The Unbroken Seal by Francis Clement Kelley

THE priest ran right into a mob of strikers as he turned the corner of the road leading from the bridge over the shallow, refuse-filled Mud Run, and touched foot to the one filthy, slimy street of the town. He was coming from the camp of the militia, where he had been called to administer the last Sacraments to a lieutenant, whom the strikers had shot down the night before.

Slevski was haranguing the mob and his eye caught that of the priest while he was in the midst of an impassioned period, but a look of hate alone showed that he had seen him. Only a few of the people in the rear of the crowd noticed the priest's presence at all. He was glad enough of that, for suspicion was in the air and he knew it. Right in his way was Calvalho, who had been one of his trustees and his very best friend when he first came to the parish. It looked now as if he had no longer a friend in all the mud-spattered, bare and coal-grimed town. Calvalho returned his salute with a curt nod. The priest caught a few words of Slevski's burning appeal to hatred and walked faster, with that peculiar  nervous feeling of danger behind him. He quickened his steps even more for it.

"Company—oppressors of the poor—traitors"; even these few words, which followed him, gave the priest the gist of the whole tirade.

The women were in the crowd or hanging about the edges of it. A crash of glass behind him made the priest turn for an instant, and he saw that Maria Allish had flung a stone through the bank window. She had a shawl quite filled with large stones. With the crash came a cheer from the crowd around Slevski, who could see the bank from their position in front of the livery stable.

A soldier almost bumped into the priest, as he came running down the street, gun in hand, followed by half a dozen others. One of them saluted. "Bad business, Father," he said. "Will the lieutenant live?"

"I am afraid he will not," answered the priest.

"They will surely burn down the company's buildings," said the soldier. "God! There they go now." And the soldier hurried on.

Later the priest watched the red glow from his window. It reminded him of blood, and he shuddered.

His old housekeeper called him to his frugal supper.

"I can not go out much now," he said to her. "I am a Pole. What could a Pole do with these Huns  who have no sympathy with him, or the Italians whose language he can not speak?"

He wondered if he were a coward. Why should he discuss this with his servant?

"Slevski," she said, "makes the people do what he wants. He cursed me on the street this morning."

"Yes," said the priest, "he speaks in curses. He has never tried to speak to God, so he has never learned any other language; and these men are his property now."

"There will be no one at Mass next Sunday," said the old housekeeper. "Even the women won't come. They think you are in league with the soldiers."

"Never mind, Judith," said the priest, "at heart they are good people, and this will pass away. The women fear God."

"They fear God sometimes," said Judith, "but now they fear Slevski always."

The priest said nothing in reply. He was here the patient Church which could wait and does not grow old.

After his meal, he again stood at the window to watch the red glow of the burning buildings. He heard shots, but he knew that it would be useless to interfere. He waited for some one to come and call him to the dying; for he feared people had been hurt, else why the shots? 

A knock sounded on the door. He opened it, and a woman entered. The priest knew her well, by sight, and wondered, for she was Slevski's wife. She was not of these people by race, nor of his own. She was English-speaking and did not come to church. Slevski had married her three years before in Pittsburgh. She looked frightened as he waited for her to speak.

"Tell me," she began very rapidly, is it true that no single word of a confession may ever be revealed by the priest?"

"It is true," he answered.

"Even if he were to die for it?" she urged.

"Even if he were to die."

The priest's eyes wore a puzzled expression, but she went on:

"May he even not betray it by an action?"

"Not even by an action."

"Even if he died for it?" Her voice was full of anxiety.

"Even then."

"I wish to confess," she said. "May I do it, here? I will kneel afterward, if necessary, but I can tell it better here—and I must do it quickly."

"It will take only a minute if we go to the church," he answered. "It is irregular to hear your confession outside of the proper place, unless in case of illness."

"Then let us go," she said, "and hurry." 

They entered the church, and she knelt on the penitent's side of the confessional. Later she told all that had happened.

"What troubles you?" asked the priest. "Have you been to confession of late?"

"Three years ago," and she shuddered, "I was to confession. It was before I married him, never since. Yes, yes, I ought to be known to you. Listen now, for there isn't very much time." He bent his head and said: "I am listening."

She went on without taking breath. "They are going to murder you. I heard it, for I was in the secret. I consented to summon you, but I could not. They charged that you were in the company's pay and working against the men. One of them will come to-night and ask you to go on a sick-call. They intend to shoot you at the bridge over Mud Run. I had to warn you to prepare. I could not see you killed without—without a prayer. It is too cruel. Do what you can for yourself. That's all I can say."

"It is very simple," said the priest. "I need not go."

"Then they will know that I told you," she answered breathlessly. Her eyes showed her fright.

"You are right," said the priest. "I fear that it would violate the Seal if I refused to go."

"Yes," she said, "and he would know at once that I had told, and he—he suspects me already.  He may have followed me, for I refused to call you. If he knows I am here he will be sure I confessed to you. I am not ready to die—and he would kill me."

"Then do not trouble your mind about it any more. God will take care of me," said the priest. "Finish your confession."

In ten minutes she had left. The priest was alone with himself, and his duty. Through the open door of the church he saw Slevski—and he knew that the woman had been followed.

He sat for a long time where he was, staring straight ahead with wide open eyes, the lashes of which never once stirred. Then he went back to the house and mechanically, almost, picked up his breviary and finished his daily office. He laid the book down on the arm of his chair, went to his desk and wrote a few lines, sealed them in an envelope and left it addressed on the blotter. He was outwardly calm, but his face was gray as ashes. His eyes fell upon the crucifix above his desk and he gave way in an instant, dropping on his knees before it. The prayer that came out of his white lips was hoarse and whispering:

"Oh, Crucified Lord, I can not, I can not do it. I am young. Have pity on me. I am not strong enough to be so like You."

Then he began to doubt if the Seal would really be broken if he did not go. Perhaps Slevski had not  suspected his wife at all—but had the priest not seen him outside the church?

The sweat was over his face, and he walked to the door to get a breath of air. The priest knew there was no longer even a lingering doubt as to what he should do. He went back to the church, and, before the altar, awaited his call.

It was not long in coming. The old housekeeper appeared in half an hour to summon him.

"Kendis is in the house. He lives on the other side of the Run. It is for his wife, who is sick, that he comes. She is dying."

The priest bowed and followed the old servant into the house, but Kendis had left.

The priest looked at his few books and lovingly touched some of his favorites. His reading chair was near. His eyes filled as he looked at it, with the familiar breviary on its wide arm. The crucified Christ gazed down from His cross at him and seemed to smile; but the priest's eyes swam with tears, and a great sob burst from him. He opened the door, but lingered on the threshold. When he passed out on the street his walk was slow, his lips moving, as he went along with the step of a man very weary and bending beneath the weight of a Great Something.

The people did not know then that their one dark and muddy street was that night a Via Dolorosa;  that along it a man who loved them dragged a heavy Cross for their sake; that it ended for him, as had another sorrowful way ended for his Master, in a cruel Calvary.

Slevski told the whole story before the trap of the gallows was sprung.