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   Chapter 24 SISTER BENIE AND A DISSERTATION ON CHARITY

The Grey Cloak By Harold MacGrath Characters: 23155

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Three days passed. At Orléans the settlers had had two or three brushes with marauding Mohawks. A letter from Father Chaumonot at the mission in Onondaga reported favorable progress. D'Hérouville was again out of hospital; and De Leviston had stolen quietly away to Montreal, where he was shortly to succumb to the plague. Only three persons knew of the remarkable conflict between the marquis and D'Hérouville: the son, Brother Jacques, and the Vicomte d'Halluys, who possessed that mysterious faculty of finding out many things of which the majority were unaware. As for the marquis, Brother Jacques fostered the belief that it had been only a wild dream.

Each morning Madame de Brissac watched with growing eagerness the lading of the good ship Henri IV. It seemed impossible to her that the deception in regard to the Chevalier could continue much longer. Where was the dénouement on which she had builded so fondly? She had put it off so many times that perhaps it was now too late. Sooner or later Victor would slip, and the mask would be at an end. And why not? Why not have done with a comedy which had grown stale? Why not tell Monsieur du Cévennes that she was Gabrielle Diane de Montbazon, she whose miniature he had crushed beneath the heel of his riding boot? Rather would she tell him than leave it to the offices of D'Hérouville or the vicomte. Surely her purpose had been to bring him to his knees and then laugh! Relent? Not while her cup still held a drop of pride. She had been mad indeed. To have come here to Quebec with purpose and impulse undefined! Daily she mocked her weakness. Truly she was the daughter of her mother, extravagant, unbalanced, blown hither and thither by caprice as a leaf is blown by an autumn wind.

The thought of him stirred her as nothing had ever before stirred her. It was hate, it was wounded pride crying out for vengeance, it was the barb of scorn urging her to give back in kind. And, heaven above! he had been on his knees, and she had dallied with the moment of revenge even as a cat dallies with a mouse. Diane! She detested the name. Fool! And yet, why was he here? What was this sudden veil of mystery which hid him from her secret eyes? Victor knew, and yet his love for her was not so great that he could tell her another's secret. And the governor knew, D'Hérouville, and the vicomte; and they were as silent as stone. Love? A fillip of her finger for love! Happy indeed was she to learn that neither the marquis nor the Chevalier would return to France on the Henri IV. Such a way have the women.

Monsieur le Marquis lay in his bed, the bed from which he was to rise but once again in life. His thin fingers had drawn the coverlet closely under his chin, and from time to time they worked spasmodically. His head, scarce less white than the pillow beneath it, went on nodding from side to side, as if in perpetual negation to those puzzling questions which occupied his brain. His eyebrows were constantly bending, and his grey eyes burned with a fever which was never to be subdued. Across the foot of the bed lay a golden bar of morning sunlight.

"How long must I lie in this cursed bed?" he asked.

Brother Jacques left the window and came to the bedside. "Perhaps a month, Monsieur; it all depends upon your patience."

"Patience? I have little against my account. When does the Henri IV sail?"

"A week from to-day."

"In bed or on foot, I shall sail with it. I am weary of trees, and rocks, and water. I desire to see the cobbles of Rochelle and Périgny before I die. Have you no canary in this abominable land?"

"The physician denies you wine, Monsieur."

"And what does that fool know about my needs?" demanded the invalid, stirring his feet as if striving to cast aside the sunlight. "Draw the shutter; the sun bites into my eyes. I abhor sunshine in bed. I am seventy, and yet I have risen with the sun for more than sixty-five years. Have you any books?"

"Only of a religious and sacred character, and a volume of the letters of the Order." Brother Jacques offered these without confidence.

"Drivel! Find me something lively: Monsieur Brant?me, for instance. Surely Monsieur de Lauson has these memoirs in his collection."

"I shall make inquiries." Brother Jacques was not at ease.

A long pause ensued.

It was the marquis who broke it. "Why do you come and stand at the side of the bed and stare at me when you suppose I am sleeping? I have watched you, and it annoys me."

"I shall do so no more, Monsieur."

"But why?"

"Perhaps I was contemplating what a happiness it would be to bring about your salvation."

"Ah! I remember now. I told you that if ever I changed my mind regarding worship I should make my first confession to you. Yes, I remember distinctly. Well, Monsieur, you have still some time to wait. I am not upon my death-bed."

The priest turned aside his head.

"Eh? Has that fool of a blood-letter made an ante-mortem?"

"No, Monsieur. But the strongest and youngest of us retire each night, not knowing if we shall rise with the morrow. And you are more ill than you think. It is what they call the palsy. It can not be cured. But your soul may be saved. There is time."

"Palsy? Bah! The wine always stopped my head from wagging. And hang me if that dream of mine hasn't numbed my legs." The marquis held out a hand. "And in my dream I believed this hand to be holding a sword! It was a gallant fight, as I remember. I was Quixote, defending some fool-thing or other."

"Have you ever thought of the future, Monsieur?"

"Death? My faith, no! I have been too busy with the past. The past, the past!" and the marquis closed his eyes. "It walks beside me like a shadow. If I were not too old … I should regret … some of it."

"There is relief in confession."

"I have nothing to confess."

"Shall I seek Monsieur le Chevalier?"

"No. Do not disturb him. He has his affairs. He is busy becoming great and respected," ironically. "Besides, the sight of the stubborn fool would send me into spasms. After all the trouble I have taken for his sake! You do well to take the orders. You do not marry, and you have no ungrateful sons. It was not enough to confess that I lied to him; I must strain the buckles at my knees. But not yet."

"Lied?"

"Why, yes. I told him that he was … But what is it to you? He is a fool … like his father. To throw away a marquisate and the income of a prince! Curse this bed!" with sullen fury.

"Perhaps, Monsieur, the bed is of your own making."

"Ah! So we also indulge in irony? If this bed is of my own making, my mind was occupied with softer things. Would you not like the love of women, endless gold, priceless wines, and all that the world gives to the worldly? Come; what secret envy is yours, you who sleep on straw, in clammy cells, and dine on crusts?"

Brother Jacques went back to his window. He was pale. How deftly had the marquis placed his finger on the raw! Envy? All his life he had envied the rich and the worldly; all his life he had struggled between his cravings and his honesty. Had he not shaved his crown that his head might have a pallet to sleep on and his hunger a crust? His nails indented his palms, but he felt no pain. He was grateful for the cool of the morning air. Down below he saw the Vicomte d'Halluys tramping about in company with some soldiers. The Jesuit stared at that picturesque face. Where had he seen it prior to that night at the Corne d'Abondance?

Up and down the winding path settlers, soldiers, merchants, trappers and Indians straggled, with an occasional seigneur lending to the scene the pomp of a vanished Court. Far away the priest could see a hawk, circling and circling in the summer sky. Now and then a dove flashed by, and a golden bumblebee blundered into the chamber.

"I will fetch Sister Benie," Brother Jacques said at length. He dreaded to remain with this fierce-eyed old man from whom nothing seemed hidden, not even secret thought. "She is an excellent nurse."

"She will please me better than Monsieur le Comte."

The title stirred Brother Jacques strangely.

"But give her to understand," added the marquis, "that I want no canting Loyola. Who is this Sister Benie?"

"She is of the Ursulines."

"No, no; I mean, what does she look like and of what family."

"I have never studied her visual beauty," coldly. Brother Jacques was anxious to be gone.

"I have known priests who were otherwise inclined. I suppose you can see her soul. That is interesting."

"I will go at once in quest of her;" and Brother Jacques went forth.

The marquis turned a cheek to his pillow. "Jehan!"

"Yes, Monsieur," answered the old lackey from his corner.

"I do not like that young priest. He is all eyes; and he makes me cold."

Brother Jacques meanwhile found Sister Benie in one of the Indian schoolrooms.

"Sister, are you too busy to attend the wants of a sick man?"

"Who is the sick man, my son?"

"Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny."

"He is very ill?" laying down her hooks.

"He can not leave his bed. He wishes some one to read to him. I would gladly do it, only I should not have the quieting effect."

The blue eyes of the nun had a range that was far away. Brother Jacques eyed her curiously.

"I will go," she said presently. "Is not the Chevalier du Cévennes the marquis's son?"

"He is."

"And is Monsieur le Marquis of a patient mind?"

"I confess that he is not. That is why it is difficult for me to wait upon his wants. He is a disappointed man; and being without faith, he is without patience. However, if you are too busy …"

"Lead me to him, my son," quietly.

Thus it was that the marquis, waking from the light sleep into which he had fallen after Brother Jacques's departure, espied a nun sitting in a chair by the window facing south, the shutters of which had been thrown wide open again. The room was warm with sunshine. The nun was not aware that Jehan sat in a darkened corner, watching her slightest move, nor that the marquis had awakened. She was dreaming with unclosed eyes, the expression on her face one of repose. The face which the marquis saw had at one time been very beautiful. Presently the marquis's scrutiny became a stare. … That scar; what did it recall to his wandering mind? A fit of trembling seized him and took the strength from his propping arm. The creaking of the bed aroused her.

[Illustration: "She was dreaming with unclosed eyes."]

This strange land was full of phantoms. Only the other night he had seen a face resembling Marie de Montbazon's. Bah!

"You are Sister Benie?" he said at once, narrowing his eyes. "Faith," he thought, "if all nuns were like this woman, Christianity were easy to embrace."

"Yes, Monsieur," replied the nun. "Brother Jacques has sent me to you. What may I do for you?"

"You were young once?"

This unusual question apparently had no effect upon her serenity. "I am still young. Those who give their hearts unreservedly to God never grow old."

The marquis's hand moved, restlessly. "How long have you been in Quebec?"

"Fifteen years, Monsieur. Shall I read to you?"

"No. You came from France?" with a sick man's persistence.

"Yes, Monsieur. Is there something besides reading I can do?"

"Do I look ill?" querulously.

"You are burning with fever." She drew the cool palm of her hand across his heated forehead.

"Jehan!" called the marquis. The touch of that hand had caused him an indescribable sensation.

"I am here, Monsieur," replied Jehan.

Sis

ter Benie leaned back out of the sunlight.

"A pitcher of water; I am thirsty."

Jehan took the pitcher fumblingly. He was yellow with fear and wonder.

"You have seen my son?" asked the marquis, when the door closed.

"You ought to be proud of such a son, Monsieur."

The marquis was a bit disconcerted. "I know him well. Do you think he will become great and respected?"

"He has already become respected." She was vaguely distressed and puzzled.

"But will he become great?"

"That is for God to decide."

"Of what consists greatness?"

"It is greatness to forgive."

The marquis turned his head away. He was chagrined. "Monsieur le Comte will never become great then. He will never forgive me for being his father."

"Ah, Monsieur, I do not like that tone of yours. There have been words between you, and you are not forgiving. Do you not love your son?"

"The love of children is the woman's part; man plays it but ill. Perhaps there were some things which I failed to learn." Love his son? A grim smile played over his purple lips. Why, he had ceased even to love himself!

To her eyes the smile resembled a spasm of pain. "Does your head ache?" she asked. She put her arm under his head and placed it more comfortably on the pillow.

"Yes, my head is always aching. I have not lived well, and nature is claiming her tithes." He closed his eyes, surrendering to the restful touch of the cool palm. By and by he slept; and she sat there watching till morning merged into drowsy noon. The agony was begun. And while he slept the mask of calm left her face, revealing the soul. From time to time she raised her eyes toward heaven, and continually her lips moved in prayer.

"Monsieur Paul," said Breton gaily, "do we return to France on the Henri IV?"

"No, lad; nor on many a ship to come and go."

Breton's heart contracted. "But Monsieur le Marquis … ?"

"Will return alone. Go with him, lad; you are homesick. Go and marry old Martin's daughter, and be happy. It would be wrong for me to rob you of your youth's right."

"But you, Monsieur?"

"I shall remain here. I have my time to serve. After that, France, maybe … or become a grand seigneur."

The Chevalier put on his hat. He had an idle hour.

Breton choked back the sob. "I will remain with you, Monsieur, for the present. I was wondering where in the world that copy of Rabelais had gone. I had not seen it since we left the ship Saint Laurent." The lad patted the book with a fictitious show of affection.

"Possibly in the hurry of bringing it here you dropped it, and some one, seeing my name in it, has returned it."

"Never to see France again?" murmured Breton, alone. "Ah, if only I loved her less, or Monsieur Paul not so well!" Even Breton had his tragedy.

The Chevalier perched himself upon one of the citadel's parapets. The southwest wind was tumbling the waters of the river and the deep blues of the forests seemed continually changing in hues. Forces within him were at war. He was uneasy. That his father had fought D'Hérouville on his account there could be no doubt. What a sorry world it was, with its cross-purposes, its snarled labyrinths! The last meeting with his father came back vividly; and yet, despite all the cutting, biting dialogue of that interview, Monsieur le Marquis had taken up his cause unasked and had gone about it with all the valor of his race. He was chagrined, angered. Had the old days been lived rightly and with reason; had there been no ravelings, no tangles, no misunderstandings, life would have run smoothly enough. Had this strange old man, whom fate had made his father, come with repentance, but without mode of expression, without tact? Three thousand miles; 'twas a long way when a letter would have been sufficient. But the cruelty of that lie, and the bitterness of all these weeks! If his thrusts that night had been cruel, he knew that, were it all to be done over again, he should not moderate a single word. The lie, the abominable lie! One does not forgive such a lie, at least not easily. And yet that duel! He would have given a year of his life to see that fight as Brother Jacques described it. It was his blood; and whatever pits and chasms yawned between, the spirit of this blood was common. Perhaps some day he could forgive.

And Diane, she had mocked him, not knowing; she had laughed in his face, unconscious of the double edge; she had accused him and he had been without answer. Heaven on earth! to win her, to call her his, to feel her breath upon his cheek, the perfume of her hair in his nostrils! Hedged in, whichever way he turned, whether toward hate or love! He clutched the handle of his rapier and knotted the muscles of his arms. He would fight his way toward her; no longer would he supplicate, he would demand. He would follow her wherever she went, aye, even back to France! For what had he to lose? Nothing. And all the world to gain.

Man needs obstacles to overcome to be great either in courage or magnanimity; he needs the sense of injustice, of wrong, of unmerited contempt; he needs the wrath against these things without which man becomes passive like non-carnivorous animals. And had not he obstacles?-unrequited love, escutcheon to make bright and whole?

From a short distance Brother Jacques contemplated the Chevalier, gloomily and morosely. Envy, said the marquis, gibing. Yes, envy; envy of the large life, envy of riches, of worldly pleasures, of the love of women. Cursed be this drop of acid which seared his heart: envy. How he envied yon handsome fellow, with his lordly airs, the life he had led and the gold he had spent! And yet … Brother Jacques was a hero for all his robes. He cast out envy in the thought, and made his way toward the Chevalier, whose face showed that at this moment he was not very glad to see Brother Jacques.

"My brother, your father is very ill."

"That is possible," said the Chevalier, swinging to the ground. He did not propose to confide any of his thoughts to the priest. "He is old, and is wasteful of his energies."

"Yes, he has wasted his energies; in your cause, Monsieur, remember that. Your father had nothing in common with D'Hérouville. Their paths had never crossed … and never will cross again."

The Chevalier kicked the stones impatiently. So Brother Jacques understood why the marquis had fought the Comte d'Hérouville?

"May I be so bold as to ask what took place between you and Monsieur le Marquis on the night of his arrival in Quebec?"

"I must leave you in ignorance," said the Chevalier decisively.

"He may never leave his bed."

The Chevalier bit the ends of his mustache, and remained silent.

"He came a long way to do you a service," continued the priest.

"Who can say as to that? And I do not see that all this particularly concerns you."

"But you will admit that he fought the man who … who laughed."

The Chevalier let slip a stirring oath, and the grip he put on the hilt of his sword would have crushed the hand of an average strong man.

"Monsieur, it is true that your father has wronged you, but can you not forgive him?"

The Chevalier stared scowlingly into the Jesuit's eyes. "Would you forgive a father who, as a pastime, had temporarily made you … a bastard?"

The priest's shudder did not escape the searching eyes of the Chevalier. "Ha! I thought not. Do not expect me, a worldly man, to do what you, a priest, shrink from."

"Do not put me in your place. Monsieur. I would forgive him had he done to me what he has done to you."

The Chevalier saw no ambiguity. "That is easily said. You are a priest, I am a worldling; what to you would mean but little, to me would be the rending of the core of life. My father can not undo what he has done; he can not piece together and make whole the wreck he has made of my life."

"Have you no charity?" persuasively.

The Chevalier spread his hands in negation. He was growing restive.

"Will you let me teach you?" Brother Jacques was expiating the sin of envy.

"You may teach, but you will find me somewhat dull in learning."

"Do you know what charity is?"

"It is a fine word, covered with fine clothes, and goes about in pomp and glitter. It builds in the abstract: telescopes for the blind, lutes for the deaf, flowers for the starved. Bah! charity has had little bearing on my life."

"Listen," said Brother Jacques; "of all God's gifts to men, charity is the largest. To recognize a sin in oneself and to forgive it in another because we possess it, that is charity. Charity has no balances like justice; it weighs neither this nor that. Its heart has no secret chambers; every door will open for the knocking. Mercy is justice modified. Charity forgives where justice punishes and mercy condones. Your bitter words were directed against philanthropy, not charity. Shall an old man's repentance knock at the heart of his son and find not charity there?"

"Repentance?" So this thought was not alone his?

"You will forgive him, Monsieur … my brother."

The Chevalier shook his head. "Not to-day nor to-morrow."

"You will not let him of your blood go down to the grave unforgiven; not when he offered this blood to avenge an insult given to you. The reparation he has made is the best he knows. Only forgive him and let him die in peace. He is proud, but he is ill. To this hour he believes that terrible struggle to be but a dream; but even the dream brings him comfort. He is seventy; he is old. You take the first step; come with me. Through all your life you will look back upon this hour with happiness. Whatever the parent's fault may be, there is always the duty of the child toward that parent. You will forgive him."

"But if I go to him without forgiveness in my heart; if only my lips speak?"

"It is in your heart; you have only to look for it."

"Ah well, I will go with you. It is a cup of gall to drink, but I will drink it. If he is dying … Well, I will play the part; but God is witness that there is no charity in my heart, nor forgiveness, for he has wilfully spoiled my life."

So the two men moved off toward the marquis's bed-chamber.

"You remain in the hall, Monsieur," said the priest, "till I call you." But as he entered the chamber he purposely left open the door so that the Chevalier might hear what passed.

"Ah! it is you," said the marquis. "Let me thank you for bringing that nurse."

"Sister Benie?"

"Yes. You do not know, then, from what family she originated?"

"No, Monsieur."

"Who knows?"

"The Mother Superior. Monsieur, I have news for you. I bring you peace."

"Peace?"

"Yes. Monsieur, your son is willing to testify that he forgives you the wrong you have done him."

The marquis shook as with ague and drew the coverlet to his chin. A minute went by, and another. The Chevalier listened, waiting for his father's voice to break the silence. After all, he could forgive.

"Have you anything to say, Monsieur ?" asked Brother Jacques.

The marquis stirred and drew his hand across his lips. "Where is Monsieur le Comte?"

"He is waiting in the hall. Shall I call … ?"

"Wait!" interrupted the marquis. Presently he cleared his throat and said in a thin, dry voice: "Tell Monsieur le Comte for me that I am sleeping and may not be disturbed."

"Monsieur," said Jehan that night, "pardon, but do you ever … do you ever think of Margot Bourdaloue?"

The marquis raised himself as though to hurl a curse at his luckless servant. But all he said was; "Sometimes, Jehan, sometimes!"

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