ページの画像
PDF
ePub

prayed the Revolution, in the person of this mysterious stranger, whose face betrayed remorse too keen to leave room for doubt that he came thither to rid himself of a boundless debt of penitence.

Instead of using the Latin words Introibo ad altare Dei, the priest-as if suddenly inspired-glanced at the three representatives of Christian France, and said, “We are about to enter the House of God.” At these magic words the beggarly surroundings faded from the eyes of his fellow worshippers. They felt full of holy awe ; and not even beneath the dome of St. Peter's itself could God have revealed Himself in greater splendour than He now revealed Himself to these three worshippers. So true is it that 'twixt Him and man there needs no go-between, and that His grandeur belongs wholly to Himself.

The fervour of the stranger was unseigned. Thus the feeling which breathed in the prayers of these three servants of God and king was all of one leaven. The hallowed words sounded like heavenly music imid the intense silence of all around. Presently came the Lord's Prayer. At the petition “Forgive us our trespasses even as we forgive them that trespass against us,” a tear trickled down the stranger's cheek. The venerable priest observed this sign of deep emotion, and, interpreting it in his own way, forthwith added in Latin, “And forgive the kiny-slayers even as Louis XVI. himself forgave them.”

The suneral service followed, and its “God save the King” wrung the hearts of these staunch Royalists as they thought of the childking Louis XVII.- the subject of this prayer-a helpless captive in the hands of his foes. And again the stranger shuddered as if he foresaw another king-murder, and himself forced to play a part in it."

The funeral service over, the two nuns withdrew at a sign from the priest, who, on finding himself alone with the stranger, said to him in tones of fatherly kindness : “My son, if you have stained your hands with the blood of the martyr-king, confess yourself to me. There is no sin, however black, but God will blot it out in favour of a repentance so heartfelt and sincere as yours seems to be.”

As the first of the foregoing words fell from the priest's iips the stranger winced. But he quickly recovered himself, and looking him full in the face replied in a voice faltering with emotion, “ Father, none can be more guiltless of that deed of blood than I."

“I am bound to believe your word,” rejoined the priest. Here he paused, and once more scanned the penitent's features. Then,

'The murder never occurred--not, at least, on the scaffold. Louis XVII. died of ill-usage, June 9, 1797.

still sticking to his belief that he saw before him one of those timid members of the Convention who sacrificed the King's life to save their own, he solemnly continued : “Bethink you, my son, that merely to have refrained from any active share in this foul crime is not enough to clear you. Those whose swords remained sheathed when they might, had they willed, have struck a blow for their king, will be called to a heavy reckoning by the King of kings. Heavy, yea, heavy indeed ; for by standing idle they made themselves accessories to that hideous crime."

“But, father, think you that a mere indirect participation will be punished ?” asked the stranger all aghast. “The soldier, for instance, who, in strict obedience to orders, helped to clear the road to the scaffold-do you judge him guilty ? "

The priest manifestly wavered. Puritanical royalist though he was, he knew that his party held the tenet of passive obedience in the soldier as a necessary corollary to the supremacy of the King and the inviolability of his kingly person. The stranger chose to treat the priest's hesitation as a favourable answer to the doubts which beset him ; and lest further reflection should lead to a less welcome result, he cut it short with the remark, “I should blush to offer you a fee for celebrating this Mass for the repose of the King's soul, and the easing of my conscience. A priceless boon must be requited with a priceless gift. Deign, then, reverend father, to accept this holy relic. The day may come when you will discover its full value.” So saying, he placed in the priest's hands a little box of trifling weight, which the good man received almost unconsciously, in the fulness of his wonder at the solemnity of the stranger's words and tone, and at the reverential manner in which he handled the box.

The two men then rejoined the nuns in the outer garret ; when the stranger thus addressed his three companions: “The owner of this house-Mucius Scævola,' the plasterer, who lives on the first floor—though renowned in his section as an out-and-out 'patriot,' is a Bourbonist at heart. He was once whipper-in to the Prince de Condé, to whom he owes his fortune. Under his roof you are safer than you would be anywhere else in France. Therefore bide with him. Charitable hands will minister to your needs while you await in safety the dawn of better days. This time twelve months-on the 21st of January—should you still remain in this dreary prison, I will return to join you in celebrating the Mass of Atonement for them "

1 'Twas the fashion of the Revolutionary zealots thus to rechristen themselves with names borrowed from the Roman commonwealth. They little dreamt that the Roman commonwealth was one of the narrowest oligarchies ever known.

He left the phrase unfinished, bowed low to the inmates of the garret, gave a parting glance at the tokens of their penury, and was gone.

For the two simple-minded nuns this adventure possessed the thrilling interest of a romance. Hence, when the venerable priest showed them the stranger's mysterious gift, they seized the box, set it on the table, and eyed it with unspeakable curiosity which the good priest shared. Mlle. de Langeois hasted to open it, and drew forth a cambric handkerchief of finest texture, slightly soiled, as with sweat, and spotted with blood.

"'Tis marked with a royal crown !” cried Sister Martha. The nuns shuddered, and the handkerchief fell from their hands.

The mystery which shrouded the stranger seemed unfathomable to these two simple souls. As for the priest, from that day forth he never sought to fathom it.

Meanwhile the three prisoners soon perceived that—despite the Terror-a powerful hand was outstretched to protect them. First came a store of food and fuel ; then-sure proof that their friend had a female ally—a stock of linen for the nuns, with outer garments of modern cut, in which they could fare forth without attracting dangerous attention by the old-world fashion of their attire. This useful gift Mucius Scævola backed by presenting each of them with a certificate of good citizenship. Often, a warning needful to the priest's safety, and so well-timed that none could doubt it flowed from someone familiar with State secrets, reached the prisoners' ears by a sidewind. And even when famine stalked the streets of Paris, unseen hands—those, no doubt, of Mucius Scævola—would lay rations of white bread outside the door of their den. Meanwhile the high-born tenants of the garret could not reasonably doubt that the mainspring of all this bounty and benevolence was the mysterious stranger who had bespoken the Mass of Atonement. Hence this source of all their hopes and comforts—this saviour of their lives, became an object of peculiar worship to them, and was specially remembered in their prayers. Night and morning these pious souls offered up vows for his happiness and welfare in this world, and in the world to come life everlasting. Their thankfulness being thus, so to speak, daily refreshed, naturally wedded itself to a feeling of curiosity, which daily waxed ; and in talking over the incidents which led to his first appearance among them, and risking a thousand guesses concerning him, they found a world of amusement which was a sort of crowning boon from the same benefactor. No wonder they resolved to grapple him to their hearts when the mournful anniversary of Louis XVI.'s death should bring him once more within their doors.

The hour thus impatiently looked for came at last. At midnight the sound of his heavy tread again roused the echoes of the old wooden staircase. But this time, the nuns, instead of awaiting his advent in fear and trembling, hurried out on to the landing candle in hand to light him ; nay, Sister Agatha-Mlle. de Langeois-thirsting to behold her benefactor's face, ran down to meet him ere he reached the stairhead.

“Come," she said in tones tremulous with fond emotion. “Come, that we may welcome our long-expected friend."

He raised his head, and in a moment his gloomy glance and chilling silence froze the genial current of her feelings and struck her dumb. There was a something in that face which seemed to murder thanks and stifle curiosity. Yet perchance he was not so icy cold, so stern, so taciturn and terrible, as he seemed to those warm hearts overflowing with friendly gratitude. But, be that as it might, when he entered the wretched garret-carefully swept and garnished in his honour-its poor inmates understood that he wished to remain unknown to them, and meekly bowed to his will. But what meant that sardonic smile which hovered for a moment on his lips when his eye lighted on the little cold collation prepared for his reception ?

The altar stood ready decked ; the stranger listened to the Mass, and joined in the prayers as before ; then, courteously declining Mlle. de Langeois's invitation to sup with them, departed as he came-a stranger.

The fall of Robespierre in July 1794, and the counter-revolution which ensued, left the tenants of the garret free to show themselves in the streets without the slightest risk. One day the priest availed himself of his recovered liberty to visit a perfumer's shop in the Rue St. Honoré, kept by a worthy couple named Ragon, some time perfumers to Queen Marie Antoinette, and steady Royalists "under the rose.” As the venerable priest stood on the doorstep of the shop, he suddenly found himself wedged there by a surging crowd which flooded the street.

“What's agate ?” he said to Mme. Ragon.

“Only the death-cart and the headsman on their way to the Place Louis Quinze. A common sight, God knows !" she somewhat listlessly replied.

Impelled by curiosity, the priest raised himself a-tiptoe, and, glancing over the heads of the throng, beheld, upright in the gruesome vehicle, his benefactor-the penitent stranger.

"Who's that?” he asked.
“Sanson, the headsman !”

Down sank the priest in a dead swoon. They carried him into the shop. When at length he recovered consciousness, Mme. Ragon, standing near him salts-bottle in hand, heard him mutter : “He must have given me the handkerchief wherewith the King wiped his brow on his way to the scaffold. Poor man! To think that the blade of steel had a heart when France herself had none ! ”

Quoth Mme. Ragon, “His wits are wandering.” But the abbé knew what he was saying. He further knew—what the world knows now—that the executioner of Louis XVI. was a fervent Royalist in his heart of hearts.

« 前へ次へ »