It was only after reaching the level ground in front of the farmhouse that Peyrol took time to pause and resume his contact with the exterior world.
While he had been closeted with his prisoner the sky had got covered with a thin layer of cloud, in one of those swift changes of weather that are not unusual in the Mediterranean. This grey vapour, drifting high up, close against the disc of the sun, seemed to enlarge the space behind its veil, add to the vastness of a shadowless world no longer hard and brilliant but all softened in the contours of its masses and in the faint line of the horizon, as if ready to dissolve in the immensity of the Infinite.
Familiar and indifferent to his eyes, material and shadowy, the extent of the changeable sea had gone pale under the pale sun in a mysterious and emotional response. Mysterious too was the great oval patch of dark water to the west; and also a broad blue lane traced on the dull silver of the waters in a parabolic curve described magistrally by an invisible finger for a symbol of endless wandering. The face of the farmhouse might have been the face of a house from which all the inhabitants had fled suddenly. In the high part of the building the window of the lieutenant's room remained open, both glass and shutter. By the door of the salle the stable fork leaning against the wall seemed to have been forgotten by the sans-culotte. This aspect of abandonment struck Peyrol with more force than usual. He had been thinking so hard of all these people, that to find no one about seemed unnatural and even depressing. He had seen many abandoned places in his life, grass huts, mud forts, kings' palaces — temples from which every white-robed soul had fled. Temples, however, never looked quite empty. The gods clung to their own. Peyrol's eyes rested on the bench against the wall of the salle. In the usual course of things it should have been occupied by the lieutenant who had the habit of sitting there with hardly a movement, for hours, like a spider watching for the coming of a fly. This paralyzing comparison held Peyrol motionless with a twisted mouth and a frown on his brow, before the evoked vision, coloured and precise, of the man more troubling than the reality had ever been.
He came to himself with a start. What sort of occupation was this, 'cré nom de nom, staring at a silly bench with no one on it? Was he going wrong in his head? Or was it that he was getting really old? He had noticed old men losing themselves like that. But he had something to do. First of all he had to go and see what the English sloop in the Passe was doing.
While he was making his way towards the lookout on the hill where the inclined pine hung peering over the cliff as if an insatiable curiosity were holding it in that precarious position, Peyrol had another view from above of the farmyard and of the buildings and was again affected by their deserted appearance. Not a soul, not even an animal seemed to have been left; only on the roofs the pigeons walked with smart elegance. Peyrol hurried on and presently saw the English ship well over on the Porquerolles side with her yards braced tip and her head to the southward. There was a little wind in the Passe, while the dull silver of the open had a darkling rim of rippled water far away to the cast in that quarter where, far or near, but mostly out of sight, the British Fleet kept its endless watch. Not a shadow of a spar or gleam of sail on the horizon betrayed its presence; but Peyrol would not have been surprised to see a crowd of ships surge up, people the horizon with hostile life, come in running, and dot the sea with their ordered groups all about Cape Cicié, parading their damned impudence. Then indeed that corvette, the big factor of everyday life on that stretch of coast, would become very small potatoes indeed; and the man in command of her (he had been Peyrol's personal adversary in many imaginary encounters fought to a finish in the room upstairs) then indeed that Englishman would have to mind his steps. He would be ordered to come within hail of the Admiral, be sent here and there, made to run like a little dog and as likely as not get called on board the flagship and get a dressing down for something or other.
Peyrol thought for a moment that the impudence of this Englishman was going to take the form of running along the peninsula and looking into the very cove; for the corvette's head was falling off slowly. A fear for his tartane clutched Peyrol's heart till he remembered that the Englishman did not know of her existence. Of course not. His cudgel had been absolutely effective in stopping that bit of information. The only Englishman who knew of the existence of the tartane was that fellow with the broken head. Peyrol actually laughed at his momentary scare. Moreover, it was evident that the Englishman did not mean to parade in front of the peninsula. He did not mean to be impudent. The sloop's yards were swung right round and she came again to the wind but now heading to the northward back from where she came. Peyrol saw at once that the Englishman meant to pass to windward of Cape Esterel, probably with the intention of anchoring for the night off the long white beach which in a regular curve closes the roadstead of Hyères on that side.
Peyrol pictured her to himself, on the clouded night, not so very dark since the fall moon was but a day old, lying at anchor within hail of the low shore, with her sails furled and looking profoundly asleep, but with the watch on deck lying by the guns. He gnashed his teeth. It had come to this at last, that the captain of the Amelia could do nothing with his ship without putting Peyrol into a rage. Oh, for forty Brothers, or sixty, picked ones, he thought, to teach the fellow what it might cost him taking liberties along the French coast! Ships had been carried by surprise before, on nights when there was just light enough to see the whites of each other's eyes in a close tussle. And what would be the crew of that Englishman? Something between ninety and a hundred altogether, boys and landsman included. . . . Peyrol shook his fist for a good-bye, just when Cape Esterel shut off the English sloop from his sight. But in his heart of hearts that seaman of cosmopolitan associations knew very well that no forty or sixty, not any given hundred Brothers of the Coast would have been enough to capture that corvette making herself at home within ten miles of where he had first opened his eyes to the world.
He shook his head dismally at the leaning pine, his only companion. The disinherited soul of that rover ranging for so many years a lawless ocean with the coasts of two continents for a raiding ground, had come back to its crag, circling like a sea-bird in the dusk and longing for a great sea victory for its people: that inland multitude of which Peyrol knew nothing except the few individuals on that peninsula cut off from the rest of the land by the dead water of a salt lagoon; and where only a strain of manliness in a miserable cripple and an unaccountable charm of a half-crazed woman had found response in his heart.
This scheme of false dispatches was but a detail in a plan for a great, a destructive victory. just a detail, but not a trifle all the same. Nothing connected with the deception of an admiral could be called trifling. And such an admiral too. It was, Peyrol felt vaguely, a scheme that only a confounded landsman would invent. It behoved the sailors, however, to make a workable thing of it. It would have to be worked through that corvette.
And here Peyrol was brought up by the question that all his life had not been able to settle for him — and that was whether the English were really very stupid or very acute. That difficulty had presented itself with every fresh case. The old rover had enough genius in him to have arrived at a general conclusion that if they were to be deceived at all it could not be done very well by words but rather by deeds; not by mere wriggling, but by deep craft concealed under some sort of straightforward action. That conviction, however, did not take him forward in this case, which was one in which much thinking would be necessary.
The Amelia had disappeared behind Cape Esterel, and Peyrol wondered with a certain anxiety whether this meant that the Englishman had given up his man for good. “If he has,” said Peyrol to himself, “I am bound to see him pass out again from beyond Cape Esterel before it gets dark.” If, however, he did not see the ship again within the next hour or two, then she would be anchored off the beach, to wait for the night before making some attempt to discover what had become of her man. This could be done only by sending out one or two boats to explore the coast, and no doubt to enter the cove — perhaps even to land a small search party.
After coming to this conclusion Peyrol began deliberately to charge his pipe. Had he spared a moment for a glance inland he might have caught a whisk of a black skirt, the gleam of a white fichu — Arlette running down the faint track leading from Escampobar to the village in the hollow; the same track in fact up which Citizen Scevola, while indulging in the strange freak to visit the church, had been chased by the incensed faithful. But Peyrol, while charging and lighting his pipe, had kept his eyes fastened on Cape Esterel. Then, throwing his arm affectionately over the trunk of the pine, he had settled himself to watch. Far below him the roadstead, with its play of grey and bright gleams, looked like a plaque of mother-of-pearl in a frame of yellow rocks and dark green ravines set off inland by the masses of the hills displaying the tint of the finest purple; while above his head the sun, behind a cloud-veil, hung like a silver disc.
That afternoon, after waiting in vain for Lieutenant Réal to appear outside in the usual way, Arlette, the mistress of Escampobar, had gone unwillingly into the kitchen where Catherine sat upright in a heavy capacious wooden armchair, the back of which rose above the top of her white muslin cap. Even in her old age, even in her hours of ease, Catherine preserved the upright carriage of the family that had held Escampobar for so many generations. It would have been easy to believe that, like some characters famous in the world, Catherine would have wished to die standing up and with unbowed shoulders.
With her sense of hearing undecayed she detected the light footsteps in the salle long before Arlette entered the kitchen. That woman, who had faced alone and unaided (except for her brother's comprehending silence) the anguish of passion in a forbidden love, and of terrors comparable to those of the judgment Day, neither turned her face, quiet without serenity, nor her eyes, fearless but without fire, in the direction of her niece.
Arlette glanced on all sides, even at the walls, even at the mound of ashes under the big overmantel, nursing in its heart a spark of fire, before she sat down and leaned her elbow on the table.
“You wander about like a soul in pain,” said her aunt, sitting by the hearth like an old queen on her throne.
“And you sit here eating your heart out.”
“Formerly,” remarked Catherine, “old women like me could always go over their prayers, but now. . .”
“I believe you have not been to church for years. I remember Scevola telling me that a long time ago. Was it because you didn't like people's eyes? I have fancied sometimes that most people in the world must have been massacred long ago.”
Catherine turned her face away. Arlette rested her head on her half-closed hand, and her eyes, losing their steadiness, began to tremble amongst cruel visions. She got up suddenly and caressed the thin, half-averted, withered cheek with the tips of her fingers, and in a low voice, with that marvellous cadence that plucked at one's heart-strings, she said coaxingly:
“Those were dreams, weren't they?”
In her immobilitv the old woman called with all the might of her will for the presence of Peyrol. She had never been able to shake off a superstitious fear of that niece restored to her from the terrors of a Judgment Day in which the world had been given over to the devils. She was always afraid that this girl, wandering about with restless eyes and a dim smile on her silent lips, would suddenly say something atrocious, unfit to be heard, calling for vengeance from heaven, unless Peyrol were by. That stranger come from “par dela les mers” was out of it altogether, cared probably for no one in the world but had struck her imagination by his massive aspect, his deliberation suggesting a mighty force like the reposeful attitude of a lion. Arlette desisted from caressing the irresponsive cheek, exclaimed petulantly: “I am awake now!” and went out of the kitchen without having asked her aunt the question she had meant to ask, which was whether she knew what had become of the lieutenant.
Her heart had failed her. She let herself drop on the bench outside the door of the salle. “What is the matter with them all?” she thought. “I can't make them out. What wonder is it that I have not been able to sleep?” Even Peyrol, so different from all mankind, who from the first moment when he stood before her had the power to soothe her aimless unrest, even Peyrol would now sit for hours with the lieutenant on the bench, gazing into the air and keeping him in talk about things without sense, as if on purpose to prevent him from thinking of her. Well, he could not do that. But the enormous change implied in the fact that every day had a to-morrow now, and that all the people around her had ceased to be mere phantoms for her wandering glances to glide over without concern, made her feel the need of support from somebody, from somewhere. She could have cried aloud for it.
She sprang up and walked along the whole front of the farm building. At the end of the wall enclosing the orchard she called out in a modulated undertone: “Eugène,” not because she hoped that the lieutenant was anywhere within earshot, but for the pleasure of hearing the sound of the name uttered for once above a whisper. She turned about and at the end of the wall on the yard side she repeated her call, drinking in the sound that came from her lips, “Eugène, Eugène,” with a sort of half-exulting despair. It was in such dizzy moments that she wanted a steadying support. But all was still. She heard no friendly murmur, not even a sigh. Above her head under the thin grey sky a big mulberry tree stirred no leaf. Step by step, as if unconsciously, she began to move down the track. At the end of fifty yards she opened the inland view, the roofs of the village between the green tops of the platanes overshadowing the fountain, and just beyond the flat blue-grey level of the salt lagoon, smooth and dull like a slab of lead. But what drew her on was the church-tower, where, in a round arch, she could see the black speck of the bell which escaping the requisitions of the Republican wars, and dwelling mute above the locked-up empty church, had only lately recovered its voice. She ran on, but when she had come near enough to make out the figures moving about the village fountain, she checked herself, hesitated a moment and then took the footpath leading to the presbytery.
She pushed open the little gate with the broken latch. The humble building of rough stones, from between which much mortar had crumbled out, looked as though it had been sinking slowly into the ground. The beds of the plot in front were choked with weeds, because the abbé had no taste for gardening. When the heiress of Escampobar opened the door, he was walking up and down the largest room which was his bedroom and sitting room and where he also took his meals. He was a gaunt man with a long, as if convulsed, face. In his young days he had been tutor to the sons of a great noble, but he did not emigrate with his employer. Neither did he submit to the Republic. He had lived in his native land like a hunted wild beast, and there had been many tales of his activities, warlike and others. When the hierarchy was re-established he found no favour in the eyes of his superiors. He had remained too much of a Royalist. He had accepted, without a word, the charge of this miserable parish, where he had acquired influence quickly enough. His sacerdotalism lay in him like a cold passion. Though accessible enough, he never walked abroad without his breviary, acknowledging the solemnly bared heads by a curt nod. He was not exactly feared, but some of the oldest inhabitants who remembered the previous incumbent, an old man who died in the garden after having been dragged out of bed by some patriots anxious to take him to prison in Hyères, jerked their heads sideways in a knowing manner when their curé was mentioned.
On seeing this apparition in an Arlesian cap and silk skirt, a white fichu, and otherwise as completely different as any princess could be from the rustics with whom he was in daily contact, his face expressed the blankest astonishment. Then — for he knew enough of the gossip of his community — his straight, thick eyebrows came together inimically. This was no doubt the woman of whom he had heard his parishioners talk with bated breath as having given herself and her property up to a Jacobin, a Toulon sans-culotte who had either delivered her parents to execution or had murdered them himself during the first three days of massacres. No one was very sure which it was, but the rest was current knowledge. The abbé, though persuaded that any amount of moral turpitude was possible in a godless country, had not accepted all that tale literally. No doubt those people were republican and impious, and the state of affairs up there was scandalous and horrible. He struggled with his feelings of repulsion and managed to smooth his brow and waited. He could not imagine what that woman with mature form and a youthful face could want at the presbytery. Suddenly it occurred to him that perhaps she wanted to thank him — it was a very old occurrence — for interposing between the fury of the villagers and that man. He couldn't call him, even in his thoughts, her husband, for apart from all other circumstances, that connection could not imply any kind of marriage to a priest, even had there been legal form observed. His visitor was apparently disconcerted by the expression of his face, the austere aloofness of his attitude, and only a low murmur escaped her lips. He bent his head and was not very certain what he had heard.
“You come to seek my aid?” he asked in a doubting tone.
She nodded slightly, and the abbé went to the door she had left half open and looked out. There was not a soul in sight between the presbytery and the village, or between the presbytery and the church. He went back to face her, saying:
“We are as alone as we can well be. The old woman in the kitchen is as deaf as a post.”
Now that he had been looking at Arlette closer the abbé felt a sort of dread. The carmine of those lips, the pellucid, unstained, unfathomable blackness of those eyes, the pallor of her cheeks, suggested to him something provokingly pagan, something distastefully different from the common sinners of this earth. And now she was ready to speak. He arrested her with a raised hand.
“Wait,” he said. “I have never seen you before. I don't even know properly who you are. None of you belong to my flock — for you are from Escampobar. are you not?” Sombre under their bony arches, his eyes fastened on her face, noticed the delicacy of features, the naive pertinacity of her stare. She said:
“I am the daughter.”
“The daughter! . . . Oh! I see . . . Much evil is spoken of you.”
She said a little impatiently: “By that rabble?” and the priest remained mute for a moment. “What do they say? In my father's time they wouldn't have dared to say anything. The only thing I saw of them for years and years was when they were yelping like curs on the heels of Scevola.”
The absence of scorn in her tone was perfectly annihilating. Gentle sounds flowed from her lips and a disturbing charm from her strange equanimity. The abbé frowned heavily at these fascinations, which seemed to have in them something diabolic.
“They are simple souls, neglected, fallen back into darkness. It isn't their fault. They have natural feelings of humanity which were outraged. I saved him from their indignation. There are things that must be left to divine justice.”
He was exasperated by the unconsciousness of that fair face.
“That man whose name you have just pronounced and which I have heard coupled with the epithet of `blood-drinker' is regarded as the master of Escampobar Farm. He has been living there for years. How is that?”
“Yes, it is a long time ago since he brought me back to the house. Years ago. Catherine let him stay.”
“Who is Catherine?” the abbé asked harshly.
“She is my father's sister who was left at home to wait. She had given up all hope of seeing any of us again, when one morning Scevola came with me to the door. Then she let him stay. He is a poor creature. What else could Catherine have done? And what is it to us up there how the people in the village regard him?” She dropped her eyes and seemed to fall into deep thought, then added, “It was only later that I discovered that he was a poor creature, even quite lately. They call him
blood-drinker, do they? What of that? All the time he was afraid of his own shadow.”
She ceased but did not raise her eyes.
“You are no longer a child,” began the abbé in a severe voice, frowning at her downcast eyes, and he heard a murmur: “Not very long.” He disregarded it and continued: “I ask you, is this all that you have to tell me about that man? I hope that at least you are no hypocrite.”
“Monsieur l'Abbé,” she said, raising her eyes fearlessly, “what more am I to tell you about him? I can tell you things that will make your hair stand on end, but it wouldn't be about him.”
For all answer the abbé made a weary gesture and turned away to walk up and down the room. His face expressed neither curiosity nor pity, but a sort of repugnance which he made an effort to overcome. He dropped into a deep and shabby old armchair, the only object of luxury in the room, and pointed to a wooden straight-backed stool. Arlette sat down on it and began to speak. The abbé listened, but looking far away; his big bony hands rested on the arms of the chair. After the first words he interrupted her: “This is your own story you are telling me.”
“Yes,” said Arlette.
“Is it necessary that I should know?”
“Yes, Monsieur l'Abbé.”
He bent his head a little, without, however, ceasing to look far away. Her voice now was very low. Suddenly the abbé threw himself back.
“You want to tell me your story because you have fallen in love with a man?”
“No, because that has brought me back to myself. Nothing else could have done it.”
He turned his head to look at her grimly, but he said nothing and looked away again. He listened. At the beginning he muttered once or twice, “Yes, I have heard that,” and then kept silent, not looking at her at all. Once he interrupted her by a question: “You were confirmed before the convent was forcibly entered and the nuns dispersed?”
“Yes,” she said, “a year before that or more.”
“And then two of those ladies took you with them towards Toulon.”
“Yes, the other girls had their relations near by. They took me with them thinking to communicate with my parents, but it was difficult. Then the English came and my parents sailed over to try and get some news of me. It was safe for my father to be in Toulon then. Perhaps you think that he was a traitor to his country?” she asked, and waited with parted lips. With an impassible face the abbé murmured: “He was a good Royalist,” in a tone of bitter fatalism, which seemed to absolve that man and all the other men of whose actions and errors he had ever heard.
For a long time, Arlette continued, her father could not discover the house where the nuns had taken refuge. He only obtained some information on the very day before the English evacuated Toulon. Late in the day he appeared before her and took her away. The town was full of retreating foreign troops. Her father left her with her mother and went out again to make preparations for sailing home that very night; but the tartane was no longer in the place where he had left her lying. The two Madrague men that he had for a crew had disappeared also. Thus the family was trapped in that town full of tumult and confusion. Ships and houses were bursting into flames. Appalling explosions of gunpowder shook the earth. She spent that night on her knees with her face hidden in her mother's lap, while her father kept watch by the barricaded door with a pistol in each hand.
In the morning the house was filled with savage yells. People were heard rushing up the stairs, and the door was burst in. She jumped up at the crash and flung herself down on her knees in a corner with her face to the wall. There was a murderous uproar, she heard two shots fired, then somebody seized her by the arm and pulled her up to her feet. It was Scevola. He dragged her to the door. The bodies of her father and mother were lying across the doorway. The room was full of gunpowder smoke. She wanted to fling herself on the bodies and cling to them, but Scevola took her under the arms and lifted her over them. He seized her hand and made her run with him, or rather dragged her downstairs. Outside on the pavement some dreadful men and many fierce women with knives joined them. They ran along the streets brandishing pikes and sabres, pursuing other groups of unarmed people, who fled round corners with loud shrieks.
“I ran in the midst of them, Monsieur l'Abbé,” Arlette went on in a breathless murmur. “Whenever I saw any water I wanted to throw myself into it, but I was surrounded on all sides, I was jostled and pushed and most of the time Scevola held my hand very tight. When they stopped at a wine shop, they would offer me some wine. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I drank. The wine, the pavements, the arms and faces, everything was red. I had red splashes all over me. I had to run with them all day, and all the time I felt as if I were falling down, and down, and down. The houses were nodding at me. The sun would go out at times. And suddenly I heard myself yelling exactly like the others. Do you understand, Monsieur I'Abbé? The very same words!”
The eyes of the priest in their deep orbits glided towards her and then resumed their far-away fixity. Between his fatalism and his faith he was not very far from the belief of Satan taking possession of rebellious mankind, exposing the nakedness of hearts like flint and of the homicidal souls of the Revolution.
“I have heard something of that,” he whispered stealthily.
She affirmed with quiet earnestness: “Yet at that time I resisted with all my might.”
That night Scevola put her under the care of a woman called Perose. She was young and pretty and was a native of Arles, her mother's country. She kept an inn. That woman locked her up in her own room, which was next to the room where the patriots kept on shouting, singing and making speeches far into the night. Several times the woman would look in for a moment, make a hopeless gesture at her with both arms, and vanish again. Later, on many other nights when all the band lay asleep on benches and on the floor, Perose would steal into the room, fall on her knees by the bed on which Arlette sat upright, open-eyed, and raving silently to herself, embrace her feet and cry herself to sleep. But in the morning she would jump up briskly and say: “Come. The great affair is to keep our life in our bodies. Come along to help in the work of justice”; and they would join the band that was making ready for another day of traitor hunting. But after a time the victims, of which the streets were full at first, had to be sought for in back-yards, ferreted out of their hiding-places, dragged up out of the cellars, or down from the garrets of the houses, which would be entered by the band with howls of death and vengeance.
“Then, Monsieur l'Abbé,'
said Arlette, “I let myself go at last. I could resist no longer. I said to myself. `If it is so then it must be right. But most of the time I was like a person half asleep and dreaming things that it is impossible to believe. About that time, I don't know why, the woman Perose hinted to me that Scevola was a poor creature. Next night while all the band lay fast asleep in the big room Perose and Scevola helped me out of the window into the street and led me to the quay behind the arsenal. Scevola had found our tartane lying at the pontoon and one of the Madrague men with her. The other had disappeared. Perose fell on my neck and cried a little. She gave me a kiss and said: “My time will come soon. You, Scevola, don't you show yourself in Toulon, because nobody believes in you any more. Adieu, Arlette. Vive la Nation!” and she vanished in the night. I waited on the pontoon shivering in my torn clothes, listening to Scevola and the man throwing dead bodies overboard out of the tartane. Splash, splash, splash. And suddenly I felt I must run away, but they were after me in a moment, dragged me back and threw me down into that cabin which smelt of blood. But when I got back to the farm all feeling had left me. I did not feel myself exist. I saw things round me here and there, but I couldn't look at anything for long. Something was gone out of me. 1 know now that it was not my heart, but then I didn't mind what it was. I felt light and empty, and a little cold all the time, but I could smile at people. Nothing could matter. Nothing could mean anything. I cared for no one. I wanted nothing. I wasn't alive at all, Monsieur l'Abbé. People seemed to see me and would talk to me, and it seemed funny — till one day I felt my heart beat.”
“Why precisely did you come to me with this tale?” asked the abbé in a low voice.
“Because you are a priest. Have you forgotten that I have been brought up in a convent? I have not forgotten how to pray. But I am afraid of the world now. What must I do?”
“Repent!” thundered the abbé, getting up. He saw her candid gaze uplifted and lowered his voice forcibly. “You must look with fearless sincerity into the darkness of your soul. Remember whence the only true help can come. Those whom God has visited by a trial such as yours can not be held guiltless of their enormities. Withdraw from the world. Descend within yourself and abandon the vain thoughts of what people call happiness. Be an example to yourself of the sinfulness of our nature and of the weakness of our humanity. You may have been possessed. What do I know? Perhaps it was permitted in order to lead your soul to saintliness through a life of seclusion and prayer. To that it would be my duty to help you. Meantime you must pray to be given strength for a complete renunciation.”
Arlette, lowering her eyes slowly, appealed to the abbé as a symbolic figure of spiritual mystery. “What can be God's designs on this creature?” he asked himself.
“Monsieur le Curé,” she said quietly, “I felt the need to pray to-day for the first time in many years. When I left home it was only to go to your church.”
“The church stands open to the worst of sinners,” said the abbé.
“I know. But I would have had to pass before all those villagers: and you, abbé, know well what they are capable of.”
“Perhaps,” murmured the abbé, “it would be better not to put their charity to the test.”
“I must pray before I go back again. I thought you would let me come in through the sacristy.”
“It would be inhuman to refuse your request,” he said, rousing himself and taking down a key that hung on the wall. He put on his broad-brimmed hat and without a word led the way through the wicket gate and along the path which he always used himself and which was out of sight of the village fountain. After they had entered the damp and dilapidated sacristy he locked the door behind them and only then opened another, a smaller one, leading into the church. When he stood aside, Arlette became aware of the chilly odour as of freshly turned-up earth mingled with a faint scent of incense. In the deep dusk of the nave a single little flame glimmered before an image of the virgin. The abbé whispered as she passed on:
“There before the great altar abase yourself and pray for grace and strength and mercy in this world full of crimes against God and men.”
She did not look at him. Through the thin soles of her shoes she could feel the chill of the flagstones. The abbé left the door ajar, sat down on a rush-bottomed chair, the only one in the sacristy, folded his arms and let his chin fall on his breast. He seemed to be sleeping profoundly, but at the end of half an hour he got up and, going to the doorway, stood looking at the kneeling figure sunk low on the altar steps. Arlette's face was buried in her hands in a passion of piety and prayer. The abbé waited patiently for a good many minutes more, before he raised his voice in a grave murmur which filled the whole dark place.
“It is time for you to leave. I am going to ring for vespers.”
The view of her complete absorption before the Most High had touched him. He stepped back into the sacristy and after a time heard the faintest possible swish of the black silk skirt of the Escampobar daughter in her Arlesian costume. She entered the sacristy lightly with shining eyes, and the abbé looked at her with some emotion.
“You have prayed well, my daughter,” he said. “No forgiveness will be refused to you, for you have suffered much. Put your trust in the grace of God.”
She raised her head and stayed her footsteps for a moment. In the dark little place he could see the gleam of her eyes swimming in tears.
“Yes, Monsieur l'Abbé,” she said in her clear seductive voice. “I have prayed and I feel answered. I entreated the merciful God to keep the heart of the man I love always true to me or else to let me die before I set my eyes on him again.”
The abbé paled under his tan of a village priest and leaned his shoulders against the wall without a word.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52