Stories by American Authors, Volume 6
Part 3 out of 3
I had fancied that Brother Edouard would find life intolerable in
community after his revelation to me. He would be chary of meeting me
before the brothers; would be constantly tortured by fear of detection.
As I saw this prospect of the poor innocent--for it was absurd to think
of him as anything else--dreading exposure at each step in his false
life, shrinking from observation, biting his tongue at every word--I was
greatly moved by pity. Judge my surprise, then, when I saw him the next
morning join in the younger brothers' regular walk around the garden,
joking and laughing as I had never seen before. On his right was thin,
sickly Victor, rest his soul! and on the other pursy, thick-necked John,
as merry a soul as Cork ever turned out. And how they laughed, even the
frail consumptive! It was a pleasure to see his blue eyes brighten with
enjoyment and his warm cheeks blush. Above John's queer, Irish chuckle,
I heard Edouard's voice, with its dainty Parisian accent, retailing
jokes and leading in the laughter. The tramp was stretched out longer
than usual, so pleasant did they find it. At this development I was much
The same change was noticeable in all that Edouard did. Instead of the
apathy with which he had discharged his nominal duties, his baby pupils
(for Photius had gone to Peru) now became bewitched with him. He told
them droll stories, incited their rivalry in study by instituting prizes
for which they struggled monthly, and, in short, metamorphosed his
department. The change spread to himself. His cheeks took on a ruddier
hue, the sparkle of his black eyes mellowed into a calm and steady
radiance. There was no trace of feverish elation which, in solitude,
recoiled to the brink of despair. He sang to himself evenings in his
dormitory, clearly and with joy. His step was as elastic as that of any
school-boy. I often thought upon this change, and meditated how
beautiful an illustration of confession's blessings it furnished.
Frequently we were alone, but he never referred again to that memorable
evening, even by implication. At first I dreaded to have the door close
upon us, feeling that he must perforce seek to take up the thread where
he had broken it then. But he talked of other things, and so easily and
naturally that I felt embarrassed. For weeks I could not shake off the
feeling that, at our next talk, he would broach the subject. But he
Elysee returned, bringing me kind words from the Mother house, and a
half-jocular hint that Superior General Philippe had me much in his
mind. No doubt there had been a time when the idea of becoming a
Director would have stirred my pulses. Surely it was gone now. I asked
for nothing but to stay beside Edouard, to watch him, and to be near to
lend him a helping hand when his hour of trouble should come. From that
ordeal, which I saw approaching clearly and certainly, I shrank with all
my nerves on edge. As the object of my misery grew bright-eyed and
strong, I felt myself declining in health. My face grew thin, and I
could not eat. I saw before my eyes always this wretched boy singing
upon the brow of the abyss. Sometimes I strove not to see his
fall--frightful and swift. His secret seemed to harass him no longer.
To me it was heavier than lead.
The evening the Brother Director returned, we sat together in the
reading-room, the entire community. Elysee had been speaking of the
Mother-house, concerning which Brother Barnabas, an odd little Lorrainer
who spoke better German than French, and who regarded Paris with the
true provincial awe and veneration, exhibited much curiosity. We had a
visitor, a gaunt, self-sufficient old Parisian, who had spent fourteen
days in the Mazas prison during the Commune. I will call him Brother
Albert, for his true name in religion is very well known.
"I heard a curious story in the Vaugirard house," said the Brother
Director, refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff, "which made the more
impression upon me that I once knew intimately one of the persons in it.
Martin Delette was my schoolmate at Pfalsbourg, in the old days. A fine,
studious lad he was, too. He took orders and went to the north where he
lived for many years a quiet country cure. He had a niece, a charming
girl, who is not now more than twenty or one-and twenty. She was an
orphan, and lived with him, going to a convent to school and returning
at vacations. She was not a bad girl, but a trifle wayward and easily
led. She gave the Sisters much anxiety. Last spring she barely escaped
compromising the house by an escapade with a young _miserable_ of the
town named Banin."
"I know your story," said Albert, with an air which hinted that this
was a sufficient reason why the rest should not hear it. "Banin is in
Elysee proceeded: "The girl was reprimanded. Next week she disappeared.
To one of her companions she had confided a great desire to see Paris.
So good Father Delette was summoned, and, after a talk with the
Superioress, started post-haste for the capital. He found no signs
either of poor Renee or of Banin, who had also disappeared. The Cure was
nearly heart-broken. Each day, they told me, added a year to his
appearance. He did not cease to importune the police chiefs and to haunt
the public places for a glimpse of his niece's face. But the summer
came, and no Renee. The Cure began to cough and grow weak. But one day
in August the Director, good Prosper, called him down to the
reception-room to see a visitor.
"'There is news for you,'" he whispered, pressing poor Martin's hand.
"In the room he found--"
"In the room he found--" broke in Albert, impertinently, but with a
quiet tone of authority which cowed good Elysee, "a shabby man, looking
like a poorly-fed waiter. This person rose and said, 'I am a detective;
do you know Banin--young man, tall, blonde, squints, broken tooth upper
jaw, hat back on his head, much talk, hails from Rheims?'
"'Ah,' said Delette, 'I have not seen him, but I know him too well.'
"The detective pointed with his thumb over his left shoulder. 'He is in
jail. He is good for twenty years. I did it myself. My name is
so-and-so. Good job. Procurator said you were interested--some woman in
the case, parishioner of yours, eh?'
"'My niece,' gasped the Cure.
"'O ho! does you credit; pretty girl, curly-head, good manners. Well,
she's off. Good trick, too. She was the decoy. Banin stood in the shadow
with club. She brought gentleman into alley, friend did work. That's
Banin's story. Perhaps a lie. You have a brother in Algiers? Thought so.
Girl went out there once? So I was told. Probably there now. African
officers say not; but they're a sleepy lot. If I was a criminal, I'd go
to Algiers. Good biding.' The detective went. Delette stood where he was
in silence. I went to him, and helped carry him up-stairs. We put him in
his bed. He died there."
Brother Albert stopped. He had told the story, dialogue and all, like a
machine. We did not doubt its correctness. The memory of Albert had
passed into a proverb years before.
Brother Albert raised his eyes again, and added, as if he had not
paused, "He was ashamed to hold his head up. He might well be."
A strange, excited voice rose from the other end of the room. I looked
and saw that it was Edouard who spoke. He had half arisen from his chair
and scowled at Albert, throwing out his words with the tremulous haste
of a young man first addressing an audience:
"Why should he be ashamed? Was he not a good man? Was the blame of his
bad niece's acts his? From the story, she was well used and had no
excuse. It is he who is to be pitied, not blamed!"
The Brother Director smiled benignly at the young enthusiast. "Brother
Edouard is right," he said. "Poor Martin was to be compassioned. None
the less, my heart is touched for the girl. In Banin's trial it appeared
that he maltreated her, and forced her to do what she did by blows. They
were really married. Her neighbors gave Renee a name for gentleness and
a good heart. Poor thing!"
"And she never was found?" asked Abonus, eagerly. He spoke very rarely.
He looked now at me as he spoke, and there was a strange, ungodly
glitter in his eyes which made me shudder involuntarily.
"Never," replied the Director, "although there is a reward, 5000 francs,
offered for her recovery. Miserable child, who can tell what depths of
suffering she may be in this moment?"
"It would be remarkable if she should be found now, after all this
time," said Abonus, sharply. His wicked, squinting old eyes were still
fastened upon me. This time, as by a flash of eternal knowledge, I read
their meaning, and felt the ground slipping from under me.
I shall never forget the night that followed. I made no pretence of
going to bed. Edouard's little dormitory was in another part of the
house. I went once to see him, but dared not knock, since Abonus was
stirring about just across the hall, in his own den. I scratched on a
piece of paper "Fly!" in the dark, and pushed it under the door. Then I
returned to walk my chamber, chafing like a wild beast. Ah, that night,
With the first cock crow in the village below, long before the bell, I
left my room. I wanted air to breathe. I passed Abonus on the broad
stairway. He strode up with unwonted vigor, bearing a heavy cauldron of
water as if it had been straw. His gown was tumbled and dusty; his
greasy _rabat_ hung awry about his neck. I had it in my head to speak
with him, but could not. So the early hours, with devotions which I went
through in a dream, wore on in horrible suspense, and breakfast came.
We sat at the long table, five on a side, the Director--looking red-eyed
and weary from the evening's unaccustomed dissipation--sitting at the
head. Below us stood Brother Albert, reading from Tertullian in a dry,
monotonous chant. I recall, as I write, how I found a certain comfort in
those splendid, sonorous Latin sentences, though I was conscious of not
comprehending a word. I dreaded the moment they should end. Edouard sat
beside me. We had not exchanged a word during the morning. How could I
speak? What should I say? I was in a nervous flutter, like unto those
who watch the final pinioning of a criminal whose guillotine is awaiting
him. I could not keep my eyes from the fair face beside me, with its
delicately-cut profile, made all the more cameo-like by its pallid
whiteness. The lips were tightly compressed. I could see askant that the
tiny nostrils were quivering with excitement. All else was impassive on
Edouard's face. We two sat waiting for the axe to fall.
It is as distinct as a nightmare to me. Abonus came in with his great
server laden with victuals. He stumbled as he approached. He too was
excited. He drew near, and stood behind me. I seemed to feel his breath
penetrate my skull; and yet I was forced to answer a whispered question
of Brother John's with a smooth face. I saw Edouard suddenly reach for
the milk glass in front of his plate, and hand it back to Abonus with
the disdain of a duchess. He said, in a sharp, peremptory tone:
"Take it away and cleanse it. No one but a dirty monk would place such a
glass on the table."
Albert ceased his reading. Abonus did not touch the glass. He shuffled
hastily to the side-board and deposited his burden. Then he came back
with the same eager movement. He placed his fists on his hips, like a
fish-woman, and hissed, in a voice choking with concentrated rage--
"No one but a woman would complain of it!"
The brothers stared at each other and the two speakers in mute surprise.
But they saw nothing in the words beyond a personal wrangle--though even
that was such a novelty as to arrest instant attention. I busied myself
with my plate. The Director assumed his harshest tone, and asked the
cause of the altercation. Abonus leaned over and whispered something in
his ear. I remember next a room full of confusion, a babel of
conflicting voices, and a whirling glimpse of uniforms. Then I fainted.
When I revived I was in my own room, stretched upon my pallet. I looked
around in a dazed way and saw the Brother Director and a young gendarme
by the closed door. Something black and irregular in the outline of the
bed at my side attracted my eyes. I saw that it was Edouard's head
buried in the drapery. As in a dream I laid my numb hand upon those
crisp curls. I was an old man, she a weak, wretched girl. She raised her
face at my touch, and burned in my brain a vision of stricken agony, of
horrible soul-pain, which we liken, for want of a better simile, to the
anguish in the eyes of a dying doe. Her lips moved; she said something,
I know not what. Then she went, and I was left alone with Elysee. His
words--broken, stumbling words--I remember:
"She asked to see you, Sebastian, my friend. I could not refuse. Her
papers were forged. She did come from Algiers, where her uncle is a
Capuchin. I do not ask, I do not wish to know, how much you know of
this. Before my Redeemer, I feel nothing but pity for the poor lamb. Lie
still, my friend; try to sleep. We are both older men than we were
There is little else to tell. Only twice have reflections of this
episode in my old life reached me in the seclusion of a missionary post
at the foot of the Andes. I learned a few weeks ago that the wretched
Abonus had bought a sailor's cafe on the Toulon wharves with his five
thousand francs. And I know also that the heart of the Marshal-President
was touched by the sad story of Renee, and that she left the prison La
Salpetriere to lay herself in penitence at the foot of Mother Church.
This is the story of my friendship.
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