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Chapter 21

It was the custom in those days, in the Church of Rome, to give the title of arch-priest to one of the most respectable and able priests, among twelve or fifteen others, by whom he was surrounded. That title was the token of some superior power, which was granted to him over his confreres, who, in consequence, should consult him in certain difficult matters.

As a general thing, those priests lived in the most cordial and fraternal unity, and, to make the bond of that union stronger and more pleasant, they were, in turn, in the habit of giving a grand dinner every Thursday.

In 1834 those dinners were really state affairs. Several days in advance, preparations were made on a grand scale, to collect everything that could please the taste of the guests. The best wines were purchased. The fattest turkeys, chickens, lambs, or sucking pigs were hunted up. The most delicate pastries were brought from the city, or made at home, at any cost. The rarest and most costly fruits and desserts were ordered. There was a strange emulation among those curates, who would surpass his neighbours. Several extra hands were engaged, some days before, to help the ordinary servants to prepare the "GRAND DINNER."

The second Thursday of May, 1834, was Mr. Perras' turn, and at twelve o'clock noon, we were fifteen priests seated around the table.

I must here render homage to the sobriety and perfect moral habits of the Rev. Mr. Perras. Though he took his social glass of wine, as it was the universal usage at that time, I never saw him drink more than a couple of glasses at the same meal. I wish I could say the same thing of all those who were at his table that day.

Never did I see, before nor after, a table covered with so many tempting and delicate viands. The good curate had surpassed himself, and I would hardly be believed, were I to give the number of dishes and covers, plates et entreplates, which loaded the table. I will only mention a splendid salmon, which was the first brought to Quebec that year, for which Mr. Amoit, the purveyor for the priests around the capital, had paid twelve dollars.

There was only one lady at that dinner, Miss Perras, sister of the curate. However, she was not at all embarrassed by finding herself along among those jolly celebataires, and she looked like a queen at the head of the table. Her sweet and watchful eyes were everywhere to see the wants of her guests. She had an amiable word for every one of them. With the utmost grace she pressed the Rev. Mr. A. to try that wing of turkey she was so gently remonstrating with the Rev. Mr. B. for his not eating more, and she was so eloquent in requesting them all to taste of this dish, or of that; which was quite a new thing in Canada. And her young chickens! who could refuse to accept one of them, after she had told their story: how, three months before, in view of this happy day, she had so cajoled the big black hen to hatch over sixteen eggs in the kitchen; what a world of trouble she had, when the little dog was coming in, and she (the hen) was rushing at him! how, many times, she had to stop the combatants, and force them to live in peace! and what desolation swept over her mind, when, in a dark night, the rats had dragged into their holes, three of her newly-hatched chickens! how she had got a cat to destroy the rats; and, how in escaping Scylla, she was thrown on Charybdis, when, three days after, the cat made his dinner of two of her dear little chickens; for which crime, committed in open day, before several witnesses, the sentence of death was passed and executed, without benefit of clergy.

Now where would they find young chickens in the month of May, in the neighbourhood of Quebec, when the snow had scarcely disappeared?

These stories, given with an art which no pen can reproduce, were not finished before the delicate chickens had disappeared in the hungry mouths of he cheerful guests.

One of the most remarkable features of these dinners was the levity, the absolute want of seriousness and gravity. Not a word was said in my presence, there, which could indicate that these men had anything else to do in this world but to eat and drink, tell and hear merry stories, laugh and lead a jolly life!

I was the youngest of those priests. Only a few months before, I was in the Seminary of Nicolet, learning from my grave old superior, lessons of priestly life, very different from what I had there under my eyes. I had not yet forgotten the austere preaching of self-denial, mortification, austerity and crucifixion of the flesh, which were to fill up the days of a priest!

Though, at first, I was pleased with all I saw, heard and tasted; though I heartily laughed with the rest of the guests, at their bon mots, their spicy stories about their fair penitents, or at the funny caricatures they drew of each other, as well as of absent ones, I felt, by turns, uneasy. Now and then the lessons of priestly life, received from the lips of my venerable and dear Mr. Leprohon, were knocking hard at the door of my conscience. Some words of the Holy Scriptures which, more than others, had adhered to my memory, were also making a strange noise in my soul. My own common sense was telling me, that this was not quite the way Christ taught His disciples to live.

I made a great effort to stifle these troublesome voices. Sometimes I succeeded, and then I became cheerful: but a moment after I was overpowered by them, and I felt chilled, as if I had perceived on the walls of the festive room, the finger of my angry God, writing "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN." Then all my cheerfulness vanished, and I felt so miserable that, in spite of all my efforts to look happy, the Rev. Mr. Paquette, curate of St. Gervais, observed it on my face. That priest was probably the one who most enjoyed everything of that feast. Under the snowy mantle of sixty-five years, he had kept the warm heart and the joviality of youth. He was considered one of our most wealthy curates, and he richly deserved the reputation of being the most epicurean of them all. He was a perfect cook, and with his chaplet or his breviarium in hand, he used to pass a great part of the day in his kitchen, giving orders about broiling this beefsteak, or preparing this fricassee, and that gravy a la Francaise. He was loved by all his confreres, but particularly by the young priests, who were the objects of his constant attentions. He had always been exceedingly kind to me, and when in his neighbourhood, I dare say that my most pleasant hours were those passed in his parsonage.

Looking at me in the very moment when my whole intellectual being was, in spite of myself, under the darkest cloud, he said: "My dear little Father Chiniquy, are you falling into the hands of some blue devils, when we are all so happy? You were so cheerful half-an-hour ago! What is the matter with you now? Are you sick? You look as grave and anxious as Jonah, when in the big whale's stomach! What is the matter with you? Has any of your fair penitents left you, to go to confess to another, lately?"

At these funny questions, the dining-room was shaken with the convulsive laughter of the priests. I wished I could join in with the rest of my confreres; for it seemed to me very clear that I was making a fool of myself by this singularity of demeanor. But there was no help for it; for a moment before I had seen that the servant girls had blushed; they had been scandalized by a very improper word from the lips of a young priest about one of his young female penitents; a word which he would, surely, never have uttered, had he not drank too much wine. I answered; "I am much obliged to you for your kind interest, I find myself much honoured to be here in your midst; but as the brightest days are not without clouds, so it is with us all sometimes. I am young, and without experience; I have not yet learned to look at certain things in their proper light. When older, I hope I shall be wiser, and not make an ass of myself as I do today."

"Tah! tah! tah!" said old Mr. Paquette, "this is not the hour of dark clouds and blue devils. Be cheerful, as it behooves your age. There will be hours enough in the rest of your life for sadness and somber thoughts. This is the hour for laughing and being merry. Sad thoughts for to-morrow." And appealing to all, he asked, "Is not this correct, gentlemen?"

"Yes, yes," unanimously rejoined all the guests.

"Now," said the old priest, "you see that the verdict of the jury is unanimously in my favour and against you. Give up those airs of sadness, which do not answer in the presence of those bottles of champagne. Your gravity is an anachronism when we have such good wines before us. Tell me the reason of your grief, and I pledge myself to console you, and make you happy as you were at the beginning of the dinner."

"I would have liked better that you should have continued to enjoy this pleasant hour without noticing me," I answered. "Please excuse me if I do not trouble you with the causes of my personal folly."

"Well, well," said Mr. Paquette, "I see it, the cause of your trouble is that we have not yet drank together a single glass of sherry. Fill your glass with that wine, and it will surely drown the blue devil which I see at its bottom."

"With pleasure," I said; "I feel much honoured to drink with you," and I put some drops of wine into my glass.

"Oh! oh! what do I see you doing there? Only a few drops in your glass! This will not even wet the cloven feet of the blue devil which is tormenting you. It requires a full glass, an over-flowing glass to drown and finish him. Fill, then, your glass with that precious wine the best I ever tasted in my whole life."

"But I cannot drink more than those few drops," I said.

"Why not?" he replied.

"Because, eight days before her death, my mother wrote me a letter, requesting me to promise her that I would never drink more than two glasses of wine at the same meal. I gave her that promise in my answer, and the very day she got my pledge, she left this world to convey it, written on her heart, into heaven, to the feet of her God!"

"Keep that sacred pledge," answered the old curate; "but tell me why you are so sad when we are so happy?"

"You already know part of my reasons if I had drunk as much wine as my neighbour, the vicar of St. Gervais, I would probably have filled the room with my shouts of joy as he does; but you see now that the hands of my deceased, though always dear mother, are on my glass to prevent me from filling it any more, for I have already drank two glasses of wine."

"But your sadness, in such a circumstance, is so strange, that we would all like to know its cause."

"Yes, yes," said all the priests. "You know that we like you, and we deeply feel for you. Please tell us the reason of this sadness."

I then answered, "It would be better for me to keep my own secret: for I know I will make a fool of myself here: but as you are unanimous in requesting me to give you the reasons of the mental agony through which I am just passing, you will have them.

"You well know that, through very singular circumstances, I have been prevented, till this day, from attending any of your grand dinners. Twice I had to go to Quebec on these occasions, sometimes I was not well enough to be present several times I was called to visit some dying person, and at other times the weather, or the roads were too bad to travel; this, then is the first grand dinner, attended by you all, which I have the honour of attending. "But before going any further, I must tell you that, during the eight months it has been my privilege to sit at Rev. Mr. Perras's table, I have never seen anything which could make me suspect that my eyes would see, and my ears would hear such things in this parsonage, as have just taken place. Sobriety, moderation, truly evangelical temperance in drink and food were the invariable rule. Never a word was said which could make our poor servant girls, or the angels of God blush. Would to God that I had not been here today! For, I tell you, honestly, that I am scandalized by the epicurean table which is before us; by the enormous quantity of delicate viands and the incredible number of bottles of most costly wines, emptied at this dinner.

"However, I hope I am mistaken in my appreciation of what I have seen and heard I hope you are all right and that I am wrong. I am the youngest of you all. It is not my business to teach you, but it is my duty to be taught by you.

"Now, I have given you my mind, because you so pressingly requested me to do it, as honestly as human language will allow me to do. I have the right, I hope, to request you to tell me, as honestly, if I am, and in what I am wrong or right!"

"Oh! oh! my dear Chiniquy," replied the old curate, "you hold the stick by the wrong end. Are we not the children of God?"

"Yes, sir," I answered, "we are the children of God."

"Now, does not a loving father give what he considers the best part of his goods to his beloved children?"

"Yes, sir," I replied.

"Is not that loving father pleased when he sees his beloved children eat and drink the good things he has prepared for them?"

"Yes, sir," was my answer.

"Then," rejoined the logical priest, "the more we, the beloved children of God, eat of these delicate viands, and drink of those precious wines, which our Heavenly Father puts into our hands, the more He is pleased with us. The more we, the most beloved one of God, are merry and cheerful, the more He is Himself and rejoiced in His heavenly kingdom.

"But if God our Father is so pleased with what we have eaten and drunk today, why are you so sad?"

This masterpiece of argumentation was received by all (except Mr. Perras), with convulsive cries of approbation, and repeated "Bravo! bravo!"

I was too mean and too cowardly to say what I felt. I tried to conceal my increased sadness under the forced smiles of my lips, and I followed the whole party, who left the table, and went to the parlour to drink a cup of coffee. It was then half-past one p.m. At two o'clock, the whole party went to the church, where, after kneeling for a quarter of an hour before their wafer God, they fell on their knees to the feet of each other, to confess their sins, and get their pardon, in the absolution of their confessors!

At three p.m. they were all gone, and I remained alone with my venerable old curate Perras. After a few moments of silence, I said to him: "My dear Mr. Perras, I have no words to express to you my regret for what I have said at your table. I beg your pardon for every word of that unfortunate and unbecoming conversation, into which I was dragged in spite of myself; you know it. It does not do for a young priest, as I am, to criticize those whom God has put so much above him by their science, their age, and their virtues. But I was forced to give my mind, and I have given it. When I requested Mr. Paquette to tell me in what I might be wrong, I had not the least idea that he would hear, from the lips of one of our veterans in the priesthood, the blasphemous jokes he has uttered. Epicurus himself would have blushed, had he been among us, in hearing the name of God connected with such deplorable and awful impieties." Mr. Perras answered me: "Far from being displeased with what I have heard from you at this dinner, I must tell you that you have gained much in my esteem by it. I am, myself, ashamed of that dinner. We priests are the victims, like the rest of the world, of the fashions, vanities, pride and lust of that world against which we are sent to preach. The expenditure we make at those dinners is surely a crime, in the face of the misery of the people by whom we are surrounded. This is the last dinner I give with such foolish extravagance. The next time my neighbours will meet here, I will not expose them to stagger, as the greater part of them did when they rose from the table. The brave words you have uttered have done me good. They will do them good also; for though they had all eaten and drunk too much, they were not so intoxicated as not to remember what you have said."

Then, pressing my hand in his, he said, "I thank you, my good little Father Chiniquy, for the short but excellent sermon you have given us. It will not be lost. You have drawn my tears when you have shown us your saintly mother going to the feet of God in heaven, with your sacred promise written in her heart. Oh! you must have had a good mother! I knew her when she was very young. She was then, already, a very remarkable girl, for her wisdom and the dignity of her manners."

Then he left me alone in the parlour, and he went to visit a sick man in one of the neighbouring houses.

When alone I fell on my knees, to pray and weep. My soul was filled with emotions which it is impossible to express. The remembrance of my beloved mother, whose blessed name had fallen form my lips when her sacred memory filled my mind with the light and strength I needed in that hour of trial the gluttony and drunkenness of those priests, whom I was accustomed to respect and esteem so much their scandalous conversation their lewd expressions and more than all, their confessions to each other after two such hours of profanity and drinking, were more than I could endure. I could not contain myself. I wept over myself, for I felt also the burden of my sins, and I did not find myself much better than the rest, though I had not eaten or drunk quite so much as several of them I wept over my friends, whom I had seen so weak; for they were my friends. I loved them, and I knew they loved me. I wept over my church, which was served by such poor, sinful priests. Yes! I wept there, when on my knees, to my heart's content, and it did me good. But my God had another trial in store for his poor unfaithful servant.

I had not been ten minutes alone, sitting in my study, when I heard strange cries, and such a noise as if a murderer were at work to strike his victim. A door had evidently been broken open, upstairs, and someone was running down stairs as if one was wanting to break down everything. The cries of "Murder, murder!" reached my ears, and the cries of "Oh! my God! my God! where is Mr. Perras?" filled the air.

I quickly ran to the parlour to see what was the matter, and there I found myself face to face with a woman absolutely naked! Her long black hair was flowing on her shoulders; her face was pale as death her dark eyes fixed in their sockets. She stretched her hands towards me with a horrible shriek, and before I could move a step, terrified, and almost paralyzed as I was, she seized my two arms with her hands, with such a terrible force as if my arms had been grasped in a vice. My bones were cracking under her grasp, and my flesh was torn by her nails. I tried to escape, but it was impossible. I soon found myself as if nailed to the wall, unable to move any further. I cried then to the utmost compass of my voice for help. But the living spectre cried still louder: "You have nothing to fear. Be quiet. I am sent by God Almighty and the blessed Virgin Mary, to give you a message. The priests whom I have known, without a single exception, are a band of vipers; they destroy their female penitents through auricular confession. They have destroyed me, and killed my female child! Do not follow their example!" Then she began to sing with a beautiful voice, to a most touching tune, a kind of poem she had composed herself, which I secretly got afterwards from one of her servant maids, the translation of which is as follows:

"Satan's priests have defiled my heart!
Damned my soul! murdered my child!
O my child! my darling child!
From thy place in heaven, dost thou see
Thy guilty mother's tears?
Canst thou come and press me in thine arms? My child! my darling child!
Will never thy smiling face console me?"

When she was singing these words, big tears were rolling down her pale cheeks, and the tone of her voice was so sad that she could have melted a heart of stone. She had not finished her song when I cried to the girl: "I am fainting, for God's sake bring me some water!" The water was only pressed to my lips, I could not drink. I was choked, and petrified in the presence of that living phantom! I could not dare to touch her in any way with my hands. I felt horrified and paralyzed at the sight of that livid, pale, cadaverous, naked spectre. The poor servant girl had tried in vain, at my request, to drag her away from me. She had struck her with terror, by crying, "If you touch me, I will instantly strangle you!"

"Where is Mr. Perras? Where is Mr. Perras and the other servants? For God's sake call them," I cried out to the servant girl, who was trembling and beside herself.

"Miss Perras is running to the church after the curate," she answered, "and I do not know where the other girl is gone."

In that instant Mr. Perras entered, rushed towards his sister, and said, "Are you not ashamed to present yourselves naked before such a gentleman?" and with his strong arms he tried to force her to give me up.

Turning her face towards him, with tigress eyes, she cried out "Wretched brother! what have you done with my child? I see her blood on your hands!"

When she was struggling with her brother, I made a sudden and extreme effort to get out of her grasp; and this time I succeeded: but seeing that she wanted to throw herself again upon me, I jumped through a window which was opened.

Quick as lightning she passed out of the hands of her brother, and jumped also through the window to run after me. She would, surely, have overtaken me; for I had not run two rods, when I fell headlong, with my feet entangled in my long, black, priestly robe. Providentially, two strong men, attracted to my cries, came to my rescue. They wrapped her in a blanket, taken there by her sister, and brought her back into her upper chambers, where she remained safely locked, under the guard of two strong servant maids.

The history of that woman is sad indeed. When in her priest-brother's house, when young and of great beauty, she was seduced by her father confessor, and became mother of a female child, which she loved with a real mother's heart. She determined to keep it and bring it up. But this did not meet the views of the curate. One night, when the mother was sleeping, the child had been taken away from her. The awakening of the unfortunate mother was terrible. When she understood that she could never see her child any more, she filled the parsonage with her cries and lamentations, and, at first, refused to take any food, in order that she might die. But she soon became a maniac.

Mr. Perras, too much attached to his sister to send her to a lunatic asylum, resolved to keep her in his own parsonage, which was very large. A room in its upper part had been fixed in such a way that her cries could not be heard, and where she would have all the comfort possible in her sad circumstances. Two servant maids were engaged to take care of her. All this was so well arranged, that I had been eight months in that parsonage, without even suspecting that there was such an unfortunate being under the same roof with me. It appears that occasionally, for many days, her mind was perfectly lucid, when she passed her time in praying, and singing a kind of poem which she had composed herself, and which she sang while holding me in her grasp. In her best moments she had fostered an invincible hatred of the priests whom she had known. Hearing her attendants often speak of me, she had, several times, expressed the desire to see me, which, of course, had been denied her. Before she had broken her door, and escaped from the hands of her keeper, she had passed several days in saying that she had received from God a message for me which she would deliver, even if she had to pass on the dead bodies of all in the house.

Unfortunate victim of auricular confession! How many others could sing the sad words of thy song.

"Satan's priests have defiled my heart,
Damned my soul! murdered my child!"