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THE LAME PRIEST
BY S. CARLTON
IF the air had not been December's, I should have said there was balm in it. Balm there was, to me, in the sight of the road before me. The first snow of winter had been falling for an hour or more; the barren hill was white with it. What wind there was was behind me, and I stopped to look my fill.
The long slope stretched up till it met the sky, the softly rounded white of it melting into the gray clouds — the dove-brown clouds — that touched the summit, brooding, infinitely gentle. From my feet led the track, sheer white, where old infrequent wheels had marked two channels for the snow to lie; in the middle a clear filmy brown, — not the shadow of a color, but the light of one; and the gray and white and brown of it all was veiled and strange with the blue-gray mist of falling snow. So quiet, so kind, it fell, I could not move for looking at it, though I was not halfway home.
My eyes are not very good. I could not tell what made that brown light in the middle of the track till I was on it, and saw it was only grass standing above the snow; tall, thin, feathery autumn grass, dry and withered. It was so beautiful I was sorry to walk on it.
I stood looking down at it, and then, because I had to get on, lifted my eyes to the skyline. There was something black there, very big against the low sky; very
swift, too, on its feet, for I had scarcely wondered what it was before it had come so close that I saw it was a man, a priest in his black soutane. I never saw any man who moved so fast without running. He was close to me, at my side, passing me even as I thought it.
“You are hurried, father,” said I, meaning to be civil.
I see few persons in my house, twelve miles from the settlement, and I had my curiosity to know where this strange priest was going. For he was a stranger.
“To the churchyard, my brother — to the churchyard,” he answered, in a chanting voice, yet not the chanting you hear in churches. He was past me as he spoke - five yards past me down the hill.
The churchyard! Yes, there was a burying. Young John Noel was dead these three days. I heard that in the village.
“This priest will be late," I thought, wondering why young John must have two priests to bury him. Father Moore was enough for everyone else. And then I wondered why he had called me “brother."
I turned to watch him down the hill, and saw what I had not seen before. The man was lame. His left foot hirpled, either in trick or infirmity. In the shallow snow his track lay black and uneven where the sound foot had taken the weight. I do not know why, but that black track had a desolate look on the white ground, and the black priest hurrying down the hill looked desolate, too. There was something infinitely lonely, infinitely pathetic in that scurrying figure, indistinct through the falling snow.
I had grown chilled standing, and it made me shiver; or else it was the memory of the gaunt face, the eyes that
did not look at me, the incredible, swift lameness of the strange priest. However it was, virtue had gone from me. I went on to the top of the hill without much spirit, and into the woods. And in the woods the kindliness had gone from the snowfall. The familiar rocks and stumps were unfamiliar, threatening. Half a dozen times I wondered what a certain thing could be that crouched before me in the dusk, only to find it a rotten log, a boulder in the bare bushes. Whether I hurried faster than I knew, for that unfriendliness around me, I did not trouble to think, but I was in a wringing sweat when I came out at my own clearing. As I crossed it to my door something startled me what, I do not know. It was only a faint sound, far off, unknown, unrecognizable, but unpleasing. I forgot the door was latched (I leave my house by the window when I go out for the day) and pushed it sharply. It gave to my hand. There was no stranger inside, at least. An old Indian sat by the smouldering fire, with my dog at his feet.
“Andrew!” said I. “Is anything wrong?”
I had it always in my mind, when he came unexpectedly, that his wife might be dead. She had been smoking her pipe and dying these ten years back.
“I don' know.” The old man smiled as he carefully shut and barred the door I had left ajar. “He want tobacco, so I come. You good man to me. You not home; I wait and make supper; my meat.” He nodded proudly at the dull embers, and I saw he had an open pot on them, with a hacked-off joint of moose meat. “I make him stew.
He had done the same thing before, a sort of tacit payment for the tobacco he wanted. I was glad to see him,
for I was so hot and tired from my walk home that I knew I must be getting old very fast. It is not good to sit alone in a shack of a winter's night and know you are getting old very fast.
When there was no more moose meat we drew to the fire. Outside the wind had risen full of a queer wailing that sounded something like the cry of a loon. I saw Andrew was not ready to start for home, though he had his hat on his head, and I realized I had not got out the tobacco. But when I put it on the table he let it lie.
“You keep me here to-night?” he asked, without a smile, almost anxiously. “Bad night, to-night. Too long way home.”
I was pleased enough, but I asked if the old woman would be lonely.
“He get tobacco to-morrow.” (Andrew had but the masculine third person singular; and why have more, when that serves?) “Girl with him when I come. Tomorrow
He listened for an instant to the wind, stared into the fire, and threw so mighty a bark-covered log on it that the flames flew up the chimney.
“Red deer come back to this country!” exclaimed he irrelevantly. “Come down from Maine. Wolves come back, too, over the north ice. I s'pose smell 'em? I don' know."
I nodded. I knew both things, having nothing but such things to know in the corner of God's world I call my own.
Andrew filled his pipe. If I had not been used to him, I could never have seen his eyes were not on it, but on me,
“To-morrow,” he harked back abruptly, “we go’way. Break up here; go down Lake Mooin."
“Why?” I was astounded. He had not shifted camp for years.
“I say red deer back. Not good here any more.”
“But – ” I wondered for half a minute if he could be afraid of the few stray wolves which had certainly come, from Heaven knew how far, the winter before. But I knew that was nonsense. It must be something about the deer. How was I to know what his mind got out of them?
“No good,” he repeated. He lifted his long brown hand solemnly, — “No good here. You come too.”
I laughed. “I'm too old! Andrew, who was the strange priest I met to-day crossing the upland farm?”
“Father Moore — no? Father Underhill?” “No. Thin, tired-looking, lame.”
“Lame! Drag leg? Hurry?". I had never seen him so excited, never seen him stop in full career as now. “I don' know.” It was a different man speaking. “Strange priest, not belong here. You come Lake Mooin with
“Tell me about the priest first” – though I knew it was useless as I ordered it.
He spat into the fire. “Lame dog, lame woman, lame priest — all no good!” said he. “What time late you sit up here?”
Not late that night, assuredly. I was more tired than I wanted to own. But long after I had gone to my bunk in the corner I saw Andrew's wrinkled face listening in the firelight. He played with something in his hand, and I knew there was that in his mind which he would