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   Chapter 11 THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 15418

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Although the month was June and the evening warm, Master Blanchminster sat huddled in his armchair before a bright fire. A table stood at his elbow, with some books upon it, his untasted glass of wine, and half a dozen letters-his evening's post. But the Master leaned forward, spreading his delicate fingers to the warmth and, between them, gazing into the core of the blaze.

The butler ushered in Brother Copas and withdrew, after a glance at the lights. Two wax candles burned upon the writing-table in the oriel, and on the side-table an electric lamp shaded with green silk faintly silhouetted the Master's features. Brother Copas, standing a little within the doorway, remarked to himself that the old gentleman had aged of late.

"Ah, Brother Copas? Yes, I sent for you," said the Master, rousing himself as if from a brown study. "Be seated, please."

He pointed to a chair on the opposite side of the hearth; and Brother Copas, seating himself with a bow, spread the worn skirt of his Beauchamp robe, and arranged its folds over his knees. The firelight sparkled upon the Beauchamp rose on his breast, and seemed to hold the Master's eye as he looked up after a pause.

"You guess, no doubt, why I sent for you?"

Brother Copas inclined his head.

"It concerns the Petition which Brother Warboise presented to the Bishop last Monday. I am not complaining just now of his fashion of procedure, which I may hazard was not of your suggesting."

"It was not, Master. I may say so much, having warned him that I should say it if questioned."

"Yet you wrote out and signed the Petition, and, if I may hazard again, composed it?"

"I did."

"I have," said Master Blanchminster, studying the back of his hands as he held his palms to the fire, "no right to force any man's conscience. But it seemed to me, if I may say so, that while all were forcibly put, certain of your arguments ignored-or, let me rather say, passed over-points which must have occurred to a man of your learning. Am I mistaken?"

"You understand, Master," said Brother Copas, slightly embarrassed, and slightly the more embarrassed because the Master, after asking the question, seemed inclined to relapse into his own thoughts, "the Petition was not mine only. I had to compose it for all the signatories; and that, in any public business, involves striking a mean."

"I understand even more," said the Master, rousing himself, and reaching for a copy of the Petition, which lay among his papers. "I understand that I have no right to cross-question a man on his share in a document which six or eight others have signed. Shall it be further understood"-he looked up with a quick smile of goodness, whereat Brother Copas felt ashamed-"that I sent for you as a friend, and that you may speak frankly, if you will so honour me, without fear of my remembering a word to your inconvenience?"

"And since you so honour me, Master," said Brother Copas, "I am ready to answer all you ask."

"Well, then, I have read with particular interest, what you have to say here about the practice of Confession. (This, by the way, is a typed copy, with which the Bishop has been kind enough to supply me.) You have, I assume, no belief in it or in the efficacy of the Absolution that follows it."

The Master, searching for a paragraph, did not perceive that Brother Copas flushed slightly.

"And," he continued, as he found the passage and laid his finger on it, "although you set out your arguments with point-with fairness, too, let me add-I am perhaps not very far wrong in guessing that you have for Confession an instinctive dislike which to your own mind means more than any argument you use."

The Master looked up with a smile; but by this time Brother Copas's flush had faded.

"You may say that, Master, of the whole document. I am an old man- far too old to have my beliefs and disbeliefs quickened by argument. They have long since hardened into prejudices; and, speaking generally, I have a prejudice against this setting of old men by the ears with a lot of Neo-Catholic stuff which irritates half of us while all are equally past being provoked to any vital good."

The Master sighed, for he understood.

"I, too, am old," he answered, "older even than you; and as death draws nearer I incline with you, to believe that the fewer our words on these questions that separate us the better. (There's a fine passage to that effect in one of Jowett's Introductions, you may remember-the Ph?do, I think.) Least said is soonest mended, and good men are too honest to go out of the world professing more than they know. Since we are opening our minds a little beyond our wont, let me tell you exactly what is my own prejudice, as you would call it. To me Confession has been a matter of happy experience-I am speaking now of younger days, at Cuddesdon-"

"Ah!" breathed Copas.

"And the desire to offer to others what has been a great blessing to myself, has at times been very strong. But I recognised that the general English mind-yes, I'll grant you, the general healthy English mind-had its prejudice too; a prejudice so sturdy against Confession, that it seemed to me I should alienate more souls than I attracted and breed more ill-temper than charity to cover it. So-weakly perhaps-I never spoke of it in sermons, and by consequence no Brother of St. Hospital has ever sought from me that comfort which my conscience all the while would have approved of giving."

Brother Copas bowed his head for sign that he understood.

"But-excuse me, Master-you say that you found profit in Confession at Cuddesdon; that is, when I dare say your manhood was young and in ferment. Be it granted that just at such a crisis, Confession may be salutary. Have you found it profitable in later life?"

"I cannot," the Master answered, "honestly say more than that no doubt of it has ever occurred to me, and for the simple reason that I have not tried. But I see at what you are driving-that we of St. Hospital are too old to taste its benefit?… Yet I should have thought that even in age it might bring comfort to some; and, if so, why should the others complain?"

"For the offence it carries as an infraction of the reformed doctrine under which they supposed themselves to order their lives and worship. They contend, Master, that they are all members of one Society; and if the doctrine of that Society be infringed to comfort A or B, it is to that extent weakened injuriously for C and D, who have been building their everlasting and only hope on it, and have grown too old to change."

"But," answered Master Blanchminster, pinning his finger on the paragraph, "you admit here that even the reformed Church, in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick, enjoins Confession and prescribes a form of Absolution. Now if a man be not too old for it when he is dying, a fortiori he cannot be too old for it at any previous time."

Brother Copas rubbed his hands together softly, gleefully. He adored dialectic.

"With your leave, Master," he replied, "dying is a mighty singular business. The difference between it and growing old cannot be treated as a mere matter of degree. Now one of the points I make is that the Church, by expressly allowing Confession on this singular occasion, while saying nothing about it on any other, thereby inferentially excludes it on all others-or discountenances it, to say the least."

"There I join issue with you, maintaining that all such occasions are covered by the general authority bestowed at Ordination with the laying-on of hands-'Whose sins thou dost forgive they are forgiven,' etc. To construe an open exhortation in one of her offices as a sil

ent denunciation in all the rest seems to me-"

For the next few minutes the pair enjoyed themselves to the top of their bent; until, as the Master pushed aside some papers on the table to get at his Prayer Book-to prove that No. XXV of the Articles of Religion did not by its wording disparage Absolution-his eye fell on a letter which lay uppermost. He paused midway in a sentence, picked the thing up and held it for a moment disgustfully between forefinger and thumb.

"Brother Copas," he said with a change of voice, "we lose ourselves in logomachy, and I had rather hark back to a word you let drop a while ago about the Brotherhood. You spoke of 'setting old men by the ears.' Do you mean it seriously-that our Brethren, just now, are not dwelling in concord?"

"God bless your innocent old heart!" murmured Brother Copas under his breath. Aloud he said, "Men of the Brethren's age, Master, are not always amiable; and the tempers of their womenfolk are sometimes unlovely. We are, after all, failures in life, and to have lived night and day beside any one of us can be no joke."

The Master, with his body half-turned towards the reading-lamp, still held the letter and eyed it at arm's length.

"I observed," he said after a while, "that Brother Bonaday did not sign your Petition. Yet I had supposed him to be an Evangelical, and everyone knows you two to be close friends." The Master mused again. "Pardon me, but he has some reason, of course?"

"He has."

-"Which you are not at liberty to tell me?"

"That is so."

"Ah, well," said the Master, turning and facing about on Brother Copas with a sudden resolve. "I wonder if-to leave this matter of the Petition-you can tell me something else concerning your friend; something which, if you can answer it so as to help him, will also lift a sad weight off my mind. If you cannot, I shall equally forget that the question was ever put or the answer withheld.… To be candid, when you were shown in I was sitting here in great distress of mind."

"Surely not about Bonaday, Master?" said Brother Copas, wondering.

"About Bonaday, yes." The Master inclined his head. "Poison-it has been running through my thoughts all the while we have been talking. I suppose I ought not to show you this; the fire is its only proper receptacle-"

"Poison?" echoed Brother Copas. "And about Bonaday? who, good soul, never hurt a fly!"

"I rejoice to hear you say it," said the Master, plainly relieved, and he appeared half-minded to withdraw and pocket the scrap of paper for which Copas held out a hand. "It is an anonymous letter, and- er-evidently the product of a foul mind-"

Brother Copas took it and, fumbling for his glasses, gazed around in search of the handiest light by which to read it. Master Blanchminster hurried to catch up the electric lamp and set it on the mantel-shelf above his shoulder. Its coil of silk-braided wire dragging across the papers on the table, one or two dropped on the floor; and whilst the Master stooped to collect them Brother Copas read the letter, first noting at a glance that the paper was cheap and the handwriting, though fairly legible, at once uneducated and painfully disguised.

It ran-

"Master,-This is to warn you that you are too kind and anyone can take you in. It wasn't enough Bonaday should get the best rooms in S. Hospital but now you give him leave for this child which every one in S. Hospital knows is a bastard. If you want to find the mother, no need to go far. Why is Nurse B-hanging about his rooms now. Which they didn't carry it so far before, but they was acquainted years ago, as is common talk. God knows my reasons for writing this much are honest, but I hate to see your goodness put upon, and a scandal which the whole S. Hospital feels bitter about-such letchery and wickedness in our midst, and nobody knowing how to put a stop to it all.

"Yours obdtly.,

"A Well Wisher."

"The handwriting," said Brother Copas, "is a woman's, though disguised."

The Master, erect again, having collected his papers, eyed Brother Copas as if surprised by his calm tone.

"You make nothing of it, then?"

"P'st!"

"I-I was hoping so." The Master's voice was tremulous, apologetic. "It came by this evening's post, not half an hour ago.… I am not used to receive such things: yet I know what ought to be done with them-toss them into the fire at once and dismiss them from your mind. I make no doubt I should have burnt it within another ten minutes: as for cleansing one's mind of it so quickly, that must be a counsel of perfection. But you were shown in, and I-I made certain that you could contradict this disgraceful report and set my mind at rest. Forgive me."

"Ah, Master"-Brother Copas glanced up with a quick smile- "it almost looks as if you were right after all, and one is never too old to confess!" He bent and held the edge of the paper close to the blaze. "May I burn it?"

"By all means."

"Nay, then, I won't. But since you have freely parted with it, may I keep it?… I have had some little experience with manuscripts, and it is just possible I may trace this to the writer-who is assuredly a woman," added Brother Copas, studying the letter again. "You have my leave to do so." "And you ask no further question?"

The Master hesitated. At length he said firmly-

"None. I have no right. How can so foul a thing confer any right?"

Brother Copas was silent for a space.

"Nay, that is true, Master; it cannot.… Nevertheless, I will answer what was in your mind to ask. When I came into the room you were pondering this letter. The thought of it-pah!-mixed itself up with a thought of the appointment you had set for me-with the Petition; and the two harked back together upon a question you put to me just now. 'Why was not Brother Bonaday among the signatories?' Between them they turned that question into a suspicion. Guilty men are seldom bold: as the Scots say, 'Riven breeks sit still.'… Was not this, or something like it, in your mind, sir?"

"I confess that it was."

"Why then, Master, I too will confess-I that came to you to denounce the practice. Of what this letter hints Bonaday is innocent as-as you are. He approved of the Petition and was on the point of signing it; but he desired your good leave to make a home for his child. Between parent and Protestant my friend was torn, and moreover between conscience and loyalty. He could not sue for this favour from you, his soul weighted with an intention to go straightway and do what must offend you."

Master Blanchminster faced Brother Copas squarely, standing of a sudden erect. It seemed to add inches to his stature.

"Had he so poor a trust in me, after these years?"

"No, Master." Brother Copas bent his head. "That is where I come in. All this is but preparatory.… I am a fraud-as little Protestant as Catholic. I found my friend in straits, and made a bargain with those who were pressing him-"

"Do I understand, Brother Copas, that this Petition-of which all the strength lies in its scholarship and wording-is yours, and that on these terms only you have given me so much pain?"

"You may put it so, Master, and I can say no more than 'yes'-though I might yet plead that something is wrong with St. Hospital, and-"

"Something is very wrong with St. Hospital," interrupted the Master gravely. "This letter-if it come from within our walls-But I after all, as its Master, am ultimately to blame." He paused for a moment and looked up with a sudden winning smile. "We have both confessed some sins. Shall we say a prayer together, Brother?"

The two old men knelt by the hearth there. Together in silence they bowed their heads.

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