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Chapter 10

THE CHAPELLE ARDENTE.


According to the promise he had made his favourite, the Prince of Carini ordered the condemned man to be sent from Messina to Palermo; and Pascal, under a large escort of gendarmerie, was conveyed to the prison of that city, situated behind the royal palace, and near to the asylum for lunatics.

Towards the evening of the second day, a priest entered his dungeon. Pascal rose when he saw the holy man: but, notwithstanding all the entreaties of the priest, Pascal resolutely refused to confess. The priest continued to exhort him to unburden his guilty mind; but nothing could induce Pascal to perform this last office of religion. And the priest, perceiving he could not overcome his obstinacy, asked him the reason.

"The reason," said Bruno, "is, that I do not wish to commit a sacrilegious act."

"In what manner, my son?" inquired the priest.

"Is not the first condition of a good confession," said Bruno, "not only the acknowledgment of your own sins, but the forgiveness of those of your neighbour?"

"Certainly," said the priest, "there can be no complete confession without that."

"Well," said Bruno, "I have not forgiven; my confession would therefore be imperfect, and I have no inclination to make a bad confession."

"Is it not," said the priest, "more likely that you have such enormous crimes to acknowledge that you fear they will be too great to expect pardon? But comfort yourself, God is merciful; and where there is repentance there is always hope."

"Nevertheless, my father," said Bruno', "if between your absolution and my death, a wicked thought I have not the power to control should—"

"The benefit of your confession would be lost," said the priest.

"It is useless then for me to confess," observed Pascal, "for this wicked thought will rise."

"Cannot you drive it from your mind?" asked the priest.

Pascal smiled.

"It is that thought," said he, "that has kept me alive, father; without that one infernal thought, without that last hope of vengeance, do you think I would have allowed myself to be dragged forward as a disgraceful spectacle to the multitude? No! I would have strangled myself with the chain that binds me. At Messina, I had made up my mind to do so; and I was about carrying my intention into effect when an order came to convey me to Palermo—I thought she would wish to see me die."

"Whom do you mean?" asked the priest.

"She," said Bruno, with bitter emphasis.

"But if you die in this manner," said the priest, "without repenting, heaven, will show you no mercy."

"Father," said Bruno, "she, also, shall die without repenting, for she shall die at the moment she least expects it; she, also, shall die without a priest, and without confession; she, also, shall find, like me, heaven without mercy, and we shall sink to perdition together."

At this instant the gaoler entered.

"Father," he said, "the chapelle ardente is prepared."

"Do you still persist in your refusal to confess, my son?" said the priest.

"I do persist," said Bruno, quietly.

"Then I shall no longer delay the mass for the dead," said the priest, "which I will repeat without pressing you any further; and I trust that, while you listen, the Heavenly Spirit will visit you and inspire you with better thoughts."

"It may be so, father," said Bruno; "but I have no reason to believe it will."

The gens-d'armes entered, unbound Bruno, and led him to the church of St. François de Sales, facing the prison, and at that moment brilliantly illuminated, for, according to custom, he was there to hear the mass for the dead and pass the night in prayer, the execution being fixed for eight o'clock the following morning.

An iron ring was fixed in a pillar in the choir, and Pascal was secured to this ring by means of a chain that went round his body, but which was sufficiently long to enable him to reach the balustrades where the communicants knelt.

The instant mass commenced, the officers of the lunatic asylum brought in a coffin, which they placed in the centre of the church: it contained the remains of an insane person who had died during the day, and the director thought the deceased might as well receive the benefit of the mass that was about to be celebrated for the condemned criminal who was to die.

Besides, there was an economy in this arrangement, both of time and labour for the priest; and as it accommodated all parties, no objection was made.

The sacristan lighted two tapers, one for the head and the other for the foot of the coffin, and the mass began.

Pascal listened attentively during the whole service, and when it was over, the priest went up to him and asked him if he was in a better frame of mind; but the condemned man answered that, notwithstanding the mass to which he had listened,—notwithstanding the prayers with which he had accompanied it, his feelings of hatred and desire for vengeance were still the same.

The priest told him that at seven o'clock on the following morning he would return and ascertain whether a night of solitude and contemplation, passed in a church and in presence of the crucifix, had produced any change in his feelings of vengeance.

Bruno, as may be imagined, when left alone fell into a deep reverie. The whole of the varied transactions of his life passed in review before his eyes, from the days of his earliest infancy to that moment; and in vain he endeavoured to discover in those early days of his life anything that deserved the terrible fate that awaited his youth. He remembered only a filial and sacred obedience towards the kind parents the Lord had given him. He remembered his father's abode—-so quiet, so innocent, and happy at one time—which suddenly, became, without his being aware of the cause, full of tears and sorrow. He remembered the day when his father went out, carrying with him a dagger, which on his return was covered with blood. He remembered the night on which the author of his being was arrested as a murderer; when they carried himself, still a child, into a chapelle ardente like that in which he was now confined, where he saw a man chained as he was now.

It seemed to him as if it were some fatal influence, some capricious chance, some victorious superiority of evil over good, through the means of which all the prospects of his devoted and once virtuous family had been so utterly ruined.

And then he even doubted the truth of the promises of happiness which heaven had made to man; he sought through his own distorted vision for the interference of that Providence of which so much was said; and fancying that in this, his extremity, some portion of this eternal secret would perhaps be revealed to him, he bowed his forehead to the earth and prayed—conjured the Deity, with all the fulness of his soul, to interpret to him this terrible enigma—to raise the corner of that mysterious veil which enshrouded his mind—to dispel his doubts and give him confidence here and hopes for hereafter.

His hopes were vain; all was silent excepting that internal voice which still continued to exclaim—"Vengeance! vengeance! vengeance!"

Then he thought the dead were charged to answer him, and that to that end a corpse had been placed near him: so true it is that the most insignificant amongst us all considers his own existence as the centre of the creation, imagines everything is connected with his being, and that his miserable body is the pivot on which the whole universe turns.

He, therefore, slowly raised himself, paler from the struggle he had had with his mind than from any fear of the scaffold, and he turned his eyes towards the corpse—it was that of a female.

Pascal shuddered without knowing why; he endeavoured to trace the features of that woman—(the coffin in Italy is only closed at the instant of interment)—but a corner of the winding-sheet had fallen over the face and concealed it. Suddenly, an instinctive maddening feeling reminded him of Teresa—Teresa, whom he had not seen since the day when he first broke the bonds of God and man—Teresa, who had become mad, and for three years had been confined in the lunatic asylum from whence the coffin and the corpse had been brought—Teresa, his betrothed, with whom, perhaps, he now found himself at the foot of that altar to which he had so long hoped to have conducted her while living, and where, at length, he had been brought by the bitter mockery of fate to rejoin her: she dead—himself about ignominiously to die!

To remain longer in doubt was insupportable; he rushed towards the coffin to satisfy himself, but he was suddenly dragged back by the waist, his chain not being long enough to enable him to reach the corpse, and it held him fast to the pillar; he stretched out his arms towards the coffin, but he was still several feet away from the object he sought to reach.

He then looked round in search of something by means of which he might be able to remove the corner of the veil, but he could discover nothing; he exerted all the power of his lungs in his endeavour to raise the corner of the cloth, but it remained as motionless as marble.

He then turned round with a look of concentrated rage it would be impossible to describe, seized his chain with both hands, and collecting all his strength for the effort, he strove to break it; but the links were too firmly-attached to each other and resisted all his efforts.

The cold perspiration of rage stood on his forehead; he threw himself at the foot of the pillar, placed his head in his hands, and remained motionless and mute as the statue of despair; and when the priest came in the morning he found him still in the same position.

The reverend man approached him quietly and calmly, as became his mission of peace and his office as a minister of reconciliation. He thought that Pascal slept, but when he placed his hand upon his shoulder, the bandit started and raised his head.

"Well, my son," said the priest, "are you prepared for confession? I am ready to absolve you?"

"I will answer you presently, father; but first render me a last service," said Bruno.

"What is it?" said the priest. "Speak!"

"Father," said Bruno, "will you raise the corner of the cloth that hides the features of that woman?"

The priest raised the corner of the winding-sheet. Pascal had not deceived himself, that woman was Teresa!

He looked upon her for an instant with the deepest sorrow, and then made a sign to the priest to let the linen fall: the priest obeyed him.

"Well, my son," he said, "has the sight of death inspired you with any pious thoughts?"

"Father," said Bruno, "that woman and I were born to be happy and innocent; but she perjured herself, and I became a murderer. She has conducted this woman through madness, and me, through despair, to the tomb into which we are both about to descend to-day. Let heaven pardon her, if it can—I cannot!"

At this instant the guards entered the church to lead Pascal to the scaffold.

Alexandre Dumas pere

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