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Chapter 14

RELIGIOUS CONVICTION.


And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.--Shakespeare.

As has been seen by the end of the preceding chapter, God, by one of those extraordinary combinations, which short-sighted man almost always attributes to chance, had summoned to his presence, and almost at the same moment, the souls of the noble Marquis d'Auray, and the poor low-born Achard. We have seen that the former, struck by the sight of Paul, the living portrait of his father, as if by a thunderbolt, fell at the feet of the young man, who was himself terrified at the effect his appearance had produced.

As to Achard, the circumstances which had hastened his death, although differing in their nature, and from very opposite feelings, had arisen from the same fatal causes, and had been brought about by the same individual. The sight of Paul had created direful emotions in the breasts both of the marquis and Achard. On the former from excess of terror, on the latter from excess of joy.

During the day which had preceded the intended signing of the contract, Achard had felt himself more feeble than usual. Notwithstanding this, he had not neglected in the evening to crawl to his master's grave, there to put up his accustomed prayer. Thence he had observed with a devotion more profound than ever, that ever new and splendid spectacle, the sun sinking into the ocean. He had followed the decline of its enpurpled light, and as though the vast torch of the world had drawn his soul toward it, he had felt his strength extinguished with its last rays; so that when the servant from the castle came in the evening at the accustomed hour to receive his orders, not finding him in his house, had sought for him without the park, and as it was well known that he generally walked in that direction, found him lying extended at the foot of the great oak tree, upon the grave of his master, and deprived of consciousness. Thus did he remain constant to the last in that religious devotedness he had vowed to his master's tomb, and which had been the exclusive feeling of the last years of his life.

The servant took him in his arms, and carried him into his house; and then, terrified at the unexpected accident, had hastened to the marchioness to inform her that Achard required the attendance of a physician and a priest, which message was delivered to her by the servant then in waiting, to which the marchioness refused to accede, under the pretext that they were required as urgently by the marquis as the old servant, and that superiority of rank, powerful, even when at the point of death, gave her husband the right of first employing.

But the intelligence which had been announced to the marchioness at the moment of that dreadful agony, into which their varying interests and varying passions had thrown the actors in this family drama, of which we have become the historian, this intelligence, we say, was heard by Paul. Conceiving that the signature of the contract had now become impossible from the state of the marquis, he had only allowed himself time to whisper to Marguerite, that should she need his assistance, she would find him at Achard's cottage, and then he rushed into the park, and winding his way amid its serpentine walks and thickets, with the skill of a sear man, who reads his path in the starry firmament, he soon reached the house, entered it panting from his rapid course, and found Achard just as he was recovering from his fainting fit, and clasped him in his arms. The delight of again seeing him renewed the strength of the old man, who now felt certain of having a friendly hand to close his eyes.

"Oh! it is you—it is you!" exclaimed the old man.

"I did not hope to see you again."

"And could you possibly believe that I should have been apprized of the state in which you were, and that I would not instantly fly to your assistance?"

"But I knew not where to find you—where I could send to tell you that I wished once more to see you before I died."

"I was at the castle, father, where I learned that you were dangerously ill, and I hastened hither."

"And how was it that you were at the castle?" said the old man, with amazement.

Paul related to him all that had occurred.

"Eternal Providence!" cried the old man, when Paul had concluded his recital, "how hidden and inevitable are thy decrees. Thou, who, after twenty years, hast conducted this youth to the cradle of his infancy, and hast killed the assassin of the father, by the mere aspect of the son!"

"Yes, yes, thus it happens," replied Paul, "and it is Providence, also, who conducts me to you, that I might save you. For I heard them refuse to send you the physician and the priest."

"According to common justice," rejoined Achard, "they might have made a fair division. The marquis, who fears death, might have retained the physician, while to me who am tired of life, they might have sent the priest."

"I can go on horseback," said Paul, "and in less than an hour—"

"In an hour it would be too late," said the dying man, in an enfeebled voice, "a priest! a priest only—I ask but for a priest."

"Father," replied Paul, "in his sacred functions, I know I cannot supply his place; but we can speak of God, of his greatness and his goodness."

"Yes, but let us first finish with the things of this earth, that we may then be able to turn our thoughts wholly to those of heaven. You say that, like myself, the marquis is dying."

"I left him at the last agony."

"You know, that immediately after his death, the papers which are deposited in that closet, and which prove your birth, are yours by right."

"I know it."

"If I die before the marquis, to whom can I confide them?" The old man sat up and pointed to a key hanging at the head of his bed. "You will take that key, you will open the closet—in it you will find a casket. You are a man of honor. Swear to me that you will not open that casket until the marquis shall be dead."

"I swear it," said Paul solemnly, and extending his hand towards the crucifix hanging at the head of the bed.

"'Tis well," replied Achard; "now I shall die in peace."

"You may do so, for the son holds your hand in this world, and the father stretches out his towards you from heaven!"

"Do you believe, my child, that he will be satisfied with my fidelity?"

"No king was ever so faithfully obeyed during life, as he has been since his death."

"Yes," murmured the old man, in a gloomy tone, "I was but too exact in following his orders. I ought not to have suffered the duel to have taken place; I ought to have refused attending it as a witness. Hear me, Paul; it is this that I wished to have said to a priest, for it is the only thing that weighs upon my conscience: listen: there have been moments of doubt, during which, I have regarded this solitary duel as an assassination. In that case, Paul, oh! in that case, I have not only been a witness, but an accomplice!"

"Oh! my second father," replied Paul, "I know not whether the laws of earth are always in accordance with the laws of heaven, and whether honor as it is considered by man, would be a virtue in the eyes of the Lord; I know not whether our holy church, an enemy to bloodshed, permits that the injured should attempt with his own hands, to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him by attacking his injurer, and if in that case, the judgment of heaven directs the pistol ball or the sword's point. These are questions not to be decided by reasoning, but by conscience. Well, then, my conscience tells me, that situated as you were, I should have done precisely as you did. Should conscience in this case mislead me, it also misled you, and in this view of the matter, I have a greater right than a priest, to absolve you; and in my name, and in that of my father, I pardon you."

"Thanks! thanks!" cried the old man, pressing the hands of Paul; "thanks, for these words, pour consolation into the soul of a dying man. Remorse is a dreadful thing! remorse would lead one to believe that there exists no God. For without a judge there can be no judgment."

"Listen to me," said Paul, in that poetic and solemn accent, which was peculiar to him: "I also have often doubted in the existence of a God: isolated and lost in the wide world, without family, and without a single friend, I sought for support in the Lord, and I asked of every thing that encircled me, some proof of his existence. Often have I arrested my steps at the foot of one of these crosses, erected by the road side, and with my eyes fixed upon the Saviour, I demanded, and with tears, to be assured of his existence, and divine mission; I prayed that his eyes would deign to look upon me: that one drop of blood might fall from his wound, or that a sigh might issue from his lips. The crucifix remained motionless, and I arose, my heart being overcome with despair, saying—'did I but know where I could find my father's tomb, I would question him as Hamlet did the ghost, and he would perhaps answer me!'"

"Poor child!"

"Then would I enter a church," continued Paul, "one of those churches of the north, gloomy, religious, Christian! And I would feel myself borne down with sorrow; but sorrow is not faith! I approached the altar; I threw myself upon my knees before the tabernacle, in which God dwells; I bowed my head till it touched the marble of the steps; and when I had thus remained prostrated for hours and lost in doubt, I raised my head, hoping that the God I was seeking would at length manifest his presence to me by a ray of his glory, or by some dazzling proof of his power. But the church remained gloomy, as the cross had remained motionless. And I would then rush from its porches with insensate haste, crying, 'Lord! Lord! didst thou exist, thou would reveal thyself to man. It is thy will, then, that men should doubt, since thou canst reveal thyself to them, but dost not.'"

"Beware of what you are saying, Paul," cried the old man: "beware that the doubt thy heart contains do not attaint mine! Thou hast time left to thee to believe, whereas, I—I am about to die."

"Wait, father, wait!" continued Paul, with softened voice, and placid features. "I have not told you all. It was then, that I said to myself, 'the crucifix by the road side, the churches of the cities are but the work of man. Let us seek God, in God's own works.' From that moment, my father, began that wandering life, which will remain an eternal mystery, known only to the heavens, the ocean, and myself—it led me into the solitary wilds of America, for I thought the newer a world was, the more freshly would it retain the impress of God's hand. I did not deceive myself. There, often in those virgin forests, into which I was perhaps the first who had ever penetrated; with no shelter, but the heavens, no couch, but the earth, absorbed by one sole thought, I have listened to the thousand noises of a world about to sleep, and nature when awakening. For a long time, did I still remain without comprehending that unknown tongue, formed by the mingling of the murmur of rivers, the vapor of the lakes, the rustling of the forest, and the perfume of flowers. Finally, the veil which had obscured my eyes, and the weight which had oppressed my heart, was little by little removed; and from that time, I began to believe that these noises of evening, and of approaching day, were but one universal hymn, by which created things expressed their gratitude to the Creator."

"Almighty God!" cried the dying man, clasping his hands, and raising his eyes to heaven, with an expression of holy faith, "I cried to you from the bottomless pit, and you heard me in my distress; oh! my God I I thank thee."

"Then," continued Paul, with still increasing enthusiasm, "then, I sought upon the ocean, that full conviction which earth had refused to me. The earth is but a span—the ocean is immensity! The ocean is, after God himself, the grandest, the most powerful object in the universe. I have heard the ocean roar like a chafed lion, and then at the voice of its master, become tranquil as a submissive dog; I have seen it rise like a Titan, to scale the heavens; and then beneath the whip of the tempest, moan like a weeping infant. I have seen it dashing its waves to meet the lightning, and endeavoring to quench the thunder with its foam; and then become smooth as a mirror, and reflect even the smallest star in the heavens. Upon the land, I had become convinced of God's existence, upon the ocean, I recognised his power. In the solitary wilds, as Moses, I had heard the voice of the Lord, but during the tempest, I saw him, as did Ezekiel, riding upon the wings of the storm. Thenceforward, my father, thenceforward, all doubt was driven from my mind, and from the evening on which I witnessed the first hurricane, I believed, and prayed."

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth," said the dying man, with ardent faith; and he continued thus the symbol of the apostles to the last word.

Paul listened to him in silence, with his eyes raised to heaven, and when he had concluded, said—

"It is not thus, that a priest would have spoken to you, my father, for I have spoken to you as a seaman, and with a voice more accustomed to pronounce words of death than consolation. Forgive me, father, forgive me for it."

"You have made me pray, and believe as you do," said the old man; "tell me, then, what more could a priest have done? What you have said is plain and grand—let me reflect on what you have said."

"Listen!" said Paul, shuddering, "What is it?"

"Did you not hear?"

"No."

"I thought that a voice of some one in distress called to me—there again—do you not hear it?—now, again!—It is the voice of Marguerite."

"Go to her instantly," replied the old man; "I need to be alone."

Paul rushed into the adjoining room, and as he entered it he heard his name again repeated, and close to the door of the cottage. Then, running to the door he anxiously opened it, and found Marguerite upon the threshold, her strength having failed her, and she had fallen upon her knees.

"Save me! save me!" she cried, with an expression of profound terror, on perceiving Paul, and clasped his knees.



Alexandre Dumas pere

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