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

Always at half-past five in the morning the Father Superior began to awaken the Brotherhood.  It took him a quarter of an hour to pass through the house on that errand, for the infirmities of his years were upon him.  During this interval John Storm had intended to open the gate to Paul and then return the key to its place in the Father’s room.  The time was short, and to lose no part of it he had resolved to remain awake the whole night through.

There was little need to make a call on that resolution.  With fear and remorse he could not close his eyes, and from hour to hour he heard every sound of the streets.  At one o’clock, the voices singing outside were strained and cracked and out of tune; at two, they were brutish and drunken and mingled with shrieks of quarrelling; at three, there was silence; at four, the butchers’ wagons were rattling on the stones from the shambles across the river to the meat markets of London, with the carcasses of the thousands of beasts that were slaughtered overnight to feed the body of the mammoth on the morrow; and at five, the postal vans were galloping from the railway stations to the post-office with the millions of letters that were to feed its mind.

At half-past five the Father had come out of his room and passed slowly upstairs, and John Storm was in the courtyard opening the lock of the outer gate.  Although there was a feeling of morning in the freezing air it was still quite dark.

“Paul,” he whispered, but there was no answer.

“Brother Paul!” he whispered again, and then waited, but there was no reply.

It was not at first that he realized the tremendous gravity of what had occurredthat Brother Paul had not returned, and that he must go back to the house without him.  He kept calling into the darkness until he remembered that the Father would be down in his room again soon and looking for the key where he had left it.

Back in the hall, he reproached himself with his haste, and concluded to return to the gate.  There would be time to do it; the Father was still far overhead; his “Benedicamus Domino” was passing from corridor to corridor; and Paul might be coming down the street.

“Paul!  Paul!” he cried again, and opening the gate he looked out.  But there was no one on the pavement except a drunken man and a girl, singing themselves home in the dead waste of the New Year’s morning.

Then the truth fell on him like a thundercloud, and he hurried back to the house for good.  By this time the Father was coming down the stairs, and had reached the landing of the first story.  Snatching up from the bed in the alcove the book which had been lying there all night unregarded, he crept into the Father’s room.  He was coming out of it when he came face to face with the Father himself, who was on the point of going in.

“I have been returning the book you lent me,” he said, and then he tried to steal away in his shame.  But the Father held him a while in playful remonstrance.  The hours were not all saved that were stolen from the night, and his swelled eyes this morning were a testimony to the musty old maxim.  Still, with a book like that, his diligence was not to be wondered at, and it would be interesting to hear what he thought of it.  He couldn’t say as yet.  That wasn’t to be wondered at either.  Somebody had said that a great book was like a great mountainnot to be seen to the top while you were still too near to it.

John’s duplicity was choking him.  His eyes were averted from the Father’s face, for he had lost the power of looking straight at any one, and he could see the key of the gate still shaking from the hook on which his nervous fingers had placed it.  When he escaped at length, the Father asked him to ring the bell for Lauds, as Brother Andrew, whose duty it was, had evidently overslept himself.

John rang the bell, and then took his lamp and some tapers from a shelf in the hall and went out to the church to light the candles, for that also was Brother Andrew’s duty.  As he was crossing the courtyard on his way back to the house, he passed the Father going to open the gate.

“But what has become of your hat?” said the Father, and then, for the first time, John remembered what he had done with it.

“I’ve lentthat is to say, I’ve lost it,” he answered, and then stood with his eyes on the ground while the Father reproved him for heedlessness of health, and so forth.

It is part of the perversity of circumstance that while an incident of the greatest gravity is occurring, its ridiculous counterpart is usually taking place by the side of it.  When the religious had gathered in the church it was seen that three of the stalls were vacantBrother Paul’s, Brother Andrew’s, and the Father Minister’s.  The service had hardly begun when the bell was heard to ring again, and with a louder clangour than before, whereupon the religious concluded that Brother Andrew had awakened from his sleep, and was remembering with remorse his belated duty.

But it was the Father Minister.  That silent and severe person had oftentimes rebuked the lay brother for his sleepiness, and this morning he had himself been overcome by the same infirmity.  Awakening suddenly a little after six by the watch that hung by his bed, he had thought, “That lazy fellow is late againI’ll teach him a lesson.”  Leaping to his feet (the monk sleeps in his habit), he had hastened to the bell and rung it furiously, and then snatched up a taper and hurried down the stairs to light the candles in the church.  When he appeared at the sacristy door with a lighted taper in his hand and confusion on his face, the brothers understood everything at a glance, and not even the solemnity of the service could smother the snufflings of their laughter.

The incident was a trivial one, but it diverted attention for a time from the fact of Paul’s absence, and when the religious went back to the house and found Brother Andrew returned to his old duty as doorkeeper, the laughter was renewed, and there was some playful banter.

The monk is so far a child that the least thing happening in the morning is enough to determine the temper of the day, and as late as the hour for breakfast the house was still rippling with the humour of the Father Minister’s misadventure.  There was one seat vacant in the refectoryBrother Paul’sand the Superior was the first to observe it.  With a twinkle in his eye, he said: 

“I feel like Boy Blue this morning.  Two of my stray sheep have come home, bringing their tails behind them.  Will anybody go in search of the third?”

John Storm rose immediately, but a lay brother was before him, so he sat down again with his white cheeks and quivering lips, and made an effort to eat his breakfast.

The reader for the week recited the Scripture for the day, and then took up the book which the brothers were hearing at their meals.  It was the Life and Death of Father Ignatius of St. Paul, and the chapter they had come to dealt with certain amusing examples of vanities and foibles.  An evil spirit might have selected it with special reference to the incidents of the morning, for at every fresh illustration the Father Minister squirmed on his seat, and the brothers looked across at him and laughed with a spice of mischief, and even a touch of malice.

John’s eyes were on the door, and his heart was quivering, but the messenger did not return during breakfast, and when it was over the Superior rose without waiting for him and led the way to the community room.

A fire was burning in the wide grate, and the room was cheerful with reflected sun-rays, for the sun was shining in the courtyard and glistening on the frosty boughs of the sycamore.  It was a beautiful New Year’s morning, and the Father began to tell some timely stories.  In the midst of the laughter that greeted them the lay brother returned and delivered his message.  Brother Paul could not be found, and there was not a sign of him anywhere in the house.

“That’s strange,” said the religious.

“Perhaps he is in his cell,” said the Father.

“No, he is not there,” said the messenger, “and his bed has not been slept in.”

“Now, that explains something,” said the Father.  “I thought he didn’t answer when I knocked at his door in the morning, but my ears grow dull and my eyes are failing me, and I told myself perhaps ”

“It’s very strange’” said the religious, with looks of astonishment.

“But perhaps he staid all night at his penance in the church,” said the Father.

“Apparently his hat did so at all events,” said one of the brothers.  “I saw it lying with his lamp on the stall in front of me.”

There was silence for a moment, and then the Father said with a smile: 

“But my children are so amusing in such matters!  Only this morning I had to reprove Brother Storm for losing his hat somewhere, and now Brother Paul ”

By an involuntary impulse, obscure to themselves, the brothers turned toward John, who was standing in the recess of one of the windows with his pale face looking out on the sunshine.

John was the first to speak.

“Father,” he said, “I have something to say to you.”

“Come this way,” said the Superior, and they passed out of the room together.

The Father led the way to his room and closed the door behind them.  But there was little need for confession; the Father seemed to know everything in an instant.  He sat in his wicker chair before the fire and rocked himself and moaned.

“Well, well, God’s wrath comes up against the children of disobedience, but we must do our best to bear our punishment.”

John Storm made no excuses.  He had stood by the Father’s chair and told his story simply, without fear or remorse, only concealing that part of it which concerned himself in relation to Glory.

“Yes, yes,” said the Father, “I see quite plainly how it has been.  He was like tinder, ready to take fire at a spark, and you were thinking I had been hard and cruel and in-human.”

It was the truth; John could not deny it; he held down his head and was silent.

“But shall I tell you why I refused that poor boy’s petition?  Shall I tell you who he was, and how he came to be here?  Yes, I will tell you.  Nobody in this house has heard it until now, because it was his secret and mine and God’s alonenot given me in confession, no, or it would have to be locked in my breast forever.  But you have thrust yourself in between us, so you must hear everything, and may the Lord pity and forgive you and help you to bear your burden!”

John felt that a cold damp was breaking out on his forehead, but he clinched his moist hands and made ready to control himself.

“Has he ever spoken of another sister?”

“Yes, he has sometimes mentioned her.”

“Then perhaps you have been told of the painful and tragic event that happened?”

“No,” said John, but something that he had heard at the board meeting at the hospital returned at that moment with a stunning force to his memory.

“His father, poor man, was one of my own peopleone of the lay associates of our society in the world outside.  But his health gave way, his business failed him, and he died in a madhouse, leaving his three children to the care of a friend.  The friend was thought to be a worthy, and even a pious man, but he was a scoundrel and a traitor.  The younger sisterthe one you knowhe committed to an orphanage; the elder one he deceived and ruined.  As a sequel to his sin, she lived a life of shame on the streets of London, and died by suicide at the end of it.”

John Storm put up one hand to his head as if his brain was bursting, and with the other hand he held on to the Father’s chair.

“That was bad enough, but there was worse to follow.  Our poor Paul had grown to be a man by this time, and Satan put it into his heart to avenge his sister’s dishonour.  ’As the whirlwind passeth, so the wicked are no more.’  The betrayer of his trust was found dead in his room, slain by an unknown assassin.  Brother Paul had killed him.”

John Storm had fallen to his knees.  If hell itself had opened at his feet he could not have been stricken with more horror.  In a voice strangled by fear he stammered:  “But why didn’t you tell me this before?  Why have you hidden it until now?”

“Passions, my son, are the same in a monastery as outside of it, and I had too much reason to fear that the saintliest soul in our Brotherhood would have refused to live and eat and sleep in the same house with a murderer.  But the poor soul had come to me like a hunted beast, and who was I that I should turn my back upon him?  Before that he had tramped through the streets and slept in the parks, under the impression that the police were pursuing him, and thereby he had contracted the lung disease from which he suffers still.  What was I to do?  Give him up to the law?  Who shall tell me how I could have held the balance level?  I took him into my house; I sheltered him; I made him a member of our community; Heaven forgive me, I suffered myself to receive his vows.  It was for me to comfort his stricken body, for the Church to heal his wounded soul; and as for his crime, that was in God’s hands, and God alone could deal with it.”

The Father had risen to his feet, and he spoke the last words with uplifted hand.

“Now you know why I refused that poor boy’s petition.  I loved him as a son, but neither the disease of his body nor the weakness of his mind could break the firmness of the rule by which I held him.  I knew that Satan was dragging him away from me, and I would not give him up to the sufferings and dangers which the Evil One was preparing for him in the world.  But how subtle are the temptations of the devil!  He found the weak place in my armour at last.  He found you, my sonyou; and he tempted you by all your love, by all your pity, by all your tenderness, and you fell, and this is the consequence.”

The Father clasped his hands at his breast and walked to and fro in the little room.

“The bitterness of the world against religious houses is great already; but if anything should happen now, if a crime should be committed, if our poor brother, clad in the habit of our Order ”

He stopped and crossed himself and lifted His eyes, and said in a tremulous whisper:  “O God, whom have I in heaven but thee?  My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

John had staggered to his feet like a drunken man.  “Father,” he said, “send me away from you.  I am not fit to live by your side.”

The Father laid both hands on his shoulders.  “And shall I lower my flag to the enemy like that?  There is only one way to defeat the devil, and that is to defy him.  No, no, my son, you shall remain with me to the last.”

“Punish me, then.  Give me penance.  Let me be the lowest of the low and the meanest of the mean.  Only tell me what I am to do and I will do it.”

“Go back to the door and resume your duty as doorkeeper.”

John looked at the Father with an expression of bewilderment.

“I thought you had done with it, my son, but Heaven knew better.  And promise that when you are there you will pray for our wandering brother, that he may not be allowed to fulfil the errand on which you sent him out; pray that he may never find his sister, or anybody who knows her and can tell him where she is and what has become of her; pray that she may never cross his path to the last hour of life and the first of death’s sundering; promise to pray for this, my son, night and day, morning and evening, with all your soul and strength, as you would pray for God’s mercy and your soul’s salvation.”

John did not answer; he was like a man in a stupor.  “Is it possible?” he said.  “Are you sending me back to the door?  Can you trust me again?”

The Father stepped to the side of the bed and took the key of the gate from its place under the shelf.  “Take this key with you, too, because for the future you are to be the keeper of the gate as well.”

John had taken the key mechanically, hardly hearing what was being said.

“Is it true, thenhave you got faith in me still?”

The Father put both hands on his shoulders again and looked into his face.  “God has faith in you, my child, and who am I that I should despair?”

When John Storm returned to the door his mind was in a state of stupefaction.  Many hours passed during which he was only partly conscious of what was taking place about him.  Sometimes he was aware that certain of the brothers had gathered around, with a tingling, electrical atmosphere among them, and that they were asking questions about the escape, and whispering together as if it had been something courageous and almost commendable, and had set their hearts beating.  Again, sometimes he was aware that big Brother Andrew was sitting by his side on the form, stroking his arm from time to time, and talking in his low voice and aimless way about his mother and the last he saw of her.  “She followed me down the street crying,” he said, “and I have often thought of it since and been tempted to run away.”  Also he was aware that the dog was with him always, licking the backs of his stiff hands and poking up a cold snout into his downcast face.

All this time he was doing his duties automatically and apparently without help from his consciousness, opening and closing the door as the brothers passed in and out on their errands to the dead and dying, and saying, “Praise be to God!” when a stranger knocked.  It may be that his body was merely answering to the habits of its intellect, and that his soul, which had sustained a terrible blow, was lying stunned and swooning within.

When it revived and he began to know and to feel once more, there was no one with him, for the brothers were asleep in their beds and the dog was in the courtyard, and the house was very quiet, for it was the middle of the night.  And then it came back to him, like a dream remembered in the morning, that the Father had asked him to pray for Brother Paul that he might fail in the errand on which he had sent him out into the world, and though with his lips he had not promised, yet in his heart he had undertaken to do so.

And being quite alone now, with no one but God for company, he went down on his knees in his place by the door and clasped his hands together.

“O God,” he prayed, “have pity on Paul, and on me, and on all of us!  Keep him from all danger and suffering and from the snares and assaults of the Evil One!  Grant that he may never find his sisteror anybody who knows heror anybody who can tell him where she is and what has become of her ”

But having got so far he could get no farther, for suddenly it occurred to him that this was a prayer which concerned Glory and himself as well.  It was only then that he realized the magnitude and awfulness of the task he had undertaken.  He had undertaken to ask God that Paul might not find Glory either, and therefore that he on his part might never hear of her again.  When he put it to himself like that, the sweat started from his forehead and he was transfixed with fear.

He rose from his knees and sat on the form, and for a long hour he laboured in the thought of a thousand possibilities, telling himself of the many things which might befall a beautiful girl in a cruel and wicked city.  But then again he thought of Paul and of his former crime and present temptation, and remembered the shadow that hung over the Brotherhood.

“O God, help me,” he cried; “strengthen me, support me, guide me!”

He tried to frame another prayer, but the words would not come; he tried to kneel as before, but his knees would not bend.  How could he pray that Glory also might be lostthat something might have happened to herthat somewhere and in some way unknown to him

No, no, a thousand times no!  The prayer was impossible.  Let come what would, let the danger to Paul and to the Brotherhood be what it might, let Satan and all his legions fall on him, yet he could not and would not utter it.