by Harold Frederic
I, who tell this story, am called Brother Sebastian. This name was given
me more than forty years ago, while Louis Philippe was still king. My
other name has been buried so long that I have nearly forgotten it. I
think that my people are dead. At least I have heard nothing from them
in many years. My reputation has always been that of a misanthrope—if
not that, then of a dreamer. In the seminary I had no intimates. In the
order, for I am a Brother of the Christian Schools, my associates are
polite—nothing more. I seem to be outside their social circles, their
plans, their enjoyments. True, I am an old man now. But in other years
it was the same. All my life I have been in solitude.
To this there is a single exception—one star shining in the blackness.
And my career has been so bleak that, although it ended in deeper
sadness than I had known before, I look back to the episode with
gratitude. The bank of clouds which shut out this sole light of my life
quickened its brilliancy before they submerged it.
After the terrible siege of '71, when the last German was gone, and our
houses had breasted the ordeal of the Commune, I was sent to the South.
The Superior thought my cheeks were ominously hollow, and suspected
threats of consumption in my cough. So I was to go to the Mediterranean,
and try its milder air. I liked the change. Paris, with its gloss of
noisy gayety and its substance of sceptical heartlessness, was repugnant
to me. Perhaps it was because of this that Brother Sebastian had been
mured up in the capital two thirds of his life. If our surroundings are
too congenial we neglect the work set before us. But no matter; to the
coast I went.
My new home was a long-established house, spacious, venerable, and
dreary. It was on the outskirts of an ancient town, which was of far
more importance before our Lord was born than it has ever been since. We
had little to do. There were nine brothers, a handful of resident
orphans, and some three-score pupils. Ragged, stupid, big-eyed urchins
they were, altogether different from the keen Paris boys. For that
matter, every feature of my new home was odd. The heat of the summer was
scorching in its intensity. The peasants were much more respectful to
our cloth, and, as to appearance, looked like figures from Murillo's
canvases. The foliage, the wine, the language, the manners of the
people—everything was changed. This interested me, and my morbidness
vanished. The Director was delighted with my improved condition. Poor
man! he was positive that my cheeks had puffed out perceptibly after the
first two months. So the winter came—a mild, wet, muggy winter, wholly
unlike my favorite sharp season in the North.
We were killing time in the library one afternoon, the Director and a
Swiss Brother sitting by the lamp reading, I standing at one of the
tall, narrow windows, drumming on the panes and dreaming. The view was
not an inspiring one. There was a long horizontal line of pale yellow
sky and another of flat, black land, out of which an occasional poplar
raised itself solemnly. The great mass below the stripes was brown;
above, gloomy gray. Close under the window two boys were playing in the
garden of the house. I recall distinctly that they threw armfuls of wet
fallen leaves at each other with a great shouting. While I stood thus,
the Brother Servitor, Abonus, came in and whispered to the Director. He
always whispered. It was not fraternal, but I did not like this Abonus.
"Send him up here," said the Director. Then I remembered that I had
heard the roll of a carriage and the bell ring a few moments before.
Abonus came in again. Behind him there was some one else, whose
footsteps had the hesitating sound of a stranger's. Then I heard the
"You are from Algiers?"
"I am, Brother."
"Well, tell me more."
"I was under orders to be in Paris in January, Brother. As my health was
poor, I received permission to come back to France this autumn. At
Marseilles I was instructed to come here. So I am here. I have these
papers from the Mother house, and from Etienne, Director, of Algiers."
Something in the voice seemed peculiar to me. I turned and examined the
new-comer. He stood behind and to one side of the Director, who was
laboriously deciphering some papers through his big horn spectacles. The
light was not very bright, but there was enough to see a wonderfully
handsome face, framed in dazzling black curls. Perhaps it looked the
more beautiful because contrasted with the shaven gray poll and surly
features of grim Abonus. But to me it was a dream of St. John the
Evangel. The eyes of the face were lowered upon the Director, so I could
only guess their brilliancy. The features were those of an extreme
youth—round, soft, and delicate. The expression was one of utter
fatigue, almost pain. It bore out the statement of ill-health.
The Director had finished his reading. He lifted his head now and
surveyed the stranger in turn. Finally, stretching out his fat hand, he
"You are welcome, Brother Edouard. I see the letter says you have had no
experience except with the youngest children. Brother Photius does that
now. We will have you rest for a time. Then we will see about it.
Meanwhile I will turn you over to the care of good Abonus, who will give
you one of the north rooms."
So the two went out, Abonus shuffling his feet disagreeably. It was
strange that he could do nothing to please me.
"Brother Sebastian," said the Director, as the door closed, "it is
curious that they should have sent me a tenth man. Why, I lie awake now
to invent pretences of work for those I have already. I will give up all
show of teaching presently, and give out that I keep a hospital—a
retreat for ailing brothers. Still, this Edouard is a pretty boy."
"Etienne's letter says he is twenty and a Savoyard. He speaks like a
"Very likely he is seminary bred," put in the Swiss.
"Whatever he is, I like his looks," said our Superior. This good man
liked every one. His was the placid, easy Alsatian nature, prone to find
goodness in all things—even crabbed Abonus. The Director, or, as he was
known, Brother Elysee, was a stout, round little man, with a fine face
and imperturbable good spirits. He was adored by all his subordinates.
But I fancy he did not advance in favor at Paris very rapidly.
I liked Edouard from the first. The day after he came we were together
much, and, when we parted after vespers, I was conscious of a vast
respect for this new-comer. He was bright, ready spoken, and almost a
man of the world. Compared with my dull career, his short life had been
one of positive gayety. He had seen Frederic le Maitre at the Comédie
Française. He had been at Court and spoken with the Prince Imperial. He
was on terms of intimacy with Monsignori, and had been a protégé of the
sainted Darboy. It was a rare pleasure to hear him talk of these things.
Before this, the ceaseless shifting of brothers from one house to
another had been indifferent to me. For the hundreds of strangers who
came and went in the Paris house on Oudinot Street I cared absolutely
nothing, I did not suffer their entrance nor their exit to excite me.
This was so much the case that they called me a machine. But with
Edouard this was different. I grew to love the boy from the first
evening, when, as he left my room, I caught myself saying, "I shall be
sorry when he goes." He seemed to be fond of me, too. For that matter
most of the brothers petted him, Elysee especially. But I was flattered
that he chose me as his particular friend. For the first time my heart
We were alone one evening after the holidays. It was cold without, but
in my room it was warm and bright. The fire crackled merrily, and the
candles gave out a mellow and pleasant light. The Director had gone up
to Paris, and his mantle had fallen on me. Edouard sat with his feet
stretched to the fender, his curly head buried in the great curved back
of my invalid chair, the red fire-light reflected on his childish
features. I took pleasure in looking at him. He looked at the coals and
knit his brows as if in a puzzle. I often fancied that something
weightier than the usual troubles of life weighed upon him. At last he
spoke, just as I was about to question him:
"Are you afraid to die, Sebastian?"
Not knowing what else to say, I answered, "No, my child."
"I wonder if you enjoy life in community?"
This was still stranger. I could but reply that I had never known any
other life; that I was fitted for nothing else.
"But still," persisted he, "would you not like to leave it—to have a
career of your own before you die? Do you think this is what a man is
created for—to give away his chance to live?"
"Edouard, you are interrogating your own conscience," I answered. "These
are questions which you must have answered yourself, before you took
your vows. When you answered them, you sealed them."
Perhaps I spoke too harshly, for he colored and drew up his feet. Such
shapely little feet they were. I felt ashamed of my crustiness.
"But, Edouard," I added, "your vows are those of the novitiate. You are
not yet twenty-eight. You have still the right to ask yourself these
things. The world is very fair to men of your age. Do not dream that I
was angry with you."
He sat gazing into the fire. His face wore a strange, far-away
expression, as he reached forth his hand, in a groping way, and rested
it on my knee, clutching the gown nervously. Then he spoke slowly,
seeking for words, and keeping his eye on the flames:
"You have been good to me, Brother Sebastian. Let me ask you: May I tell
you something in confidence—something which shall never pass your lips?
I mean it."
He had turned and poured those marvellous eyes into mine with
irresistible magnetism. Of course I said, "Speak!" and I said it without
the slightest hesitation.
"I am not a Christian Brother. I do not belong to your order. I have no
claim upon the hospitality of this roof. I am an impostor!"
He ejected these astounding sentences with an energy almost fierce,
gripping my knee meanwhile. Then, as suddenly, his grasp relaxed, and he
fell to weeping bitterly.
I stared at him solemnly, in silence. My tongue seemed paralyzed.
Confusing thoughts whirled in a maze unbidden through my head. I could
say nothing. But a strange impulse prompted me to reach out and take his
hot hand in mine. It was piteous to hear him sobbing, his head upon his
raised arm, his whole frame quivering with emotion. I had never seen any
one weep like that before. So I sat dumb, trying in vain to answer this
bewildering self-accusation. At last there came out of the folds of the
chair the words, faint and tear-choked:
"You have promised me secrecy, and you will keep your word; but you will
"Why no, no, Edouard, not hate you," I answered, scarcely knowing what I
said. I did not comprehend it at all. There was nothing more for me to
say. Finally, when some power of thought returned, I asked:
"Of all things, my poor boy, why should you choose such a dreary life as
this? What possible reason led you to enter the community? What
attractions has it for you?"
Edouard turned again from the fire to me. His eyes sparkled. His teeth
were tight set.
"Why? Why? I will tell you why, Brother Sebastian. Can you not
understand how a poor hunted beast should rejoice to find shelter in
such an out-of-the-way place, among such kind men, in the grave of this
cloister life? I have not told you half enough. Do you not know in the
outside world, in Toulon, or Marseilles, or that fine Paris of yours,
there is a price on my head?—or no, not that, but enemies that are
looking for me, searching everywhere, turning every little stone for the
poor privilege of making me suffer? And do you know that these enemies
wear shakos, and are called gens d'armes? Would you be pleased to learn
that it is a prison I escape by coming here? Now, will you hate me?"
The boy had risen from his chair. He spoke hurriedly, almost
hysterically, his eyes snapping at mine like coals, his curls
dishevelled, his fingers curved and stiffened like the talons of a hawk.
I had never seen such intense earnestness in a human face. Passions like
these had never penetrated the convent walls before.
While I sat dumb before them, Edouard left the room. I was conscious of
his exit only in a vague way. For hours I sat in my chair beside the
grate thinking, or trying to think. You can see readily that I was more
than a little perplexed. In the absence of Elysee, I was director. The
management of the house, its good fame, its discipline, all rested on my
shoulders. And to be confronted by such an abyss as this! I could do
absolutely nothing. The boy had tied my tongue by the pledge. Besides,
had I been unsworn, I am sure the idea of exposure would never have come
to me. It was late before I retired that night. And I recall with
terrible distinctness the chaos of brain and faculty which ushered in a
restless sleep almost as dawn was breaking.
I had fancied that Brother Edouard would find life intolerable in
community after his revelation to me. He would be chary of meeting me
before the brothers; would be constantly tortured by fear of detection.
As I saw this prospect of the poor innocent—for it was absurd to think
of him as anything else—dreading exposure at each step in his false
life, shrinking from observation, biting his tongue at every word—I was
greatly moved by pity. Judge my surprise, then, when I saw him the next
morning join in the younger brothers' regular walk around the garden,
joking and laughing as I had never seen before. On his right was thin,
sickly Victor, rest his soul! and on the other pursy, thick-necked John,
as merry a soul as Cork ever turned out. And how they laughed, even the
frail consumptive! It was a pleasure to see his blue eyes brighten with
enjoyment and his warm cheeks blush. Above John's queer, Irish chuckle,
I heard Edouard's voice, with its dainty Parisian accent, retailing
jokes and leading in the laughter. The tramp was stretched out longer
than usual, so pleasant did they find it. At this development I was much
The same change was noticeable in all that Edouard did. Instead of the
apathy with which he had discharged his nominal duties, his baby pupils
(for Photius had gone to Peru) now became bewitched with him. He told
them droll stories, incited their rivalry in study by instituting prizes
for which they struggled monthly, and, in short, metamorphosed his
department. The change spread to himself. His cheeks took on a ruddier
hue, the sparkle of his black eyes mellowed into a calm and steady
radiance. There was no trace of feverish elation which, in solitude,
recoiled to the brink of despair. He sang to himself evenings in his
dormitory, clearly and with joy. His step was as elastic as that of any
school-boy. I often thought upon this change, and meditated how
beautiful an illustration of confession's blessings it furnished.
Frequently we were alone, but he never referred again to that memorable
evening, even by implication. At first I dreaded to have the door close
upon us, feeling that he must perforce seek to take up the thread where
he had broken it then. But he talked of other things, and so easily and
naturally that I felt embarrassed. For weeks I could not shake off the
feeling that, at our next talk, he would broach the subject. But he
Elysee returned, bringing me kind words from the Mother house, and a
half-jocular hint that Superior General Philippe had me much in his
mind. No doubt there had been a time when the idea of becoming a
Director would have stirred my pulses. Surely it was gone now. I asked
for nothing but to stay beside Edouard, to watch him, and to be near to
lend him a helping hand when his hour of trouble should come. From that
ordeal, which I saw approaching clearly and certainly, I shrank with all
my nerves on edge. As the object of my misery grew bright-eyed and
strong, I felt myself declining in health. My face grew thin, and I
could not eat. I saw before my eyes always this wretched boy singing
upon the brow of the abyss. Sometimes I strove not to see his
fall—frightful and swift. His secret seemed to harass him no longer.
To me it was heavier than lead.
The evening the Brother Director returned, we sat together in the
reading-room, the entire community. Elysee had been speaking of the
Mother-house, concerning which Brother Barnabas, an odd little Lorrainer
who spoke better German than French, and who regarded Paris with the
true provincial awe and veneration, exhibited much curiosity. We had a
visitor, a gaunt, self-sufficient old Parisian, who had spent fourteen
days in the Mazas prison during the Commune. I will call him Brother
Albert, for his true name in religion is very well known.
"I heard a curious story in the Vaugirard house," said the Brother
Director, refreshing himself with a pinch of snuff, "which made the more
impression upon me that I once knew intimately one of the persons in it.
Martin Delette was my schoolmate at Pfalsbourg, in the old days. A fine,
studious lad he was, too. He took orders and went to the north where he
lived for many years a quiet country curé. He had a niece, a charming
girl, who is not now more than twenty or one-and twenty. She was an
orphan, and lived with him, going to a convent to school and returning
at vacations. She was not a bad girl, but a trifle wayward and easily
led. She gave the Sisters much anxiety. Last spring she barely escaped
compromising the house by an escapade with a young
miserable of the
town named Banin."
"I know your story," said Albert, with an air which hinted that this
was a sufficient reason why the rest should not hear it. "Banin is in
Elysee proceeded: "The girl was reprimanded. Next week she disappeared.
To one of her companions she had confided a great desire to see Paris.
So good Father Delette was summoned, and, after a talk with the
Superioress, started post-haste for the capital. He found no signs
either of poor Renée or of Banin, who had also disappeared. The Curé was
nearly heart-broken. Each day, they told me, added a year to his
appearance. He did not cease to importune the police chiefs and to haunt
the public places for a glimpse of his niece's face. But the summer
came, and no Renée. The Curé began to cough and grow weak. But one day
in August the Director, good Prosper, called him down to the
reception-room to see a visitor.
"'There is news for you,'" he whispered, pressing poor Martin's hand.
"In the room he found—"
"In the room he found—" broke in Albert, impertinently, but with a
quiet tone of authority which cowed good Elysee, "a shabby man, looking
like a poorly-fed waiter. This person rose and said, 'I am a detective;
do you know Banin—young man, tall, blonde, squints, broken tooth upper
jaw, hat back on his head, much talk, hails from Rheims?'
"'Ah,' said Delette, 'I have not seen him, but I know him too well.'
"The detective pointed with his thumb over his left shoulder. 'He is in
jail. He is good for twenty years. I did it myself. My name is
so-and-so. Good job. Procurator said you were interested—some woman in
the case, parishioner of yours, eh?'
"'My niece,' gasped the Curé.
"'O ho! does you credit; pretty girl, curly-head, good manners. Well,
she's off. Good trick, too. She was the decoy. Banin stood in the shadow
with club. She brought gentleman into alley, friend did work. That's
Banin's story. Perhaps a lie. You have a brother in Algiers? Thought so.
Girl went out there once? So I was told. Probably there now. African
officers say not; but they're a sleepy lot. If I was a criminal, I'd go
to Algiers. Good biding.' The detective went. Delette stood where he was
in silence. I went to him, and helped carry him up-stairs. We put him in
his bed. He died there."
Brother Albert stopped. He had told the story, dialogue and all, like a
machine. We did not doubt its correctness. The memory of Albert had
passed into a proverb years before.
Brother Albert raised his eyes again, and added, as if he had not
paused, "He was ashamed to hold his head up. He might well be."
A strange, excited voice rose from the other end of the room. I looked
and saw that it was Edouard who spoke. He had half arisen from his chair
and scowled at Albert, throwing out his words with the tremulous haste
of a young man first addressing an audience:
"Why should he be ashamed? Was he not a good man? Was the blame of his
bad niece's acts his? From the story, she was well used and had no
excuse. It is he who is to be pitied, not blamed!"
The Brother Director smiled benignly at the young enthusiast. "Brother
Edouard is right," he said. "Poor Martin was to be compassioned. None
the less, my heart is touched for the girl. In Banin's trial it appeared
that he maltreated her, and forced her to do what she did by blows. They
were really married. Her neighbors gave Renée a name for gentleness and
a good heart. Poor thing!"
"And she never was found?" asked Abonus, eagerly. He spoke very rarely.
He looked now at me as he spoke, and there was a strange, ungodly
glitter in his eyes which made me shudder involuntarily.
"Never," replied the Director, "although there is a reward, 5000 francs,
offered for her recovery. Miserable child, who can tell what depths of
suffering she may be in this moment?"
"It would be remarkable if she should be found now, after all this
time," said Abonus, sharply. His wicked, squinting old eyes were still
fastened upon me. This time, as by a flash of eternal knowledge, I read
their meaning, and felt the ground slipping from under me.
I shall never forget the night that followed. I made no pretence of
going to bed. Edouard's little dormitory was in another part of the
house. I went once to see him, but dared not knock, since Abonus was
stirring about just across the hall, in his own den. I scratched on a
piece of paper "Fly!" in the dark, and pushed it under the door. Then I
returned to walk my chamber, chafing like a wild beast. Ah, that night,
With the first cock crow in the village below, long before the bell, I
left my room. I wanted air to breathe. I passed Abonus on the broad
stairway. He strode up with unwonted vigor, bearing a heavy cauldron of
water as if it had been straw. His gown was tumbled and dusty; his
greasy rabat hung awry about his neck. I had it in my head to speak
with him, but could not. So the early hours, with devotions which I went
through in a dream, wore on in horrible suspense, and breakfast came.
We sat at the long table, five on a side, the Director—looking red-eyed
and weary from the evening's unaccustomed dissipation—sitting at the
head. Below us stood Brother Albert, reading from Tertullian in a dry,
monotonous chant. I recall, as I write, how I found a certain comfort in
those splendid, sonorous Latin sentences, though I was conscious of not
comprehending a word. I dreaded the moment they should end. Edouard sat
beside me. We had not exchanged a word during the morning. How could I
speak? What should I say? I was in a nervous flutter, like unto those
who watch the final pinioning of a criminal whose guillotine is awaiting
him. I could not keep my eyes from the fair face beside me, with its
delicately-cut profile, made all the more cameo-like by its pallid
whiteness. The lips were tightly compressed. I could see askant that the
tiny nostrils were quivering with excitement. All else was impassive on
Edouard's face. We two sat waiting for the axe to fall.
It is as distinct as a nightmare to me. Abonus came in with his great
server laden with victuals. He stumbled as he approached. He too was
excited. He drew near, and stood behind me. I seemed to feel his breath
penetrate my skull; and yet I was forced to answer a whispered question
of Brother John's with a smooth face. I saw Edouard suddenly reach for
the milk glass in front of his plate, and hand it back to Abonus with
the disdain of a duchess. He said, in a sharp, peremptory tone:
"Take it away and cleanse it. No one but a dirty monk would place such a
glass on the table."
Albert ceased his reading. Abonus did not touch the glass. He shuffled
hastily to the side-board and deposited his burden. Then he came back
with the same eager movement. He placed his fists on his hips, like a
fish-woman, and hissed, in a voice choking with concentrated rage—
"No one but a woman would complain of it!"
The brothers stared at each other and the two speakers in mute surprise.
But they saw nothing in the words beyond a personal wrangle—though even
that was such a novelty as to arrest instant attention. I busied myself
with my plate. The Director assumed his harshest tone, and asked the
cause of the altercation. Abonus leaned over and whispered something in
his ear. I remember next a room full of confusion, a babel of
conflicting voices, and a whirling glimpse of uniforms. Then I fainted.
When I revived I was in my own room, stretched upon my pallet. I looked
around in a dazed way and saw the Brother Director and a young gendarme
by the closed door. Something black and irregular in the outline of the
bed at my side attracted my eyes. I saw that it was Edouard's head
buried in the drapery. As in a dream I laid my numb hand upon those
crisp curls. I was an old man, she a weak, wretched girl. She raised her
face at my touch, and burned in my brain a vision of stricken agony, of
horrible soul-pain, which we liken, for want of a better simile, to the
anguish in the eyes of a dying doe. Her lips moved; she said something,
I know not what. Then she went, and I was left alone with Elysee. His
words—broken, stumbling words—I remember:
"She asked to see you, Sebastian, my friend. I could not refuse. Her
papers were forged. She did come from Algiers, where her uncle is a
Capuchin. I do not ask, I do not wish to know, how much you know of
this. Before my Redeemer, I feel nothing but pity for the poor lamb. Lie
still, my friend; try to sleep. We are both older men than we were
There is little else to tell. Only twice have reflections of this
episode in my old life reached me in the seclusion of a missionary post
at the foot of the Andes. I learned a few weeks ago that the wretched
Abonus had bought a sailor's café on the Toulon wharves with his five
thousand francs. And I know also that the heart of the Marshal-President
was touched by the sad story of Renée, and that she left the prison La
Salpetriere to lay herself in penitence at the foot of Mother Church.
This is the story of my friendship.