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.
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...
(The entire section contains 1188 words.)
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