Sister Cecilia visited Alice Walmsley every day for several weeks, until the happy change in the latter's life had grown out of its strangeness. Their intercourse had become a close and silent communion.
For the first month or so the kind and wise little nun had conversed on anything that chanced for a topic; but afterwards they developed the silent system—and it was the better of the two.
Sister Cecilia used to enter with a cheery smile, which Alice returned. Then Sister Cecilia would throw crumbs on the sill for the sparrows, Alice watching her, still smiling. Then the little Sister would seat herself on the pallet and take out her rosary, and smilingly shake her finger at Alice, as if to say—
"Now, Alice, be a good girl, and don't disturb me."
And Alice, made happy by the sweet companionship, would settle to her sewing, hearing the birds twitter and chirp, and seeing the golden sunlight pour through the bars into her cell.
Sister Cecilia had a great many prayers to say every day, and she made a rule of saying the whole of them in Alice's cell.
The change in Alice's life became known to all the officials in the prison, and a general interest was awakened in the visits of the good Sister, to her cell. From the governor down to the lowest female warder, the incident was a source of pleasure, and a subject of everyday comment.
But there was one official who beheld all this with displeasure and daily increasing distrust. This was Mr. Haggett, the Scripture-reader of the prison.
Into the hands of Mr. Haggett had been given the spiritual welfare of all the convicts in Millbank of every creed Christian, Turk, and Jew.
It was a heavy responsibility; but Mr. Haggett felt himself equal to the task. It would be wrong to lay blame for the choice of such a teacher on any particular creed. He had been selected and appointed by Sir Joshua Hobb, whose special views of religious influence he was to carry out. Mr. Haggett was a tall man, with a highly respectable air. He had whiskers brushed outward till they stood from his lank cheeks like paint-brushes; and he wore a long square-cut brown coat. He had an air of formal superiority. His voice was cavernous and sonorous. If he only said "Good-morning " he said it with a patronizing smile, as if conscious of a superior moral nature; and his voice sounded solemnly deep.
One would have known him in the street as a man of immense religious weight and godly assumption, by the very compression of his lips. These were his strong features, even more forcible than the rigid respectability of his whiskers, or the grave sanctity of his voice. His lips were not exactly coarse or thick; they were large, even to bagginess. His mouth was wide, and his teeth were long; but there was enough lip to cover up the whole, and still more enough left to fold afterwards into consciously pious lines around the mouth.
When Mr. Haggett was praying, he closed his eyes, and in a solemnly sonorous key began a personal interview with the Almighty. While he was informing God, with many deep "Thou knowests," his lips were in full play; every reef was shaken out, so to speak. But when Mr. Haggett was instructing a prisoner, he moved only the smallest portion of labial tissue that could serve to impress the unfortunate with his own unworthiness and Mr. Haggett's exalted virtue and importance.
Mr. Haggett visited the cells for four hours every day, taking regular rounds, and prayed with and instructed the prisoners. He never sympathized with them nor pretended to, and, of course, he never had their confidence—except the sham confidence and contrition of sortie second-timers, who wanted a recommendation for a pardon.
There was another official who made regular rounds, with about the same intervals of time as Mr. Haggett. This was the searcher and fumigator—a warder who searched the cells for concealed implements, and fumigated with some chemical the crevices and joints to keep them wholesomely clean. When a prisoner had a visit from the searcher and fumigator, he knew that Mr. Haggett would be around soon.
The sense of duty in the two officials was very much alike under the surface; and it would have saved expense and time had Mr. Haggett carried, besides his Bible, the little bellows and probe of the fumigator—if he had been, in fact, the searcher and fumigator of both cells and souls.
Mr. Haggett had observed, with horror, the visits of the Popish nun to the cell of a prisoner whom he knew to be a Protestant. Though he never had had anything to say to Number Four, and never had prayed with her for five years, he now deemed her one of those specially confided to his care. He was shocked to the centre when first he saw the white-capped nun sitting in the cell, with a rosary in her hands.
Mr. Haggett would have complained at once, but he did not like the governor. He had been insulted—he felt he had—by the governor, who never met him but be asked the same impertinent question: "Well, Mr. Haggett, got your regular commission in the ministry yet?"
Mr. Haggett was in hopes of becoming, some day, a regular minister of the Established Church. He was "studying for it," he said; and his long experience in the prison would tell in his favour. But the years had flown, and he had not secured the reverend title he so ardently coveted. The Lords Bishops were not favourably impressed by Mr. Haggett's acquirements or qualities.
The daily presence of the nun in one of his cells goaded him to desperation. He stopped one day at the door of Number Four, and, in his deepest chest-tones, with a smile that drew heavily on the labial reefs, addressed the Sister—
"Is this prisoner a Rom—ah—one of your persuasion, madam?"
"No, sir," said the little Sister, with a kind smile at Alice; "I wish she were."
"Hah !—Why, madam, do you visit a prisoner who is not of your persuasion?"
"Because no one else visited her," said Sister Cecilia, looking at Mr. Haggett with rather a startled air, "and she needed someone."
"Madam, I wish to pray with this prisoner this morning, and ah-ah-I will thank you to leave this cell."
The work dropped from Alice's hands, and a wild look came into her eyes. First, she stared at Mr. Haggett, as if she did not understand. From his uninviting face, now flushed somewhat, and working as if the godly man were in a passion, she turned, with a mute appeal, to Sister Cecilia.
The nun had risen, startled, but not confused, at the unexpected harshness of the tone, rather than the words. She realized at once that Mr. Haggett, who had never before addressed her, nor noticed her presence, had power to expel her from Alice's cell, and forbid her entrance in future.
She determined on the moment to make an effort for Alice's sake.
"This prisoner is to be my hospital assistant on the convict ship," said Sister Cecilia to Mr. Haggett.
"Madam!" said Mr. Haggett, harshly, and there was a movement of his foot as if he would have stamped his order; "I wish to pray with this prisoner!"
He motioned commandingly with his hand, ordering the nun from the cell.
Sister Cecilia took a step towards the door, rather alarmed at the man's violence, but filled with keen sorrow for poor Alice.
The rude finger of the angry Scripture-reader still pointed from the cell. Sister Cecilia had taken one step outward, when Alice Walmsley darted past her, and stood facing Mr. Haggett, her left hand reached behind her with spread fingers, as if forbidding the nun, to depart.
"Begone!" she cried to Haggett, "How dare you come here? I do not want your prayers."
Mr. Haggett grew livid with passion at this insult from a prisoner. He had, perhaps, cherished a secret dislike of Alice for her old rebellion against his influence. He glared at her a moment in silent fury, while his great lips curved into their tightest reefs, showing the full line of his long teeth.
But he did not answer her. He looked over her, into the cell, where Sister Cecilia stood affrighted. He reached his long arm towards her, and still commanded her from the cell, with a hand trembling with wrath. He would settle with the recalcitrant convict when this strange ally and witness had departed.
"Come out!" motioned the lips of the wrathful Scripture reader, while his long finger crooked, as if it were a hook to draw her forth.
At this moment, a key rattled in the door at the end of the corridor, and there entered the passage Sir Joshua Hobb, Mr. Wyville, and the governor, followed by the two warders of the pentagon. The gentlemen were evidently on a tour of inspection. When they had come to the cell of Number Four, they stood in astonishment at the scene.
Alice Walmsley, hitherto so submissive and silent, was aroused into feverish excitement. She stood facing Mr. Haggett, and, as the others approached, she turned to them wildly.
"How dare this man interfere with me?" she cried. "I will not allow him to come near me. I will not have his prayers. I "
"Be calm, child!" said Mr. Wyville, whom she had never before seen. His impressive and kind face and tone instantly affected the prisoner. Her hands fell to her sides.
"Lock that cell." said Sir Joshua Hobb, in a hard, quick voice. This prisoner must be brought to her senses."
Alice was again defiant in an instant.
"Tell this man to begone!" she excitedly demanded.
"Come out!" hissed Mr. Haggett, grimly stretching his neck towards Sister Cecilia, and still bending his lean finger like a hook.
"She shall not go out!" cried Alice, in a frenzy.
It seemed to her as if they were tearing something dearer than life from her. She dashed the hooked hand of the Biblereader aside, bruising it against the iron door.
"Warders!" shouted Sir Joshua Hobb, take this woman to the refractory cells. She shall remain in the dark till she obeys the rules. Take her away!"
The warders approached Alice, who now stood in the doorway. She had turned her agonized face as she felt Sister Cecilia's hand laid upon her shoulder, and her breast heaved convulsively.
As the warders seized her arms, she started with pitiful alarm, and shuddered.
"Stop!" cried a deep voice, resonant with command. Mr. Wyville had spoken.
"Release the prisoner!"
Every eye was turned on him. Even Alice's excitement was subdued by the power of the strange interruption. The Scripture-reader was the first to come to words. He addressed the governor.
"Who is this, who countermands the order of the Chief Director?"
Before the governor could answer, Sir Joshua Hobb spoke.
"This is insolence, sir! My order shall be obeyed."
"It shall not," said Mr. Wyville, calmly, and walking to the cell door.
"By what authority do you dare interfere?" demanded Sir Joshua Hobb.
"By this!" said Mr. Wyville, handing him a paper.
The enraged Chief Director took the document, and glanced at the signature.
"Bah!" he shouted. "This Ministry is dead. This is waste paper. Out of the way, sir!"
"Stay!" said Mr. Wyville, taking from his breast a small case, from which he drew a folded paper, like a piece of vellum, which he handed to the governor of the prison.
"This, then, is my authority."
The prompt old major took the paper, read it, and then, still holding it before him, raised his hat as if in military salute.
"Your authority is the first, sir," he said, decisively and respectfully, to Mr. Wyville.
"I demand to see that paper!" cried the Chief Director.
The governor handed it to him, and he read it through, his rage rapidly changing into a stare of blank amazement and dismay.
"I beg, you to forgive me, sir," he said at length in a low tone. "It would have been for the benefit of discipline, however, had I known of this before."
"That is true, sir," answered Mr. Wyville, "and had there been time for explanation, you should have known my right before I had used it."
"You have shaken my official authority, sir," said Sir Joshua, still expostulatory.
"I am very sorry," answered Mr. Wyville; "but another moment's delay and this prisoner might have been driven to madness. Authority must not forget humanity."
"Authority is paramount, sir," humbly responded Sir Joshua, handing the potent paper to Mr. Wyville; "allow me to take my leave."
The humiliated Chief Director walked quickly from the corridor.
Mr. Wyville turned to the cell, and met the brimming eyes of the prisoner, the eloquent gratitude of the look touching him to the heart. He smiled with ineffable kindness, and with an almost imperceptible motion of the hand requested Sister Cecilia to remain and give comfort.
Mr. Haggett still remained in the entry, hungrily watching the cell. Mr. Wyville passed in front of the door, and turning, looked straight in his face. The discomfited Scripture reader started as if he had received an electric shock. He was dismayed at the power of this strange man.
"You have passed this door with your prayers for five years, sir," said Mr. Wyville; "you will please to continue your inattention."
"The prisoner is not a Roman—" Haggett began, with shaken tones.
The hand of the soldierly old governor fell sharply, twice, on his shoulder. He looked round. The governor's finger was pointed straight down the passage, and his eye sternly ordered Mr. Haggett in the same direction. He hitched the sacred volume under his arm, and without a sound followed the footsteps of Sir Joshua.
His eager eyes had been denied a sight of the mysterious document; but his heart, or other organs, infallibly told him that he and his chief were routed beyond hope of recovery.