The slave of the lamp, p.21
The Slave of the Lamp, p.21
When Christian Vellacott passed out of the drawing-room window in answerto what he naturally supposed to be a signal-whistle from Hilda orSidney, he turned down the narrow, winding pathway that led to the moat.The extreme darkness, contrasting suddenly with the warm light of theroom he had just left, caused him to walk slowly with outstretchedhands. Floating cobwebs broke across his face, and frequently he stoppedto brush the clinging fibre away. The intense darkness was somewhatrelieved when he reached the edge of the moat, and the clear sky wasoverhead instead of interlocked branches. He could just discern thatHilda was not at her usual seat upon the rustic bench farther towardsthe end of the moat, and he stopped short, with a sudden misgiving, atthe spot where the path met, at right angles, the broader stone walkextending the full length of the water.
He was on the point of whistling softly the familiar refrain, when therewas a rustle in the bushes behind him. A rush, a sudden shock, and apair of muscular hands were closed round his throat, dragging himbackwards. But Christian stood like a rock. Quick as thought he seizedthe two wrists, which were small and flat, and wrenched them apart.Then, stepping back with one foot in order to obtain surer leverage, helifted his assailant from the ground, swung him round, and literally lethim fly into the moat--with a devout hope that it might be Signor Bruno.The man hurtled through the darkness, without a cry or sound, and fellface foremost into the water, five yards from the edge, throwing intothe air a shower of spray.
Christian Vellacott was one of those men whose litheness is greater thantheir actual muscular force; but a lithe man possesses greater powers ofendurance than a powerful fellow whose muscles are more highlydeveloped. The exertion of lifting his assailant and swinging him awayinto the darkness was great, although the man's weight was nothing veryformidable, and Christian staggered back a few paces without, however,actually losing his balance. At this moment two men sprang upon him frombehind and dragged him to the ground. He felt at once that this was avery different matter. Either of these two could have overpowered himsingly. Their thick arms encompassed him like the coils of a snake, andthere was about their heavy woollen clothing a faint odour of saltwater. He knew that they were sailors. Recognising that it was of noavail, he still fought on, as Englishmen do. One of the men had wound alarge woollen scarf round his mouth, the other was slowly but verysurely succeeding in pinioning his arms. Then a third assailant came,and Christian knew by the wet hand (for he used one arm only) that itwas the smallest of the three, who had suffered for his temerity.
"Quick, quick!" this man whispered in French. With his uninjured hand hetwisted the scarf tighter and tighter until Christian gasped for breath.
Still the Englishman struggled and writhed upon the ground, while thehard breathing of the two sailors testified that it was no meanresistance. Suddenly the one-armed man loosened the scarf, but beforeChristian could recover his breath a handkerchief was pressed over hislips, and a sweet, pungent odour filled his nostrils.
"Three to one," he gasped, and quite suddenly his head fell forward,while his clutch relaxed.
"He is a brave man," said the dripping leader of the attack, as he stoodupright and touched his damaged shoulder gently and tentatively. "Nowquick to the carriage with him. You have not managed this well, myfriends, not at all well."
The speaker raised his cold hand to his forehead, which was wet, lessperhaps from past exertion than from the agony he was enduring.
"But, monsieur," grumbled one of the sailors in humble self-defence, "heis made of steel!"
* * * * *
The pale light of a grey dawn was stealing slowly up into the riven sky,lighting up the clouds which were flying eastward on the shoulder of aboisterous wind. The heavy grey sea, heaving, surging, and hissing,threw itself upwards into broken spray, which flew to leeward at a sharpangle, blown from the summit of the wave like froth from an over-filledtankard. After a night of squally restlessness, accompanied by a drivingrain that tasted brackish, things had settled down with the dawn into asteady, roaring gale of wind. In the growing light sea-gulls rosetriumphantly with smooth breasts bravely facing the wind.
In the midst of this a dripping vessel laboured sorely. The green waterrushed from side to side over her slippery, filthy deck as she rolled,and carried with it a tangled mass of ropes, a wooden bucket, a capstanbar, and--ominous sign--a soaking, limp fur cap. The huge boom, reachingnearly the whole length of the little vessel, swung wildly from side toside as the yawl dipped her bulwarks to the receding wave. It wascertain death for a man to attempt to stand upright upon the soppingdeck, for the huge spar swung shoulder high. The steersman, crouchinglow by his strong tiller, was doing his best to avoid a clean sweep, butonly a small jib and the mizzen were standing with straining clews andgleaming seams. Crouching beneath the weather bulwarks, with their feetwedged against the low combing of the hatch, three men were vainlyendeavouring to secure the boom, and to disentangle the clogged ropes.Two were huge fellows with tawny, washed-out beards innocent of brush orcomb, their faces were half hidden by rough sou'-westers, and they wereenveloped from head to foot in oilskins from which the water ran inlittle rills. The third was Christian Vellacott, who looked very wetindeed. The water was dripping from his cuffs and running down his face.His black dress-clothes were clinging to him with a soppy hindrance,while the feet firmly planted against the combing of the hatch wereencased in immaculate patent-leather shoes, and the salt water ran offsilk socks. It would have been very funny if it were not that Fortuneinvariably mingles her strokes of humour most heedlessly with sadderthings. Christian Vellacott was apparently unconscious of the humour ofthe situation. He was working patiently and steadily, as men must needswork when fighting Nature, and his half-forgotten sea-craft was alreadycoming back. Beneath his steady hands something akin to order was slowlybeing achieved; he was coiling and disentangling the treacherous rope,of which the breaking had cast the boom adrift, laying low a goodseaman.
Farther forward upon the hatch lay the limp body of a very big man. Hismatted head was bare, and the dead, brown face, turned upward to itsMaker, jerked from side to side as the vessel heaved. The stalwart legswere encased in greasy sea-boots, deeply wrinkled, and the coils of ahuge scarf of faded purple lay upon his broad breast, where they hadbeen dragged down by a hasty hand in order to see more clearly the stillfeatures.
At the dead man's side knelt upon the deck a small, spare figure clad inblack and wearing his left arm in a sling. With his right hand he held acrucifix to the blue lips that would never breathe a prayer to theVirgin again. The small mouth and refined features of the praying manwere strangely out of keeping with his tempestuous surroundings.Unmindful, however, of wind and waves alike, he knelt and prayedaudibly. Each lurch of the vessel threw him forward, so that, in orderto save himself from falling, he was obliged to press heavily upon thedead man's throat and breast; but this he heeded not. His girlish blueeyes were half closed in an ecstasy of religious fervour, and the pale,narrow face wore a light that was not reflected from sea or sky. Thiswas the man who had unhesitatingly attacked Vellacott, had dared to pithis small strength, more of nerve than of muscle, against the youngEnglishman's hardened sinews. Violence in itself was most abhorrent tohim; it had no part in his nature; and consequently, by the strangetenets of Ignatius Loyola's disciples, he was condemned to a course ofit. Any objectionable duty, such as this removal of Vellacott, wasimmediately assigned to him in the futile endeavour of subjecting thesoul to the brain. A true Jesuit must have no nature of his own and noindividuality. He is simply a machine, with likes and dislikes,conscience and soul subject to the will of his superior, whose mind isalso under the same arbitrary control; and so on to the top. If at thehead there were God, it would be well; but man is there, and consequentlythe whole society is a gigantic mistake. To be a sincere member of it, aman must be a half-witted fool, a religious fanatic, or a rogue for whomno duplicity is too scurrilous, even though it amount to blasphemy.
Rene Drucquer, the man kneeling on the slimy deck, was as nearly areligious fanatic as his soft, sweet nature would allow. With greaterbodily strength and attendant greater passions, he would have been asimple monomaniac. In him the passion for self-devotion was singularlystrong, and contact with men had cooled it down into an unusually deepsense of duty.
Personally courageous, his bravery was of a high order, if the spirit ofself-devotion called it into existence. In this his courage was moreakin to that of women than of men. If duty drove him he would go wherethe devil drags most people, and Rene Drucquer was not by any means thefirst man or woman whose life has been wrecked, wasted, and utterlymisled by a blind devotion to duty.
When throwing himself upon Christian Vellacott, no thought of possibledanger to his own person had restrained or caused him a moment'shesitation. His blind faith in the righteousness of his cause was,however, on the wane. This disciple of St. Ignatius might have lived atrue and manly life three hundred years earlier when his master trod theearth, but the march of intellect had trodden down the "Constitutions"years before Rene Drucquer came to study them. An ignoramus and a zealotwho lived nearly four centuries ago can be no guide or help to men ofthe present day, and this young priest was overshadowed by the saddestdoubt that comes to men on earth--the doubt of his own Creed.
While Christian Vellacott was assisting the sailors he glancedoccasionally towards the kneeling priest, and on the narrow, intelligentface he read a truth that never was forgotten. He saw that Rene Drucquerwas unconscious of his surroundings--unmindful of the fact that he wason board a disabled vessel at the mercy of the wild wind. His wholebeing was absorbed in prayer: this priest remembered only that the soulof the great, rough, disfigured man was winging its serene way to theland where no clouds are. Christian was not an impressionableman--journalism had killed all that--nor, it is to be feared, did hedevote much thought to religion; but he recognised goodness when he metit. The young journalist's interest was aroused, and in that triflingincident lay the salvation of the priest. From that small beginning camethe gleam of light that was to illuminate gloriously the darkness of amistaken life.
Chance had capriciously ruled that the hand that had dislocated theAbbe's arm should set it again, and the dead sailor lying on the sticky,tarred hatch-cover had helped. The "patron" of the boat, for he it waswhose head had been smashed by the spar, had held the priest'strembling, swollen shoulder while Christian's steady hands gave thepainful jerk required to slip the joint back into its socket. The great,coarse lips which had trembled a little, with a true Frenchman'ssympathy for suffering, were now blue and drawn; the stout, tender handswere nerveless.
The priest prayed on, while the men worked near at hand seeking torestore order, and to repair the damages made by sea and wind. They hadgot over their sullen, native shyness on finding that Christian couldspeak French like the Abbe and was almost as good a sailor asthemselves. One offered him a rough blue jersey, while another placed agold-embroidered Sunday waistcoat at his disposal, with a visiblestruggle between kindness of heart and economy. The first was accepted,but the waistcoat was given back with a kind laugh and an assurance thatthe jersey was sufficient.
The Englishman knew too well with whom he was dealing to harbour anyill-feeling against the ignorant fishermen or even towards the AbbeDrucquer for the rough treatment he had received. The former were poor,and money never was beaten by a scruple in open combat yet. The latter,he rightly presumed, was only obeying a mandate he dared not dispute.The authority was to him Divine, the command came from one whom he hadsworn to look up to and obey as the earthly representative of hisMaster.
At length the deck was cleared, and order reigned on board, though themainsail could not be set until the weather moderated.
Then Hoel Grall came up to the young Englishman and said:
"Monsieur, let us carry the 'patron' down below. It is not right for thedead to lie there in this wind and storm."
"I am willing," answered Christian, looking towards the spot where thedead man lay.
"Then, perhaps--Monsieur," began the Breton with some hesitation.
"Yes," answered Christian encouragingly, "what is it?"
"Perhaps Monsieur will speak to--to the Abbe. It is that we do not liketo disturb him in prayer."
The young Englishman bowed his head with characteristic decision.
"I will do so," he said gravely. Then he crawled across the deck andtouched Rene Drucquer's shoulder. The priest did not look up until thetouch had been repeated.
"Yes," he murmured; "yes. What do you want?"
Christian, guessed at the words, for in the tumult of the gale he couldnot hear them.
"Is it not better to take him below?" he shouted.
Then for the first time did the priest appear to remember that this wasnot one of the sailors.
"I beg your pardon," he said, rising from his knees. "You are right; itis better. But I am afraid the men will not assist me. They are afraidof touching the dead when they are afloat."
"I will help you," said Christian simply, "and that man also, I think,because he proposed it."
With a motion of the head he indicated Hoel Grall, upon whom the commandof the little vessel had now devolved. The man was better educated thanhis companions, and spoke French fluently, but in the Breton charactersuperstition is so deeply rooted that generations of education willscarcely eradicate it.
The priest looked into the Englishman's face with a gentle wonder in hiseyes, which were shadowy with the fervour of his recent devotions. Thetwo men were crouching low upon the deck, grasping the black rail withtheir left hands; the water washed backwards and forwards around theirfeet.
It was the first time they had seen each other face to face in opendaylight, and their eyes met quietly and searchingly as they swayed fromside to side with the heavy lurching of the ship. The Englishman spokefirst.
"You must leave it to us," he said calmly. "You could do nothing in thisheavy sea with your one arm!"
The gentle blue eyes were again filled with wonder, and presently thepriest's intellectual face relaxed into a shadowy smile, which did notaffect his thin red lips.
"You are very good," he murmured simply.
Christian did not hear this remark. He had turned away to call Gralltowards him, and was about to move towards the body lying on the hatch,when the priest called him back.
"Monsieur," he said.
"Tell me," continued Rene Drucquer quickly, as if in doubt, "are youChristian Vellacott?"
The priest looked relieved, and at the same time he appeared to bemaking an effort to restrain himself, as if he had been betrayed into agreater show of feeling than was desirable. When he at length spoke inreply to the Englishman's obvious desire for some explanation of thestrange question, his voice was singularly cold, and modulated in such amanner as to deprive it of any expression, while his eyes were fixed onthe deck.
"You are not such as I expected," he said.
Christian looked down at him with straightforward keenness, and he sawthe priest's eyelids move uneasily beneath his gaze. Mixing with manymen as he had done, he had acquired a certain mental sureness of touch,like that of an artist with his brush when he has handled many subjectsand many effects. He divined that Rene Drucquer had been led to expect aviolent, head strong man, and he could not restrain a smile as he turnedaway. Before going, however, he said:
"At present it is a matter of saving the ship, and our lives. My ownaffairs can wait, but when this gale is over you may rest assured theyshall have my attention."
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes