The slave of the lamp, p.23
The Slave of the Lamp,
TRUE TO HIS CLOTH
With the morning tide, the _Deux Freres_ entered Audierne harbour.The rough sailors crossed themselves as they looked towards the oldwooden cross upon the headland, facing the great Atlantic. They thoughtof the dead "patron" in the little cabin below, and the joyous youngwife, whose snowy head-dress they could almost distinguish upon the pieramong the waiters there.
Both Christian Vellacott and the Abbe were on deck. They had been therethe whole night. They had lain motionless side by side upon the oldsail. Day vanished, night stole on, and day came again without eitherhaving closed his eyes or opened his lips.
They now stood near the steersman, and looked upon the land with aninterest which only comes after heavy weather at sea. To the Englishmanthis little fishing-port was unknown, and he did not care to ask. Thevessel was now dropping up the river, with anchor swinging, and thewomen on the pier were walking inland slowly, keeping pace and waving agreeting from time to time in answer to a husband's shout.
"That is she, Monsieur L'Abbe," said Hoel Grall, with a peculiar twitchof his coarse mouth, as if from pain. "That is she with the littlechild!"
Rene Drucquer bowed his head, saying nothing. The _Deux Freres_slowly edged alongside the old quay in her usual berth above the sardineboats. A board was thrown across from the rail to the quay, and thepriest stepped ashore alone. He went towards the smiling young wifewithout any hesitation; she stood there surrounded by the wives of thesailors on board the _Deux Freres_, with her snowy coiffe andspotless apron, holding her golden-haired child by the hand. All thewomen curtsied as the priest approached, for in these western provincesthe Church is still respected.
"My daughter," said the Abbe, "I have bad news for you."
She smiled still, misunderstanding his calmness.
"Ah, mon pere," she said, "it is the season of the great winds now. Whata long voyage it has been! And you say it is a bad one. My husband is nodoubt in despair, but another voyage is sure to be better; is it not so?I have not seen Loic upon the deck, but then my sight is not good. I amnot from Audierne, mon pere, but from inland where we cannot see sofar."
The priest changed colour; no smile came into his face in response tohers. He stepped nearer, and placed his hand upon her comely arm.
"It has been a very bad voyage for your poor husband," he said. "TheHoly Virgin give you comfort."
Slowly the colour vanished from the woman's round checks. Her soft,short-sighted eyes filled with a terrible, hopeless dismay as she staredat the young priest's bowed head. The women round now began tounderstand, and they crossed themselves with a very human prayer ofthankfulness that their husbands and brothers had been spared.
"Loic is dead?" she said, in a rasping voice. For some moments she stoodmotionless, then, in obedience to some strange and unaccountableinstinct, she began turning up the sleeves of her rough brown dress, asif she were going to begin some kind of manual work.
"The Holy Virgin comfort you, my daughter; and you, my little one," saidthe priest, as he stooped to lay his hand upon the golden head of thechild.
"Loic is dead! Loic is dead!" spread from mouth to mouth.
"That comes from having ought to do with the priests," muttered thecustoms officer, beneath his heavy moustache. He was an old soldier, whoread the newspapers, and spoke in a loud voice on Sunday evenings in theCafe de l'Ouest.
The Abbe heard the remark, and looked at the man, but said nothing. Heremembered that no Jesuit must defend himself.
The girl-widow stepped on board the untidy vessel in a mechanical,dreamy way. She dragged the little trotting child almost roughly afterher. Christian Vellacott stood at the low cabin door. He was in thedress of a Probationer of the Society of Jesus, which he had assumed atthe request, hesitatingly made, of Rene Drucquer, and for the verypractical reason that he had nothing else to wear except a torndress-coat and Hoel Grall's Sunday garments.
"Bless me, mon pere," lisped the little one, stopping in front of him.
"Much good will a blessing of mine do you, little one," he muttered inEnglish. Nevertheless, he lifted the child up and kissed her rosy cheek.He kept her by his side, letting the mother go to her dead husbandalone.
When the woman came from the cabin half-an-hour later, hard-faced, andwith dry, stony eyes, she found the child sitting on Christian's knee,prattling away in broken French. Tears came to her aching eyes at thesight of the happy, fatherless child; the hard Breton heart was touchedat last.
The Abbe's instructions were to keep his prisoner confined under lockand key in the cabin until nightfall, when he was to be removed inlandin a carriage under the surveillance of two lay-brethren. Christian,however, never for a moment doubted his ability to escape when he wishedto do so, and acting upon this conviction he volunteered a promise notto attempt evasion. Dressed as he was, in the garments of a probationer,there was no necessity of awaiting nightfall, as there was nothingunusual about him to attract attention. Accordingly the departure fromthe _Deux Freres_ was fixed for midday. In the meantime the youngEnglishman found himself the object of unremitting attention on the partof two smooth-faced individuals who looked like domestic servants. Thesetwo men had come on board at the same moment that the Abbe steppedashore, and Christian noticed that no word of greeting or recognitionpassed between them and Rene Drucquer. This was to him a further proofof the minuteness of organisation which has characterised the Ordersince Ignatius Loyola wrote down his wonderful "Constitutions," in whichno trifle was too small to be unworthy of attention, no petty dramaticeffect devoid of significance. Each man appeared to have received hisinstructions separately, and with no regard to those of his companion.
In the meantime, however, the journalist had not been wasting his time.Although he still looked upon the whole affair as a very good farce, hehad not forgotten the fact that his absence must necessarily have beencausing endless anxiety in England. During the long night of wakefulnesshe had turned over in his mind every possible event at St. Mary Westernsince his sudden disappearance. Again and again he found himselfwondering how they would all take it, and his conclusions wereremarkably near to the truth. He guessed that Mr. Bodery would, sooneror later, be called in to give his opinion, and he sincerely hoped thatthe course taken would be the waiting tactics which had actually beenproposed by the editor of the _Beacon_.
In this hope he determined to communicate with Sidney Carew, and havingpossessed himself of a blank Customs Declaration Form, he proceeded towrite a letter upon the reverse side of it. In this he told his friendto have no anxiety, and, above all, to institute no manner of search,because he would return to England as soon as his investigations werecomplete. The letter was written in guarded language, because Christianhad arrived at the conclusion that the only means he had of despatchingit was through the hands of Rene Drucquer. The crew of the _DeuxFreres_ were not now allowed to speak with him. He possessed nomoney, and it would have been folly to attempt posting an unstampedletter addressed to England in a little place like Audierne.
Accordingly, as they were preparing to leave the vessel (the care ofpoor Loic having been handed over to the village cure), Christian boldlytendered his request.
"No, my friend, I cannot do it," replied the Abbe promptly.
"Read it yourself," urged Christian. "No harm can possibly come of it.My friend will do exactly as I tell him. In fact, it will be to yourbenefit that it should go."
Still the Jesuit shook his head. Suddenly, however, in the midst of anargument on the part of the Englishman, he gave in and took the letter.
"Give it to me," he said; "I will risk it."
Christian watched him place the letter within the breast of his"soutane," unread. The two lay-brethren were noting every movement.
Presently the priest removed his broad-brimmed hat and passed throughthe little doorway into the dimly lighted cabin where the dead sailorlay. He left the door ajar. After glancing at the dead man's still facehe fell upon his knees by the side of the low b
"He said that I was not a Jesuit," murmured the priest, as he burnt theenvelope, and across his pale face there flitted an unearthly smile.
Scarcely had the thin smoke mingled with the incense-laden air whenChristian pushed open the door. The two men looked their last upon therigid face dimly illuminated by the light of the wavering candles, andthen turned to leave the ship.
The carriage was waiting for them on the quay, and Christian noticedthat the two men who had been watching him since his arrival at Audiernewere on the box. Rene Drucquer and himself were invited to enter theroomy vehicle, and by the way in which the door shut he divined that itwas locked by a spring.
At the village post-office the carriage stopped, and, one of theservants having opened the door, the priest descended and passed intothe little bureau. He said nothing about the letter addressed to SidneyCarew, but Christian took for granted that it would be posted. Insteadof this, however, the priest wrote a telegram announcing the arrival ofthe _Deux Freres_, which he addressed to "Morel et Fils, Merchants,Quimper."
"Hoel Grall asked me to despatch this," he said quietly, as he handedthe paper to the old postmaster.
After this short halt the carriage made its way rapidly inland. Thusthey travelled through the fair Breton country together, these twostrangely contrasting men brought together by a chain of circumstancesof which the links were the merest coincidences. Christian Vellacottdid not appear to chafe against his confinement. He took absolutely nonotice of the two men whose duty it was to watch his every movement. Thespirit of adventure, which is not quite educated out of us Englishmenyet, was very strong in him, and the rapid movement through an unknownland to an unknown goal was not without its healthy fascination. He layback in the comfortable carriage and sleepily watched the flyinglandscape. Withal he noticed by the position of the sun the direction inwhich he was being taken, and despite many turns and twists he kept hisbearings fairly well. The carriage had left the high road soon aftercrossing the bridge above Audierne, and was now going somewhat heavilyover inferior thoroughfares.
The sun had set before Vellacott awoke to find that they were stilllumbering on. He had, of course, lost all bearing now, but he soon foundthat they had been journeying eastward since leaving the coast.
A halt was made for refreshment at a small hillside village whichappeared to be mainly inhabited by women, for the men were all sailors.The accommodation was of the poorest, but bread was procurable, andeggs, meat being an unknown luxury in the community.
In the lowering light they journeyed on again, sometimes on the broadpost-road, sometimes through cool and sombre forests. Many times whenChristian spoke kindly, or performed some little act of consideration,the poor Abbe was on the point of disclosing his own treason. Before hiseyes was the vision of that little cabin. He saw again the dancing flameof the paper in his hand, throwing its moving light upon the marblefeatures of that silent witness as the charred fragments fluttered pastthe still face to the ground. But as the stone is worn by the droppingwater, so at last is man's better nature overcome by persistentundermining when the work is carried out by men chosen as possessing "amind self-possessed and tranquil, delicate in its perceptions, sure inits intuitions, and capable of a wide comprehension of varioussubjects." What youthful nature could be strong enough to resist thecunning pressure of influences wielded thus? So Rene Drucquer carriedthe secret in his heart until circumstances rendered it unimportant.
Man is, after all, only fallible, and those to whom is given theprivilege of accepting or refusing candidates for admission to the greatSociety of Jesus had made a fatal error in taking Rene Drucquer. Neverwas a man more unfitted to do his duty in that station of life in whichhe was placed. His religious enthusiasm stopped short of fanaticism; hispliability would not bend so low as duplicity. All this the youngjournalist learnt as he penetrated further into the sensitive depths ofhis companion's gentle temperament. The priest was of those men to whomlove and brotherly affection are as necessary as the air they breathe.His wavering instincts were capable of being hardened into convictions;his natural gifts (and they were many) could be raised into talents; hislife, in fact, could have been made a success by one influence--the loveof a woman--the one influence that was forbidden: the single humanacquirement that must for ever be beyond the priest's reach. ThisChristian Vellacott felt in a vague, uncertain way. He did not know verymuch about love and its influence upon a man's character, thesequestions never having come under his journalistic field of inquiry; buthe had lately begun to wonder whether man's life was given to him to beinfluenced by no other thoughts than those in his own brain--whetherthere is not in our existence a completing area in the development ofcharacter.
Looking at the matter from his own personal point of view--from whenceeven the best of us look upon most things--he was of the opinion thatlove stands in the path of the majority of men. This had been his viewof the matter for many years; probably it was the reflection of hisfather's cynically outspoken opinion, and a well-grown idea is hard touproot.
Brought up, as he had been, by a pleasure-seeking and somewhat cynicalman, and passing from his care into the busy and practical journalisticworld, it was only natural that he should have acquired a certainhardness of judgment which, though useful in the world, is not anamiable quality. He now felt the presence of a dawning charity towardsthe actions of his fellow-men. A month earlier he would have despisedRene Drucquer as a weak and incapable man; now there was in his heartonly pity for the young priest.
Soon after darkness had settled over the country the carriage descendedinto a deep and narrow valley through which ran a rapid river of nogreat breadth. Here the driver stopped, and the two travellers descendedfrom the vehicle. The priest exchanged a few words in a low voice withone of the servants who had leapt down from the box, and then turning toVellacott he said in a curt manner--
"Follow me, please."
The Englishman obeyed, and leaving the road they turned along a broadpathway running at the side of the water. Christian noticed that theywere going upstream. Presently they reached a cottage, and a woman camefrom the open doorway at their approach. Without any greeting or word ofwelcome she led the way down some wooden steps to the ferry-boat. As sherowed them across, the journalist took note of everything in his quick,keen way. The depth of the water, rapidity of current, and even the factthat the boat woman was not paid for her services.
"Are we near our destination?" he asked in English when he saw this.
"We have five minutes more," replied the priest in the same language.
On landing, they followed another small path for some distance,down-stream. It was a quiet moss-grown path, with poplar trees on eitherside, and appeared to be little used. Suddenly the young priest stopped.There was the trunk of an elm tree lying on the inside of the path,evidently cut for the purpose of making a rough seat.
"Let us sit here a few minutes," said Rene.
Christian obeyed. He sat forward and stretched his long legs out.
"I am aching all over," he said impatiently; "I wonder what it means!"
The priest ignored the remark entirely.
"My friend," he said presently, "a few minutes more and my care of youceases. This journey will be over. For me it
Christian raised his hand slowly to his forehead. The gleam of thesleek, smooth water flowing past his feet made him giddy. He wonderedvaguely if the strange, dull feeling that was creeping over his senseswas the result of extreme fatigue.
"You speak as if we were never going to meet again," he said dreamily.
The priest did not answer for some moments. His slim hands were tightlyclasped upon his knees.
"It is probable," he said at length, "that such will be the case. If ourfriendship is discovered it is certain!"
"Then our friendship must not be discovered," said the practicalEnglishman.
"But, my friend, that would be deceit--duplicity!"
"A little duplicity, more or less, cannot matter much," repliedChristian, in a harder voice.
The priest looked up sharply, half fearing that his own treachery in thematter of the letter was suspected. But his companion remained silent,and the darkness prevented the expression of his face from being seen.
"And," continued the Englishman, after a long pause, "I am to be lefthere?"
There was a peculiar ring of weary indifference in his tone, as if itmattered little where he was left. The priest noticed it and rememberedit later.
"I know nothing, my friend. I have but to obey my orders."
"And close your mind against thought?"
"I cannot prevent the thoughts from coming into my mind," replied thepriest gently, "but I can keep them prisoners when they have entered."
He rose suddenly, and led the way along the river bank. Had Christian'smanner been more encouraging he would have told him then and there aboutthe letter.
As they passed along the narrow footpath, the dim form of a man rosefrom behind the log of wood upon which they had been sitting. It was oneof the lay brethren who had accompanied them from Audierne. Contrary toRene Drucquer's whispered instructions, he had followed them afterquitting the carriage, and had crept up behind the poplars unheard andunsuspected. He came, however, too late. Unconsciously, Christian hadsaved his companion.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes