Giorgio Germont goes to Mass every morning and kneels in the pew. It is dark, in the old stone church, and cool. He says a prayer for Violetta Valéry's soul.
He has lost his faith.
He has not stopped believing in God. If he did not believe in God, he could not believe in Violetta's salvation, and that is something he cannot countenance.
But he once had faith that good would triumph, that virtue would be rewarded, that the righteous would prosper, and that is gone now.
He had had faith that God was with him.
The priest uncovers the Holy Sacrament. Germont receives the wafer and the wine. It has crossed his mind that he might be taking Holy Communion unworthily, and is subjecting himself to damnation.
He has gone to confession. He tells the priest he has been angry at God. He tells the priest that he has sinned greatly. The priest asks him, gently, what his sin was. He says, haltingly, "I took away a dying woman's happiness."
The priest clearly does not understand; the priest also does not make him explain further, for which Germont is grateful. "God forgives you," says the priest. "God forgives all." Germont must say five Ave, Marias every day. A small price to pay, he thinks, for a woman's happiness.
He does not make it through once. Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae defeats him the first time through, and he kneels by his bed weeping, head in his hands, like the pathetic old man he now knows himself to be.
He has everything he set out to obtain when he went to Paris. His son Alfredo came back to Provence after Violetta's death, unhappy and mute, but he came back. His daughter Bianca is married, is happy, busy with her new husband, her own cares; lately she says she has been too indisposed to receive him, and he understands it is now her husband's job to care for her.
He is alone. He goes to church alone, he eats alone, he spends his evenings alone, with the knowledge that the price he has paid for his heart's desire has been too high.
His son will never forgive him. He knows that. He can bear it.
Violetta forgave him before she died. He knows that as deeply as he has ever known anything. He thinks sometimes that he cannot bear it, that he will break under the weight of that forgiveness.
Sometimes he hopes God does not forgive him. He does not know if he can handle Violetta's forgiveness and God's too.
But today -- today he does something that he has not done before. When he kneels to pray, after he prays for Violetta's soul, he whispers, "Saint Violetta, pray for me."
He had thought he would die after Violetta's death. He takes to his bed, weeping.
He does not die.
He gets up eventually, disgusted at his own good health. He goes home to Provence. As soon as he is able, he finds his own place and moves out of his father's house. He obtains a position practicing law. It is a good position. He likes his fellow lawyers, and he is soon making friends there, as well as reconnecting with his friends from childhood.
There are whole days where he is too busy to think of Violetta until bedtime. Those days he is ashamed of himself; he takes out the locket she gave him; forces himself to think of Violetta's eyes, her voice, the days of their love, Violetta saying she would live only for him... until he is flooded with tears; only then will he allow himself to sleep.
In all this time he has seen his father as little as possible, and his sister Bianca not much more than that. She is married to Alessandro shortly after he returns, and he is able to make it through her wedding without crying inappropriately; any tears are, he trusts, attributed to affection for his sister. He does avoid Alessandro's parents at the wedding; as much as he holds against his father, he understands that it is Alessandro's parents whose actions drove Giorgio Germont to Paris.
After that Bianca is busy with her wedding-journey, setting up her household, and when she would presumably have settled down and he would have seen her more often, she sends him word that she is ill, but not seriously so, and will talk to him once she is feeling better.
Either the illness is longer than she expected, or she has been distracted in other ways, for it is a matter of months, not days or weeks, before she comes to call one Sunday after church (he does not attend church; there does not seem to be any point in it; and if Alessandro's parents do not like it, the worse for them) to ask him to dinner that day. He starts to say yes automatically, then thinks better of it: "Will our father be there?"
She frowns. "Yes, of course," she says; "I talked to him at church."
"Then I will not be there."
"Alfredo, what --" she begins, but he has shut the door in the middle of her question, which his father would doubtless say was very poor manners on his part, but which he needs to do in order not to break down in front of her. She knocks again, but he does not respond.
He should have known better. This being Bianca, she is there promptly the next evening, waiting for him outside his lodging when he gets home from work, so that he cannot shut the door in her face. "Alfredo!" she says. "Yes, I am feeling much better, thank you so much for asking." He does not respond to this sally at all. "My brother," she says, when that yields no results, "talk to me."
He looks away from her. "You've already talked to our father, have you not?"
"And that's the other thing!" she says, sounding very frustrated. "I asked him if he knew why you would not come to dinner, and he would not answer. He said almost nothing during dinner. What is going on, Alfredo?"
"You'd better come inside," he says ungraciously; at any time now he expects one or two of his neighbors will come by, eager to hear any gossip they can. Once he ushers her inside, he snaps, "Why do you need to know?"
She says soothingly, "Don't be angry, Alfredo. I just want to know what is going on. Wouldn't you want to know, if those you loved were having difficulties with each other, and you didn't know what they were?"
He stares at her, remembering how it felt to know that his father and Violetta were making decisions about his life without him knowing it. After a minute he says, "I'm sorry. You are right, of course."
"About time you admitted it!" she teases him, but his expression remains serious.
He says, "Has Papa ever mentioned Violetta?"
So he tells her. He tells her how he fell in love with Violetta; how they met; how Violetta said to him that she would be faithful to him; how they loved each other; how their father secretly convinced Violetta to leave him for Bianca's own sake, for Alessandro's parents threatening to break the engagement. He leaves out nothing -- not his own blindness in not seeing Violetta had sold all she owned for him, nor how he attacked her and left her alone to die when he thought she loved the Baron -- he also tells her how their father told him the truth, not too much later, when he could have stayed silent. Finally Alfredo tells her of the sorry end of their love: Violetta's death, how he returned to her before she died, but too late. He is weeping when he finishes.
"Oh, Alfredo!" Bianca exclaims, taking his hand. "All this, and I didn't know it! I am so sorry, Alfredo. But why, why did you not tell me?"
"Our father did not wish it," Alfredo mumbles. Bianca waits; he knows that she knows perfectly well that this cannot be the only reason. "And," he says reluctantly, "because I was angry with you too. You are so happy, with Alessandro... Would you have given up that happiness for a courtesan from Paris?"
She takes a minute to answer. She says quietly, looking down, "I love Alessandro so very much... I would like to think I could be that strong, to give away my happiness for another. But I don't know."
"You see, then."
She nods. She has always, Alfredo knows, understood him very well. "Yes. I see."
They are both silent for a while.
"I found out yesterday that he goes to Mass every morning," she says finally. Alfredo knows what she is trying to say; their father is devout and usually goes to weekday Mass at least once a week, but the only time either of them remembers him going every day was for the eighteen months after their mother died. "He is suffering too, though I suppose you will say he deserves it. But won't you talk to him?"
"No," Alfredo says with finality. "I can't forgive him."
He will never forgive his father. His father thinks it is because of what he did to Violetta. It suits him that his father thinks this. It seems right that his father should suffer for the wrongs he did her. Though he cannot summon anger about that any more, only an abiding weariness.
What he will never forgive his father for is that he does not hate the life he is living now; that he is, little by little, forgetting Violetta.
Bianca and Alessandro talk for a long time that evening.
The next morning, she wakes up early, puts on her good black dress, and walks to Mass. She slips into the pew next to her father. He startles briefly, and for a moment he stares at her. It is not usual for her to go to weekday Mass; the only time she has really gone with her father was when he made Alfredo and her go for a couple of months after their mother died.
He turns back to the book of liturgy and does not look at her again. She steals occasional glances at him as the Mass goes on. He looks older, tired. He has never looked old to her before; he has only been her Papa. There are times when she thinks she sees tears in his eyes.
They kneel for prayer. His lips move soundlessly; Bianca thinks she can see him say the name Violetta. She herself prays for Violetta. She prays for her family. She prays for her father; and for her brother, that he might find some measure of peace. She believed Alfredo when he said he could not forgive, but she has known her brother her whole life, knows him better than she knows anyone else (even Alessandro, as yet), and she thinks that it is perhaps not their father he cannot forgive, or at least not just their father.
After the service, they rise to leave, and she turns to him. She is suddenly a little shy of him, for no good reason. He also is silent, as if he is afraid of saying anything. She goes to him swiftly and lays her head on his chest. She has not done this for years. It is something she used to do when she was a child and had something to say to him, but was intimidated by her tall and imposing papa. She can tell he remembers this too, for his arms immediately go around her. She feels the familiar stiffness of his suit against her cheek, the warmth of his body; breathes in the same faintly-spicy scent he has worn her whole life, and is obscurely comforted.
She says, still in his embrace, "Alfredo told me about Violetta." From where she is she cannot see his face, but she hears him inhale sharply, feels him shift uneasily. She says hastily, only then realizing she might be getting Alfredo in trouble, "He didn't want to tell me. I made him. Oh Papa --"
"You were never supposed to know," he says into her hair, so softly she can hardly hear him.
"I'm not a child, Papa," she says, a little pointedly, stepping back from him and looking into his eyes. "I would have liked to know... I did not even know about Alessandro's parents, until Alfredo told me."
In a voice that suddenly sounds very old, her father says, "And so now you know how I made Violetta suffer. Will you then forgive me as well?"
She exhales, her heart wrenched, and takes her father's hands. "I can't -- it's not -- I don't think about it that way. I love you, Papa. That's all."
He closes his eyes, in the grip of some strong emotion, and she has just started to worry when he opens them again, and he smiles at her. It is a tremulous and weak smile, but still a smile, and her heart is again rent by realizing that she has not seen him smile in a long time. "I love you, my daughter."
"How long are you going to go to Mass for Violetta?" Bianca asks.
"As long as I live," her father says, his tone again bleak. "It was my own grievous fault; I must not ever forget."
Bianca says with determination, "I will come with you. I was the one she helped; I should like to do something for her, even if it is simply a prayer for her soul." She pauses. "Only -- only -- perhaps I will come only for about six months." Despite herself, she blushes.
Her father looks confused for a second; then she sees him start to think, perhaps about the weeks she was ill, so nauseous she could do almost nothing but creep around the house, the weeks she refused all visitors, including her father; and he glances briefly at her midsection, where her dress is just beginning to tighten. A look of shock, turning to joy, starts to form on his face. He puts his hands on her shoulders. "My dear, are you saying --"
She nods and blushes again, looking down, smiling.
She says, "We had thought, Alessandro and I -- if she is a girl we might name her Violetta." She looks up at him. "So we will always remember her."
"Yes," her father says, looking staggered; "if Alfredo agrees, yes." He swallows. He says softly, "I understand now that God does not promise us what we ask for, in exchange for virtue... but I will believe in the grace of God, and in hope, and that Violetta prays for us."