Some people are Freethinkers from sheer stupidity. My Uncle Sosthenes was one of these. Some people are often religious for the same reason. The very sight of a priest threw my uncle into a violent rage. He would shake his fist and make grimaces at him, and would then touch a piece of iron when the priest's back was turned, forgetting that the latter action showed a belief after all, the belief in the evil eye. Now, when beliefs are unreasonable, one should have all or none at all. I myself am a Freethinker; I revolt at all dogmas, but feel no anger toward places of worship, be they Catholic, Apostolic, Roman, Protestant, Greek, Russian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Mohammedan.
My uncle was a Freemason, and I used to declare that they are stupider than old women devotees. That is my opinion, and I maintain it; if we must have any religion at all, the old one is good enough for me.
What is their object? Mutual help to be obtained by tickling the palms of each other's hands. I see no harm in it, for they put into practice the Christian precept: "Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you." The only difference consists in the tickling, but it does not seem worth while to make such a fuss about lending a poor devil half a crown.
To all my arguments my uncle's reply used to be:
"We are raising up a religion against a religion; Free Thought will kill clericalism. Freemasonry is the stronghold, of those who are demolishing all deities."
"Very well, my dear uncle," I would reply--in my heart I felt inclined to say, "You old idiot! it is just that which I am blaming you for. Instead of destroying, you are organizing competition; it is only a case of lowering prices. And then, if you admitted only Freethinkers among you, I could understand it, but you admit anybody. You have a number of Catholics among you, even the leaders of the party. Pius IX is said to have been one of you before he became pope. If you call a society with such an organization a bulwark against clericalism, I think it is an extremely weak one."
"My dear boy," my uncle would reply, with a wink, "we are most to be dreaded in politics; slowly and surely we are everywhere undermining the monarchical spirit."
Then I broke out: "Yes, you are very clever! If you tell me that Freemasonry is an election machine, I will grant it. I will never deny that it is used as a machine to control candidates of all shades; if you say that it is only used to hoodwink people, to drill them to go to the polls as soldiers are sent under fire, I agree with you; if you declare that it is indispensable to all political ambitions because it changes all its members into electoral agents, I should say to you: 'That is as clear as the sun.' But when you tell me that it serves to undermine the monarchical spirit, I can only laugh in your face.
"Just consider that gigantic and secret democratic association which had Prince Napoleon for its grand master under the Empire; which has the Crown Prince for its grand master in Germany, the Czar's brother in Russia, and to which the Prince of Wales and King Humbert, and nearly all the crowned heads of the globe belong."
"You are quite right," my uncle said; "but all these persons are serving our projects without guessing it."
I felt inclined to tell him he was talking a pack of nonsense.
It was, however, indeed a sight to see my uncle when he had a Freemason to dinner.
On meeting they shook hands in a manner that was irresistibly funny; one could see that they were going through a series of secret, mysterious signs.
Then my uncle would take his friend into a corner to tell him something important, and at dinner they had a peculiar way of looking at each other, and of drinking to each other, in a manner as if to say: "We know all about it, don't we?"
And to think that there are millions on the face of the globe who are amused at such monkey tricks! I would sooner be a Jesuit.
Now, in our town there really was an old Jesuit who was my uncle's detestation. Every time he met him, or if he only saw him at a distance, he used to say: "Get away, you toad." And then, taking my arm, he would whisper to me:
"See here, that fellow will play me a trick some day or other, I feel sure of it."
My uncle spoke quite truly, and this was how it happened, and through my fault.
It was close on Holy Week, and my uncle made up his mind to give a dinner on Good Friday, a real dinner, with his favorite chitterlings and black puddings. I resisted as much as I could, and said:
"I shall eat meat on that day, but at home, quite by myself. Your manifestation, as you call it, is an idiotic idea. Why should you manifest? What does it matter to you if people do not eat any meat?"
But my uncle would not be persuaded. He asked three of his friends to dine with him at one of the best restaurants in the town, and as he was going to pay the bill I had certainly, after all, no scruples about manifesting.
At four o'clock we took a conspicuous place in the most frequented restaurant in the town, and my uncle ordered dinner in a loud voice for six o'clock.
We sat down punctually, and at ten o'clock we had not yet finished. Five of us had drunk eighteen bottles of choice, still wine and four of champagne. Then my uncle proposed what he was in the habit of calling "the archbishop's circuit." Each man put six small glasses in front of him, each of them filled with a different liqueur, and they had all to be emptied at one gulp, one after another, while one of the waiters counted twenty. It was very stupid, but my uncle thought it was very suitable to the occasion.
At eleven o'clock he was as drunk as a fly. So we had to take him home in a cab and put him to bed, and one could easily foresee that his anti- clerical demonstration would end in a terrible fit of indigestion.
As I was going back to my lodgings, being rather drunk myself, with a cheerful drunkenness, a Machiavellian idea struck me which satisfied all my sceptical instincts.
I arranged my necktie, put on a look of great distress, and went and, rang loudly at the old Jesuit's door. As he was deaf he made me wait a longish while, but at length appeared at his window in a cotton nightcap and asked what I wanted.
I shouted out at the top of my voice:
"Make haste, reverend sir, and open the door; a poor, despairing, sick man is in need of your spiritual ministrations."
The good, kind man put on his trousers as quickly as he could, and came down without his cassock. I told him in a breathless voice that my uncle, the Freethinker, had been taken suddenly ill, and fearing it was going to be something serious, he had been seized with a sudden dread of death, and wished to see the priest and talk to him; to have his advice and comfort, to make his peace with the Church, and to confess, so as to be able to cross the dreaded threshold at peace with himself; and I added in a mocking tone:
"At any rate, he wishes it, and if it does him no good it can do him no harm."
The old Jesuit, who was startled, delighted, and almost trembling, said to me:
"Wait a moment, my son; I will come with you." But I replied: "Pardon me, reverend father, if I do not go with you; but my convictions will not allow me to do so. I even refused to come and fetch you, so I beg you not to say that you have seen me, but to declare that you had a presentiment--a sort of revelation of his illness.
The priest consented and went off quickly; knocked at my uncle's door, and was soon let in; and I saw the black cassock disappear within that stronghold of Free Thought.
I hid under a neighboring gateway to wait results. Had he been well, my uncle would have half-murdered the Jesuit, but I knew that he would scarcely be able to move an arm, and I asked myself gleefully what sort of a scene would take place between these antagonists, what disputes, what arguments, what a hubbub, and what would be the issue of the situation, which my uncle's indignation would render still more tragic?
I laughed till my sides ached, and said half aloud: "Oh, what a joke, what a joke!"
Meanwhile it was getting very cold, and I noticed that the Jesuit stayed a long time, and I thought: "They are having an argument, I suppose."
One, two, three hours passed, and still the reverend father did not come out. What had happened? Had my uncle died in a fit when he saw him, or had he killed the cassocked gentleman? Perhaps they had mutually devoured each other? This last supposition appeared very unlikely, for I fancied that my uncle was quite incapable of swallowing a grain more nourishment at that moment.
At last the day broke.
I was very uneasy, and, not venturing to go into the house myself, went to one of my friends who lived opposite. I woke him up, explained matters to him, much to his amusement and astonishment, and took possession of his window.
At nine o'clock he relieved me, and I got a little sleep. At two o'clock I, in my turn, replaced him. We were utterly astonished.
At six o'clock the Jesuit left, with a very happy and satisfied look on his face, and we saw him go away with a quiet step.
Then, timid and ashamed, I went and knocked at the door of my uncle's house; and when the servant opened it I did not dare to ask her any questions, but went upstairs without saying a word.
My uncle was lying, pale and exhausted, with weary, sorrowful eyes and heavy arms, on his bed. A little religious picture was fastened to one of the bed curtains with a pin.
"Why, uncle," I said, "in bed still? Are you not well?"
He replied in a feeble voice:
"Oh, my dear boy, I have been very ill, nearly dead."
"How was that, uncle?"
"I don't know; it was most surprising. But what is stranger still is that the Jesuit priest who has just left--you know, that excellent man whom I have made such fun of--had a divine revelation of my state, and came to see me."
I was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh, and with difficulty said: "Oh, really!"
"Yes, he came. He heard a voice telling him to get up and come to me, because I was going to die. I was a revelation."
I pretended to sneeze, so as not to burst out laughing; I felt inclined to roll on the ground with amusement.
In about a minute I managed to say indignantly:
"And you received him, uncle? You, a Freethinker, a Freemason? You did not have him thrown out of doors?"
He seemed confused, and stammered:
"Listen a moment, it is so astonishing--so astonishing and providential! He also spoke to me about my father; it seems he knew him formerly."
"Your father, uncle? But that is no reason for receiving a Jesuit."
"I know that, but I was very ill, and he looked after me most devotedly all night long. He was perfect; no doubt he saved my life; those men all know a little of medicine."
"Oh! he looked after you all night? But you said just now that he had only been gone a very short time."
"That is quite true; I kept him to breakfast after all his kindness. He had it at a table by my bedside while I drank a cup of tea."
"And he ate meat?"
My uncle looked vexed, as if I had said something very uncalled for, and then added:
"Don't joke, Gaston; such things are out of place at times. He has shown me more devotion than many a relation would have done, and I expect to have his convictions respected."
This rather upset me, but I answered, nevertheless: "Very well, uncle; and what did you do after breakfast?"
"We played a game of bezique, and then he repeated his breviary while I read a little book which he happened to have in his pocket, and which was not by any means badly written."
"A religious book, uncle?"
"Yes, and no, or, rather--no. It is the history of their missions in Central Africa, and is rather a book of travels and adventures. What these men have done is very grand."
I began to feel that matters were going badly, so I got up. "Well, good- by, uncle," I said, "I see you are going to give up Freemasonry for religion; you are a renegade."
He was still rather confused, and stammered:
"Well, but religion is a sort of Freemasonry."
"When is your Jesuit coming back?" I asked.
"I don't--I don't know exactly; to-morrow, perhaps; but it is not certain."
I went out, altogether overwhelmed.
My joke turned out very badly for me! My uncle became thoroughly converted, and if that had been all I should not have cared so much. Clerical or Freemason, to me it is all the same; six of one and half a dozen of the other; but the worst of it is that he has just made his will--yes, made his will--and he has disinherited me in favor of that rascally Jesuit!