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   Chapter 17 THE SECOND LETTER.

Brother Copas By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 11104

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Meanwhile certain small events not unconnected with this history were happening at St. Hospital.

At ten o'clock punctually Mr. Colt waited on the Master. This was a part of the daily routine, but ninety-nine times in a hundred the Chaplain's report resolved itself into a chat on the weather, the Master's roses, some recent article in the Church Times or the Guardian. The talk was never very strenuous; for whereas Mr. Colt could never learn to distinguish one rose from another, on Church affairs or on politics the Master was hopelessly tolerant, antiquated, incurious even. What could one do with a dear old gentleman who, when informed of the latest, most dangerous promotion to a bishopric, but responded with "Eh? 'So-and-so,' did you say? … Yes, yes. I knew his father… an excellent fellow!"

This morning, however, the Chaplain wore a grave face. After a few words he came to business.

"It concerns a letter I received this morning. The writer, who signs himself 'Well Wisher,' makes a disgusting allegation against old Bonaday-an incredibly disgusting allegation. You will prefer to read it for yourself."

Mr. Colt produced the letter from his pocket-book, and held it out.

"Eh?" exclaimed Master Blanchminster, receding. "Another?"

"I beg your pardon-?"

The Master adjusted his glasses, and bent forward, still without offering to touch the thing or receive it from Mr. Colt's hand.

"Yes, yes. I recognise the handwriting.… To tell the truth, my dear Colt, I received just such a letter one day last week. For the moment it caused me great distress of mind."

Mr. Colt was vexed, a little hurt, that the Master had not consulted him about it.

"You mean to say it contained-"

"-The same sort of thing, no doubt: charges against Brother Bonaday and against one of the nurses: incredibly disgusting, as you say."

"May I be allowed to compare the two letters?… I do not," said Mr. Colt stiffly, "seek more of your confidence than you care to bestow."

"My dear fellow-" protested the Master.

"I merely suggest that, since it concerns the discipline of St. Hospital-for which in the past you have honoured me with some responsibility-"

"My dear fellow, you should see it and welcome; but the fact is-" Here the Master broke off. "I ought, no doubt, to have put it straight into the fire."

"Why?" asked Mr. Colt.

"But the fact is, I gave it away."

"Gave it away!… To whom, may I ask?"

"To Brother Copas, of all people," confessed the Master with a rueful little chuckle. "Yes, I don't wonder that you stare: yet it happened very simply. You remember the day I asked you to send him to me for a talk about the Petition? Well, he found me in distress over this letter, which I had just received, and on an impulse I showed it to him. I really wanted his assurance that the charge was as baseless as it was foul, and that assurance he gave me. So you may with an easy mind put your letter in the fire."

"It would at any rate be a safer course than to give it away," said the Chaplain, frowning.

"A hit-a palpable hit!… I ought to have added that Brother Copas has a notion he can discover the writer, whom he positively asserts to be a woman. So I allowed him to take the thing away with him. I may as well confess," the old man added, "that I live in some dread of his making the discovery. Of course it is horrible to think that St. Hospital harbours anyone capable of such a letter; but to deal adequately with the culprit-especially if she be a woman-will be for the moment yet more horrible."

"Excuse me, Master, if I don't quite follow you," said the Chaplain unsympathetically. "You appear to be exercised rather over the writer than over Brother Bonaday, against whom the charge lies."

"You have hit on the precise word," answered Master Blanchminster, smiling. "Brother Copas assures me-"

"But is Brother Copas an entirely credible witness?"

The Master lifted his eyebrows in astonishment.

"Why, who should know better? He is Brother Bonaday's closest friend. Surely, my dear fellow, I had thought you were aware of that!"

In the face of this simplicity the Chaplain could only grind his teeth upon a helpless inward wrath. It took him some seconds to recover speech.

"On my way here," he said at length, "I made some small inquiries, and find that some days ago Nurse Branscome ceased her attendance on Bonaday, handing over the case to our excellent Nurse Turner. This, of course, may mean little."

"It may mean that Brother Copas has taken occasion to warn her."

"It means, anyhow, that-whether prudently or by accident-she has given pause to the scandal. In this pause I can, perhaps, make occasion to get at the truth; always with your leave, of course."

"There can be no question of my giving leave or withholding it. You have received a private letter, which you perceive I have no desire to read. You must act upon it as directed by your own-er- taste. And now shall we talk of something else?"

He said it with a mild dignity which effectively closed the discussion and left Mr. Colt raging. In and about St. Hospital nine observers out of ten would have told you that the Chaplain held this dear, do-nothing old Master in the hollow of his hand, and on nine occasions out of ten the Chaplain felt sure of it. On the tenth he found himself mocked, as a schoolboy believes he has grasped a butterfly and opens his fingers cautiously, to find no prisoner within them. He could never precisely understand how it happened, and it never failed

to annoy him heavily.

After bidding the Master good morning he went straight to Brother Bonaday's lodging. Brother Bonaday, now fairly convalescent, was up and dressed and seated in his arm-chair, whiling away the morning with a newspaper. In days of health he had been a diligent reader of dull books; had indeed (according to his friend Copas-but the story may be apocryphal) been known to sit up past midnight with an antiquated Annual Report of the Registrar-General, borrowed from the shelf of Brother Inchbald, whose past avocations had included the registering of Births, Deaths and Marriages somewhere in Wiltshire. But of late, as sometimes happens in old age, books had lost their savour for him, and he preferred to let his eyes rest idly on life's passing show as reflected in the camera obscura of a halfpenny paper.

He rose respectfully as the Chaplain entered.

"Be seated, please," said Mr. Colt. Declining a chair for himself, he planted his feet astraddle on the worn hearthrug.

Standing so, with his back to the grate, his broad shoulders blocking out the lower half of a picture of the Infant Samuel above the mantel-shelf, he towered over the frail invalid, concerning whose health he asked a few perfunctory questions before plunging into business.

"You're wondering what brings me here. Fact is," he announced, "I've come to ask you a plain question-a question it's my duty to ask; and I think you're strong enough to answer it without any beating about the bush on either side. For six months now I haven't seen you at Holy Communion. Why?"

Brother Bonaday's face twitched sharply. For a moment or two he seemed to be searching for an answer. His lips parted, but still no answer came.

"I know, you know," said the Chaplain, nodding down at him. "I keep a record of these things-names and dates."

Brother Bonaday might have answered-

"Quite so-and that is why."

Some churchmen-of the type for which Mr. Colt adequately catered- revel in professing their faith, and will parade for its holiest sacrament with an unabashed and hail-fellow sociability; and doubtless for these 'brass-band communicants' (as Brother Copas called them) a great deal may be said. But Brother Bonaday was one of those others who, walking among mysteries, must hush the voice and bow the head; to whom the Elements are awful, and in whom awe begets a sweet and tender shame. To be docketed as having, on such and such a day at such and such an hour, partaken of them was to him an intolerable thought. To quote Brother Copas again, "These Neo-Catholics may well omit to fence the tables, confident in the protection of their own vulgarity."

Yet Brother Bonaday had another reason, on which the Chaplain hit- though brutally and by accident-in his next question.

"Haven't anything on your conscience, hey?"

Brother Bonaday had something on his conscience. His face twitched with the pain of it; but still he made no answer.

"If so," Mr. Colt pursued, "take my advice and have it out." He spoke as one recommending the extraction of a tooth. "You're a Protestant, I know, though you didn't sign that Petition; and I'm not here to argue about first principles. I'm come as a friend. All I suggest is, as between practical men, that you just give the thing a trial. It may be pretty bad," suggested Mr. Colt, dropping his air of authority and picking up his most insinuating voice. "I hear some pretty bad things; but I'll guarantee your feeling all the better for a clean breast. Come, let me make a guess.… It has something to do with this child of yours!"

Mr. Colt, looking down from his great height, saw the invalid's face contracted by a sharp spasm, noted that his thin hands gripped upon the arms of the chair so tightly that the finger-nails whitened, and smiled to himself. Here was plain sailing.

"I know more than you guessed, eh? Well, now, why not tell me the whole truth?"

Brother Bonaday gazed up as if appealing for mercy, but shook his head.

"I cannot, sir."

"Come, come-as to a friend, if you won't as to a priest?… Hang it all, my good man, you might give me credit for that, considering the chance I'm holding out! You don't surely suppose that St. Hospital will continue to suffer this scandal in its midst?" Still as Brother Bonaday shook his head, the Chaplain with a sign of impatience enlarged his hint. "Copas knows: I have it on the best authority. Was it he that dropped the hint to Nurse Branscome? or did she herself scent the discovery and give over attending on you?"

"You won't-send her-away!" pleaded Brother Bonaday, thinking only of Corona.

His voice came in a whisper, between gasps for breath.

Mr. Colt stared.

"Well, of all the calm requests-!" he began.

But here the sound of a light running footstep cut him short. The door was pushed open, and on the threshold stood Corona, flushed, excited.

"Daddy, guess! Oh, but you'll never! I'm a real live Greycoat, and if I don't tell Timmy before you ask a single question I shall burst!"

She came to a halt, her eyes on Mr. Colt.

"'Tis the truth," announced Brother Copas, overtaking her as she paused in the doorway. "We shot at a canary, and-Good God!" he exclaimed, catching sight of Brother Bonaday's face. "Slip away and fetch the nurse, child!"

Corona ran. While she ran Brother Copas stepped past Mr. Colt, and slid an arm under his friend's head as it dropped sideways, blue with anguish. He turned on the tall Chaplain fiercely.

"What devil's game have you been playing here?"

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