I HAVE already made known unto you that a younger brother and myself were left to the care of my mother--best and dearest of mothers!, said the holy man, sighing deeply, and clasping his hands fervently, while his eyes were lifted to heaven, as if love made him conscious that the spirit of her he lamented had found its eternal rest there--thy gentle and affectionate nature sunk under the bitter trial that an all-wise Providence was pleased to visit thee with! Well, sir, Frank was my mother's darling; not that you are to understand, by so saying, that he was of that weak and capricious tone of mind which lavished its care upon one at the expense of others--far from it; never was a deep store of maternal love more equally shared than among the four brothers; but when the two seniors went away, and I was some time after sent for my studies to St. Omer, Frank became the object upon which all the tenderness of her affectionate heart might exercise the little maternal cares that hitherto had been divided amongst many. Indeed, my dear Frank deserved it all; his was the gentlest of natures, combined with a mind of singular strength and brilliant imagination. In short, as the phrase has it, he was "the flower of the flock," and great things were expected from him. It was some thus after my return from St. Omer, while preparations were making for advancing Frank in the pursuit which had been selected as the business of his life, that every hour which drew nearer to the moment of his departure made him dearer, not only to us, but to all who knew him, and each friend claimed a day that Frank should spend with him, which always passed in recalling the happy hours they had already spent together, in assurances given and received of kindly remembrances that still should be cherished, and in mutual wishes for success, with many a hearty prophecy from my poor Frank's friends, "that he would one day be a great man."
One night, as my mother and myself were sitting at home beside the fire, expecting Frank's return from one of these parties, my mother said, in an unusually anxious tone: "I wish Frank was come home."
"What makes you think of his return so soon?" said I.
"I don't know," said she; "but somehow, I'm uneasy about him."
"Oh, make yourself quiet," said I, "on that subject; we cannot possibly expect Frank for an hour to come yet."
Still, my mother could not become calm, and she fidgeted about the room, became busy in doing nothing, and now and then would go to the door of the house to listen for the distant tramp of Frank's horse; but Frank came not.
More than the hour I had named as the probable time of his return had elapsed, and my mother's anxiety had amounted to a painful pitch; and I began myself to blame my brother for so long and late an absence. Still, I endeavoured to calm her, and had prevailed on her to seat herself again at the fire, and commenced reading a page or two of an amusing book, when suddenly she stopped me, and turned her head to the window in the attitude of listening.
"It is! it is!" said she; "I hear him coming."
And now the sound of a horse's feet in a rapid pace became audible. She rose from her chair, and with a deeply aspirated "Thank God!" went to open the door for him herself. I heard the horse now pass by the window; in a second or two more the door was opened, and instantly a fearful scream from my mother brought me hastily to her assistance. I found her lying in the hall in a deep swoon. The servants of the house hastily crowded to the spot, and gave her immediate aid. I ran to the door to ascertain the cause of my mother's alarm, and there I saw Frank's horse panting and foaming, and the saddle empty. That my brother had been thrown and badly hurt was the first thought that suggested itself; and a car and horse were immediately ordered to drive in the direction he had been returning; but in a few minutes our fears were excited to the last degree by discovering there was blood on the saddle.
We all experienced inconceivable terror at the discovery, but not to weary you with details, suffice it to say that we commenced a diligent search, and at length arrived at a small by-way that turned from the main road, and led through a bog, which was the nearest course for my brother to have taken homewards, and we accordingly began to explore it. I was mounted on the horse my brother had ridden, and the animal snorted violently, and exhibited evident symptoms of dislike to retrace this by-way, which, I doubted not, he had already travelled that night; and this very fact made me still more apprehensive that some terrible occurrence must have taken place to occasion such excessive repugnance on the part of the animal. However, I urged him onward, and telling those who accompanied me, to follow with what speed they might, I dashed forward, followed by a faithful dog of poor Frank's. At the termination of about half a mile, the horse became still more impatient of restraint, and started at every ten paces; and the dog began to traverse the little road, giving an occasional yelp, sniffing the air strongly, and lashing his sides with his tail, as if on some scent. At length he came to a stand, and beat about within, a very circumscribed space--yelping occasionally, as if to draw my attention.
I dismounted immediately, but the horse, was so extremely restless that the difficulty I had in holding him prevented me from observing the road by the light of the lantern which I carried. I perceived, however, it was very much trampled hereabouts, and bore evidence of having been the scene of a struggle. I shouted to the party in the rear, who soon came up and lighted some faggots of bogwood which they brought with them to assist in our search, and we now more clearly distinguished the marks I have alluded to. The dog still howled, and indicated a particular spot to us; and on one side of the path, upon the stunted grass, we discovered a quantity of fresh blood, and I picked up a pencil-case that I knew had belonged to my murdered brother--for I now was compelled, to consider him as such; and an attempt to describe the agonised feelings which at that moment I experienced would be in vain. We continued our search for the discovery of his body for many hours without success, and the morning was far advanced before we returned home. How changed a home from the preceding day! My beloved mother could scarcely be roused for a moment from a sort of stupor that seized upon her when the paroxysm of frenzy was over which the awful catastrophe of the fatal night had produced. If ever heart was broken, here was. She lingered but a few weeks after the son she adored, and seldom spoke during the period, except to call upon his name.
But I will not dwell on this painful theme. Suffice it to say she died; and her death, under such circumstances, increased the sensation which my brother's mysterious murder had excited. Yet, with all the horror which was universally entertained for the crime, and the execrations poured upon its atrocious perpetrator, still the doer of the deed remained undiscovered, and even I, who of course was the most active in seeking to develop the mystery, not only could catch no clue to lead to the discovery of the murderer, but failed even to ascertain where the mangled remains of my lost brother had been deposited.
It was nearly a year after the fatal event that a penitent knelt to me, and confided to the ear of his confessor the misdeeds of an ill-spent life; I say of his whole life--for he had never before knelt at the confessional.
Fearful was the catalogue of crime that was revealed to me--unbounded selfishness, oppression, revenge, and lawless passion had held unbridled influence over the unfortunate sinner, and sensuality in all its shapes, even to the polluted home and betrayed maiden, had plunged him deeply into sin.
I was shocked--I may even say I was disgusted, and the culprit himself seemed to shrink from the recapitulation of his crimes, which he found more extensive and appalling than he had dreamed of, until the recital of them called them all up in fearful array before him. I was about to commence an admonition, when he interrupted me--he had more to communicate. I desired him to proceed. He writhed before me. I enjoined him in the name of the God he had offended, and who knoweth the inmost heart, to make an unreserved disclosure of his crimes before he dared to seek a reconciliation with his Maker. At length, after many a pause end convulsive sob, he told me, in a voice almost suffocated by terror, that he had been guilty of bloodshed. I shuddered, but in a short time I recovered myself, and asked how and where he had deprived a fellow-creature of life? Never, to the latest hour of my life, shall I forget the look which the miserable sinner gave me at that moment. His eyes were glazed, and seemed starting from their sockets with terror; his face assumed a deadly paleness--he raised his clasped hand up to me in the most imploring action, as if supplicating mercy, and with livid and quivering lips he gasped out--"Twas I who killed your brother!"
Oh, God! how I felt at that instant! Even now, after the lapse of years, I recollect the sensation: It was as if the blood were flowing back upon my heart, until I felt as if it would burst; and then, a few convulsive breathings, and back rushed the blood again through my tingling veins. I thought I was dying; but suddenly I uttered an hysteric laugh, and fell back senseless in my seat.
When I recovered, a cold sweat was pouring down my forehead, and I was weeping copiously. Never before did I feel my manhood annihilated under the influence of an hysterical affection. It was dreadful.
I found the blood-stained sinner supporting me, roused from his own prostration by a sense of terror at my emotion; for when I could hear anything, his entreaties that I would not discover upon him were poured forth in the most abject strain of supplication. "Fear not for your miserable life," said I; "the seal of confession is upon what you have revealed to me, and so far you are safe; but leave me for the present, and come not to me again until I send for you." He departed.
I knelt and prayed for strength to Him who alone could give it, to fortify me in this dreadful trial. Here was the author of a brother's murder, and a mother's consequent death, discovered to me in the person of my penitent. It was a fearful position for a frail mortal to be placed in; but as a consequence of the holy calling I professed, I hoped, through the blessing of Him whom I served, to acquire fortitude for the trial into which the ministry of His gospel had led me.
The fortitude I needed came through prayer, and when I thought myself equal to the task, I sent for the murderer of my brother. I officiated for him as our Church has ordained--I appointed penances to him, and in short, dealt with him merely as any other confessor might have done.
Years thus passed away, and during that time he constantly attended his duty; and it was remarked through the country that he had become a quieter person since Father Roach had become his confessor. But still he was not liked--and indeed, I fear he was far from a reformed man, though he did not allow his transgressions to be so glaring as they were wont to be; and I began to think that terror and cunning had been his motives in suggesting to him the course be had adopted, as the opportunities which it gave him of being often with me as his confessor were likely to still every suspicion of his guilt in the eyes of the world; and in making me the depositary of his fearful secret, he thus placed himself beyond the power of my pursuit, and interposed the strongest barrier to my becoming the avenger of his bloody dead.
Hitherto I have not made you acquainted with the cause of that foul act. It was jealousy. He found himself rivalled by my brother in the good graces of a beautiful girl of moderate circumstances, whom he would have wished to obtain as his wife, but to whom Frank had become an object of greater interest; and I doubt not, had my poor brother been spared, that marriage would ultimately have drawn closer the ties that were so savagely severed. But the ambuscade and the knife had done their deadly work; for the cowardly villain had lain in wait for him on the lonely bog-road be guessed he would travel on that fatal night, and springing from his lurking-place, he stabbed my noble Frank in the back.
Well, sir, I fear I am tiring you with a story which, you cannot wonder, is interesting to me; but I shall hasten to a conclusion.
One gloomy evening in March I was riding along the very road where my brother had met his fate, in company with his murderer. I know not what brought us together in such a place, except the hand of Providence, that sooner or later brings the murderer to justice; for I was not wont to pass the road, and loathed the company of the man who happened to overtake me upon it. I know not whether it was some secret visitation of conscience that influenced him at the time, or that he thought the lapse of years had wrought upon me so far as to obliterate the grief for my brother's death, which had never been, till that moment, alluded to, however remotely, since he confessed his crime. Judge then my surprise when, directing my attention to a particular point in the bog, he said:
"Tis close by that place that 'your brother is buried."
I could not, I think, have been more astonished had my brother appeared before me.
"What brother?" said I.
"Your brother Frank," said he; "twas there I buried him, poor fellow, after I killed him."
"Merciful God!" I exclaimed, "thy will be done," and seizing the rein of the culprit's horse, I said: "Wretch that you are! you have owned to the shedding of the innocent blood that has been crying to Heaven for vengeance these ten years, and I arrest you here as my prisoner."
He turned ashy pale as he faltered out a few words to say I had promised not to betray him.
"'Twas under the seal of confession," said I, "that you disclosed the deadly secret, and under that seal my lips must have been for ever, closed; but now, even in the very place where your crime was committed, it has pleased God that you should arraign yourself in the face of the world, and the brother of your victim is appointed to be the avenger of his innocent blood."
He was overwhelmed by the awfulness of this truth, and unresistingly he rode beside me to the adjacent town of ----- , where he was committed for trial.
The report of this singular and providential discovery of a murder excited a great deal of interest in the country; and as I was known to be the culprit's confessor, the bishop of the diocese forwarded a statement to a higher quarter, which procured for me a dispensation as regarded the confessions of the criminal, and I was handed this instrument, absolving me from further secrecy, a few days before the trial. I was the principal evidence against the prisoner. The body of my brother had, in the interim, been found in the spot his murderer had indicated, and the bog preserved it so far from decay as to render recognition a task of no difficulty. The proof was so satisfactorily adduced to the jury that the murderer was found guilty and executed, ten years after he had committed the crime.
The judge pronounced a very feeling comment on the nature of the situation in which I had been placed for so many years, and passed a very flattering eulogium upon what he was pleased to call "my heroic observance of the obligation of secrecy by which I had been bound."
Thus, sir, you see how sacred a trust that of a fact revealed under confession is held by our Church, when even the avenging a brother's murder was not sufficient warranty for its being broken.