The Lane that had No Turning/The Little Bell of Honour
THE LITTLE BELL OF HONOUR
"What did he say?" asked the Little Chemist, stepping from his doorway.
"He cursed his baptism," answered tall Medallion, the English auctioneer, pushing his way farther into the crowd.
"Ah, the pitiful vaurien!" said the Little Chemist’s wife, shudderingly; for that was an oath not to be endured by any one who called the Church mother.
The crowd that had gathered at the Four Corners were greatly disturbed, for they also felt the repulsion that possessed the Little Chemist’s wife. They babbled, shook their heads, and waved their hands excitedly, and swayed and craned their necks to see the offender.
All at once his voice, mad with rage, was heard above the rest, shouting frenziedly a curse which was a horribly grotesque blasphemy upon the name of God. Men who had used that oath in their insane anger had been known to commit suicide out of remorse afterwards.
For a moment there was a painful hush. The crowd drew back involuntarily and left a clear space, in which stood the blasphemer—a middle-sized, athletic fellow, with black beard, thick, waving hair, and flashing brown eyes. His white teeth were showing now in a snarl like a dog’s, his cap was on the ground, his hair was tumbled, his hands were twitching with passion, his foot was stamping with fury, and every time it struck the ground a little silver bell rang at his knee—a pretty sylvan sound, in no keeping with the scene. It heightened the distress of the fellow’s blasphemy and ungovernable anger. For a man to curse his baptism was a wicked thing; but the other oath was not fit for human ears, and horror held the crowd moveless for a moment.
Then, as suddenly as the stillness came, a low, threatening mumble of voices rose, and a movement to close in on the man was made; but a figure pushed through the crowd, and, standing in front of the man, waved the people back. It was the Curé, the beloved M. Fabre, whose life had been spent among them, whom they obeyed as well as they could, for they were but frail humanity, after all—crude, simple folk, touched with imagination.
"Luc Pomfrette, why have you done this? What provocation had you?"
The Curé’s voice was stern and cold, his usually gentle face had become severe, his soft eyes were piercing and determined.
The foot of the man still beat the ground angrily, and the little bell kept tinkling. He was gasping with passion, and he did not answer yet.
"Luc Pomfrette, what have you to say?" asked the Curé again. He motioned back Lacasse, the constable of the parish, who had suddenly appeared with a rusty gun and a more rusty pair of handcuffs.
Still the voyageur did not answer.
The Curé glanced at Lajeunesse the blacksmith, who stood near.
"There was no cause—no," sagely shaking his head said Lajeunesse, "Here stand we at the door of the Louis Quinze in very good humour. Up come the voyageurs, all laughing, and ahead of them is Luc Pomfrette, with the little bell at his knee. Luc, he laugh the same as the rest, and they stand in the door, and the garçon bring out the brandy—just a little, but just enough too. I am talking to Henri Beauvin. I am telling him Junie Gauloir have run away with Dicey the Protestant, when all very quick Luc push between me and Henri, jump into the street, and speak like that!"
Lajeunesse looked around, as if for corroboration; Henri and others nodded, and some one said:
"That’s true; that’s true. There was no cause."
"Maybe it was the drink," said a little hunchbacked man, pushing his way in beside the Curé. "It must have been the drink; there was nothing else—no."
The speaker was Parpon the dwarf, the oddest, in some ways the most foolish, in others the wisest man in Pontiac.
"That is no excuse," said the Curé.
"It is the only one he has, eh?" answered Parpon. His eyes were fixed meaningly on those of Pomfrette.
"It is no excuse," repeated the Curé sternly. "The blasphemy is horrible, a shame and stigma upon Pontiac for ever." He looked Pomfrette in the face. "Foul-mouthed and wicked man, it is two years since you took the Blessed Sacrament. Last Easter day you were in a drunken sleep while Mass was being said; after the funeral of your own father you were drunk again. When you went away to the woods you never left a penny for candles, nor for Masses to be said for your father’s soul; yet you sold his horse and his little house, and spent the money in drink. Not a cent for a candle, but——"
"It’s a lie," cried Pomfrette, shaking with rage from head to foot.
A long horror-stricken "Ah!—— broke from the crowd.
The Curé’s face became graver and colder.
"You have a bad heart," he answered, "and you give Pontiac an evil name. I command you to come to Mass next Sunday, to repent and to hear your penance given from the altar. For until——"
"I’ll go to no Mass till I’m carried to it," was the sullen, malevolent interruption.
The Curé turned upon the people.
"This is a blasphemer, an evil-hearted, shameless man," he said. "Until he repents humbly, and bows his vicious spirit to holy Church, and his heart to the mercy of God, I command you to avoid him as you would a plague. I command that no door be opened to him; that no one offer him comfort or friendship; that not even a bonjour or a bonsoir pass between you. He has blasphemed against our Father in heaven; to the Church he is a leper." He turned to Pomfrette. "I pray God that you have no peace in mind or body till your evil life is changed, and your black heart is broken by sorrow and repentance."
Then to the people he said again: "I have commanded you for your souls’ sake; see that you obey. Go to your homes. Let us leave the leper—alone." He waved the awed crowd back.
"Shall we take off the little bell?" asked Lajeunesse of the Curé.
Pomfrette heard, and he drew himself together, his jaws shutting with ferocity, and his hand flying to the belt where his voyageur’s case-knife hung. The Curé did not see this. Without turning his head towards Pomfrette, he said:
"I have commanded you, my children. Leave the leper alone."
Again he waved the crowd to be gone, and they scattered, whispering to each other; for nothing like this had ever occurred in Pontiac before, nor had they ever seen the Curé with this granite look in his face, or heard his voice so bitterly hard.
He did not move until he had seen them all started homewards from the Four Corners. One person remained beside him—Parpon the dwarf.
"I will not obey you, M’sieu’ le Curé," said he. "I’ll forgive him before he repents."
"You will share his sin," answered the Curé sternly.
"No; his punishment, M’sieu’," said the dwarf; and turning on his heel, he trotted to where Pomfrette stood alone in the middle of the road, a dark, morose figure, hatred and a wild trouble in his face.
Already banishment, isolation, seemed to possess Pomfrette, to surround him with loneliness. The very effort he made to be defiant of his fate appeared to make him still more solitary. All at once he thrust a hand inside his red shirt, and, giving a jerk which broke a string tied round his neck, he drew forth a little pad—a flat bag of silk, called an Agnus Dei, worn as a protection and a blessing by the pious, and threw it on the ground. Another little parcel he drew from his belt, and ground it into the dirt with his heel. It contained a woman’s hair. Then, muttering, his hands still twitching with savage feeling, he picked up his cap, covered with dirt, put it on, and passed away down the road towards the river, the little bell tinkling as he went. Those who heard it had a strange feeling, for already to them the man was as if he had some baleful disease, and this little bell told of the passing of a leper.
Yet some one man had worn just such a bell every year in Pontiac. It was the mark of honour conferred upon a voyageur by his fellows, the token of his prowess and his skill. This year Luc Pomfrette had won it, and that very day it had been buckled round his leg with songs and toasts.
For hours Pomfrette walked incessantly up and down the river-bank, muttering and gesticulating, but at last came quietly to the cottage which he shared with Henri Beauvin. Henri had removed himself and his belongings: already the ostracising had begun. He went to the bedroom of old Mme. Burgoyne, his cousin; she also was gone. He went to a little outhouse and called.
For reply there was a scratching at the door. He opened it, and a dog leaped out and upon him. With a fierce fondness he snatched at the dog’s collar, and drew the shaggy head to his knee; then as suddenly shoved him away with a smothered oath, and going into the house, shut the door. He sat down in a chair in the middle of the room, and scarcely stirred for half an-hour. At last, with a passionate jerk of the head, he got to his feet, looking about the room in a half-distracted way. Outside, the dog kept running round and round the house, silent, watchful, waiting for the door to open.
As time went by, Luc became quieter, but the look of his face was more desolate. At last he almost ran to the door, threw it open, and called. The dog sprang into the room, went straight to the fireplace, lay down, and with tongue lolling and body panting looked at Pomfrette with blinking, uncomprehending eyes.
Pomfrette went to a cupboard, brought back a bone well covered with meat, and gave it to the dog, which snatched it and began gnawing it, now and again stopping to look up at his master, as one might look at a mountain moving, be aware of something singular, yet not grasp the significance of the phenomenon. At last, worn out, Pomfrette threw himself on his bed, and fell into a sound sleep. When he awoke, it was far into the morning. He lighted a fire in the kitchen, got a "spider," fried himself a piece of pork, and made some tea. There was no milk in the cupboard; so he took a pitcher and walked down the road a few rods to the next house, where lived the village milkman. He knocked, and the door was opened by the milkman’s wife. A frightened look came upon her when she saw who it was.
"Non, non!" she said, and shut the door in his face. He stared blankly at the door for a moment, then turned round and stood looking down into the road, with the pitcher in his hand. The milkman’s little boy, Maxime, came running round the corner of the house. "Maxime," he said involuntarily and half-eagerly, for he and the lad had been great friends.
Maxime’s face brightened, then became clouded; he stood still an instant, and presently, turning round and looking at Pomfrette askance, ran away behind the house, saying: "Non, non!"
Pomfrette drew his rough knuckles across his forehead in a dazed way; then, as the significance of the thing came home to him, he broke out with a fierce oath, and strode away down the yard and into the road. On the way to his house he met Duclosse the mealman and Garotte the lime-burner. He wondered what they would do. He could see the fat, wheezy Duclosse hesitate, but the arid, alert Garotte had determination in every motion and look. They came nearer; they were about to pass; there was no sign.
Pomfrette stopped short. "Good-day, lime-burner; good-day, Duclosse," he said, looking straight at them.
Garotte made no reply, but walked straight on. Pomfrette stepped swiftly in front of the mealman. There was fury in his face-fury and danger; his hair was disordered, his eyes afire.
"Good-day, mealman," he said, and waited.
"Duclosse," called Garotte warningly, "remember!"
Duclosse’s knees shook, and his face became mottled like a piece of soap; he pushed his fingers into his shirt and touched the Agnus Dei that he carried there. That and Garotte’s words gave him courage. He scarcely knew what he said, but it had meaning.
"Good-bye—leper," he answered.
Pomfrette’s arm flew out to throw the pitcher at the mealman’s head, but Duclosse, with a grunt of terror, flung up in front of his face the small bag of meal that he carried, the contents pouring over his waistcoat from a loose corner. The picture was so ludicrous that Pomfrette laughed with a devilish humour, and flinging the pitcher at the bag, he walked away towards his own house. Duclosse, pale and frightened, stepped from among the fragments of crockery, and with backward glances towards Pomfrette joined his comrade.
"Lime-burner," he said, sitting down on the bag of meal, and mechanically twisting tight the loose, leaking corner, "the devil’s in that leper."
"He was a good enough fellow once," answered Garotte, watching Pomfrette.
"I drank with him at five o’clock yesterday," said Duclosse philosophically. "He was fit for any company then; now he’s fit for none."
Garotte looked wise. "Mealman," said he, "it takes years to make folks love you; you can make them hate you in an hour. La! La! it’s easier to hate than to love. Come along, m’sieu’ dusty-belly."
Pomfrette’s life in Pontiac went on as it began that day. Not once a day, and sometimes not once in twenty days, did any human being speak to him. The village baker would not sell him bread; his groceries he had to buy from the neighbouring parishes, for the grocer’s flighty wife called for the constable when he entered the bake-shop of Pontiac. He had to bake his own bread, and do his own cooking, washing, cleaning, and gardening. His hair grew long and his clothes became shabbier. At last, when he needed a new suit—so torn had his others become at woodchopping and many kinds of work—he went to the village tailor, and was promptly told that nothing but Luc Pomfrette’s grave-clothes would be cut and made in that house.
When he walked down to the Four Corners the street emptied at once, and the lonely man with the tinkling bell of honour at his knee felt the whole world falling away from sight and touch and sound of him. Once when he went into the Louis Quinze every man present stole away in silence, and the landlord himself, without a word, turned and left the bar. At that, with a hoarse laugh, Pomfrette poured out a glass of brandy, drank it off, and left a shilling on the counter. The next morning he found the shilling, wrapped in a piece of paper, just inside his door; it had been pushed underneath. On the paper was written: "It is cursed."
Presently his dog died, and the day afterwards he suddenly disappeared from Pontiac, and wandered on to Ste. Gabrielle, Ribeaux, and Ville Bambord. But his shame had gone before him, and people shunned him everywhere, even the roughest. No one who knew him would shelter him. He slept in barns and in the woods until the winter came and snow lay thick upon the ground. Thin and haggard, and with nothing left of his old self but his deep brown eyes and curling hair, and his unhappy name and fame, he turned back again to Pontiac. His spirit was sullen and hard, his heart closed against repentance. Had not the Church and Pontiac and the world punished him beyond his deserts for a moment’s madness brought on by a great shock!
One bright, sunshiny day of early winter, he trudged through the snow-banked street of Pontiac back to his home. Men he once knew well, and had worked with, passed him in a sled on their way to the great shanty in the backwoods. They halted in their singing for a moment when they saw him; then, turning their heads from him, dashed off, carolling lustily:
"Ah, ah, Babette,
We go away;
But we will come
Again back home,
On Easter Day,
Back home to play
On Easter Day,
"Babette! Babette!" The words followed him, ringing in his ears long after the men had become a mere fading point in the white horizon behind him.
This was not the same world that he had known, not the same Pontiac. Suddenly he stopped short in the road.
"Curse them! Curse them! Curse them all!" he cried in a cracked, strange voice. A woman hurrying across the street heard him, and went the faster, shutting her ears. A little boy stood still and looked at him in wonder. Everything he saw maddened him. He turned sharp round and hurried to the Louis Quinze. Throwing open the door, he stepped inside. Half-a-dozen men were there with the landlord. When they saw him, they started, confused and dismayed. He stood still for a moment, looking at them with glowering brows.
"Good-day," he said. "How goes it?"
No one answered. A little apart from the others sat Medallion the auctioneer. He was a Protestant, and the curse on his baptism uttered by Pomfrette was not so heinous in his sight. For the other oath, it was another matter. Still, he was sorry for the man. In any case, it was not his cue to interfere; and Luc was being punished according to his bringing up and to the standards familiar to him. Medallion had never refused to speak to him, but he had done nothing more. There was no reason why he should provoke the enmity of the parish unnecessarily; and up to this-point Pomfrette had shifted for himself after a fashion, if a hard fashion.
With a bitter laugh, Pomfrette turned to the little bar.
"Brandy," he said; "brandy, my Bourienne."
The landlord shrugged his shoulder, and looked the other way.
"Brandy," he repeated. Still there was no sign.
There was a wicked look in his face, from which the landlord shrank back-shrank so far that he carried himself among the others, and stood there, half frightened, half dumfounded.
Pomfrette pulled out a greasy dollar-bill from his pocket—the last he owned in the world—and threw it on the counter. Then he reached over, caught up a brandy-bottle from the shelf, knocked off the neck with a knife, and, pouring a tumblerful, drank it off at a gasp.
His head came up, his shoulders straightened out, his eyes snapped fire. He laughed aloud, a sardonic, wild, coarse laugh, and he shivered once or twice violently, in spite of the brandy he had drunk.
"You won’t speak to me, eh? Won’t you? Curse you! Pass me on the other side—so! Look at me. I am the worst man in the world, eh? Judas is nothing—no! Ack, what are you, to turn your back on me? Listen to me! You, there, Muroc, with your charcoal face, who was it walk thirty miles in the dead of winter to bring a doctor to your wife, eh? She die, but that is no matter—who was it? It was Luc Pomfrette. You, Alphonse Durien, who was it drag you out of the bog at the Coôte Chaudiere? It was Luc Pomfrette. You, Jacques Baby, who was it that lied for you to the Protestant girl at Faribeau? Just Luc Pomfrette. You two, Jean and Nicolas Mariban, who was it lent you a hunderd dollars when you lose all your money at cards? Ha, ha, ha! Only that beast Luc Pomfrette! Mother of Heaven, such a beast is he—eh, Limon Rouge?—such a beast that used to give your Victorine little silver things, and feed her with bread and sugar and buttermilk pop. Ah, my dear Limon Rouge, how is it all different now!"
He raised the bottle and drank long from the ragged neck. When he took it away from his mouth not much more than half remained in the quart bottle. Blood was dripping upon his beard from a cut on his lip, and from there to the ground.
"And you, M’sieu’ Bourienne," he cried hoarsely, "do I not remember that dear M’sieu’ Bourienne, when he beg me to leave Pontiac for a little while that I not give evidence in court against him? Eh bien! you all walk by me now, as if I was the father of smallpox, and not Luc Pomfrette—only Luc Pomfrette, who spits at every one of you for a pack of cowards and hypocrites."
He thrust the bottle inside his coat, went to the door, flung it open with a bang, and strode out into the street, muttering as he went. As the landlord came to close the door Medallion said:
"The leper has a memory, my friends." Then he also walked out, and went to his office depressed, for the face of the man haunted him.
Pomfrette reached his deserted, cheerless house. There was not a stick of fire-wood in the shed, not a thing to eat or drink in cellar or cupboard. The door of the shed at the back was open, and the dog-chains lay covered with frost and half embedded in mud. With a shiver of misery Pomfrette raised the brandy to his mouth, drank every drop, and threw the bottle on the floor. Then he went to the front door, opened it, and stepped outside. His foot slipped, and he tumbled head forward into the snow. Once or twice he half raised himself, but fell back again, and presently lay still. The frost caught his ears and iced them; it began to creep over his cheeks; it made his fingers white, like a leper’s.
He would soon have stiffened for ever had not Parpon the dwarf, passing along the road, seen the open door and the sprawling body, and come and drawn Pomfrette inside the house. He rubbed the face and hands and ears of the unconscious man with snow till the whiteness disappeared, and, taking off the boots, did the same with the toes; after which he drew the body to a piece of rag carpet beside the stove, threw some blankets over it, and, hurrying out, cut up some fence rails, and soon had a fire going in the stove.
Then he trotted out of the house and away to the Little Chemist, who came passively with him. All that day, and for many days, they fought to save Pomfrette’s life. The Curé came also; but Pomfrette was in fever and delirium. Yet the good M. Fabre’s presence, as it ever did, gave an air of calm and comfort to the place. Parpon’s hands alone cared for the house; he did all that was to be done; no woman had entered the place since Pomfrette’s cousin, old Mme. Burgoyne, left it on the day of his shame.
When at last Pomfrette opened his eyes, and saw the Curé standing beside him, he turned his face to the wall, and to the exhortation addressed to him he answered nothing. At last the Curé left him, and came no more; and he bade Parpon do the same as soon as Pomfrette was able to leave his bed.
But Parpon did as he willed. He had been in Pontiac only a few days since the painful business in front of the Louis Quinze. Where he had been and what doing no one asked, for he was mysterious in his movements, and always uncommunicative, and people did not care to tempt his inhospitable tongue. When Pomfrette was so far recovered that he might be left alone, Parpon said to him one evening:
"Pomfrette, you must go to Mass next Sunday."
"I said I wouldn’t go till I was carried there, and I mean it—that’s so," was the morose reply.
"What made you curse like that—so damnable?" asked Parpon furtively.
"That’s my own business. It doesn’t matter to anybody but me."
"And you said the Curé lied—the good M’sieu’ Fabre—him like a saint."
"I said he lied, and I’d say it again, and tell the truth."
"But if you went to Mass, and took your penance, and——"
"Yes, I know; they’d forgive me, and I’d get absolution, and they’d all speak to me again, and it would be, ‘Good-day, Luc,’ and ‘Very good, Luc,’ and ‘What a gay heart has Luc, the good fellow!’ Ah, I know. They curse in the heart when the whole world go wrong for them; no one hears. I curse out loud. I’m not a hypocrite, and no one thinks me fit to live. Ack, what is the good!"
Parpon did not respond at once. At last, dropping his chin in his hand and his elbow on his knee, as he squatted on the table, he said:
"But if the girl got sorry——"
For a time there was no sound save the whirring of the fire in the stove and the hard breathing of the sick man. His eyes were staring hard at Parpon. At last he said, slowly and fiercely:
"What do you know?"
"What others might know if they had eyes and sense; but they haven’t. What would you do if that Junie come back?"
"I would kill her." His look was murderous.
"Bah, you would kiss her first, just the same!"
"What of that? I would kiss her because—because there is no face like hers in the world; and I’d kill her for her bad heart."
"What did she do?" Pomfrette’s hands clinched.
"What’s in my own noddle, and not for any one else," he answered sulkily.
"Tiens, tiens, what a close mouth! What did she do? Who knows? What you think she do, it’s this. You think she pretends to love you, and you leave all your money with her. She is to buy masses for your father’s soul; she is to pay money to the Curé for the good of the Church; she is to buy a little here, a little there, for the house you and she are going to live in, the wedding and the dancing over. Very well. Ah, my Pomfrette, what is the end you think? She run away with Dicey the Protestant, and take your money with her. Eh, is that so?"
For answer there came a sob, and then a terrible burst of weeping and anger and passionate denunciations—against Junie Gauloir, against Pontiac, against the world.
Parpon held his peace.
The days, weeks, and months went by; and the months stretched to three years.
In all that time Pomfrette came and went through Pontiac, shunned and unrepentant. His silent, gloomy endurance was almost an affront to Pontiac; and if the wiser ones, the Curé, the Avocat, the Little Chemist, and Medallion, were more sorry than offended, they stood aloof till the man should in some manner redeem himself, and repent of his horrid blasphemy. But one person persistently defied Church and people, Curé and voyageur. Parpon openly and boldly walked with Pomfrette, talked with him, and occasionally visited his house.
Luc made hard shifts to live. He grew everything that he ate, vegetables and grains. Parpon showed him how to make his own flour in primitive fashion, for no miller in any parish near would sell him flour, and he had no money to buy it, nor would any one who knew him give him work. And after his return to Pontiac he never asked for it. His mood was defiant, morbid, stern. His wood he chopped from the common known as No-Man’s Land. His clothes he made himself out of the skins of deer that he shot; when his powder and shot gave out, he killed the deer with bow and arrow.
The end came at last. Luc was taken ill. For four days, all alone, he lay burning with fever and inflammation, and when Parpon found him he was almost dead. Then began a fight for life again, in which Parpon was the only physician; for Pomfrette would not allow the Little Chemist or a doctor near him. Parpon at last gave up hope; but one night, when he came back from the village, he saw, to his joy, old Mme. Dégardy ("Crazy Joan" she was called) sitting by Pomfrette’s bedside. He did not disturb her, for she had no love for him, and he waited till she had gone. When he came into the room again he found Pomfrette in a sweet sleep, and a jug of tincture, with a little tin cup, placed by the bed. Time and again he had sent for Mme. Dégardy, but she would not come. She had answered that the dear Luc could go to the devil for all of her; he’d find better company down below than in Pontiac.
But for a whim, perhaps, she had come at last without asking, and as a consequence Luc returned to the world, a mere bundle of bones.
It was still while he was only a bundle of bones that one Sunday morning, Parpon, without a word, lifted him up in his arms and carried him out of the house. Pomfrette did not speak at first: it seemed scarcely worth while; he was so weak he did not care.
"Where are you going?" he said at last, as they came well into the village. The bell in St. Saviour’s had stopped ringing for Mass, and the streets were almost empty.
"I’m taking you to Mass," said Parpon, puffing under his load, for Pomfrette made an ungainly burden.
"Hand of a little devil, no!" cried Pomfrette, startled. "I said I’d never go to Mass again, and I never will.
"You said you’d never go to Mass till you were carried; so it’s all right."
Once or twice Pomfrette struggled, but Parpon held him tight, saying:
"It’s no use; you must come; we’ve had enough. Besides——"
"Besides what?" asked Pomfrette faintly.
"Never mind," answered Parpon.
At a word from Parpon the shrivelled old sexton cleared a way through the aisle, making a stir, through which the silver bell at Pomfrette’s knee tinkled, in answer, as it were, to the tinkling of the acolyte’s bell in the sanctuary. People turned at the sound, women stopped telling their beads, some of the choir forgot their chanting. A strange feeling passed through the church, and reached and startled the Curé as he recited the Mass. He turned round and saw Parpon laying Pomfrette down at the chancel steps. His voice shook a little as he intoned the ritual, and as he raised the sacred elements tears rolled down his cheeks.
From a distant corner of the gallery a deeply veiled woman also looked down at Pomfrette, and her hand trembled on the desk before her.
At last the Curé came forward to the chancel steps.
"What is it, Parpon?" he asked gravely.
"It is Luc Pomfrette, M’sieu’ le Curé." Pomfrette’s eyes were closed.
"He swore that he would never come to Mass again," answered the good priest.
"Till he was carried, M’sieu’ le Curé—and I’ve carried him."
"Did you come of your own free will, and with a repentant heart, Luc Pomfrette?" asked the Curé.
"I did not know I was coming—no." Pomfrette’s brown eyes met the priest’s unflinchingly.
"You have defied God, and yet He has spared your life."
"I’d rather have died," answered the sick man simply.
"Died, and been cast to perdition!"
"I’m used to that; I’ve had a bad time here in Pontiac."
His thin hands moved restlessly. His leg moved, and the little bell tinkled—the bell that had been like the bell of a leper these years past.
"But you live, and you have years yet before you, in the providence of God. Luc Pomfrette, you blasphemed against your baptism, and horribly against God himself. Luc"—his voice got softer—"I knew your mother, and she was almost too weak to hold you when you were baptised, for you made a great to-do about coming into the world. She had a face like a saint—so sweet, so patient. You were her only child, and your baptism was more to her than her marriage even, or any other thing in this world. The day after your baptism she died. What do you think were her last words?"
There was a hectic flush on Pomfrette’s face, and his eyes were intense and burning as they looked up fixedly at the Curé.
"I can’t think any more," answered Pomfrette slowly. "I’ve no head."
"What she said is for your heart, not for your head, Luc," rejoined the Curé gently. "She wandered in her mind, and at the last she raised herself up in her bed, and lifting her finger like this"—he made the gesture of benediction—"she said, ‘Luc Michée, I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’ Then she whispered softly: ‘God bless my dear Luc Michée! Holy Mother pray for him!’ These were her last words, and I took you from her arms. What have you to say, Luc Michée?"
The woman in the gallery was weeping silently behind her thick veil, and her worn hand clutched the desk in front of her convulsively. Presently she arose and made her way down the stair, almost unnoticed.
Two or three times Luc tried to speak, but could not.
"Lift me up," he said brokenly, at last.
Parpon and the Little Chemist raised him to his feet, and held him, his shaking hands resting on their shoulders, his lank body tottering above and between them.
Looking at the congregation, he said slowly: "I’ll suffer till I die for cursing my baptism, and God will twist my neck in purgatory for——"
"Luc," the Curé interrupted, "say that you repent."
"I’m sorry, and I ask you all to forgive me, and I’ll confess to the Curé, and take my penance, and——" he paused, for breathing hurt him.
At that moment the woman in black who had been in the gallery came quickly forward. Parpon saw her, frowned, and waved her back; but she came on. At the chancel steps she raised her veil, and a murmur of recognition and wonder ran through the church. Pomfrette’s face was pitiful to see—drawn, staring.
"Junie!" he said hoarsely.
Her eyes were red with weeping, her face was very pale.
"M’sieu’ le Curé" she said, "you must listen to me"—the Curé’s face had become forbidding—"sinner though I am. You want to be just, don’t you? Ah, listen! I was to be married to Luc Pomfrette, but I did not love him—then. He had loved me for years, and his father and my father wished it—as you know, M’sieu’ le Curé. So after a while I said I would; but I begged him that he wouldn’t say anything about it till he come back from his next journey on the river. I did not love him enough—then. He left all his money with me: some to pay for Masses for his father’s soul, some to buy things for—for our home; and the rest to keep till he came back."
"Yes, yes," said Pomfrette, his eyes fixed painfully on her face—"yes, yes."
"The day after Luc went away John Dicey the Protestant come to me. I’d always liked him; he could talk as Luc couldn’t, and it sounded nice. I listened and listened. He knew about Luc and about the money and all. Then he talked to me. I was all wild in the head, and things went round and round, and oh, how I hated to marry Luc—then! So after he had talked a long while I said yes, I would go with him and marry him—a Protestant—for I loved him. I don’t know why or how."
Pomfrette trembled so that Parpon and the Little Chemist made him sit down, and he leaned against their shoulders, while Junie went on:
"I gave him Luc’s money to go and give to Parpon here, for I was too ashamed to go myself. And I wrote a little note to Luc, and sent it with the money. I believed in John Dicey, of course. He came back, and said that he had seen Parpon and had done it all right; then we went away to Montreal and got married. The very first day at Montreal, I found out that he had Luc’s money. It was awful; I went mad, and he got angry and left me alone, and didn’t come back. A week afterwards he was killed, and I didn’t know it for a long time. But I began to work, for I wanted to pay back Luc’s money. It was very slow, and I worked hard. Will it never be finished? I say. At last Parpon find me, and I tell him all—all except that John Dicey was dead, and I did not know that. I made him promise to tell nobody; but he knows all about my life since then. Then I find out one day that John Dicey is dead, and I get from the gover’ment a hundred dollars of the money he stole. It was found on him when he was killed. I work for six months longer, and now I come back—with Luc’s money."
She drew from her pocket a packet of notes, and put it in Luc’s hands. He took it dazedly, then dropped it, and the Little Chemist picked it up; he had no prescription like that in his pharmacopœia.
"That’s how I’ve lived," she said, and she handed a letter to the Curé.
It was from a priest in Montreal, setting forth the history of her career in that city, her repentance for her elopement and the sin of marrying a Protestant, and her good life. She had wished to do her penance in Pontiac, and it remained to m’sieu’ le Curé; to set it. The Curé’s face relaxed, and a rare gentleness came into it.
He read the letter aloud. Luc once more struggled to his feet, eagerly listening.
"You did not love Luc?" the Curé asked Junie, meaningly.
"I did not love Luc—then," she answered, a flush going over her face.
"You loved Junie?" the Curé said to Pomfrette.
"I could have killed her, but I’ve always loved her," answered Luc. Then he raised his voice excitedly: "I love her, love her, love her—but what’s the good! She’d never ’ve been happy with me. Look what my love drove her to! What’s the good, at all!"
"She said she did not love you then, Luc Michee," said Parpon, interrupting. "Luc Michée, you’re a fool as well as a sinner. Speak up, Junie."
"I used to tell him that I didn’t love him; I only liked him. I was honest. Well, I am honest still. I love him now."
A sound of joy broke from Luc’s lips, and he stretched out his arms to her, but the Curé stopped that.
"Not here," he said. "Your sins must first be considered. For penance—" He paused, looking at the two sad yet happy beings before him. The deep knowledge of life that was in him impelled him to continue gently:
"For penance you shall bear the remembrance of each other’s sins. And now to God the Father——"
He turned towards the altar, and raised his hands in the ascription.
As he knelt to pray before he entered the pulpit, he heard the tinkling of the little bell of honour at the knee of Luc, as Junie and Parpon helped him from the church.