The slave of the lamp, p.26
The Slave of the Lamp,
BACK TO LIFE
One mellow autumnal evening, when the sunlight reflected from the whitemonastery walls upon the fruit trees climbing there was still warm andfull of ripening glow, the Provincial was taking his post-prandialpromenade.
It is, perhaps, needless to observe that he was alone. No one everwalked with the Provincial. No footstep ever crushed the gravel inharmony with his gliding tread. Perhaps, indeed, no one had ever walkedwith him thus, in the twilight, since a fairy, dancing form had moved inthe shadow of his tall person, and footsteps lighter than his own hadvainly endeavoured to keep time with his longer limbs. But that was inno monastery garden; and the useful, vegetable producing enclosure borelittle resemblance to the chateau terrace. In those days it may be thatthere was a gleam of life in the man's deep, velvety eyes--perhaps,indeed, a moustache adorned the short, twisted lip where the whitefingers rasped so frequently now.
The pious monks were busy with their evening meal, and the Provincialwas quite alone in the garden. All around him the leaves glowed ruddilyin the warm light. Everywhere the fruits of earth were ripe and fullwith mature beauty; but the solitary walker noted none of these. Hepaced backwards and forwards with downcast eyes, turning slowly andindifferently as if it mattered little where he walked. The merryblackbirds in the hay field adjoining the garden called to each othercontinuously, and from a hidden rookery came the voice of the duskysettlers, which is, perhaps, the saddest sound in all nature'sharmonies. But the Jesuit resolutely refused to listen. Once, however,he stopped and stood motionless for some seconds, with his head turnedslightly to meet the distant cry; but he never raised his eyes, whichwere deep and lifeless in their gaze. It may be that there was a rookerynear that southern chateau, where he once had walked in the solemnevening hour, or perhaps he did not hear that sound at all though hisear was turned towards it.
It would be hard indeed to read from the priest's still features thethoughts that might be passing through his powerful brain; but thestrange influence of his being was such as makes itself felt without anyspoken word. As he walked there with his long hands clasped behind hisback, his peculiarly shaped head bent slightly forward, and his perfectlips closely pressed, no one could have looked at him without feelinginstinctively that no ordinary mind was busy beneath the tinytonsure--that no ordinary soul breathed there for weal or woe, seekingafter higher things in the right way or the wrong. The man's cultivatedrepose of manner, his evident intellectuality, and his subtle strengthof purpose visible in every glance of his eyes, betrayed that althoughhis life might be passed in the calm retreat of a monastery, his soulwas not there. The man was never created to pass his existence inprayerful meditation; his mission was one of strife and contentionamidst the strong minds of the age. One felt that he was living in thisquiet Breton valley for a purpose; that from this peaceful spot he wasdexterously handling wires that caused puppets--aye, puppets with goldencrowns--to dance, and smirk, and bow in the farthest corners of theearth.
Presently the Jesuit heard footsteps upon the gravel at the far side ofthe garden, but he did not raise his head. His interest in the trivialincidents of everyday life appeared to be quite dead.
"Softly, softly!" said a deep, rough voice, which the Provincialrecognised as that of the sub-prior; then he raised his eyes slightlyand looked across the garden, without, however, altering his pace.
He saw there Christian Vellacott walking by the side of the hard-facedold monk with long, hesitating strides, like a man who had forgotten howto use his legs. It was exactly six weeks since the young journalist hadpassed through that garden with Rene Drucquer, and those weeks had beento him a strange and not unpleasant dream. It seemed as if the man lyingupon that little bed was in no way connected with the wiry, energeticChristian Vellacott of old. As he lay there semi-somnolent and lazilycomfortable from sheer weakness, his interest in life was of aspeculative description, as if he looked on things from afar off.Nothing seemed to matter much. There was an all-pervading sense ofrestful indifference as to whether it might be night or day, morning,noon, or evening. All responsibility in existence seemed to have lefthim: his ready pride of self-dependence had given way to a gentleobedience, and the passage from wakefulness to sleep was very sweet.
Through all those dreamy hours he heard the soft rustle of woollengarments and the suppressed shuffle of sandalled feet. Whenever heopened his heavy eyes he discerned vaguely in the dim light a grey,still form seated upon the plain wooden bench at his bedside. Wheneverhe tried to change his position upon the hard bed and his weary bonesrefused their function, strong, hard hands were slipped beneath him andkind assistance freely given. As a rule, it was the tall sub-prior whoministered to the sick man, fighting the dread fever with all his simpleknowledge; his hands smoothed oftenest the tossed pillow; but manyclean-shaven, strong, and weary faces were bowed over the bed duringthose six weeks, for there was a competition for the post of sick-nurse.The monks loved to feel that they were performing some tangible good,and not spending their hours over make-believe tasks like aman-of-warsman in fine weather.
One frequent visitor, however, Christian Vellacott never saw beneath hislazy lashes. The Provincial never entered that little cell unless he waspositively informed that its inmate was asleep. The inscrutable Jesuitseemed almost to be ashamed of the anxiety that he undoubtedly feltrespecting the sick man thus thrown upon his hands by a peculiar chainof incidents. He spoke coldly and sarcastically to the sub-priorwhenever he condescended to mention the subject at all; but no daypassed in which he failed to pay at least one visit to the little cellat the end of the long, silent corridor.
"Softly, softly!" said the old sub-prior, holding out his bony hand tostay his companion's progress, "you are too ambitious, my son."
Christian laughed in a low, weak voice, and raised his head to lookround him. The laugh ceased suddenly as he caught sight of theProvincial, and across the potato-bed the two strong men lookedspeculatively into each other's eyes in the peaceful twilight. TheJesuit's gaze fell first, and with a dignified bow he moved gently away.
"I am stronger than I look, my father," said Christian, turning to hiscompanion. Then they walked slowly on, and presently rested upon awooden bench built against the monastery wall.
The young Englishman leaned back and watched the Provincial, who waspacing backwards and forwards where they had first seen him. The oldmonk sat with clasped hands, and gravely contemplated the gravel beneathhis feet. Thus they waited together within the high, whitewashed walls,while the light faded from the western sky. Three types, as strangelycontrasted as the student of human kind could wish to see: the old monkwith his placid bloodless face and strong useless arms--a wastedenergy, a mere monument to mistaken zeal; and the younger men so widelysevered by social circumstances, and yet resembling each other somewhatin heart and soul. Each had a strong individuality--each a great andfar-reaching vitality. Each was, in his way, a power in the world, asall strong minds are; for in face of what may be said (and with apparentjustice) respecting chance and mere good fortune, good men must come tothe top among their fellows. They must--and most assuredly they do. Asin olden days the doughtiest knights sought each other in thebattlefield to measure steel, so in these later times the rulingintellects of the day meet and clear a circle round them. The Provincialwas a power in the Society of Jesus; perhaps he was destined one day tobe General of it; and Christian Vellacott had suddenly appeared upon thefield of politic strife, heralding his arrival with two most deadlyblows dealt in masterly succession. From the first they were sure tocome together, sooner or later; and now, when they were separated bynothing more formidable than a bed of potatoes, they were glancingaskance and longing to be at each other. But it could not be. Had thesub-prior left the garden it would have made no difference. It wasmorally impossible that those two men could speak what they werethinking, for one of them was a Jesuit.
The Provincial, however, made the first move, and the Englishman oftenwondered in later days what hi
"I am glad, Monsieur, to see you restored to health," he said coldly toChristian, meeting his gaze for a moment.
The Englishman bowed very slightly, and there was a peculiarexpressiveness in the action which betrayed his foreign education, butthe cool silence with which he waited for the Provincial to speak againwas essentially British. The Jesuit moved and glanced slowly beneath hislowered eyelids towards the motionless figure of the sub-prior. He wastoo highly bred to allow himself to be betrayed into any sign ofembarrassment, and too clever to let the Englishman see that he washesitating. After a momentary pause he turned gravely to the sub-prior,and said:
"Will you allow your patient, my brother, to taste of our fruit? it isripe and wholesome."
Then, without awaiting a reply, he presented the pear to Vellacott. Itwas a strange action, and no doubt there was some deep intention in it.The Jesuit must have known, however, from Rene Drucquer's report, andfrom his own observations, that Christian Vellacott was of too firm amould to allow his feelings to be influenced by a petty action of thisdescription, however sincere and conciliatory might have been the spiritin which it was conceived. Perhaps he read the Englishman's charactertotally wrong, although his experience of men must have been very great;or perhaps he really wished to conciliate him, and took this first stepwith the graceful delicacy of his nation, with a view to following itup.
With a conventional word of thanks, Vellacott took the pear and set itdown upon the bench at his side. Whatever the Jesuit's intention mighthave been, it was frustrated by his quiet action. It would have been soeasy to have said a few words of praise regarding the fruit, and it wasonly natural to have begun eating it at once; but Vellacott read adeeper meaning in all this, and he chose a more difficult course. It wasassuredly harder to keep silence then than to talk, and a weaker-mindedman would have thanked the Provincial with effusion. The manner in whichVellacott laid the fruit upon the bench, his quiet and deliberatesilence, conveyed unmistakably and intentionally that the Provincial'ssociety was as unwelcome as it was unnecessary. There was nothing to bedone but take the hint; and in the lowering twilight the solitary,miserable man moved reluctantly away. With contemplative hardness ofheart the Englishman watched him go; there was no feeling of triumph inhis soul--neither, however, was there pity. The Jesuit had chosen hisown path, he had reached his goal, and that most terrible thirst--thethirst for power--was nearly slaked. If at times--at the end of a longday of hard mental work, when men's hearts are softened by weariness andlowering peace--he desired something else than power, some little touchof human sympathy perhaps, his was the blame if no heart responded tohis own. Christian Vellacott sat and wondered dreamily, with thenonchalance of a man who has been at the very gates of death, if powerwere worth this purchase-money.
The sub-prior had seated himself again, and with his strong hands meeklyclasped he waited. He knew that something was passing which he could notunderstand: his dull instincts told him vaguely that between these twostrong men there was war-fare, dumb, sullen, and merciless; but unusedas he was to the ways of men, unlearned in the intricacies of humanthoughts, he could not read more.
"You have not told me yet, my father," said Vellacott, "how long I havebeen ill."
"Six weeks, my son," replied the taciturn monk.
"And it was very bad?"
"Yes, very bad."
Christian slowly rubbed his thin hands together. His fingers were moistand singularly white, with a bleached appearance about the knuckles. Hisface was thin, but not emaciated, his long jaw and somewhat pronouncedchin were not more bony than of old, but the expression of his mouth wasquite changed; his lips were no longer thrust upward with a determinedcurve, and a smile seemed nearer at hand.
"I have a faint recollection of being very tenderly nursed and caredfor; generally by you, I think. No doubt you saved my life."
The sub-prior moved a little, and drew in his feet.
"The matter was not in my hands," he said quietly.
The Englishman, with some tact, allowed this remark to pass inacquiescent silence.
"Did you ever think that ... I was not ... going back to England?" heasked presently, in a lighter tone, though the thought of returninghome brought no smile to his face.
The sub-prior did not reply at once. He appeared to be thinking deeply,for he leaned forward in an unmonastic attitude with his knees apart,his elbows resting upon them, and his hands clasped. He gazed across theprosaic potato-bed with his colourless lips slightly apart.
"One night," he began meditatively, "I went to sit with you after thebell for matins had been rung. From midnight till three o'clock younever moved. Then I gave you some cordial, and as I stooped over you thecandle flickered a little; there were strange shadows upon your face,but around your lips there was a deeper shade. I had seen it oncebefore, on my brother's face when he lay upon the hard Paris pavementwith a bullet in his lungs, and his breath whistling through the orificeas the wind whistles round our walls in winter. I held the candle closerto your face, and as I did so, a hand came over my shoulder and took itfrom my fingers. The Father Provincial had come to help me. He said noword, but set the candle down upon the bed, and I held you up while headministered the cordial drop by drop, as a man oils a cartwheel."
"Ah!" said Christian slowly and suggestively, "_he_ was there!"
The monk made no reply. He sat motionless, with a calm, acquiredsilence, which might have meant much or nothing.
"Did he come often?" inquired the Englishman.
"I never saw him."
This, again, was met with silence. Presently the sub-prior continued hisnarrative.
"When daylight came at last," he said, "the shadow had left your lips. Ithink that night was the worst; it was then that you were nearer ...nearer than at any other time."
Christian Vellacott was strong enough now to take his usual interest inoutward things. With the writer's instinct he went through the worldlooking round him, always studying men and things, watching, listening,and storing up experience. The Provincial interested him greatly, but hedid not dare to show his curiosity; he hesitated to penetrate thedarkness that surrounded the man's life, past, present, and future. In aminor degree the taciturn sub-prior arrested his attention. The old monkwas in a communicative humour, and the Englishman led him on a littlewithout thinking much about the fairness of it.
"Did your brother die?" he asked sympathetically.
"He died," was the reply. "Yes, my son, he died--died cursing thetyrant's bullet in his lungs. He threw away his life in a vain attemptto alter human nature, to set straight that which is crooked and cannotbe set straight. He sought to bring about at once that which cometh notuntil the lion shall eat straw like an ox. See, my son, that you do notattempt the same."
"I think," said Christian, after a pause, "that we all try a little, andperhaps some day a great accumulation of little efforts will take place.You, my father, have tried as well!"
The monk slowly shook his head, without, however, any great display ofconviction.
"I was not always a monk," he said, as if seeking to excuse a bygonefolly.
It was nearly dark now. The birds were silent, and only the whisperingof the crisp, withering leaves broke the solem
"Where is the Abbe Drucquer," he asked abruptly.
"He left us some time ago," was the guarded reply.
"He spoke of going abroad," said Christian, deliberately ignoring thesub-prior's tone.
"The Father Provincial told me that the Abbe had gone abroad--toIndia--to spread there the Holy Light to such as are still in darkness."
The young journalist thought that he detected again a faint suggestionof antagonism in the sub-prior's voice. The manner in which theinformation was imparted was almost an insult to the Provincial. It wasa repetition of his words, given in such a manner that had the speakerbeen a man of subtle tongue it would have implied grave doubt.
Christian was somewhat surprised that Rene Drucquer should have attainedhis object so quickly. He never suspected that he himself might have hadmuch to do with it, that it had been deemed expedient to remove theyoung priest beyond the possible reach of his influence, because he wasquite unconscious of this influence. He did not know that its power hadaffected Rene Drucquer, and that some reflection of it had even touchedthe self-contained Provincial--that it was even now making this oldsub-prior talk more openly than was prudent or wise. He happened to betaking the question from a very different point of view.
The Slave of the Lamp by Henry Seton Merriman / Actions & Adventure have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes