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Louis Lebeau's Conversion


    Yesterday, while I moved with the languid crowd on the Riva,
  Musing with idle eyes on the wide lagoons and the islands,
  And on the dim-seen seaward glimmering sails in the distance,
  Where the azure haze, like a vision of Indian-Summer,
  Haunted the dreamy sky of the soft Venetian December,--
  While I moved unwilled in the mellow warmth of the weather,
  Breathing air that was full of Old World sadness and beauty
  Into my thought came this story of free, wild life in Ohio,
  When the land was new, and yet by the Beautiful River
  Dwelt the pioneers and Indian hunters and boatmen.


    Pealed from the campanili, responding from island to island,
  Bells of that ancient faith whose incense and solemn devotions
  Rise from a hundred shrines in the broken heart of the city;
  But in my revery heard I only the passionate voices
  Of the people that sang in the virgin heart of the forest.
  Autumn was in the land, and the trees were golden and crimson,
  And from the luminous boughs of the over-elms and the maples
  Tender and beautiful fell the light in the worshippers' faces,
  Softer than lights that stream through the saints on the windows of
        churches,
  While the balsamy breath of the hemlocks and pines by the river
  Stole on the winds through the woodland aisles like the breath of a
        censer.
  Loud the people sang old camp-meeting anthems that quaver
  Quaintly yet from lips forgetful of lips that have kissed them;
  Loud they sang the songs of the Sacrifice and Atonement,
  And of the end of the world, and the infinite terrors of Judgment:--
  Songs of ineffable sorrow, and wailing, compassionate warning
  Unto the generations that hardened their hearts to their Savior;
  Songs of exultant rapture for them that confessed him and followed,
  Bearing his burden and yoke, enduring and entering with him
  Into the rest of his saints, and the endless reward of the blessed.
  Loud the people sang; but through the sound of their singing
  Broke inarticulate cries and moans and sobs from the mourners,
  As the glory of God, that smote the apostle of Tarsus,
  Smote them and strewed them to earth like leaves in the breath of
        the whirlwind.


    Hushed at last was the sound of the lamentation and singing;
  But from the distant hill the throbbing drum of the pheasant
  Shook with its heavy pulses the depths of the listening silence,
  When from his place arose a white-haired exhorter, and faltered:
  "Brethren and sisters in Jesus! the Lord hath heard our petitions,
  So that the hearts of his servants are awed and melted within
        them,--
  Even the hearts of the wicked are touched by his infinite mercy.
  All my days in this vale of tears the Lord hath been with me,
  He hath been good to me, he hath granted me trials and patience;
  But this hour hath crowned my knowledge of him and his goodness.
  Truly, but that it is well this day for me to be with you,
  Now might I say to the Lord,--'I know thee, my God, in all fulness;
  Now let thy servant depart in peace to the rest thou hast
        promised!'"


    Faltered and ceased. And now the wild and jubilant music
  Of the singing burst from the solemn profound of the silence,
  Surged in triumph, and fell, and ebbed again into silence.


    Then from the group of the preachers arose the greatest among
        them,--
  He whose days were given in youth to the praise of the Savior,
  He whose lips seemed touched, like the prophet's of old, from the
        altar,
  So that his words were flame, and burned to the hearts of his
        hearers,
  Quickening the dead among them, reviving the cold and the doubting.
  There he charged them pray, and rest not from prayer while a sinner
  In the sound of their voices denied the Friend of the sinner:
  "Pray till the night shall fall,--till the stars are faint in the
        morning,--
  Yea, till the sun himself be faint in that glory and brightness,
  Faint in the light which shall dawn in mercy for penitent sinners."
  Kneeling, he led them in prayer; and the quick and sobbing
        responses
  Spake how their souls were moved with the might and the grace of the
        Spirit.
  Then while the converts recounted how God had chastened and saved
        them,--
  Children, whose golden locks yet shone with the lingering
        effulgence
  Of the touches of Him who blessed little children forever;
  Old men, whose yearning eyes were dimmed with the far-streaming
        brightness
  Seen through the opening gates in the heart of the heavenly city,--
  Stealthily through the harking woods the lengthening shadows
  Chased the wild things to their nests, and the twilight died into
        darkness.


    Now the four great pyres that were placed there to light the
        encampment,
  High on platforms raised above the people, were kindled.
  Flaming aloof, as it were the pillar by night in the Desert
  Fell their crimson light on the lifted orbs of the preachers,
  Fell on the withered brows of the old men, and Israel's mothers,
  Fell on the bloom of youth, and the earnest devotion of manhood,
  Fell on the anguish and hope in the tearful eyes of the mourners.
  Flaming aloof, it stirred the sleep of the luminous maples
  With warm summer-dreams, and faint, luxurious languor.
  Near the four great pyres the people closed in a circle,
  In their midst the mourners, and, praying with them, the exhorters,
  And on the skirts of the circle the unrepentant and scorners,--
  Ever fewer and sadder, and drawn to the place of the mourners,
  One after one, by the prayers and tears of the brethren and
        sisters,
  And by the Spirit of God, that was mightily striving within them,
  Till at the last alone stood Louis Lebeau, unconverted.


    Louis Lebeau, the boatman, the trapper, the hunter, the fighter,
  From the unlucky French of Gallipolis he descended,
  Heir to Old World want and New World love of adventure.
  Vague was the life he led, and vague and grotesque were the rumors
  Through which he loomed on the people,--the hero of mythical
        hearsay,
  Quick of hand and of heart, impatient, generous, Western,
  Taking the thought of the young in secret love and in envy.
  Not less the elders shook their heads and held him for outcast,
  Reprobate, roving, ungodly, infidel, worse than a Papist,
  With his whispered fame of lawless exploits at St. Louis,
  Wild affrays and loves with the half-breeds out on the Osage,
  Brawls at New Orleans, and all the towns on the rivers,
  All the godless towns of the many-ruffianed rivers.
  Only she who loved him the best of all, in her loving
  Knew him the best of all, and other than that of the rumors.
  Daily she prayed for him, with conscious and tender effusion,
  That the Lord would convert him. But when her father forbade him
  Unto her thought, she denied him, and likewise held him for
        outcast,
  Turned her eyes when they met, and would not speak, though her heart
        broke.


    Bitter and brief his logic that reasoned from wrong unto error:
  "This is their praying and singing," he said, "that makes you reject
        me,--
  You that were kind to me once. But I think my fathers' religion,
  With a light heart in the breast and a friendly priest to absolve
        one,
  Better than all these conversions that only bewilder and vex me,
  And that have made men so hard and women fickle and cruel.
  Well, then, pray for my soul, since you would not have spoken to
        save me,--
  Yes; for I go from these saints to my brethren and sisters, the
        sinners."
  Spoke and went, while her faint lips fashioned unuttered entreaties,--
  Went, and came again in a year at the time of the meeting,
  Haggard and wan of face, and wasted with passion and sorrow.
  Dead in his eyes was the careless smile of old, and its phantom
  Haunted his lips in a sneer of restless, incredulous mocking.
  Day by day he came to the outer skirts of the circle,
  Dwelling on her, where she knelt by the white-haired exhorter, her
        father,
  With his hollow looks, and never moved from his silence.


    Now, where he stood alone, the last of impenitent sinners,
  Weeping, old friends and comrades came to him out of the circle,
  And with their tears besought him to hear what the Lord had done for
        them.
  Ever he shook them off, not roughly, nor smiled at their transports.
  Then the preachers spoke and painted the terrors of Judgment,
  And of the bottomless pit, and the flames of hell everlasting.
  Still and dark he stood, and neither listened nor heeded;
  But when the fervent voice of the white-haired exhorter was lifted,
  Fell his brows in a scowl of fierce and scornful rejection.
  "Lord, let this soul be saved!" cried the fervent voice of the old
        man;
  "For that the Shepherd rejoiceth more truly for one that hath
        wandered,
  And hath been found again, than for all the others that strayed
        not."


    Out of the midst of the people, a woman old and decrepit,
  Tremulous through the light, and tremulous into the shadow,
  Wavered toward him with slow, uncertain paces of palsy,
  Laid her quivering hand on his arm and brokenly prayed him:
  "Louis Lebeau, I closed in death the eyes of your mother.
  On my breast she died, in prayer for her fatherless children,
  That they might know the Lord, and follow him always, and serve
        him.
  O, I conjure you, my son, by the name of your mother in glory,
  Scorn not the grace of the Lord!" As when a summer-noon's tempest
  Breaks in one swift gush of rain, then ceases and gathers
  Darker and gloomier yet on the lowering front of the heavens,
  So broke his mood in tears, as he soothed her, and stilled her
        entreaties,
  And so he turned again with his clouded looks to the people.


    Vibrated then from the hush the accents of mournfullest pity,--
  His who was gifted in speech, and the glow of the fires illumined
  All his pallid aspect with sudden and marvellous splendor:
  "Louis Lebeau," he spake, "I have known you and loved you from
        childhood;
  Still, when the others blamed you, I took your part, for I knew
        you.
  Louis Lebeau, my brother, I thought to meet you in heaven,
  Hand in hand with her who is gone to heaven before us,
  Brothers through her dear love! I trusted to greet you and lead you
  Up from the brink of the River unto the gates of the City.
  Lo! my years shall be few on the earth. O my brother,
  If I should die before you had known the mercy of Jesus,
  Yea, I think it would sadden the hope of glory within me!"


    Neither yet had the will of the sinner yielded an answer;
  But from his lips there broke a cry of unspeakable anguish,
  Wild and fierce and shrill, as if some demon within him
  Bent his soul with the ultimate pangs of fiendish possession;
  And with the outstretched arms of bewildered imploring toward them,
  Death-white unto the people he turned his face from the darkness.


    Out of the sedge by the creek a flight of clamorous killdees
  Rose from their timorous sleep with piercing and iterant challenge,
  Wheeled in the starlight, and fled away into distance and silence.
  White in the vale lay the tents, and beyond them glided the river,
  Where the broadhorn[1] drifted slow at the will of the current,
  And where the boatman listened, and knew not how, as he listened,
  Something touched through the years the old lost hopes of his
        childhood,--
  Only his sense was filled with low, monotonous murmurs,
  As of a faint-heard prayer, that was chorused with deeper
        responses.


    Not with the rest was lifted her voice in the fervent responses,
  But in her soul she prayed to Him that heareth in secret,
  Asking for light and for strength to learn his will and to do it:
  "O, make me clear to know if the hope that rises within me
  Be not part of a love unmeet for me here, and forbidden!
  So, if it be not that, make me strong for the evil entreaty
  Of the days that shall bring me question of self and reproaches,
  When the unrighteous shall mock, and my brethren and sisters shall
        doubt me!
  Make me worthy to know thy will, my Savior, and do it!"
  In her pain she prayed, and at last, through her mute adoration,
  Rapt from all mortal presence, and in her rapture uplifted,
  Glorified she rose, and stood in the midst of the people,
  Looking on all with the still, unseeing eyes of devotion,--
  Vague, and tender, and sweet, as the eyes of the dead, when we dream
        them
  Living and looking on us, but they cannot speak, and we cannot,--
  Knowing only the peril that threatened his soul's unrepentance,
  Knowing only the fear and error and wrong that withheld him,
  Thinking, "In doubt of me, his soul had perished forever!"
  Touched with no feeble shame, but trusting her power to save him,
  Through the circle she passed, and straight to the side of her
        lover,
  Took his hand in her own, and mutely implored him an instant,
  Answering, giving, forgiving, confessing, beseeching him all
        things;
  Drew him then with her, and passed once more through the circle
  Unto her place, and knelt with him there by the side of her father,
  Trembling as women tremble who greatly venture and triumph,--
  But in her innocent breast was the saint's sublime exultation.


    So was Louis converted; and though the lips of the scorners
  Spared not in after years the subtle taunt and derision
  (What time, meeker grown, his heart held his hand from its answer),
  Not the less lofty and pure her love and her faith that had saved
        him,
  Not the less now discerned was her inspiration from heaven
  By the people, that rose, and embracing and weeping together,
  Poured forth their jubilant songs of victory and of thanksgiving,
  Till from the embers leaped the dying flame to behold them,
  And the hills of the river were filled with reverberant echoes,--
  Echoes that out of the years and the distance stole to me hither,
  While I moved unwilled in the mellow warmth of the weather;
  Echoes that mingled and fainted and fell with the fluttering
        murmurs
  In the hearts of the hushing bells, as from island to island
  Swooned the sound on the wide lagoons into palpitant silence.



FOOTNOTE:


  [1] The old-fashioned flatboats were so called.


 

William Dean Howells