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Title: Father Meuron's Tale
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605211.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Father Meuron's Tale
Robert Hugh Benson



Father Meuron was very voluble at supper on the Saturday. He
exclaimed; he threw out his hands; his bright black eyes shone above
his rosy cheeks, and his hair appeared to stand more on end than I had
ever known it.

He sat at the further side of the horse-shoe table from myself, and I
was able to remark on his gaiety to the English priest who sat beside
me without fear of being overheard.

Father Brent smiled.

"He is drunk with la gloire," he said. "He is to tell the story to-
night."

This explained everything.

I did not look forward, however, to his recital. I was confident that
it would be full of tinsel and swooning maidens who ended their days
in convents under Father Meuron's spiritual direction; and when we
came upstairs I found a shadowy corner, a little back from the
semicircle, where I could fall asleep if I wished without provoking
remark.

In fact, I was totally unprepared for the character of his narrative.
When we had all taken our places, and Monsignor's pipe was properly
alight, and himself at full length in his deck chair, the Frenchman
began. He told his story in his own language; but I am venturing to
render it in English as nearly as I am able.

"My contribution to the histories," he began, seated in his upright
arm-chair in the centre of the circle, a little turned away from me---
"my contribution to the histories which these good priests are to
recite is an affair of exorcism. That is a matter with which we who
live in Europe are not familiar in these days. It would seem, I
suppose, that grace has a certain power, accumulating through the
centuries, of saturating even physical objects with its force. However
men may rebel, yet the sacrifices offered and the prayers poured out
have a faculty of holding Satan in check and preventing his more
formidable manifestations. Even in my own poor country at this hour,
in spite of widespread apostasy, in spite even of the deliberate
worship of Satan, yet grace is in the air; and it is seldom indeed
that a priest has to deal with a case of possession. In your
respectable England, too, it is the same; the simple piety of
Protestants has kept alive to some extent the force of the Gospel.
Here in this country of Italy it is somewhat different. The old powers
have survived the Christian assault, and while they cannot live in
Holy Rome, there are corners where they do so."

From my place I saw Padre Bianchi turn a furtive eye upon the speaker,
and I thought I read in it an unwilling assent.

"However," went on the Frenchman with a superb dismissory gesture, "my
recital does not concern this continent, but the little island of La
Souffrire. These circumstances are other than here. It was a
stronghold of darkness when I was there in 1891 Grace, while laying
hold of men's hearts, had not yet penetrated the lower creation. Do
you understand me? There were many holy persons whom I knew, who
frequented the Sacraments and lived devoutly, but there were many of
another manner. The ancient rites survived secretly among the negroes,
and darkness--how shall I say it?--dimness made itself visible.

"However, to our history."

The priest resettled himself in his chair and laid his fingers
together like precious instruments.

He was enjoying himself vastly, and I could see that he was preparing
himself for a revelation.

"It was in 1891," he repeated, "that I went there with another of our
Fathers to the mission-house."

"I will not trouble you, gentlemen, with recounting the tale of our
arrival, nor of the months that followed it, except perhaps to tell
you that I was astonished by much that I saw."

"Never until that time had I seen the power of the Sacraments so
evident. In civilized lands, as I have suggested to you, the air is
charged with grace. Each is no more than a wave in the deep sea. He
who is without God's favor is not without His grace at each breath he
draws. There are churches, religions, pious persons about him; there
are centuries of prayers behind him. The very buildings he enters, as
M. Huysmans has explained to us, are browned by prayer. Though a
wicked child, he is yet in his father's house: and the return from
death to life is not such a crossing of the abyss, after all. But
there in La Souffrire all is either divine or Satanic, black or
white, Christian or devilish. One stands, as it were, on the seashore
to watch the breakers of grace, and each is a miracle. I tell you I
have seen holy Catechumens foam at the mouth and roll their eyes in
pain, as the saving water fell on them, and that which was within went
out. As the Gospel relates, 'Spiritus conturbavit illum: et elisus in
terrain, volutabatur spumans.'"

Father Meuron paused again.

"I was interested to hear this corroboration of evidence that had come
before me on other occasions. More than one missionary had told me the
same thing; and I had found in their tales a parallel to those related
by the first preachers of the Christian religion in the early days of
the Church."

"I was incredulous at first," continued the priest, "until I saw these
things for myself. An old father of our mission rebuked me for it.
'You are an ignorant fellow,' he said; 'your airs are still of the
seminary.' And what he said was just, my friends."

"On one Monday morning as we met for our council I could see that this
old priest had somewhat to say. M. Lasserre was his name. He kept very
silent until the little businesses had been accomplished, and then he
turned to the Father Rector."

"'Monseigneur has written,' he said, 'and given me the necessary
permission for the matter you know, my father. And he bids me take
another priest with me. I ask that Father Meuron may accompany me. He
needs a lesson, this zealous young missionary.'"

"The Father Rector smiled at me as I sat astonished, and nodded at
Father Lasserre to give permission."

"'Father Lasserre will explain all to you,' he said as he stood up for
the prayer."

"The good priest explained all to me as the Father Rector had
directed."

It appeared that there was a matter of exorcism on hand. A woman who
lived with her mother and husband had been affected by the devil,
Father Lasserre said. She was a Catechumen, and had been devout for
several months, and all seemed well until this--this assault had been
made on her soul. Father Lasserre had visited the woman and examined
her, and had made his report to the Bishop, asking permission to
exorcise the creature, and it was this permission that had been sent
on that morning.

"I did not venture to tell the priest that he was mistaken and that
the affair was one of epilepsy."

"I had studied a little in books for my medical training, and all that
I heard now seemed to confirm me in the diagnosis. There were the
symptoms, easy to read. What would you have?"--the priest again made
his little gesture--"I knew more in my youth than all the Fathers of
the Church."

"Their affairs of devils were nothing but an affection of the brain--
dreams and fancies! And if the exorcisms had appeared to be of direct
service, it was from the effect of the solemnity upon the mind. It was
no more."

He laughed with a fierce irony.

"You know it all, gentlemen!"

I had lost all desire to sleep now. The French priest was more
interesting than I had thought.

His elaborateness seemed dissipated; his voice trembled a little as he
arraigned his own conceit, and I began to wonder how his change of
mind had been wrought.

"We set out that afternoon," he continued. "The woman lived on the
further side of the island, perhaps a couple of hours' travel, for it
was rough going; and as we went up over the path Father Lasserre told
me more.

"It seemed that the woman blasphemed. (The subconscious self, said I
to myself, as M. Charcot has explained. It is her old habit
reasserting itself.)

"She foamed and rolled her eyes. (An affection of the brain, said I.)
She feared holy water; they dared not throw it on her, her struggles
were so fierce. (Because she has been taught to fear it, said I.)"

"And so the good father talked, eyeing me now and again, and I smiled
in my heart, knowing that he was a simple old fellow who had not
studied the new books."

"She was quieter after sunset, he told me, and would take a little
food then. Her fits came on her for the most part at midday. And I
smiled again at that. Why it should be so I knew. The heat affected
her. She would be quieter, science would tell us, when evening fell.
If it were the power of Satan that held her she would surely rage more
in the darkness than in the light. The Scriptures tell us so."

"I said something of this to Father Lasserre, as if it were a
question, and he looked at me."

"'Perhaps, brother,' he said, 'she is more at ease in the darkness and
fears the light, and that she is quieter therefore when the sun
sets.'"

"Again I smiled to myself. What piety, said I, and what foolishness!"

"The house where the three lived stood apart from any others. It was
an old shed into which they had moved a week before, for the neighbors
could no longer bear the woman's screaming."

"And we came to it towards a sunset."

"It was a heavy evening, dull and thick, and as we pushed down the
path I saw the smoking mountain high on the left hand between the
tangled trees. There was a great silence round us, and no wind, and
every leaf against the rosy sky was as if cut of steel."

"We saw the roof below us presently, and a little smoke escaped from a
hole, for there was no chimney."

"'We will sit here a little, brother,' said my friend. 'We will not
enter till sunset.'"

"And he took out his office book and began to say his Matins and
Lauds, sitting on a fallen tree-trunk by the side of the path."

"All was very silent about us. I suffered terrible distractions, for I
was a young man and excited; and though I knew it was no more than
epilepsy that I was to see, yet epilepsy is not a good sight to
regard. But I was finishing the first Nocturn when I saw that Father
Lasserre was looking off his book."

"We were sitting thirty yards from the roof of the hut, which was
built in a scoop of the ground, so that the roof was level with the
ground on which we sat. Below it was a little open space, flat,
perhaps twenty yards across, and below that yet further was the wood
again, and far over that was the smoke of the village against the sea.
There was the mouth of a well with a bucket beside it; and by this was
standing a man, a negro, very upright, with a vessel in his hand."

"This fellow turned as I looked, and saw us there, and he dropped the
vessel, and I could see his white teeth. Father Lasserre stood up and
laid his finger on his lips, nodded once or twice, pointed to the
west, where the sun was just above the horizon, and the fellow nodded
to us again and stooped for his vessel."

"He filled it from the bucket and went back into the house."

"I looked at Father Lasserre and he looked at me."

"'In five minutes,' he said; 'that is the husband. Did you not see his
wounds?'"

"I had seen no more than his teeth, I said, and my friend nodded again
and proceeded to finish his Nocturn."

Again Father Meuron paused dramatically. His ruddy face seemed a
little pale in the candle-light, and yet he had told us nothing yet
that could account for his apparent horror. Plainly, something was
coming soon.

The Rector leaned back to me and whispered behind his hand in
reference to what the Frenchman had related a few minutes before, that
no priest was allowed to use exorcism without the special leave of the
Bishop. I nodded and thanked him.

Father Meuron flashed his eyes dreadfully round the circle, clasped
his hands and continued:

"When the sun showed only a red rim above the sea we went down to the
house. The path ran on high ground to the roof and then dipped down
the edge of the cutting past the window to the front of the shed.

"I looked through this window sideways as I went after Father
Lasserre, who was carrying his bag with the book and the holy water,
but I could see nothing but the light of the fire. And there was no
sound. That was terrible to me!

"The door was closed as we came to it, and as Father Lasserre lifted
his hand to knock there was a howl of a beast from within.

"He knocked and looked at me.

"'It is but epilepsy!' he said, and his lips wrinkled as he said it."

The priest stopped again, and smiled ironically at us all. Then he
clasped his hands beneath his chin like a man in terror.

"I will not tell you all that I saw," he went on, "when the candle was
lighted and set on the table, but only a little. You would not dream
well, my friends--as I did not that night.

"But the woman sat in a corner by the fireplace, bound with cords by
her arms to the back of the chair and her feet to the legs of it.

"Gentlemen, she was like no woman at all... The howl of a wolf came
from her lips, but there were words in the howl. At first I could not
understand till she began in French, and then I understood. My God!

"The foam dripped from her mouth like water, and her eyes--but there!
I began to shake when I saw them until the holy water was spilled on
the floor, and I set it down on the table by the candle. There was a
plate of meat on the table, roasted mutton, I think, and a loaf of
bread beside it. Remember that, gentlemen--that mutton and bread! And
as I stood there I told myself, like making acts of faith, that it was
but epilepsy, or at the most madness.

"My friends, it is probable that few of you know the form of exorcism.
It is neither in the Ritual or the Pontifical, and I cannot remember
it all myself. But it began thus:"

The Frenchman sprang up and stood with his back to the fire, with his
face in the shadow.

"Father Lasserre was here where I stand, in his cotta and stole, and I
beside him. There where my chair stands was the square table, as near
as that, with the bread and meat and the holy water and the candle.
Beyond the table was the woman; her husband stood beside her on the
left hand, and the old mother was there"--he flung out a hand to the
right, "on the floor telling her beads and weeping--but weeping."

"When the Father was ready and had said a word to the others, he
signed to me to lift the holy water again--she was quiet at the
moment--and then he sprinkled her.

"As he lifted his hand she raised her eyes, and there was a look in
them of terror, as if at a blow, and as the drops fell she leaped
forward in the chair, and the chair leaped with her. Her husband was
at her and dragged the chair back. But my God! it was terrible to see
him; his teeth shone as if he smiled, but the tears ran down his face.

"Then she moaned like a child in pain. It was as if the holy water
burned her; she lifted her face to her man as if she begged him to
wipe off the drops.

"And all the while I still told myself that it was the terror of her
mind only at the holy water---that it could not be that she was
possessed by Satan--it was but madness--madness and epilepsy!

"Father Lasserre went on with the prayers, and I said Amen, and there
was a psalm--Deus in nomine tuo salvum me fac--and then came the first
bidding to the unclean spirit to go out, in the name of the Mysteries
of the Incarnation and Passion.

"Gentlemen, I swear to you that something happened then, but I do not
know what. A confusion fell on me and a kind of darkness. I saw
nothing--it was as if I were dead."

The priest lifted a shaking hand to wipe off the sweat from his
forehead. There was a profound silence in the room. I looked once at
Monsignor, and he was holding his pipe an inch off his mouth, and his
lips were slack and open as he stared.

"Then when I knew where I was, Father Lasserre was reading out of the
Gospels; how Our Lord gave authority to his Church to cast out unclean
spirits, and all this while his voice never trembled."

"And the woman?" said a voice hoarsely from Father Brent's chair. "Ah!
the woman! My God! I do not know. I did not look at her. I stared at
the plate on the table; but at least she was not crying out now."

"When the Scripture was finished Father Lasserre gave me the book."

"'Bah, Father!' he said; 'it is but epilepsy, is it not?'"

"Then he beckoned me, and I went with him, holding the book till we
were within a yard of the woman. But I could not hold the book still,
it shook, it shook--"

Father Meuron thrust out his hand. "It shook like that, gentlemen."

"He took the book from me, sharply and angrily. 'Go back, sir,' he
said, and he thrust the book into the husband's hand."

"'There,'" he said.

"I went back behind the table and leaned on it."

"Then Father Lasserre--my God! the courage of this man!--he set his
hands on the woman's head. She writhed up her teeth to bite, but he
was too strong for her, and then he cried out from the book the second
bidding to the unclean spirit."

"'Ecce crucem Domini! Behold the Cross of the Lord! flee ye adverse
hosts! The lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed!'"

"Gentlemen"--the Frenchman flung out his hands--"I who stand here tell
you that something happened. God knows what. I only know this, that as
the woman cried out and scrambled with her feet on the floor, the
flame of the candle became smoke-coloured for one instant. I told
myself it was the dust of her struggling and her foul breath...Yes,
gentlemen, as you tell yourselves now...Bah! it is but epilepsy, is it
not so, sir?"

The old Rector leaned forward with a deprecating hand, but the
Frenchman glared and gesticulated; there was a murmur from the room,
and the old priest leaned back again and propped his head on his hand.

"Then there was a prayer. I heard Oremus, but I did not dare to look
at the woman. I fixed my eyes so on the bread and meat; it was the one
clean thing in that terrible room. I whispered to myself, 'Bread and
mutton, bread and mutton.' I thought of the refectory at home---
anything."

"You understand me, gentlemen--anything familiar to quiet myself."

"Then there was the third exorcism..."

"I saw the Frenchman's hands rise and fall, clenched, and his teeth
close on his lip to stay its trembling. He swallowed in his throat
once or twice. Then he went on in a very low, hissing voice."

"Gentlemen, I swear to you by God Almighty that this was what I saw. I
kept my eyes on the bread and meat. It lay there beneath my eyes, and
yet I saw, too, the good Father Lasserre lean forward to the woman
again, and heard him begin, 'Exorcizo te...'"

"And then this happened--this happened..."

"The bread and the meat corrupted themselves to worms before my
eyes..."

Father Meuron dashed forward, turned round and dropped into his chair
as the two English priests on either side sprang to their feet.

In a few minutes he was able to tell us that all had ended well; that
the woman had been presently found in her right mind, after an
incident or two that I will take leave to omit; and that the apparent
paroxysm of nature that had accompanied the words of the third
exorcism had passed away as suddenly as it had come.

Then we went to night-prayers and fortified ourselves against the
dark.



THE END



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