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- The Companions of Jehu - 80/133 -
"Mercy!" begged the bishop.
"We were informed of your arrival, and were waiting for you."
"Mercy!" repeated the bishop for the third time.
"Have you your pontifical robes with you?"
"Yes, my friends, I have."
"Then dress yourself as a prelate; it is long since we have seen one."
A trunk marked with the prelate's name was taken from the diligence and opened. They took the bishop's robes from it, and handed them to Audrein, who put them on. Then, when every vestment was in its place, the peasants ranged themselves in a circle, each with his musket in his hand. The glare of the torches was reflected on the barrels, casting evil gleams.
Two men took the priest and led him into the circle, supporting him beneath his arms. He was pale as death. There was a moment of lugubrious silence.
A voice broke it. It was that of Sabre-tout.
"We are about to judge you," said the Chouan. "Priest of God, you have betrayed the Church; child of France, you have condemned your king to death."
"Alas! alas!" stammered the priest.
"Is it true?"
"I do not deny it."
"Because it is impossible to deny. What have you to say in justification?"
"We are not citizens," cried Sabre-tout, in a voice thunder, "we are royalists."
"We are not gentlemen; we are Chouans."
"We are not your friends; we are your judges. You judges are questioning you; answer."
"I repent of what I did, and I ask pardon of God and men."
"Men cannot pardon you," replied the same implacable voice; "for, pardoned to-day, you would sin to-morrow. You may change your skin, but never your heart. You have nothing to expect from men but death; as for God, implore his mercy."
The regicide bowed his head; the renegade bent his knee. But suddenly drawing himself up, he cried: "I voted the king's death, it is true, but with a reservation--"
"The time of the execution."
"Sooner or later, it was still the king's death which you voted, and the king was innocent."
"True, true," said the priest, "but I was afraid."
"Then you are not only a regicide, and an apostate, but also a coward. We are not priests, but we are more just than you. You voted the death of the innocent; we vote the death of the guilty. You have ten minutes in which to prepare to meet your God."
The bishop gave a cry of terror and fell upon both knees; the church bells rang, as if of their own impulse, and two of the men present, accustomed to the offices of the church, intoned the prayers for the dying. It was some time before the bishop found words with which to respond. He turned affrighted glances in supplication to his judges one after the other, but, not one face met his with even the consolation of mere pity. The torches, flickering in the wind, lent them, on the contrary, a savage and terrible expression. Then at last he mingled his voice with the voices that were praying for him.
The judges allowed him time to follow the funeral prayer to its close. In the meantime others were preparing a pile of wood.
"Oh!" cried the priest, beholding these preparations with growing terror; "would you have the cruelty to kill me thus?"
"No," replied his inflexible accuser, "flames are the death of martyrs; you are not worthy of such a death. Apostate, the hour has come!"
"Oh, my God! my God!" cried the priest, raising his arms to heaven.
"Stand up!" said the Chouan.
The priest tried to obey, but his strength failed him, and he fell again to his knees.
"Will yon let that murder be done before your eyes?" Roland asked Cadoudal.
"I said that I washed my hands of it," replied the latter.
"Pilate said that, and Pilate's hands are to this day red with the blood of Jesus Christ."
"Because Jesus Christ was a righteous man; this man is a Barabbas."
"Kiss your cross! kiss your cross!" cried Sabre-tout.
The prelate looked at him with a terrified air, but without obeying. It was evident that he no longer saw, no longer heard.
"Oh!" cried Roland, making an effort to dismount, "it shall never be said that I let a man be murdered before me, and did not try to, save him."
A threatening murmur rose around him; his words had been overheard. That was all that was needed to excite the young man.
"Ah! is that the way of it?" he cried, carrying his hand to one of his holsters.
But with a movement rapid as thought, Cadoudal seized his hand, and, while Roland struggled vainly to free himself from this grip of iron, he shouted: "Fire!"
Twenty shots resounded instantly, and the bishop fell, an inert mass.
"Ah!" cried Roland. "What have you done?"
"Forced you to keep your promise," replied Cadoudal; "you swore to see all and hear all without offering any opposition."
"So perish all enemies of God and the king," said Sabre-tout, in a solemn voice.
"Amen!" responded the spectators with one voice of sinister unanimity.
Then they stripped the body of its sacerdotal ornaments, which they flung upon the pile of wood, invited the other travellers to take their places in the diligence, replaced the postilion in his saddle, and, opening their ranks to give passage to the coach, cried: "Go with God!"
The diligence rolled rapidly away.
"Come, let us go," cried Cadoudal, "we have still twelve miles to do, and we have lost an hour here." Then, addressing the executioners, he said: "That man was guilty; that man is punished. Human justice and divine justice are satisfied. Let prayers for the dead be said over his body, and give him Christian burial; do you hear?" And sure of being obeyed, Cadoudal put his horse to a gallop.
Roland seemed to hesitate for a moment whether to follow him or not; then, as if resolving to accomplish a duty, he said: "I will go to the end."
Spurring his horse in the direction taken by Cadoudal he reached the Chouan leader in a few strides. Both disappeared in the darkness, which grew thicker and thicker as the men left the place where the torches were illuminating the dead priest's face and the fire was consuming his vestments.
THE DIPLOMACY OF GEORGES CADOUDAL
The feeling that Roland experienced as he followed Georges Cadoudal resembled that of a man half-awakened, who is still under the influence of a dream, and returns gradually from the confines which separate night from day. He strives to discover whether the ground he walks on is that of fiction or reality, and the more he burrows in the dimness of his brain the further he buries himself in doubt.
A man existed for whom Roland felt a worship almost divine. Accustomed to live in the atmosphere of glory which surrounded that man, to see others obey his orders, and to obey them himself with a promptness and abnegation that were almost Oriental, it seemed amazing to him to encounter, at the opposite ends of France, two organized powers, enemies of the power of that man, and prepared to struggle against it. Suppose a Jew of Judas Maccabeus, a worshipper of Jehovah, having, from his infancy, heard him called the King of kings, the God of strength, of vengeance, of armies, the Eternal, coming suddenly face to face with the mysterious
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