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White and malicious faces peered through the doorway. There was an ugly murmur coming up the staircase. Many habitants had heard Louis Trudel's last words, and had passed them on with vehement exaggeration.
Chaudiere had been touched in its most superstitious corner. Protestantism was a sin, but atheism was a crime against humanity. The Protestant might be the victim of a mistake, but the atheist was the deliberate son of darkness, the source of fearful dangers. An atheist in their midst was like a scorpion in a flower-bed--no one could tell when and where he would sting. Rough misdemeanours among them had been many, there had once been a murder in the parish, but the undefined horrors of infidelity were more shameful than crimes the eye could see.
To the minds of these excited people the tailor-man's death was due to the infidel before them. They were ready to do all that might become a Catholic intent to avenge the profaned honour of the Church and the faith. Bodily harm was the natural form for their passion to take.
"Bring him out--let us have him!" they cried with fierce gestures, to which Rosalie Evanturel turned a pained, indignant face.
As the Curb stood with the paper in his hand, his face set and bitter, Rosalie made a step forward. She meant to tell the truth about Louis Trudel, and show how good this man was, who stood charged with an imaginary crime. But she met the warning eye of the man himself, calm and resolute, she saw the suffering in the face, endured with what composure! and she felt instantly that she must obey him, and that--who could tell?--his plan might be the best in the end. She looked at the Cure anxiously. What would he say and do? In the Cure's heart and mind a great struggle was going on. All his inherent prejudice, the hereditary predisposition of centuries, the ingrain hatred of atheism, were alive in him, hardening his mind against the man before him. His first impulse was to let Charley take his fate at the hands of the people of Chaudiere, whatever it might be. But as he looked at the man, as he recalled their first meeting, and remembered the simple, quiet life he had lived among them--charitable, and unselfish--the barriers of creed and habit fell down, and tears unbidden rushed into his eyes.
The Cure had, all at once, the one great inspiration of his life--its one beautiful and supreme imagining. For thus he reasoned swiftly:
Here he was, a priest who had shepherded a flock of the faithful passed on to him by another priest before him, who again had received them from a guardian of the fold--a family of faithful Catholics whose thoughts never strayed into forbidden realms. He had done no more than keep them faithful and prevent them from wandering--counselling, admonishing, baptising, and burying, giving in marriage and blessing, sending them on their last great journey with the cachet of Holy Church upon them. But never once, never in all his life, had he brought a lost soul into the fold. If he died to-night, he could not say to St. Peter, when he arrived at Heaven's gate: "See, I have saved a soul!" Before the Throne he could not say to Him who cried: "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature"--he could not say: "Lord, by Thy grace I found this soul in the wilderness, in the dark and the loneliness, having no God to worship, denial and rebellion in his heart; and behold, I took him to my breast, and taught him in Thy name, and led him home to Thy haven, the Church!"
Thus it was that the Cure dreamed a dream. He would set his life to saving this lost soul. He would rescue him from the outer darkness.
His face suffused, he handed the paper in his hand back to the man who had written the words upon it. Then he lifted his hand against the people at the door and the loud murmuring behind them.
"Peace--peace!" he said, as though from the altar. "Leave this room of death, I command you. Go at once to your homes. This man"--he pointed to Charley--"is my friend. Who seeks to harm him, would harm me. Go hence and pray. Pray for yourselves, pray for him, and for me; and pray for the troubled soul of Louis Trudel. Go in peace."
Soon afterwards the house was empty, save for the Cure, Charley, old Margot, and the Notary.
That night Charley sat in the tailor's bedroom, rigid and calm, though racked with pain, and watched the candles flickering beside the dead body. He was thinking of the Cure's last words to the people.
"I wonder--I wonder," he said, and through his eyeglass he stared at the crucifix that threw a shadow on the dead man's face. Morning found him there. As dawn crept in he rose to his feet. "Whither now?" he said, like one in a dream.
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