The slave of the lamp, p.25
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.25
 

          
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  CHAPTER XXIII

  STRICKEN DOWN

  In later days Christian Vellacott could bring back to his memory nodistinct recollection of that first night spent in the monastery. Therewas an indefinite remembrance of the steady, monotonous clang of a bellin the first hours, doubtless the tolling of the matins, calling theelect to prayer at midnight.

  After that he must have fallen into a deep, lethargic sleep, for henever heard the distant strains of the organ and the melodious chantingof gruff voices. The strange, unquiet melody hovered over him in thelittle cell, following him as he glided away from earth upon the blessedwings of sleep, and haunted his restless dreams.

  The monks were early astir next morning, for the sweet smell of dryinghay filled the air, and the second crop of the fruitful earth laywaiting to be stacked. With tucked-up gowns and bared arms the sturdydevotees worked with rake and pitchfork. No whispered word passedbetween them; none raised his head to look around upon the smilinglandscape or search in the cloudless sky for the tiny lark whose morninghymn rippled down to them. Each worked on in silence, tossing thescented hay, his mind being no doubt filled with thoughts above allearthly things.

  Near at hand lay a carefully-kept vegetable garden of large dimensions.Here grew in profusion all nourishing roots and herbs, but there was nosign of more luscious fruits. Small birds hopped and fluttered here andthere unheeded and unmolested, calling to each other joyously, and thewarming air was alive with the hum of tinier wings.

  In the midst of this walked man--the lord of all--humbly, silently, withbowed head and unadmiring eyes--man whose life was vouchsafed for theenjoyment of all these things.

  A little square patch of sunlight lay on the stone floor of the smallcell allotted to Christian Vellacott. The thick oak door deadened thesounds of life in the monastery, such as they were, and the strong,laboured breathing of the young Englishman alone broke the chillsilence.

  Christian lay, all dressed, on the narrow bed. His eyes were halfclosed, and the ruddy brown of his cheeks had faded into an ashy grey.His clenched hands lay numbly at his side. Through his open, swollenlips meaningless words came in a hoarse whisper.

  Presently the door opened with a creaking sound, but the sleeper movedno limb or feature. Rene Drucquer entered the cell and ran quickly tothe bedside. Behind, with more dignity and deliberation, followed thesub-prior of the monastery. The young priest had obtained permissionfrom his Provincial to see Christian Vellacott for a few moments beforehis hurried departure for India. Thus Rene had received his missionsooner than he had hoped for. The astute and far-seeing Provincial hadfrom the beginning intended that Rene Drucquer should be removed fromharm's way without delay once his disagreeable mission to St. MaryWestern was performed.

  "My father," exclaimed the young priest in alarm, "he is dying!"

  The venerable sub-prior bent his head over the bed. He was a tall, spareman, with very sunken cheeks, and a marvellous expression of placidcontentment in his eyes such as one never finds in the face of a youngmonk. He was very learned in medicines, and in the administration ofsuch simple herbs as were required to remedy the illnesses within themonastery walls. Perhaps some of his patients died when they might havelived under more skilled treatment, but it is a short and easy step fromlife to death within a comfortless cell, and his bony hands were astender over his sick brethren as those of a woman.

  He felt the Englishman's pulse and watched his ashen face for somemoments, touching the clammy forehead softly, while Rene Drucquer stoodby with a great sickening weight of remorse and fear upon his heart.Then the sub-prior knelt stiffly down, and placed his clean-shaven lipsnear to Christian's ear.

  "My son," he said, "do you hear me?"

  Christian breathed less heavily, as if he were listening to some far-offsound, but never moved a feature. Presently he began to murmurincoherently, and the sub-prior bent his ear to listen.

  "Much good would a blessing of mine do you, Hilda," observed Christianinto the reverend ear. The old gentleman raised his cadaverous head andlooked somewhat puzzled. Again he listened.

  "Look after Aunt Judy--she cannot last long," murmured the youngEnglishman in his native tongue, which was unknown to the monk.

  "It is fever," said the sub-prior presently--"one of those terriblefevers which kill men as the cold kills flies!"

  No thought seemed to enter the monk's mind of possible infection. Heknelt upon the cold floor with one bare and bony arm beneath the sickman's head, while the other lay across his breast. He was lookingintently into the veiled eyes, inhaling the very breath of the swollenlips.

  "Will he die, my father?" asked Rene Drucquer in a whisper; his face wasas pale as Vellacott's.

  "He is in the hands of the good God," was the pious answer. The tallmonk rose to his feet and stood before the bed thinking. He rubbed hisbony hands together slowly. Through the tiny window a shaft of sunlightpoured down upon his grizzled head, and showed up relentlessly the deepfurrows that ran diagonally down from his cheek-bone to his chin.

  "You must watch here, my son," he continued, "while I inform theFather-Provincial of this."

  The venerable sub-prior was no Jesuit, and perhaps he would have beenjust as well pleased had the Provincial elected to live elsewhere thanin the monastery. But the Prior--an old man of ninety, and incapable ofwork or thought--was completely in the power of the Society.

  When he found himself alone with the Englishman, Rene Drucquer satwearily upon a small wooden bench, the only form of seat provided, andleaned his narrow face upon his hands.

  The prospect that he saw before him as he sat staring vacantly at thefloor of the little cell was black enough. He saw no possible outlet,and he had not the courage to force his way through the barriers erectedall round him. It must be remembered that he was a Roman Catholic, andover a sincere disciple of the Mother Church the power of the Jesuits isgreater than man should ever be allowed to exercise. The slavery thatEngland fought against so restlessly is nothing to it, for mentalbondage is infinitely heavier than physical service. He had determinedto accept the Provincial's offer of missionary work in Asia, but thesudden horror of realising that he was a Jesuit, and could never beanything else than a Jesuit for the rest of his days, was fresh uponhim. He was too young yet to find consolation in the thought that he atall events could attempt to steer a clear, unsullied course through theshoals and quicksands that surround a priest's existence, and he was tooold to buoy himself up with the false hope that he might, despite hisJesuit's oath, do some good work for his Church. His awakening had beenrendered more terrible by the brilliancy of the dreams which it hadinterrupted.

  He had not looked upon Christian Vellacott as a victim hitherto, for thebravest receive the least sympathy, and the young Englishman's cool wayof treating his reverse of fortune had repelled pity or commiseration.But now all that was changed. Whatever this sickness might prove to be,Rene Drucquer felt that the blame of it lay at his own door. IfChristian Vellacott were to die, he, Rene Drucquer, was in the eyes ofGod a murderer, for he had forcibly brought him to his death. This wasan unpleasant reflection for a young devotee whose inward soul was fullof human kindness; and the presence of the strong man who lay gaspingfor breath upon the narrow, comfortless bed was not reassuring.

  It was only natural that those thoughts, coupled with the realisation ofthe aimlessness of his own existence, should have bred in the youngJesuit's heart a dull fire of antagonism against the man who was inimmediate authority over him, and when the Provincial noiselesslyentered the cell a few minutes later, he felt a sudden thrill ofmisgiving at the thought that his feelings were sacred to none--thatthis man with his deep, inscrutable eyes could read the face of his verysoul like an open book.

  In this, Rene Drucquer was right. The Provincial was fully aware of thepresence of this spirit of antagonism, and, moreover, he knew that itextended to the taciturn sub-prior who accompanied him. But thisknowledge in no way disturbed him. The spirit of antagonism had met himin every turn of life. It wa
s so familiar that he had learned to despiseit. Hitherto he had never failed in any undertaking, and he had neverbeen turned aside from the execution of his purpose by the fear ofincurring the enmity of men. Such minds as this make their mark in theline of life which they take up, and if they do not happen to win thelove of their fellow-beings, they get on remarkably well without it.

  The Provincial came into the cell with a singular noiselessness ofmotion. His pale face expressed neither surprise nor annoyance, and hiseyes rested upon the form of the sick man with no sign of apprehension.He approached, and with his long white finger touched Christian's wrist.For a few moments he watched the uneasy movements of his flushed face,and then he turned aside, without, however, leaving the bedside. Hereagain there seemed to be no fear or thought of infection.

  The sub-prior stood behind him with clasped hands, while Rene, who hadrisen from his seat, was near at hand.

  "This man, my father," said the Provincial coldly, "must not die. Youmust take every care, and spare no expense or trouble. If it isnecessary you can have doctors from Nantes. I will bear every expense,and I shall be grieved to hear of his death!"

  Then he turned to leave the cell. He was a busy man, and his visit hadalready lasted nearly three minutes.

  Rene Drucquer stepped forward hurriedly. He was between his superior andthe door, so that he was in a position to command attention.

  "My father," he pleaded, "may I nurse him?"

  The Provincial raised his eyebrows almost imperceptibly; then he wavedhis hand, commanding the young priest to stand aside.

  "No," he said softly, "you must leave for Nantes in half-an-hour," andhe passed out into the noiseless corridor.

 
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