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Trade Paperback
320 pages
Jan 2005
Bethany House

The Virtuous Woman

by Gilbert Morris

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February–March 1935

A Rose for Bertha

The small greenhouse was brilliant with colors—vivid reds, greens, blues—all contrasting violently with the grim, gray world that surrounded it. Father Anthony Mazzoni, chaplain at the New York State Women’s Prison, often said wryly that he was a creator of worlds. Not of the world, of course. That, naturally, was the prerogative of God, who made all things. But within the prison confines of concrete, steel, and misery, Mazzoni had managed to create a tiny refuge—a world of his own that burgeoned with fragrant flowers and shimmering color.

Mazzoni smiled as he thought of his battles with Warden Rockland over this greenhouse. “You’re here to save the miserable souls of these women, Father, not grow petunias!” the warden would say, though not always so politely. The humble priest chose not to remember the sizzling profanity that usually laced the warden’s arguments. As he deftly pinched off a faded violet, he relived the moment he had finally obtained the warden’s permission. He had set about the work immediately, erecting the small greenhouse in one corner of the prison yard, complete with heater and tubing, at his own expense and on his own time.

The years of dealing with women who had reached the end of everything good in life had left the tall man stooped and gray-haired, with a fine network of wrinkles across his pale face. His energetic dark eyes, however, revealed a vibrant spirit within the aging body. As he moved among the fragile flowers, savoring their fragrance and delighting in the rich dignity of their colors, he paused before his pride and joy—a graceful long-stemmed rose. He plucked off a dead leaf, then added a pinch of fertilizer from a paper bag and stood back to admire the elegant flower.

He heard the door behind him open and he turned to see Warden Rockland, with his usual grim expression. Inmates and guards alike called him the Great Stone Face, and he had a temperament to match. He was no more than five-six, but his huge shoulders and limbs and deep chest gave him the appearance of a human tank. People tended to move out of the way when he entered a room.

“Good morning, Warden,” Mazzoni said with a smile.

Rockland had a habit of carefully observing his surroundings upon entering any room, and he ruled this prison with an iron fist—not unlike a tyrannical dictator over a small country. “Morning,” he grunted, and then his eyes narrowed. “You know Bertha Zale?”

“Yes, of course.”

“She’s dying,” Rockland said bluntly. “You’d better get down there and fire off a few prayers to heaven. Not that there is a heaven,” he said defiantly. Rockland delighted in ridiculing Mazzoni’s faith. For four years now he had tried to shake the chaplain’s calm, but without success. “The poor woman’s got the notion that there’s pie up there in that sky. Thinks she’s gonna be sittin’ around pluckin’ on a harp for the rest of eternity. Well, Chaplain, you’d better hurry. She’s not gonna last long.” He hesitated, and then his mouth drew into a thin line. “’Course, you can pray all you want, but it won’t make any difference. There’s nothing out there. When we die, we’re gone—just like dumb animals.”

Upon hearing the warden’s defiance, Father Mazzoni had a rare flash of inspiration. He remembered the one decoration on Rockland’s office wall—a black-and-white portrait of a woman with a strong face and a pair of fine eyes. The warden had never mentioned her, but Mazzoni had noted a family resemblance and strongly suspected it was Rockland’s mother. “I don’t expect your mother would feel that way, would she, Warden?” He saw something flicker in the warden’s eyes, as if he’d touched a nerve. But Rockland spun on his heel and left without a word.

After cutting a white rose for Bertha and hanging up his tools, Mazzoni left the greenhouse and made his way through the labyrinthine passageways of the prison, barred at intervals by guarded steel gates. He greeted every guard by name, as he did the inmates he passed. When he reached the door marked Hospital, he stepped inside, where he was greeted by a small man with cadaverous cheeks and moody eyes. “You’ve come to see Bertha, I suppose.”

“Yes, Dr. Zambrinski.”

“You’d better hurry, Father. She’s almost gone.”

Mazzoni moved toward the corner that the physician indicated and found Bertha Zale lying under a thin white sheet. Mazzoni leaned forward, the rose in his hand. “Bertha, can you hear me?” He thought for a moment that she was already gone, but then her eyelashes fluttered and watery eyes stared vacantly from her emaciated face. Her lips were as dry as fall leaves as she whispered, “Father?”

“Yes, Bertha, it’s me. Would you like to confess?”

The dying woman nodded slowly and gasped out more sins than the priest thought possible for one person to commit. Finally her voice faded and her eyes closed.

Father Mazzoni thought the woman was finished, but her eyes opened again, and she said in a clearer voice, “One more ... sin, Father.”

Mazzoni listened to her final confession, spoken with unmistakable clarity. Then her voice faded and her eyes shut again. He hastily administered extreme unction, and by the time he had finished, Bertha Zale was gone.

Mazzoni studied the ashen face, worn with troubles and furrowed with lines brought on by hard living. He gently placed the white rose in the gaunt hand. He bowed his head and prayed for her, then turned and walked slowly away.

Dr. Zambrinski met him and asked, “Is she gone, Father?”

“Yes, she is.”

“Well, it had to come. She’s probably glad to be finished with the pain.” He had learned to take death almost matter-of-factly. “We’ll arrange for the funeral to be held this afternoon.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

The priest heavily retraced his steps back along the corridor, speaking automatically to the guards and inmates who greeted him. When he finally stepped out into the yard, a blast of cold air struck him, and he straightened for a moment. He made his way toward the greenhouse, his thin shoulders slumped as if an unbearable burden had been dumped on them.

I thought I’d heard everything, he thought, but not this! Mazzoni was not easily shocked, for he had heard every imaginable sin whispered into his ears. But what Bertha Zale had told him was like nothing he had ever heard before.

“I’ve got to do something about it ... but what?”

When he reached the greenhouse, he saw Rockland approaching. “She’s dead?” the warden demanded abruptly.

“Yes, she’s gone.”

Rockland shrugged his beefy shoulders. “Well, it’s all over for her. Too bad.”

Mazzoni did not answer. He watched as the warden wheeled his bulk around and plunged across the yard. The priest entered the greenhouse and stood quietly in front of a rosebush. He thought of the white rose that now rested in the dead woman’s still hands and whispered, “It may be over for you, Bertha, but it’s not over for me.”

Excerpted from:
The Virtuous Woman by Gilbert Morris
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764226614
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.