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The Priest's Tale - Père Etienne   By: (1887-1927)

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From "The New Decameron" Volume III.

By Robert Keable

PÈRE ETIENNE came aboard at Dares Salaam and did not at once make friends. It was our own fault, however. He neither obtruded nor effaced himself, but rather went quietly on his own way with that recollection which the clerical system of the Catholic Church encourages. We few first class passengers had already settled down into the usual regularities of shipboard life, from the morning constitutional in pyjamas on the boat deck, to the Bridge four after dinner in the smoke room, and, besides, it was plain that Père Etienne was not likely to have much in common with any of us. So we were polite at a distance, like Englishmen everywhere. Even I, who, by virtue of my cloth, might have been supposed to make advances, was shy of beginning. I was young in those days, and for one thing spelt Rome always with a big capital.

But from the first there was something which attracted me to the priest, the more so as it was hard to define. In his appearance there was nothing to suggest interest. His age was round about fifty; his hair brown, though in his beard a white hair or two was to be observed. In his short black coat and trousers he looked neither mediaeval nor a traveller, and his luggage was neither romantically minute nor interestingly large. He was booked from Dar es Salaam to Bombay, and the purser professed neither to know whence he came nor whither he went beyond those two fixed points.

Yet I was attracted. I have no wish to bore you, so that I shall not dwell upon the point, but in my opinion it was interesting. There are some people who carry an atmosphere with them as they go their own individual way about the world, and there are others who can instantly perceive it. I am not speaking of clairvoyance; I dislike that jargon; but I do know that I was conscious of Père Etienne if he did but pass the smoke room door when I was about to play a doubled four in No Trumps.

Well, our old British India tramp lay about for a week in Dar es Salaam harbour, rolled up to Tanga, and finally crossed over to Zanzibar, without further developments. There we passengers went sweltering about the narrow streets, visited duly the coconut and clove plantations, and conceived ourselves to be exploring by hiring a car, crossing the island to Chuaka, and spending a day up the creek. Père Etienne went at once to the Catholic Mission and remained there. Thus it was not until the evening on which we sailed that we saw him again.

It was half an hour or so before sunset, and a serene beauty lay over land and sea. There was the gentlest breeze, and at our moorings it was almost cool. We were clustering on the landward side of the ship, smoking and watching the town and harbour. Close up under the tall white houses the blue sea broke in tiny creamy ripples on the sand or the low coral rocks, and, with its green woods to right and left, the city seemed to dream in the sun. One could see, however, that it was preparing to wake. A flutter of orange or scarlet on the flat roofs here and there told that the women were already coming up to enjoy the cooler hours; and between the thin cassuarinas in the square that opened to the sea before the Sultan's Palace, a white robed crowd was gathering for the faint excitement of the sunset gun. Between ship and shore, the brown timbered rough hewn native boats came and went on their long oars, and in smarter skiffs the silk and curio merchants were taking a lingering leave of us. From the south a dozen peaceful lateen sailed dhows beat up for the native anchorage behind which, from our view point, the twin spires of the Catholic cathedral stood out against an opal sky. Despite travellers' tales, there is only one mosque with a minaret in Zanzibar, and that so small and hidden that it is scarcely visible from the sea.

Watching the dhows and sighting the cathedral, suggested, I suppose, Père Etienne... Continue reading book >>

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