The slave of the lamp, p.27
The Slave of the Lamp,
Henry Seton Merriman
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Day by day Christian Vellacott recovered strength. The enforced rest,and perhaps also the monastic peacefulness of his surroundings,contributed greatly towards this. In mental matters as in physical weare subject to contagion, and from the placid recluses, vegetatingunheeded in the heart of Brittany, their prisoner acquired a certainrestfulness of mind which was eminently beneficial to his body. Lifeinside those white walls was so sleepy and withal so pleasant that itwas physically and mentally impossible to think and worry over eventsthat might be passing in the outer world.
Presently, however, Christian began to feel idle, which is a good signin invalids; and soon the days became long and irksome. He began to takean increased interest in his surroundings, and realised at once howlittle he knew of the existence going on about him. Though he frequentlypassed, in the dim corridors and cloisters, a silent, grey-clad figure,exchanging perhaps with him a scarcely perceptible salutation, he hadnever spoken with any other inmates of the monastery than the Provincialand the sub-prior.
He noticed also that the watchful care of the nurse had imperceptiblyglided into that of a warder. He was never allowed out of his cellunless accompanied by the sub-prior--in fact, he was a state prisoner.His daily walks never extended beyond the one path near the potato bed,or backwards and forwards at the sunny end of the garden, where the hugepears hung ripely. From neither point was any portion of the surroundingcountry visible, but the Provincial could not veil the sun, andChristian knew where lay the west and where the east.
No possible opportunity for escape presented itself, but the Englishmanwas storing up strength and knowledge all the while. He knew that thingswould not go on for long like this, and felt that the Provincial wouldsooner or later summon him to the long room at the end of the corridorupon the upper floor.
This call came to him three weeks after the day when the two men had metin the garden--nine weeks after the Englishman's captivity hadcommenced.
"My son," said the sub-prior one afternoon, "the Father Provincialwishes to speak with you to-day at three."
Christian glanced up at the great monastery clock, which declared thetime to be a quarter to three.
"I am ready," he said quietly. There was no tremor in his voice or lightin his eyes, and he continued walking leisurely by the side of the oldmonk; but a sudden thrill of pleasant anticipation warmed his heart.
A little later they entered the monastery and mounted the stone stairstogether. As they walked along the corridor the clock in the toweroverhead struck three.
"I will wait for you at the foot of the stairs," said the monk slowly,as if with some compunction. Then he led the way to the end of thecorridor and knocked at the door. He stood back, as if the Provincialwere in the habit of keeping knockers waiting. Such was, at all events,the case now, and some minutes elapsed before a clear, low voice badehim enter.
The monk opened the door and stood back against the wall for Christianto pass in. The Provincial was seated at the table near the window,which was open, the afternoon being sultry although the autumn wasnearly over. At his left hand stood the small Venetian mirror whichenabled him to see who was behind him without turning round.
As Christian crossed the room the Provincial rose and bowed slightly,with one of his slow, soft glances. Then he indicated the chair at theleft-hand side of the table, and said, without looking up:
"Be good enough--Mr. Vellacott."
When they were both seated the Provincial suddenly raised his eyes andfixed them upon the Englishman's face. The action was slightly dramatic,but very effective, and clearly showed that he was accustomed to findthe eyes of others quail before his. Christian met the gaze with acalmness more difficult to meet than open defiance. After a moment theyturned away simultaneously.
"I need scarcely," said the Provincial, with singular sweetness ofmanner, which, however, was quite devoid of servility, "apologise toyou, Monsieur, for speaking in French, as it is almost your nativelanguage."
Christian bowed, at the same time edging somewhat nearer to the table.
"There are one or two matters," continued the Jesuit, speaking faster,"upon which I have been instructed to treat with you; but first I mustcongratulate you upon your restoration to health. Your illness has beenvery serious... I trust that you have had nothing to complain of... inthe treatment which you have received at our hands."
Christian, while sitting quite motionless, was making an exhaustivesurvey of the room.
"On the contrary," he said, in a conventional tone which, in comparisonto his companion's manner, was almost brutal, "it is probably owing tothe care of the sub-prior that I am alive at the present moment, and--"
He stopped suddenly; an almost imperceptible motion of the Jesuit'sstraight eyebrows warned him.
"And...?" repeated the Provincial, interrogatively. He leant back in hischair with an obvious air of interest.
"And I am very grateful----to him."
"The reverend father is a great doctor," said the Jesuit lightly."Excuse me," he continued, rising and leaning across the table, "I willclose the window; the air from the river begins to grow cool."
The journalist moved slightly, looking over his shoulder towards thewindow; at the same moment he altered, with his elbow, the position ofthe small mirror standing upon the table. Instead of reflecting thewhole room, including the door at the end, it now reproduced the blankwall at the side opposed to the curtained recess where the bed wasplaced.
"And now, Mr. Vellacott," continued the Jesuit, reseating himself, "Imust beg your attention. I think there can be no harm in a little mutualfrankness, and--and it seems to me that a certain allowance forrespective circumstances can well be demanded."
He paused, and opening the leather-bound manuscript book, becameabsorbed for a moment in the perusal of one of its pages.
"From your pen," he then said, in a businesslike monotone, "there hasemanated a serious and hitherto unproved charge against the Holy Societyof Jesus. It came at a critical moment in the political strife thenraging in France; and, in proportion to the attention it attracted, harmand calumny accrued to the Society. I am told that your motives werepurely patriotic, and your desire was nothing beyond a most laudable oneof keeping your countrymen out of difficulties. Before I had thepleasure of seeing you I said, 'This is a young journalist who, at anyexpense, and even at the sacrifice of truth, wishes to make a name inthe world and force himself into public attention.' Since then I havewithdrawn that opinion."
During these remarks the Provincial had not raised his eyes from thetable. He now leant back in the chair and contemplated his own claspedhands. Christian had listened attentively. His long, grave face wasturned slightly towards the Provincial, and his eyes were perhaps alittle softer in their gaze.
"I endeavoured," he said, "some weeks ago, to explain my position."
The Jesuit inclined his head. Then he raised his long white finger tohis upper lip, stroking the blue skin pensively.
Presently he raised his eyes to the Englishman's face, and in theirvelvety depths Christian thought he detected an expression which wasalmost pleading. It seemed to express a desire for help, for some slightassistance in the performance of a difficult task. He never again lookedinto those eyes in all his life, but the remembrance of them remained inhis heart for many years after the surrounding incidents had passed awayfrom memory and interest. He knew that the Soul looking forth from thatpale and heartless face was of no ordinary mould or strength. In lateryears, when they were both grey-haired men whose Yea or No was of someweight in the world--one speaking with the great and open voice of thePress, the other working subtly, dumbly, secretly--their motives mayhave clashed once more, their souls may have met and touched, as itwere, over the heads of the People, but they never looked into eachother's eyes again.
The Provincial moved uneasily.
"It has been a most unfortunate business," he said gently, and after apause continued more rapidly, with his ey
"I must refuse," said Christian laconically, almost before the words hadleft the Jesuit's lips. "As I explained before, I am simply a publicservant; what I happen to know must ever be at the public disposal or Iam useless."
A short silence followed this remark. When at length the Provincialspoke his tone was cold and reserved.
"Of course," he said, "I expected a refusal--at first. I am instructedto ask you to reconsider your refusal and to oblige me, at the end of aweek, with the result of your meditations. If it remains a refusal,another week will be accorded, and so on."
The Jesuit closed the book upon the table in front of him and with greatcare altered its position so that it lay quite squarely. He raised hiseyebrows slightly and glanced sideways towards the Englishman. At thatmoment the bell began summoning the devotees to their evening meal, itsdeep tone vibrating weirdly through the bare corridors.
"Until you accept," suggested he softly.
Christian looked at him speculatively. The faintest suspicion of a smilehovered for a moment in his eyes, and then he turned and looked out ofthe window.
"I hope, Monsieur," continued the Jesuit, "that when I have the pleasureof seeing you--a week hence--your health will be quite re-established!"
"And in the meantime I shall feel honoured by your asking for anythingyou may require."
"Thank you!" answered Christian again. He was still looking over hisshoulder, down at the brown river which ran immediately below thewindow.
"Please excuse my rising to open the door for you," said the Provincial,with cool audacity, "but I have a few words to write before joining ourbrethren at their evening repast."
Christian turned and looked at him vaguely. There was a peculiar gleamin his eyes, and he was breathing heavily. Then he rose and, as hepassed the Jesuit, bowed slightly in acknowledgment of his gravesalutation. He walked quickly down the length of the room, which was notcarpeted, and opened the door, closing it again with some noiseimmediately. But he never crossed the threshold. To the man sitting atthe table it was as if the Englishman had left the room, closing thedoor after him.
Presently the Provincial glanced at the mirror, from mere habit, andfound that it was displaced. He re-arranged it thoughtfully, so that theentire room was included in its field of reflection.
"I wonder," he said aloud, "when and why he did that!"
Then he returned to his writing. In a few minutes, however, he rose andpushed back his chair. With his hands clasped behind his back he stoodand gazed fixedly out of the window. Beneath him the brown water glidedpast with curling eddy and gleaming ripple, while its soft murmur wasthe only sound that broke the pathetic silence surrounding this lonelyman. His small and perfectly formed face was quite expressionless; thecurve of his thin lips meant nothing; all the suppressed vitality of hisbeing lay in those deep, soft eyes over which there seemed to be a veil.Presently he turned, and with lithe, smooth steps passed down the longroom and out of the door.
Instantly Christian Vellacott came from his hiding-place within therecess. He ran to the window and opened it noiselessly. A moment laterhe was standing upon the stone sill. The afternoon sun shone full uponhis face as he stood there, and showed a deep red flush on either cheek.Slowly he stooped forward, holding with one hand to the woodwork of thewindow while he examined critically the surface of the water. Suddenlyhe threw his arms forward and like a black shadow dived noiselessly,passing into the depth without a splash. When he rose to the surface heturned to look at the monastery. The Provincial's window was the onlyoutlet directly on to the river.
The stream was rapid, and after swimming with it for a short time heleft the water and lay down to recover his breath under the friendlycover of some bushes. There he remained for some time, while the shortOctober twilight closed over the land. A man just dragged from the jawsof death, he lay in his wet clothes where he first found shelter withouteven troubling to move his limbs from the pools of water slowlyaccumulating. Already the monastery was a thing of the past. With therapid forethought of his generation he was already looking to thefuture. He knew too well the spirit of the people in France to fearpursuit. The monks never ventured beyond their own walls except onostentatious missions of charity. The machinations of the Society ofJesus were less to be feared in France than in England, and he had onlyto take his story to the nearest sub-prefecture to raise a storm ofpopular opinion in his favour. But this was not his project. With him,as in all human plans, his own personal feelings came before thepossible duty he owed to the public. He lay beneath the brambleundergrowth, and speculated as to what might have taken place subsequentto his disappearance. At that moment the fortunes of the _Beacon_gave him no food for thought. What Mr. Bodery and his subordinate might,or might not, think found no interest in his mind. All his speculationswere confined to events at St. Mary Western, and the outcome of hismeditations was that when the friendly cover of darkness lay on the landhe rose and started to walk briskly across the well-tilled countrytowards the north.
That portion of Brittany which lies along the northern coast is apastoral land where sleep occupies the larger half of man's life.Although it was only evening, an hour when Paris and London recover, asit were, from the previous night's vigil and brighten up into vigour,the solitary Englishman passed unheeded through the squalid villages,unmolested along the winding roads. Mile after mile of scanty forestland and rich meadow were left behind, while, except for a fewheavily-breathing cattle, he met no sign of life. At last he came upona broader road which bore unmistakable signs of military workmanship inits construction, and here he met, and passed with laconic greeting, afew peasant women returning with empty baskets from some neighbouringmarket; or perhaps a "cantonnier" here and there, plodding home with"sabots" swinging heavily and round shoulders bent beneath the burdenof his weighty stone-breaking implements.
Following the direction of this road his course was now towards thenorth-east, with more tendency to the eastward than he desired, butthere was no choice. About eight o'clock he passed through a smallvillage, which appeared to be already wrapped in stupid slumber such asattends the peasant's pillow. A cock crowed loudly, and in reply a dogbarked with some alarm, but Christian was already beyond the villageupon the deserted high road again.
He now began to feel the weakening effect of his illness; his legsbecame cramped, and he frequently rested at the roadside. The highwaywas running still more to the eastward now, and Christian was justbeginning to consider the advisability of taking to the country again,when it joined a broader road cut east and west. Here he stopped short,and, raising his head, stood quite still for some moments.
"Ah!" he muttered. "The sea. I smell the sea."
He now turned to the left, and advanced along the newly-discovered roadtowards the west. As he progressed the pungent odour of seaweedrefreshed him and grew stronger every moment. Suddenly he became awarethat although high land lay upon his left hand there was to his right ahollow darkness without shadow or depth. No merry plash of waves came toexplain this; the smell of the sea was there, but the joyous tumble ofits waters was not to be heard. The traveller stooped low and peeredinto the darkness. Gradually he discerned a distant line of horizon, andto that point there seemed to stretch a vast dead sheet of water withoutlight o
"The Bay of Cancale!" reflected Christian. "If I keep to the westward Ishall reach St. Malo before ten o'clock!"
And he set off with renewed vigour. From his feet there stretched awayto the north a great dead level of quicksand, seething, bubbling, andheaving in the darkness. The sea, and yet no sea. Neither honest landnor rolling water.
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