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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1188

Maria Maddalena is an orphan, brought up in drudgery by aunts. Part of her work is to bring flour from the mill. If there are no other customers, the old man who waits on her follows her out and kisses her by force behind the bushes. His whiskers prick her. When her aunts learn what is happening, they forbid the girl to go near the mill again. To their surprise, the old man comes to the house one day and asks for Maria in marriage.

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Maria continues to live in her aunts’ house, and her husband stays at the mill. Each day, when she visits him, he steals flour and gives it to her. Widowed shortly after she becomes pregnant, she supports her son by working as a servant. She refuses to become involved with the servants or masters of the places in which she works, for she wishes to make her son a priest and she feels that purity is required of her as well. When her son Paul goes to the seminary, Maria works there to be near him. The bishop often commands Paul to seek out his sacrificing mother and kiss her hand. During vacations, they sometimes go back to their native village. One summer, Paul visits the town prostitute several times. He is fascinated by her white skin; he thinks it is so pale because her house is in constant shade. After that summer, Paul throws off desires of the flesh and feels himself sanctified.

After completing his studies, Paul is assigned to the remote village of Aar, a mountainous town where strong winds blow all the time. Maria is proud that her dreams are coming true as the population gathers in the square to meet the new priest. She settles down placidly in the presbytery to keep house for her son.

Aar has had no priest for some time. The former priest was a drunkard, a gambler, and, some people say, a sorcerer. They half liked him, however, and never complained to the bishop because they were afraid of his magic. Prudently, Maria put bars in the form of a cross on the front door to ward off the evil eye, for it was common knowledge that the old priest swore to drive away any successor.

One night, Maria is desperately afraid. For some time, Paul had a mirror in his room; he cleans his nails and washes with scented soap. He even lets his hair grow long and tries to comb it over his tonsure. She knows what is happening. Agnes is the only remaining member of the family in the big house of the village, and Paul begins to visit her on his parish rounds. From the sounds in his bedroom, Paul is again getting ready to go out that night, and he leaves hurriedly. Ashamed but desperate, his mother follows him. She sees him go to the side gate of the big house and disappear inside. Finding the gate locked, she circles the grounds, but all the entrances are shut. She returns home to wait for Paul.

Dozing as she waits, she thinks the wicked old priest is sitting beside her, leering at her from his whiskered face. He draws off his socks and orders her to mend them. Calmly enough, she asks him how she can mend socks for a dead man. The priest declares he is not dead; furthermore, he will drive them out of the village. When she calls him wicked, he argues with her that God put people on earth to enjoy themselves.

With a start, she awakens and looks about her for the socks. She thinks she hears ghostly footfalls leaving the presbytery. Earlier, she considered denouncing Paul to the bishop. Not sure of his guilt, however, she resolves to face the problem at once.

When Paul comes in, he curtly tells his mother that he was calling on a sick person. Maria is determined, however, to leave the village, never to see him again unless he breaks with Agnes. She wonders if her own son can be so selfish that he cannot see he is endangering Agnes’s soul as well as his own. In his chamber, Paul falls into a troubled sleep after calling on God for help.

In the morning, his mother awakens him early, and before he leaves his room he writes written a letter renouncing Agnes. With a pale face, he gives it to his mother and tells her to deliver it to the girl in person. After hearing confessions, he says mass. His sermon is cutting. The congregation grows smaller each day; only on Sunday are the pews filled. After the service, he learns that Agnes received his letter.

During the morning, word comes that King Nicodemus is dying. Nicodemus is a wild hunter who lives far up the mountain, where he removes himself so he can do no harm to other human beings. His relatives bring him into the village when he is far gone in sickness. Paul, with his server Antiochus, goes to the hut to give the hunter extreme unction. To their surprise, Nicodemus disappears. With his last strength, he leaves the hated village, to die in his own mountain cabin.

Later, a woman brings a little daughter who is having a tantrum. The mother thinks the girl is possessed by a demon, for it takes force to get her into the presbytery. Humoring the superstitious mother, Paul reads the parable of the Gadarene swine. As he reads, the girl becomes quiet and receptive. Maria and the others are sure Paul exorcised an evil spirit. The people of the village, believing him a miracle worker who can cast out demons, hold a celebration for Paul. He is thankful when some of the merrymakers go home with him. He needs help that night to keep from going to Agnes.

Antiochus lingers after the rest of the company to remind Paul of a promise to visit the boy’s mother. Antiochus wants to be a priest, and Paul promises to speak about the plan. He wearily sets out. While he is impressing on his server’s mother the sacrifices demanded of the priesthood, one of Agnes’s servants comes with the news that Agnes fell and is bleeding from her nose. Accepting his fate, Paul goes to see her again.

Agnes is pale and looks older but not ill. She reproaches him for the letter and inquires about his promise to marry her and to take her away. Paul declares that he has only a brother’s love for her. Angry, Agnes says that he comes at night and seduces young girls. She will so denounce him in church if he does not leave the village before morning.

Paul tells his mother of the threat. Both are apprehensive of going to church; they are thankful to see Agnes’s pew empty, but toward the end of the service she appears, looking straight at Paul. As the services are ending, he hears a cry. His mother dropped dead. Paul goes to her side. He sees Agnes staring at him.

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