Read THE RELIGIOUS LIFE - CHAPTER V. of The Christian A Story, free online book, by Hall Caine, on ReadCentral.com.

John Storm had made one other friend at Bishopsgate Streetthe dog of the monastery.  It was a half-bred bloodhound, and nobody seemed to know whence he came and why he was there.  He was a huge, ungainly, and most forbidding creature, and partly for that reason, but chiefly because it was against rule to fix the affections on earthly things, the brothers rarely caressed him.  Unnoticed and unheeded, he slept in the house by day and prowled through the court by night, and had hardly ever been known to go out into the streets.  He was the strictest monk in the monastery, for he eyed every stranger as if he had been Satan himself, and howled at all music except the singing in the church.

On seeing John for the first time, he broadened his big flews and stiffened his thick stern, according to his wont with all intruders, but in this instance the intruder was not afraid.  John patted him on the peaked head and rubbed him on the broad nose, then opened his mouth and examined his teeth, and finally turned him on his back and tickled his chest, and they were fast friends and comrades forever after.

Some weeks after the dedication they were in the courtyard together, and the dog was pitching and plunging and uttering deep bays which echoed between the walls like thunder at play.  It was the hour of morning recreation, between Terce and Sext, and the religious were lolling about and talking, and one lay brother was sweeping up the leaves that had fallen from the tree, for the winter had come and the branches were bare.  The lay brother was Brother Paul, and he made sidelong looks at John, but kept his head down and went on with his work without speaking.  One by one the brothers went back to the house, and John made ready to follow them, but Paul put himself in his way.  He was thinner than before, and his eyes were red and his respiration difficult.  Nevertheless, he smiled in a childlike way, and began to talk of the dog.  What life there was in the old creature still! and nobody had known, there was so much play in it.

“You are not feeling so well, are you?” said John.

“Not quite so well,” he answered.

“The day is cold, and this penance is too much for you.”

“No, it’s not that.  I asked for it, you know, and I like it.  It’s something else.  To tell you the truth, I’m very foolish in some ways.  When I’ve got anything on my mind I’m always thinking.  Day and night it’s the same with me, and even work ”

His breathing was audible, but he tried to laugh.

“Do you know what it is this time?  It’s what you said on the roof on the night of the vows, you remember.  What you didn’t say, I meanand that’s just the trouble.  It was wrong to talk of the world without great necessity, but if you had been able to say ‘Yes’ when I asked if everybody was well you would have done it, wouldn’t you?”

“We’ll not talk of that now,” said John.

“No, it would be the same fault as before.  Still ”

“How keen the air is!  And your asthma is so troublesome!  You must really let me speak to the Father.”

“Oh, that’s nothing.  I’m used to it.  But if you know yourself what it is to be always thinking of anybody ”

John called to the dog, and it capered about him.  “Good-morning, Brother Paul.”  And he went into the house.  The lay brother leaned on his besom and drew a long sigh that seemed to come from the depths of his chest.

John had hastened away, lest his voice should betray him.

“Awful!” he thought.  “It must be awful to be always thinking of somebody, and in fear of what has happened to her.  Poor little Polly!  She’s not worthy of it, but what does that matter?  Blood is blood and love is love, and only God is stronger.”

A few days afterward the air darkened and softened, and snow began to fall.  Between Vespers and Evensong John went up to the tower to see London under its mantle of white.  It was like an Eastern city now under an Eastern moonlight, and he was listening to the shouts and laughter of people snowballing in the streets when he heard a laboured step on the stair behind him.  It was Brother Paul coming up with a spade to shovel away the snow.  His features were pinched and contracted, and his young face was looking old and worn.

“You really must not do it,” said John.  “To work like this is not penance, but suicide.  I’ll speak to the Father, and he’ll ”

“Don’t; for mercy’s sake, don’t!  Have some pity, at all events!  If you only knew what a good thing work is for mehow it drives away thoughts, and stifles ”

“But it’s so useless, Brother Paul.  Look!  The snow is still falling, and there’s more to come yet.”

“All the same, it’s good for me.  When I’m very tired I can sleep sometimes.  And then God is good to you if you don’t spare yourself.  Some day perhaps he’ll tell me something.”

“He’ll tell us everything in his own good time, Brother Paul.”

“It’s easy to counsel patience.  If I were like you I should be counting the days until my time was over, and that would help me to bear things.  But when you are dedicated for life ”

He stopped at his work and looked over the parapet, and seemed to be gazing into the weary days to come.

“Have you anybody of your own out there?”

“You mean any ”

“Any relativeany sister?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t know what it is; that’s why you won’t give me an answer.”

“Don’t ask me, Brother Paul.”

“Why not?”

“It might only make you the more uneasy if I told you what ”

The lay brother let his spade fall, then slowly, very slowly, picked it up again and said: 

“I understand.  You needn’t say any more.  I shall never ask you again.”

The bell rang for Evensong, and John hurried away.  “If it were only some one who was deserving of it!” he thought“some one who was worthy that a man should risk his soul to save her!”

At supper and in church he saw Brother Paul going about like a man in a waking dream, and when he went up to bed he heard him moving restlessly in the adjoining cell.  The fear of betraying himself was becoming unbearable, and he leaped up and stepped out into the corridor, intending to ask the Superior to give him another room elsewhere.  But he stopped and came back.  “It’s not brave,” he thought, “it’s not kind, it’s not human,” and, saying this again and again, as one whistles when going by a haunted house, he covered his ears and fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, while it was still quite dark, he was awakened by a light on his face and the sense of some one looking down on him in his sleep.  With a shudder he opened his eyes and saw Brother Paul, candle in hand, standing by the bed.  His eyes were red and swollen, and when he spoke his voice was full of tears.

“I know it’s a fault to come into anybody else’s cell,” he said, “but I would rather do my penance than endure this torture.  Something has happenedI can see that quite well; but I don’t know what it is, and the suspense is killing me.  The certainty would be easier to bear; and I swear to you by Him who died for us that if you tell me I shall be satisfied!  Is she dead?”

“Not that,” said John by a sudden impulse, and then there was an awful silence.

“Not dead!” said Paul.  “Then would to God that she were dead, for it must be something worse, a thousand times worse!”

John felt as if the secret had been stolen from him in his sleep; but it was gone, and he could say nothing.  Brother Paul’s lips trembled, his respiration quickened, and he turned away and smote his head against the wall and sobbed.

“I knew it all the time,” he said.  “Her sister went the same way, and I could see that she was going too, and that was why I was so anxious.  Oh, my poor mother! my poor mother!”

For two days after that John saw no more of Brother Paul.  “He is doing his penance somewhere,” he thought.

Meanwhile the snow was still falling, and when the brothers went out to Lauds at 6 A.M. they passed through a cutting of snow which was banked up afresh every morning, though the day had not then dawned.  On the third day John was the first to go down to the hall, and there he met Brother Paul, with his spade in his hands, coming out of the courtyard.  He looked like a man who was melting before a fire as surely as a piece of wax.

“I am sorry now that I told you,” said John.

Brother Paul hung his head.

“It is easy to see that you are suffering more than ever; and it is all my fault.  I will go to the Father and confess.”

Between breakfast and Terce John carried out this intention.  The Superior was sitting before a handful of fire, in a little room that was darkened by leather-bound books and by the flakes of snow which were falling across the window panes.

“Father,” said John, “I am a cause of offence to another brother, and it is I who should be doing his penance.”  And then he told how he had broken the observance which forbids any one to talk of his relations with the world without

The Father listened with great solemnity.

“My son,” he said, “your temptation is a testimony to the reality of the religious life.  Satan’s rage against the home of consecrated souls is terrible, and he would fain break in upon it if he could with worldly thoughts and cares and passions.  But we must conquer him by his own weapons.  Your penance, my son, shall be of the same kind with your offence.  Go to the door and take the place of the doorkeeper, and stay there day and night until the end of the year.  Thus shall the evil one be made aware that you are the guardian of our house, to be tampered with no more.”

Brother Andrew was troubled when John took his place at the door that night, but John himself was unconcerned.  He was doorkeeper to the household, so he began on the duties of his menial position.  As the brothers passed in and out on their mission-errands he opened the door and closed it.  If any one knocked he answered, “Praise be to God!” then slid back the little grating in the middle panel of the door and looked out at the stranger.  The hall was a chill place, with a stone floor, and he sat on a form that stood against one of its walls.  His bed was in an alcove which had formerly been the cloak-room, and a card hung over it with the inscription, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.”  He had no company except big Brother Andrew, who stole down sometimes to cheer him with his speechless presence, and the dog, which was always hanging about.