy – and “Ding-a-ling! Ding-a-ling!” the second mass began. And with it began the sin of Father Balaguère.
“Hurry up! Faster!” cried out the sharp little bells in Garrigou’s hand and each time the wretched priest, abandoning himself to the demon of gluttony, tore into the missal and devoured pages at a time in the grip of his over-excited appetite. Frantically he knelt and rose, swished off signs of the cross and genuflected like a bobber, shortening each gesture to get through more quickly. He barely reached out his hands for the Gospel, tapped his chest for the Confiteor. Between him and the altar boy it was a race to see who could mumble the lines faster. Verses and responses went neck and neck, bumping into each other down the stretch. Words half pronounced without even opening the mouth (too much delay!) ended in incomprehensible syllables.
“Oremus ps ps ps ps.”
“Mea culpa pa pa pa.”
Like harvesters hurrying to stomp the grapes in the vat, the officiants splashed through the Latin of the mass, sending spattered bits flying in all directions.
“Dum..scum!” said Balaguère.
“’Stutto!” answered Garrigou.
And through it all there was that damned little bell tinkling in his ears, like the bells they put on the feet of post horses to make them gallop all the faster. You can imagine that at that rate the second low mass was over in no time.
“Two down!” puffed the breathless chaplain, and without taking a breath, red in the face, sweating like a laborer, he ran down the steps of the altar and “Ding-a-ling! Ding-a-ling!” the third low mass began.
The banqueting hall was only a few steps away, but, alas! As the time for dinner grew near, the bedeviled priest found himself carried away by a folly of impatience and gluttony. His vision pierced the walls. The golden carp, the roasted turkeys, they were there, right there! He could touch them. He could even… Oh, God! The dishes reeked with aroma, the wines made him giddy, and the little bell shaking in a frenzy cried out to him, “Quicker still! Oh, hurry, now.”
But how could he go faster yet? His lips were barely moving as it was. He wasn’t even pronouncing words. Unless he could cheat the Good Lord completely and steal his mass. And that’s just what he did, the wretch! From one temptation to another, he started by skipping just one verse, then two. The Epistle being too long, he simply cut it off. He passed by the Credo without even looking, skipped “Our Father,” gave a distant wave to the preface, and launched himself full speed into eternal damnation. The whole time he was aided by that dirty Garrigou (Get back, Satan!), who assisted with malicious intent, brushing his chasuble, turning pages two by two or three by three, bumping into the lecturn, spilling from the cruets, and ceaselessly shaking those little bells ever stronger and more and more rapidly.
You should have seen the faces of the stunned parishioners! Forced to mimic their way through a mass where they could not understand a single word, half rose when the other half knelt or sat down while the others rose. All the parts of this unusual ceremony landed in a jumble of conflicting gestures among the crowd in the pews. The Christmas star en route through the heavens toward a little stable must have blushed in horror over this confusion.
“The priest is going too fast. It’s impossible to follow him,” murmured the old dowager marquise as she shook her locks in distraction.
Mister Arnoton, his big steel-framed glasses on his nose, searched through his prayer book to find out where the dickens they could be. But in the end, all those good people, who were also thinking of feasting, were not so unhappy that the mass was charging along like cavalry. So when Father Balaguère turned with a beaming countenance and announced to the faithful with all his remaining strength, “Ite, missa est,” they answered with one voice, “Thanks be to God,” in a chorus so joyfully and thunderously filling the chapel that one would think they were already answering the first toast of the dinner.

Five minutes later, the assembly of nobles sat in the great hall, the chaplain in the midst of them. The castle, illuminated from moat to turret, echoed with songs, shouts, laughter, and conversation. The venerable Father Balaguère planted his fork into a drumstick of grouse, drowning his remorse in a torrent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and succulent meat juices. The saintly man ate and drank so much that he died in the middle of the night in one awful attack, without so much time as to mutter a repentance. Thus, the next morning he arrived before the pearly gates with his head still buzzing from the frivolity of the evening, and I’ll just let you imagine how he was received.
“Get thee from my sight, you fallen Christian!” said the sovereign Lord, master of us all. “Your sin is great enough to wipe out a whole life of virtue. Why you stole a mass from me! Very well, you’ll pay with three thousand in its place. You won’t enter the gates of paradise until you’ve celebrated in your little chapel each one of those three thousand masses in the presence of all those renegades who fell into sin because of you and share your disgrace.”
Voilà! That’s the true legend of Father Balaguère as they tell it down among the olive groves of Provence. Today the castle of Trinquelage no longer exists, but its chapel still remains on the slopes of Mount Ventoux in a stand of live oaks. The wind slams its crooked door and grass grows in the entrance. Birds nest in the stone arches whose stained glass windows have long disappeared. Nevertheless, it seems that each Christmas Eve, a supernatural light wanders through the ruins, as today’s farmers on their way to church or to family gatherings notice this ghostly chapel lit up by invisible candles glowing in the open air, unaffected even by the snow or the raging wind. You can laugh if you like, but a wine-grower of the region by the name of Garrigue, probably a descendant of the aforesaid Garrigou, swore to me that one Christmas Eve, finding himself three sheets to the wind, he got lost in the brush on the mountainside near Trinquelage. And this is what he saw. Until eleven o’clock, not a sound. Everything was quiet, deserted, almost lifeless. Suddenly around midnight the belfry up in the chapel began to ring – an ancient sound of bells that seemed to come from fifty miles away. Soon, on the path leading up the mountain, Garrigue saw the swinging of lanterns in the midst of vague, shadowy shapes. In the entry of the chapel there was movement and a voice whispered, “Good evening, Mister Arnoton!” Another answered, “Good evening, my friends.”
When all the shapes had entered the chapel, my brave wine-grower friend crept softly up and looked in through the broken door at an incredible spectacle. All the people he had seen go in were grouped around the choir in the ruined sanctuary, as though the old benches were still there. Pretty ladies in brocade with lace hairdos, gentlemen done up in silk from top to bottom, and peasants in embroidered jackets like great-great-grandfather wore. All of them seemed old, faded, dusty, and tired. From time to time the night-owls that now live in the chapel, disturbed by the lights, swooped around the candle flames that burned straight but curiously dimmed, as though filtered through a curtain of gauze. What most amused Garrigue is that a certain poor fool with steel-framed glasses was continually shaking his big black wig to dislodge one of the owls which had gotten its talons stuck in the hair and flapped its big wings in an effort to get away.
In the background a little old man with a child-like body, inside the communion rail, was desperately shaking a mute hand bell without a clapper. Meanwhile a priest, dressed in faded gold, came and went before the altar, reciting prayers whose words were impossible to decipher. It must certainly have been Father Balaguère hurrying through his third low mass.

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