Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 171

   

“I am not sure that I remember,” he said politely, and went out.

56

CONFESSIONS OF THE FLESH

He woke a little before dawn. It was still black dark, but the air had changed; the embers had burned to staleness and the forest’s breath moved past his face.

Alexandre was gone. He lay alone under the tattered deerskin, very cold.

“Alexandre?” he whispered hoarsely. “Père Ferigault?”

“I am here.” The young priest’s voice was soft, somehow remote, though he sat no more than a yard away.

Roger rose up on one elbow, squinting. Once the sleep had left his eyes, he could see dimly. Alexandre was sitting cross-legged, his back very straight, his face turned up to the square of the smokehole overhead.

“Are you all right?” One side of the priest’s neck was stained dark with blood, though his face—what Roger could see of it—seemed serene.

“They will kill me soon. Perhaps today.”

Roger sat up, clutching the deerskin to his chest. He was already cold; the calm tone of this froze him.

“No,” he said, and had to cough to clear his throat of soot. “No, they won’t.”

Alexandre didn’t bother contradicting him. Didn’t move. He sat nak*d, oblivious of the cold morning air, looking up. At last he lowered his gaze, and turned his head toward Roger.

“Will you hear my confession?”

“I’m not a priest.” Roger scrambled to his knees and scuffled across the floor, the skin held awkwardly before him. “Here, you’ll freeze. Get under this.”

“It does not matter.”

Roger wasn’t sure whether he meant being cold didn’t matter, or whether Roger’s not being a priest didn’t matter. He laid a hand on Alexandre’s bare shoulder. Whether it mattered or not, the man was cold as ice.

Roger sat down next to Alexandre, as close as could be managed, and spread the skin over them both. Roger could feel his own skin ripple into gooseflesh where the other man’s icy skin touched him, but it didn’t trouble him; he leaned closer, wanting urgently to give Alexandre some of his own warmth.

“Your father,” Alexandre said. He had turned his head; his breath touched Roger’s face, and his eyes were dark holes in his face. “You told me he was a priest.”

“A minister. Yes, but I’m not.”

He sensed, rather than saw, the other’s small gesture of dismissal.

“In time of need, any man may do the office of a priest,” Alexandre said. Cold fingers touched Roger’s thigh, briefly. “Will you hear my confession?”

“If that’s—yes, if you like.” He felt awkward, but it couldn’t hurt, and if it helped the other at all…The hut, and the village outside, were quiet around them. There was no sound but the wind in the pine trees.

He cleared his throat. Did Alexandre mean to begin, or was he to say something first?

As though the sound had been a signal, the Frenchman turned to face him, bowing his head so the soft light smoothed the gold hair of his crown.

“Bless me, brother, for I have sinned,” Alexandre said in a low voice. And with his head bowed, hands folded in his lap, he made confession.

Sent out from Detroit with an escort of Hurons, he had ventured down the river as far as the settlement of Ste. Berthe de Ronvalle, to relieve the elderly priest in charge of the mission, whose health had broken down.

“I was happy there,” Alexandre said, in the half-dreaming voice that men use for events that have taken place decades ago. “It was a wild place, but I was very young, and ardent in my faith. I welcomed hardship.”

Young? The priest couldn’t be much older than himself.

Alexandre shrugged, dismissing the past.

“I spent two years with the Huron, and converted many. Then I went with a group of them to Ft. Stanwix, where there was a great gathering of the tribes of the region. There I met Kennyanisi-t’ago, a war chief of the Mohawk. He heard me preach, and being moved of the Holy Spirit, invited me to return with him to his village.”

The Mohawk were notoriously wary of conversion; it had seemed a heaven-sent chance. So Père Ferigault had traveled down the river by canoe, in company with Kennyanisi-t’ago and his warriors.

“That was my first sin,” he said quietly. “Pride.” He lifted one finger to Roger, as though suggesting that he keep count. “Still, God was with me.” The Mohawk had sided with the English during the recent French and Indian War, and were more than suspicious of the young French priest. He had persevered, learning the Mohawk language, that he might preach to them in their own tongue.

He had succeeded in converting a number of the village, though by no means all. However, among his converts was the war chief, so he was protected from interference. Unfortunately, the sachem of the village opposed his influence, and there was continued uneasiness between Christian and non-Christian in the village.

The priest licked dry lips, then picked up the water jar and drank.

“And then,” he said, taking a deep breath, “then I committed my second sin.”

He had fallen in love with one of his own converts.

“Had you had women, before—?” Roger choked off the question, but Alexandre answered quite simply, without hesitation.

“No, never.” There was a breath there, not quite a laugh, of bitter self-mockery. “I had thought I was immune to that temptation. But man is frail in the face of Satan’s fleshly lures.”

He had lived in the girl’s longhouse for some months. Then, one morning, he had risen early, and going to the stream to wash, had seen his own reflection in the water.

“There was a sudden disturbance in the water, and the surface broke. A huge and gaping mouth rose through the surface, shattering the reflection of my face.”

It had been no more than a rising trout, leaping for a dragonfly, but the priest, shaken by the experience, had seen it as a sign from God that his soul was in danger of being swallowed by the mouth of Hell. He had gone at once to the longhouse and removed his things, going to live alone in a small shelter outside the village. However, he had left his lover pregnant.

“Was that what caused the trouble that brought you here?” Roger asked.

“No, not in itself. They do not see matters of marriage and morality as we do,” Alexandre explained. “Women take men as they will, and marriage is an agreement that endures so long as the partners are in amity; if they should fall out, then the woman may expel the man from her house—or he may leave. The children, if there are children, stay with the mother.”

“But then—”

“The difficulty was that I had always, as a priest, refused to baptize infants unless both parents were Christian and in a state of grace. This is necessary, you understand, if the child is to be raised in faith—for the Indians are inclined otherwise to view the sacrament of baptism as no more than one of their pagan rituals.”

Alexandre drew a deep breath.

“And of course I could not baptize this child. This offended and horrified Kennyanisi-t’ago, who insisted that I must do so. Upon my refusing, he ordered me to be tortured. My—the girl—interceded for me, and was abetted in this by her mother and several other influential persons.”

Consequently the village had been torn by controversy and schism, and at last the sachem had decreed that they must take Père Alexandre to Onyarekenata, where an impartial council might judge what must be done to restore the harmony amongst them.

Roger scratched at his beard;perhaps the Indian dislike of hairy Europeans was the association with lice.

“I am afraid I don’t quite understand,” he said carefully. “You refused to baptize your own child because the mother was not a good Christian?”

Alexandre looked surprised.

“Ah, non! She retains her faith—though she would have every excuse if she did not,” he added ruefully. He sighed. “No. I cannot baptize the child, not because of its mother—but because its father is not in a state of grace.”

Roger rubbed his forehead, hoping his face didn’t betray his astonishment.

“Ah. Is this why you wished to make confession to me? That you might be restored to a state of grace, and thus able to—”

The priest stopped him with a small gesture. He sat quietly for a moment, slender shoulders slumped. He must have brushed his wound accidentally; the clotted mass had cracked, and blood was once more seeping slowly down his neck.

“Forgive me,” Alexandre said. “I should not have asked you; it was only that I was so grateful to be able to speak in my own language; I could not resist the temptation to ease my soul by telling you. But it is no good; there can be no absolution for me.”

The man’s despair was so plain, Roger laid a hand on the priest’s forearm, wanting urgently to assuage it.

“Are you sure? You said that in time of need—”

“It is not that.” He laid his hand on top of Roger’s, squeezing tight, as though he might draw strength from the other’s grip.

Roger said nothing. After a moment, Alexandre’s head rose and the priest looked him in the face. The light outside had changed; there was a faint glow, a brightness in the air just short of light. His own breath rose white from his mouth, like smoke rising toward the hole above.

“Even though I confess, I will not be forgiven. There must be true repentance in order to obtain absolution; I must reject my sin. And that I cannot do.”

He fell silent. Roger didn’t know whether to speak, or what to say. A priest, he supposed, would have said something like “Yes, my son?” but he couldn’t. Instead, he took Alexandre’s other hand in his, and held it tightly.

“My sin was to love her,” Alexandre said, very softly, “and that I cannot stop.”

57

A SHATTERED SMILE

Two Spears is agreeable. The matter must be spoken of before the Council, and accepted, but I think it will be done.” Jamie slouched against a pine tree, slumping a little in exhaustion. We had been in the village for a week; he had been with the sachem of the village for the greater part of the last three days. I had barely seen him or Ian, but had been entertained by the women, who were polite but distant. I kept my amulet carefully out of sight.

“Then they do have him?” I asked, and felt the knot of anxiety that had traveled with me for so long begin to loosen. “Roger’s really here?” So far, the Mohawks had been unwilling to admit either to Roger’s continued existence—or the alternative.

“Aye, well, as to that, the auld bugger’s no admitting it—for fear I should try to steal him away, I suppose—but either he’s here or he’s not far off. If the Council approves the bargain, we’ll exchange the whisky for the man in three days time—and be off.” He glanced at the heavy-laden clouds that hid the distant mountains. “God, I hope that’s rain coming, and not snow.”

“Do you think there’s any chance the Council won’t agree?”

He sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair. It was unbound and fell rumpled over his shoulders; evidently the negotiations had been difficult.

Loading...