The slave of the lamp, p.24
The Slave of the Lamp,
GREEK AND GREEK
When they had walked about a hundred yards farther on, the footpath wasbrought to a sudden termination by a house built across it to thewater's edge. In this lay the explanation of its scanty use andluxuriant growth of moss.
It was not a dark night, and without difficulty the priest found thehandle of a bell, of which, however, no sound reached their ears. Thedoor, cut deep in the stone, was opened after a short delay by a laybrother who showed no signs of rigid fasting. Again Christian noticedthat no greeting was exchanged, no word of explanation offered orexpected. The lay brother led the way along a dimly lighted corridor, inwhich there were doors upon each side at regular intervals. There was achill and stony feeling in the atmosphere.
At the end of the corridor a gleam of light shone through a half-opendoor upon the bare stone floor. Into this cell Christian was shown.Without even noticing whether the priest followed him or not, he enteredthe tiny room and threw himself wearily upon the bed. Although it was anintensely hot night he shivered a little, and as he lay he clasped hishead with either hand. His eyes were dull and lifeless, and the colourhad entirely left his cheeks, though his lips were red and moist. Hetook no notice of his surroundings, which, though simple and somewhatbare, were not devoid of comfort.
In the meantime, Rene Drucquer had followed the door-keeper up a broadflight of stairs to a second corridor which was identical with thatbelow, except that a room took the place of this small entrance-lobbyand broad door. Thus the windows of this room were immediately above theriver, which rendered them entirely free from overlookers, as the landon the opposite side was low and devoid of trees.
The lay brother stopped in front of the door of this apartment, andallowed the young priest to pass him and knock at the door with his ownhands. The response from within was uttered in such a low tone that ifhe had not been listening most attentively Rene would not have heard it.He opened the door, which creaked a little on its hinges, and passedinto the room alone.
In front of him a man dressed in a black soutane was seated at a tableplaced before the window. The only lamp in the room, which was long andnarrow, stood on the table before him, so that the light of it wasreflected from his sleek black head disfigured by a tiny tonsure. AsRene Drucquer advanced up the room, the occupant raised his headslightly, but made no attempt to turn round. With a quick, unobtrusivemovement of his large white hand he moved the papers on the table beforehim, so that no written matter remained exposed to view. Upon the tablewere several books, and on the right-hand side of the plain inkstandstood a beautifully carved stone crucifix, while upon the left there wasa small mirror no larger than a carte-de-visite. This was placed at aslight angle upon a tiny wire easel, and by raising his eyes any personseated at the table could at once see what was passing in the roombehind him--the entire apartment, including the door, being reflected inthe mirror.
Though seated, the occupant of this peculiarly constructed room wasevidently tall. His shoulders, though narrow, were very square, and inany other garment than a thin soutane his slightness of build wouldscarcely have been noticeable. His head was of singular and remarkableshape. Very narrow from temple to temple, it was quite level from thesummit of the high forehead to the spot where the tonsure gleamedwhitely, and the length of the skull from front to back was abnormal.The dullest observer could not have failed to recognise that there wassomething extraordinary in such a head, either for good or evil.
The Abbe Drucquer advanced across the bare stone floor, and took hisstand at the left side of the table, within a yard of his Provincial'selbow. Before taking any notice of him, the Provincial opened a thickbook bound in dark morocco leather, of which the leaves were of whiteunruled paper, interleaved, like a diary, with blotting paper. The pageswere numbered, although there was, apparently, no index attached to thevolume. After a moment's thought, the tall man turned to a certain foliowhich was partially covered by a fine handwriting in short paragraphs.Then for the first time he looked up.
"Good evening," he said, in full melodious voice. As he raised his facethe light of the lamp fell directly upon it. There was evidently nodesire to conceal any passing expression by the stale old method of ashaded lamp. The face was worthy of the head. Clean-cut, calm, anddignified; it was singularly fascinating, not only by reason of itsbeauty, which was undeniable, but owing to the calm, almost superhumanpower that lay in the gaze of the velvety eyes. There was no keenness ofexpression, no quickness of glance, and no seeking after effect bymobility of lash or lid. When he raised his eyes, the lower lid waselevated simultaneously, which peculiarity, concealing the white aroundthe pupil, imparted an uncomfortable sense of inscrutability. There wasno expression beyond a vague sense of velvety depth, such as is feltupon gazing for some space of time down a deep well.
"Good evening," replied Rene Drucquer, meeting with some hesitation theslow, kindly glance.
The Provincial leant forward and took from the tray of the inkstand aquill pen. With the point of it he followed the lines written in thebook before him.
"I understand," he said, in a modulated and business-like tone, "thatyou have been entirely successful?"
"I believe so."
The Provincial turned his head slightly, as if about to raise his eyesonce more to the young priest's face, but after remaining a moment inthe same position with slightly parted lips and the pen poised above thebook, he returned to the written notes.
"You left," he continued, "on Monday week last. On the Wednesday eveningyou ... carried out the instructions given to you. This morning youarrived at Audierne, and came into the harbour at daybreak. Your parthas been satisfactorily performed. You have brought your prisoner withall expedition. So--" here the Provincial raised the pen from the bookwith a jerk of his wrist and shrugged his shoulders almostimperceptibly, "so--you have been entirely successful?"
Although there was a distinct intention of interrogation in the tone inwhich this last satisfactory statement was made, the young priest stoodmotionless and silent. After a pause, the other continued in the samekind, even voice:
"What has not been satisfactory to you, my son?"
"The 'patron' of the boat, Loic Plufer, was killed by the breaking of arope, before we were out of sight of the English coast."
"Ah! I am sorry. Had you time--were you enabled to administer to him theHoly Rites?"
"No, my father. He was killed at one blow."
The Provincial laid aside his pen and leant back. His soft eyes restedsteadily on the book in front of him.
"Did the accident have any evil effect upon the crew!" he askedindifferently.
"I think not," was the reply. "I endeavoured to prevent such effectarising, and--and in this the Englishman helped me greatly."
Without moving a muscle the Provincial turned his eyes towards the youngpriest. He did not look up into his face, but appeared to be watchinghis slim hands, which were moving nervously upon the surface of hisblack soutane.
"My son," he said smoothly. "As you know, I am a great advocate forfrankness. Frankness in word and thought, in subordinate and superior. Ihave always been frank with you, and from you I expect similartreatment. It appears to me that there is still something unsatisfactoryrespecting your successfully executed mission. It is in connection withthis Englishman. Is it not so?"
Rene Drucquer moved a little, changing his attitude and clasping hishands one over the other.
"He is not such as I expected," he replied after a pause.
"No," said the Provincial meditatively. "They are a strange race. Someof them are strong--very strong indeed. But most of them are foolish;and singularly self-satisfied. He is intelligent, this one; is it notso?"
"Yes, I think he is very intelligent."
"Was he violent or abusive?"
"No; he was calm and almost indifferent."
For some moments the Provincial thought deeply. Then he waved his handin the direction of a chair which stood with its back towards the window
"Take a seat, my son," he said, "I have yet many questions to ask you. Iam afraid I forgot that you might be tired."
"Now tell me," he continued, when Rene had seated himself, "do you thinkthis indifference was assumed by way of disarming suspicion and for thepurpose of effecting a speedy escape?"
"Did you converse together to any extent?"
"We were naturally thrown together a great deal; especially after thedeath of the 'patron.' He was of great assistance to me and to HoelGrall, the second in command, by reason of his knowledge of seamanship."
"Ah! He is expert in such matters?"
"Yes, my father."
A further note was here added to the partially-filled page of themanuscript book.
"Of what subjects did he speak? Of religion, our Order, politics,himself and his captivity?"
"Of none of those."
The Provincial leant back suddenly in his chair, and for some minutescomplete silence reigned in the room. He was evidently thinking deeply,and his eyes were fixed upon the open book with inscrutable immobility.Once he glanced slowly towards Rene Drucquer, who sat with downcast eyesand interlocked fingers. Then he pressed back his elbows and inhaled adeep breath, as if weary of sitting in one position.
"I have met Englishmen," he said speculatively, "of a type similar--Ithink--to this man. They never spoke of religion, of themselves or oftheir own opinion; and yet they were not silent men. Upon most subjectsthey could converse intelligently, and upon some with brilliancy; butthese subjects were invariably treated in a strictly general sense. Suchmen _never_ argue, and never appear to be highly interested in thatof which they happen to be speaking.... They make excellentlisteners...." Here the speaker stopped for a moment and passed his longhand downwards across his eyes as if the light were troubling his sight;in doing so he glanced again towards the Abbe's fingers, which were nowquite motionless, the knuckles gleaming like ivory.
"... And one never knows quite how much they remember and how much theyforget. Perhaps it is that they hear everything ... and forget nothing.Is our friend of this type, my son?"
"I think he is."
"It is such men as he who have made that little island what it is. Theyare difficult subjects; but they are liable to sacrifice theiropportunities to a mistaken creed they call honour, and therefore theyare not such dangerous enemies as they otherwise might have been."
The Provincial said these words in a lighter manner, almost amounting topleasantry, and did not appear to notice that the priest moved uneasilyin his seat.
"Then," he continued, "you have learnt nothing of importance during thefew days you have passed with him?"
"Nothing, my father."
"Did he make any attempt to communicate with his friends?"
"He wrote a letter which he requested me to post."
The Provincial leant forward in his chair and took a pen in his righthand, while he extended his left across the table towards his companion.
"I burnt it," said Rene gently.
"Ah! That is a pity. Why did you do that?"
"I had discretion!" replied the young priest, with quiet determination.
The Provincial examined the point of his pen critically, his perfectlyformed lips slightly apart.
"Yes," he murmured reflectively. "Yes, of course, you had discretion.What was in the letter?"
"A few words in English, telling his friends to have no anxiety, andasking them particularly to institute no search, as he would return homeas soon as he desired to do so."
"Ah! He said that, did he? And the letter was addressed to--"
The Provincial made another note in the manuscript book. Then he readthe whole page over carefully and critically. His attitude was like thatof a physician about to pronounce a diagnosis.
"And," he said reflectively, without looking up, "was there nothingnoticeable about him in any way? Nothing characteristic of the man, Imean, and peculiar. How would you describe him, in fact?"
"I should say," replied Rene Drucquer, "that his chief characteristic isenergy; but for some reason, during these last two days this seems tohave slowly evaporated. His resistance on Wednesday night was veryenergetic--he dislocated my arm, and reset it later--and when the vesselwas in danger he was full of life. Later this peculiar indifference ofmanner came over him, and hour by hour it has increased in power. Italmost seems as if he were anxious to keep away from England just now."
The Provincial raised his long white finger to his upper lip. It was theaction of a man who is in the habit of tugging gently at his moustachewhen in thought, and one would almost have said that the smooth-facedpriest had at no very distant period worn that manly ornament. Hisfinger passed over the shaded skin with a disagreeable, rasping sound.
"That does not sound very likely," he said slowly. "Have you anytangible reason, to offer in support of this theory?"
"No, my father. But the idea came to me, and so I mention it. It seemedas if this desire came to him upon reflection, after the ship was out ofdanger, and the indifference was contemporaneous with it."
The Provincial suddenly closed the book and laid aside his pen.
"Thank you, my son!" he said, in smooth, heartless tones, "I will nottrouble you any more to-night. You will need food and rest. Good night,my son. You have done well!"
Rene Drucquer rose and gravely passed down the long room. Before hereached the door, however, the clear voice of his superior caused him topause for a moment.
"As you go down to the refectory," he said, "kindly make a request thatMr. Vellacott be sent to me as soon as he is refreshed. I do not wantyou to see him before I do!"
When the door had closed behind Rene Drucquer the Provincial rose fromhis seat and slowly paced backwards and forwards from the door to thetable. Presently he drew aside the curtain which hid a small recess nearthe door, whore a simple bed and a small table were concealed. With abrush he smoothed back his sleek hair, and, dipping the ends of hisfingers into a basin of water, he wiped them carefully. Thus he preparedto receive Christian Vellacott.
He returned to his chair and seated himself somewhat wearily. Althoughthere were but few papers on the table, he had three hours' hard workbefore him yet. He leant back, and again, that singular gesture, as ifto stroke a moustache that was not there, was noticeable.
"I have a dull presentiment," he muttered reflectively, "that we havemade a mistake here. We have gone about it in the wrong way, and ifthere is blame to be attached to any one, Talma is the man. That temperof his is fatal!"
After a pause he heaved a weary sigh, and stretched his long arms out oneither side, enjoying a free and open yawn.
"Ah me!" he sighed, "what an uphill fight this has become, and day byday it grows harder. Day by day we lose power; one hold after anotherslips from our grasp. Perhaps it means that this vast organisation iseffete--perhaps, after all, we are dying of inanition, and yet--yet itshould not be, for we have the people still.... Ah! I hear footsteps.This is our journalistic friend, no doubt. I think he will proveinteresting."
A moment later someone knocked softly at the door. There was a slightshuffling of feet, and Christian Vellacott entered the room alone. Therewas a peculiar dull expression in his eyes, as if he were sufferingpain, mental or physical. After glancing at the mirror, the Provincialrose and bowed formally with his hand upon the back of his chair. As theEnglishman came forward the Jesuit glanced at his face, and with apolite motion of the hand he said:
"Sir, take the trouble of seating yourself," speaking in French at once,with no apology, as if well aware that his companion knew that languageas perfectly as his own.
"Thank you," replied Christian. He drew the chair slightly forward as heseated himself, and fixed his eyes upon the Jesuit's face. Through theentire interview he never removed his gaze, and he noticed that untilthe last words were spoken those soft, deep eyes were never raised tohis.
The manner in which this was spoken did not bear the slightestresemblance to the cold superiority with which Rene Drucquer had beentreated.
The Englishman sat with one lean hand resting on the table and watched.He knew that some reply was expected, but in face of that knowledge hechose to remain silent. It was a case of Greek meeting Greek. Theinscrutable Provincial had met a foeman worthy of his steel at last. Hisstrange magnetic influence threw itself vainly against a will as firm ashis own, and he felt that his incidental effects, dramatic andconversational, fell flat. Instantly he became interested in ChristianVellacott.
"I need hardly remind a man of your discrimination, Mr. Vellacott," hecontinued tentatively, "that there are two sides to every question."
The Englishman smiled and moved slightly in his chair, drawing in hisfeet and leaning forward.
"Implying, I presume," he said lightly, "that in this particularquestion you are on one side and I upon the other."
"Alas! it seems so."
Vellacott leant back in his chair again and crossed his legs.
"In my turn," he said quietly, "I must remind you, monsieur, that I am ajournalist."
The Provincial raised his eyebrows almost imperceptibly and waited forhis companion to continue. His silence and the momentary motion of hiseyebrows, which in no way affected the lids, expressed admirably hisfailure to see the connection of his companion's remark.
"Which means," Christian went on to explain, "that my place is not uponeither side of the question, but in the middle. I belong to no party,and I am the enemy of no man. I do not lead men's opinions. It is myduty to state facts as plainly and as coldly as possible in order thatmy countrymen may form their own judgment. It may appear that at onetime I write upon one side of the question; the next week I may seem towrite upon the other. That is one of the misfortunes of my calling."
"Then we are not necessarily enemies," said the Jesuit softly.
"No--not necessarily. On the other hand," continued Christian, withdaring deliberation, "it is not at all necessary that we should befriends."
The Jesuit smiled slightly--so slightly that it was the mere ghost of asmile, affecting the lines of his small mouth, but in no way relievingthe soft darkness of his eyes.
"Then we are enemies," he said. "He whose follower I am, said that allwho are not with Him are against Him."
The Englishman's lips closed suddenly, and a peculiar stony look cameover his face. There was one subject upon which he had determined not toconverse.
"I am instructed," continued the Provincial, with a sudden change ofmanner from pleasant to practical, "to ask of you a written promisenever to write one word either for or against the Society of Jesusagain. In exchange for that promise I am empowered to tender to you thesincere apologies of the Society for the inconvenience to which you mayhave been put, and to assist you in every way to return home at once."
A great silence followed this speech. A small clock suspended somewherein the room ticked monotonously, otherwise there was no sound audible.The two men sat within a yard of each other, each thinking, of the otherin his individual way, from his individual point of view, the Jesuitwith downcast eyes, his companion watching his immobile features.
At length Christian Vellacott's full and quiet tones broke the spell.
"Of course," he said simply, "I refuse."
The Provincial rose from his seat, pushing it back as he did so.
"Then I will not detain you any longer. You are no doubt fatigued. Thelay brother waiting outside will show you the room assigned to you, andat whatever time of day or night you may wish to see me, remember that Iam at your service."
Christian rose also. He appeared to hesitate, and then to grasp thetable with both hands to assist himself. He stood for a moment, andsuddenly tottered forward. Had not the Provincial caught him he wouldhave fallen.
"My head turns," he mumbled incoherently.
"What is the matter? ... what is the matter?"
The Jesuit slipped his arm round him--a slight arm, but as hard andstrong as steel.
"You are tired," he said sympathetically, "perhaps you have a littletouch of fever. Come, I will assist you to your room."
And the two men passed out together.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes