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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 8. In Sanctuary
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 8. In Sanctuary Post by :atmytv Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :1306

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 8. In Sanctuary


When James Hurlstone reached the shelter of the shrubbery he leaned exhaustedly against the adobe wall, and looked back upon the garden he had just traversed. At its lower extremity a tall hedge of cactus reinforced the crumbling wall with a cheval de frise of bristling thorns; it was through a gap in this green barrier that he had found his way a few hours before, as his torn clothes still testified. At one side ran the low wall of the Alcalde's casa, a mere line of dark shadow in that strange diaphanous mist that seemed to suffuse all objects. The gnarled and twisted branches of pear-trees, gouty with old age, bent so low as to impede any progress under their formal avenues; out of a tangled labyrinth of figtrees, here and there a single plume of feathery palm swam in a drowsy upper radiance. The shrubbery around him, of some unknown variety, exhaled a faint perfume; he put out his hand to grasp what appeared to be a young catalpa, and found it the trunk of an enormous passion vine, that, creeping softly upward, had at last invaded the very belfry of the dim tower above him; and touching it, his soul seemed to be lifted with it out of the shadow.

The great hush and quiet that had fallen like a benediction on every sleeping thing around him; the deep and passionless repose that seemed to drop from the bending boughs of the venerable trees; the cool, restful, earthy breath of the shadowed mold beneath him, touched only by a faint jessamine-like perfume as of a dead passion, lulled the hurried beatings of his heart and calmed the feverish tremor of his limbs. He allowed himself to sink back against the wall, his hands tightly clasped before him. Gradually, the set, abstracted look of his eyes faded and became suffused, as if moistened by that celestial mist. Then he rose quickly, drew his sleeve hurriedly across his lashes, and began slowly to creep along the wall again.

Either the obscurity of the shrubbery became greater or he was growing preoccupied; but in steadying himself by the wall he had, without perceiving it, put his hand upon a rude door that, yielding to his pressure, opened noiselessly into a dark passage. Without apparent reflection he entered, followed the passage a few steps until it turned abruptly; turning with it, he found himself in the body of the Mission Church of Todos Santos. A swinging-lamp, that burned perpetually before an effigy of the Virgin Mother, threw a faint light on the single rose-window behind the high altar; another, suspended in a low archway, apparently lit the open door of the passage towards the refectory. By the stronger light of the latter Hurlstone could see the barbaric red and tarnished gold of the rafters that formed the straight roof. The walls were striped with equally bizarre coloring, half Moorish and half Indian. A few hangings of dyed and painted cloths with heavy fringes were disposed on either side of the chancel, like the flaps of a wigwam; and the aboriginal suggestion was further repeated in a quantity of colored beads and sea-shells that decked the communion-rails. The Stations of the Cross, along the walls, were commemorated by paintings, evidently by a native artist--to suit the same barbaric taste; while a larger picture of San Francisco d'Assisis, under the choir, seemed to belong to an older and more artistic civilization. But the sombre half-light of the two lamps mellowed and softened the harsh contrast of these details until the whole body of the church appeared filled with a vague harmonious shadow. The air, heavy with the odors of past incense, seemed to be a part of that expression, as if the solemn and sympathetic twilight became palpable in each deep, long-drawn inspiration.

Again overcome by the feeling of repose and peacefulness, Hurlstone sank upon a rude settle, and bent his head and folded arms over a low railing before him. How long he sat there, allowing the subtle influence to transfuse and possess his entire being, he did not know. The faint twitter of birds suddenly awoke him. Looking up, he perceived that it came from the vacant square of the tower above him, open to the night and suffused with its mysterious radiance. In another moment the roof of the church was swiftly crossed and recrossed with tiny and adventurous wings. The mysterious light had taken an opaline color. Morning was breaking.

The slow rustling of a garment, accompanied by a soft but heavy tread, sounded from the passage. He started to his feet as the priest, whom he had seen on the deck of the Excelsior, entered the church from the refectory. The Padre was alone. At the apparition of a stranger, torn and disheveled, he stopped involuntarily and cast a hasty look towards the heavy silver ornaments on the altar. Hurlstone noticed it, and smiled bitterly.

"Don't alarm yourself. I only sought this place for shelter."

He spoke in French--the language he had heard Padre Esteban address to Mrs. Brimmer. But the priest's quick eye had already detected his own mistake. He lifted his hand with a sublime gesture towards the altar, and said,--

"You are right! Where should you seek shelter but here?"

The reply was so unexpected that Hurlstone was silent. His lips quivered slightly.

"And if it were SANCTUARY I was seeking?" he said.

"You would first tell me why you sought it," said Padre Esteban gently.

Hurlstone looked at him irresolutely for a moment and then said, with the hopeless desperation of a man anxious to anticipate his fate,--

"I am a passenger on the ship you boarded yesterday. I came ashore with the intention of concealing myself somewhere here until she had sailed. When I tell you that I am not a fugitive from justice, that I have committed no offense against the ship or her passengers, nor have I any intention of doing so, but that I only wish concealment from their knowledge for twenty-four hours, you will know enough to understand that you run no risk in giving me assistance. I can tell you no more."

"I did not see you with the other passengers, either on the ship or ashore," said the priest. "How did you come here?"

"I swam ashore before they left. I did not know they had any idea of landing here; I expected to be the only one, and there would have been no need for concealment then. But I am not lucky," he added, with a bitter laugh.

The priest glanced at his garments, which bore the traces of the sea, but remained silent.

"Do you think I am lying?"

The old priest lifted his head with a gesture.

"Not to me--but to God!"

The young man followed the gesture, and glanced around the barbaric church with a slight look of scorn. But the profound isolation, the mystic seclusion, and, above all, the complete obliteration of that world and civilization he shrank from and despised, again subdued and overcame his rebellious spirit. He lifted his eyes to the priest.

"Nor to God," he said gravely.

"Then why withhold anything from Him here?" said the priest gently.

"I am not a Catholic--I do not believe in confession," said Hurlstone doggedly, turning aside.

But Padre Esteban laid his large brown hand on the young man's shoulder. Touched by some occult suggestion in its soft contact, he sank again into his seat.

"Yet you ask for the sanctuary of His house--a sanctuary bought by that contrition whose first expression is the bared and open soul! To the first worldly shelter you sought--the peon's hut or the Alcalde's casa--you would have thought it necessary to bring a story. You would not conceal from the physician whom you asked for balsam either the wound, the symptoms, or the cause? Enough," he said kindly, as Hurlstone was about to reply. "You shall have your request. You shall stay here. I will be your physician, and will salve your wounds; if any poison I know not of rankle there, you will not blame me, son, but perhaps you will assist me to find it. I will give you a secluded cell in the dormitory until the ship has sailed. And then"--

He dropped quietly on the settle, took the young man's hand paternally in his own, and gazed into his eyes as if he read his soul.

And then . . . Ah, yes . . . What then? Hurlstone glanced once more around him. He thought of the quiet night; of the great peace that had fallen upon him since he had entered the garden, and the promise of a greater peace that seemed to breathe with the incense from those venerable walls. He thought of that crumbling barrier, that even in its ruin seemed to shut out, more completely than anything he had conceived, his bitter past, and the bitter world that recalled it. He thought of the long days to come, when, forgetting and forgotten, he might find a new life among these simple aliens, themselves forgotten by the world. He had thought of this once before in the garden; it occurred to him again in this Lethe-like oblivion of the little church, in the kindly pressure of the priest's hand. The ornaments no longer looked uncouth and barbaric--rather they seemed full of some new spiritual significance. He suddenly lifted his eyes to Padre Esteban, and, half rising to his feet, said,--

"Are we alone?"

"We are; it is a half-hour yet before mass," said the priest.

"My story will not last so long," said the young man hurriedly, as if fearing to change his mind. "Hear me, then--it is no crime nor offense to any one; more than that, it concerns no one but myself--it is of"--

"A woman," said the priest softly. "So! we will sit down, my son."

He lifted his hand with a soothing gesture--the movement of a physician who has just arrived at an easy diagnosis of certain uneasy symptoms. There was also a slight suggestion of an habitual toleration, as if even the seclusion of Todos Santos had not been entirely free from the invasion of the primal passion.

Hurlstone waited for an instant, but then went on rapidly.

"It is of a woman, who has cursed my life, blasted my prospects, and ruined my youth; a woman who gained my early affection only to blight and wither it; a woman who should be nearer to me and dearer than all else, and yet who is further than the uttermost depths of hell from me in sympathy or feeling; a woman that I should cleave to, but from whom I have been flying, ready to face shame, disgrace, oblivion, even that death which alone can part us: for that woman is--my wife."

He stopped, out of breath, with fixed eyes and a rigid mouth. Father Esteban drew a snuff-box from his pocket, and a large handkerchief. After blowing his nose violently, he took a pinch of snuff, wiped his lip, and replaced the box.

"A bad habit, my son," he said apologetically, "but an old man's weakness. Go on."

"I met her first five years ago--the wife of another man. Don't misjudge me, it was no lawless passion; it was a friendship, I believed, due to her intellectual qualities as much as to her womanly fascinations; for I was a young student, lodging in the same house with her, in an academic town. Before I ever spoke to her of love, she had confided to me her own unhappiness--the uncongeniality of her married life, the harshness, and even brutality, of her husband. Even a man less in love than I was could have seen the truth of this--the contrast of the coarse, sensual, and vulgar man with an apparently refined and intelligent woman; but any one else except myself would have suspected that such a union was not merely a sacrifice of the woman. I believed her. It was not until long afterwards that I learned that her marriage had been a condonation of her youthful errors by a complaisant bridegroom; that her character had been saved by a union that was a mutual concession. But I loved her madly; and when she finally got a divorce from her uncongenial husband, I believed it less an expression of her love for me than an act of justice. I did not know at the time that they had arranged the divorce together, as they had arranged their marriage, by equal concessions.

"I was the only son of a widowed mother, whose instincts were from the first opposed to my friendship with this woman, and what she prophetically felt would be its result. Unfortunately, both she and my friends were foolish enough to avow their belief that the divorce was obtained solely with a view of securing me as a successor; and it was this argument more than any other that convinced me of my duty to protect her. Enough, I married, not only in spite of all opposition--but BECAUSE of it.

"My mother would have reconciled herself to the marriage, but my wife never forgave the opposition, and, by some hellish instinct divining that her power over me might be weakened by maternal influence, precipitated a quarrel which forever separated us. With the little capital left by my father, divided between my mother and myself, I took my wife to a western city. Our small income speedily dwindled under the debts of her former husband, which she had assumed to purchase her freedom. I endeavored to utilize a good education and some accomplishments in music and the languages by giving lessons and by contributing to the press. In this my wife first made a show of assisting me, but I was not long in discovering that her intelligence was superficial and shallow, and that the audacity of expression, which I had believed to be originality of conviction, was simply shamelessness, and a desire for notoriety. She had a facility in writing sentimental poetry, which had been efficacious in her matrimonial confidences, but which editors of magazines and newspapers found to be shallow and insincere. To my astonishment, she remained unaffected by this, as she was equally impervious to the slights and sneers that continually met us in society. At last the inability to pay one of her former husband's claims brought to me a threat and an anonymous letter. I laid them before her, when a scene ensued which revealed the blindness of my folly in all its hideous hopelessness: she accused me of complicity in her divorce, and deception in regard to my own fortune. In a speech, whose language was a horrible revelation of her early habits, she offered to arrange a divorce from me as she had from her former husband. She gave as a reason her preference for another, and her belief that the scandal of a suit would lend her a certain advertisement and prestige. It was a combination of Messalina and Mrs. Jarley"--

"Pardon! I remember not a Madame Jarley," said the priest.

"Of viciousness and commercial calculation," continued Hurlstone hurriedly. "I don't remember what happened; she swore that I struck her! Perhaps--God knows! But she failed, even before a western jury, to convict me of cruelty. The judge that thought me half insane would not believe me brutal, and her application for divorce was lost.

"I need not tell you that the same friends who had opposed my marriage now came forward to implore me to allow her to break our chains. I refused. I swear to you it was from no lingering love for her, for her presence drove me mad; it was from no instinct of revenge or jealousy, for I should have welcomed the man who would have taken her out of my life and memory. But I could not bear the idea of taking her first husband's place in her hideous comedy; I could not purchase my freedom at that price--at any price. I was told that I could get a divorce against HER, and stand forth before the world untrammeled and unstained. But I could not stand before MYSELF in such an attitude. I knew that the shackles I had deliberately forged could not be loosened except by death. I knew that the stains of her would cling to me and become a part of my own sin, even as the sea I plunged into yesterday to escape her, though it has dried upon me, has left its bitter salt behind.

"When she knew my resolve, she took her revenge by dragging my name through the successive levels to which she descended. Under the plea that the hardly-earned sum I gave to her maintenance apart from me was not sufficient, she utilized her undoubted beauty and more doubtful talent in amateur entertainments--and, finally, on the stage. She was openly accompanied by her lover, who acted as her agent, in the hope of goading me to a divorce. Suddenly she disappeared. I thought she had forgotten me. I obtained an honorable position in New York. One night I entered a theater devoted to burlesque opera and the exhibition of a popular actress, known as the Western Thalia, whose beautiful and audaciously draped figure was the talk of the town. I recognized my wife in this star of nudity; more than that, she recognized me. The next day, in addition to the usual notice, the real name of the actress was given in the morning papers, with a sympathizing account of her romantic and unfortunate marriage. I renounced my position, and, taking advantage of an offer from an old friend in California, resolved to join him secretly there. My mother had died broken-hearted; I was alone in the world. But my wife discovered my intention; and when I reached Callao, I heard that she had followed me, by way of the Isthmus of Panama, and that probably she would anticipate me in Mazatlan, where we were to stop. The thought of suicide haunted me during the rest of that horrible voyage; only my belief that she would make it appear as a tacit confession of my guilt saved me from that last act of weakness."

He stopped and shuddered. Padre Esteban again laid his hand softly upon him.

"It was God who spared you that sacrifice of soul and body," he said gently.

"I thought it was God that suggested to me to take the SIMULATION of that act the means of separating myself from her forever. When we neared Mazatlan, I conceived the idea of hiding myself in the hold of the Excelsior until she had left that port, in the hope that it would be believed that I had fallen overboard. I succeeded in secreting myself, but was discovered at the same time that the unexpected change in the ship's destination rendered concealment unnecessary. As we did not put in at Mazatlan, nobody suspected my discovery in the hold to be anything but the accident that I gave it out to be. I felt myself saved the confrontation of the woman at Mazatlan; but I knew she would pursue me to San Francisco.

"The strange dispensation of Providence that brought us into this unknown port gave me another hope of escape and oblivion. While you and the Commander were boarding the Excelsior, I slipped from the cabin-window into the water; I was a good swimmer, and reached the shore in safety. I concealed myself in the ditch of the Presidio until I saw the passengers' boats returning with them, when I sought the safer shelter of this Mission. I made my way through a gap in the hedge and lay under your olive-trees, hearing the voices of my companions, beyond the walls, till past midnight. I then groped my way along the avenue of pear-trees till I came to another wall, and a door that opened to my accidental touch. I entered, and found myself here. You know the rest."

He had spoken with the rapid and unpent fluency of a man who cared more to relieve himself of an oppressive burden than to impress his auditor; yet the restriction of a foreign tongue had checked repetition or verbosity. Without imagination he had been eloquent; without hopefulness he had been convincing. Father Esteban rose, holding both his hands.

"My son, in the sanctuary which you have claimed there is no divorce. The woman who has ruined your life could not be your wife. As long as her first husband lives, she is forever his wife, bound by a tie which no human law can sever!"

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