THE singing stopped abruptly and all heads turned towards the steps leading to the street. It was Mathias who had just cried out. The priest followed him, his stole round his neck; he carried a black box in his hand.
"Yea, in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge,
Until these calamities he overpast,"
cried a clear, feminine voice in the deep silence. G6rard stood up, then he placed upon the altar the black box which was drawing all eyes. And, turning round, he said :
"You will forgive me for being unable to speak your language. Will those who understand me please translate what T am about to say to the others. . . ."
A whispering flowed like a wave into the farthest corners of the cellar. A little child began to cry; its mother rocked it and murmured tender words.
"I am nothing," declared the priest. "Nothing except the most unworthy and very humble servant of our Lord Jesus Christ."
A deep murmur' followed his words, then died away.
"Our Lord has come from very far to be among you this evening. He is come because you are unhappy, because you are persecuted, because you dwell in poverty, because you suffer. Of all men, He tells us, those whom He prefers are those who suffer. Upon this night which witnessed His birth, He has chosen to come to you."
The words he was speaking and were being immediately translated to those who did not understand their meaning, resolved themselves into a vague rolling sound that went surging and echoing under the vaulted ceiling of the cellar.
"Your Bishops and your priests are in prison. Everywhere deceit and treachery triumph. Satan may think he has stifled the voice of truth forever in your country : but I tell you, as the Primate of Hungary told you : '11 runt remains truth. even if she lose her voice. Lies remain lies even if millions of voices profess them and impose them I' "
"Give us back our priests!" cried someone. "Give us back our God!"
"By the fact that you are here," continued the priest. "in spite of the dangers that surround you, Christ recognises in you His well-beloved children. He knows what sufferings you endure. It is He who, through my mouth, comes to tell you this evening : 'Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute you.' " When his words had been understood, many faces froze. A woman said something loudly in Roumanian, and at her words many fists were clenched : "My father, my husband, my brother are dead in their prisons! And does this priest wish me to pray for those who made them die?"
"My own father," cried the priest, in a trembling voice, "also died in prison, murdered by the justice of men, And I, I pray every day for those who condemned him. Come, my brothers, let us all kneel. And let us pray together for our enemies, that they in their turn may receive all the blessings of Divine grace, and that they shall turn, at last, to God."
When they had done as he asked, they said with him "Our Father who art in Heaven . . ."
THERE was a movement in the congregation. The priest raised his hand :
"I know that many of you wish to receive Holy Communion. There are hosts for all those who wish to do so, I had first thought of telling you that I could hear confessions in French, in Polish and even in Hungarian, which I can understand if it is spoken slowly. But the extremely precarious condition in which we have assembled this evening were pointed out to me. We are, I realise, at the mercy of any surprise which the police of this town might spring to disperse us, without counting the serious consequences. So I shall not hear any individual confessions."
He advanced towards the people and they hurried to meet him.
A wax candle was lit; a basin of water was brought. The priest baptised the first infant, while the file of parents waiting their turn grew longer and longer. THE little man in the fur cap was making his report.
"So," remarked his chief, "you could get nothing else out of this old woman? I do not congratulate you."
"These Hungarian police are brutes! They only know how to rush like a bull at a red flag. The old lady had a seizure. . . ."
"You were not there?"
"Yes, but . . ."
The man halted. "There's no question of 'but.' You've condacted yourself in this affair like a clumsy fool or at least like a subordinate policeman."
"But still," stammered the little man, "I thought . . ."
"I will tell you what you thought. You thought you could grab a personal success without caring for the good of the service. Members of the Gestapo never behave otherwise : we have seen the result!"
"But what can I do? After an, I can't fight the mountains. . . ."
"If it's true that this man is a spy and that he is carrying a walkietalkie, what is he going to do in the mountains?"
The little man put on a sly look, and said :
"In France, where I was during the war, before being sent to Poland, the terrorists arranged to send arms by parachute to help outposts no bigger than . , ."
"That's not the question now. From the moment that that man crossed the frontier, I've had good grounds to suppose that he is here, in this town, at this very minute, while we are talking."
"May I enquire if you have any indications?"
"I have nothing except what my powers of reasoning suggest. It's up to you to do the rest. Isn't it your job? Haven't you done everything you could to keep the conduct of this affair to yourself? Must I remind you that you bear the responsibility?"
"If it hadn't been for the imbecile who let the bird out of the cage . . ."
"That imbecile was placed under your orders. . . . What time do you make it?"
"It's midnight," said the little man.
"Good. There's enough time for you to find and bring mc this spy here, tomorrow morning. I want him alive. Alive, you understand? And I want this walkie-talkie that he is carrying handed over to me in perfect working order."
Half an hour later, plunged in thought, his hands in his pockets against the icy wind, the little man hurried on. When he got to the poorer quarters of the town he almost retraced his steps, but a sort of instinct made him continue on his way. He took a cigarette out of his case, flicked on his lighter, but the wind blew out the flame. A second attempt had the same result. Cursing and swearing, he went to take shelter behind a stretch of wall.
That was when he heard a strange chant which seemed to come out of the bowels of the earth.
TIP-TOEING down the steps of the staircase that led to the cellar, the little man in the fur cap soon appeared behind the back rows of the faithful. Et linen?, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam (caesium . . they were in the midst of singing, unaware of his presence, while he tried in vain to see over their heads and discover the origin of this great puzzling light.
The priest rose, went back to the altar, turned to face the people, saying : "Dominus vobiscum," and he began to say the Offertory prayers.
The little man managed to tack in and out of the people in front of him; and they, all deep in their prayers, did not notice, felt no apprehension. So he was able to reach the women's rows and to contemplate the altar, which he did with curiosity.
He recalled a scene, dating from the summer of 1944, which had been enacted in a church in Warsaw after the rebellion had broken out. A big blond Storm Trooper had upbraided the unhappy people huddling terrified against one another : "Everything that happens will be your own fault! You will all be punished, because you are responsible for the terrorists who are attacking us! They are under the orders of the Jews! And the most guilty of the Jews is He Who is here among you!"
At the height of his fury, the huge Aryan stretched out his arm and discharged his revolver at the crucifix standing upright above the debrisstrewn altar. At the foot of it lay the dead body of a woman.
And now, here in this secret cellar, dominating the assembly with His outspread arms, the King of the Jews was appearing yet again, to him, Josef Sturzel, former Leader of the S.S. The resemblance to the Polish Christ was so close that he rubbed his eyes; then giggled : "I'm tired! There's nothing there but two planks of wood nailed cross-wise."
THE priest turned round again. saying : 'Orate fratres," and the little man could hardly repress an exclamation of surprise which he disguised by coughing once or twice. This time he wasn't dreaming! Under his eyes, almost within reach of his hand, he had the man whose track, a moment ago, he had despaired of ever picking up! And this spy was also playing the part of a priest.
If he were to ,make the slightest gesture he would be cut to pieces by the people round about him. The best thing would be to get out as quickly as possible and give the alert to the first patrol he met.
The ringing of a little bell announced the Sanctus.
The police agent was about to make his attempt to leave when the little bell rang again for the Elevation of the Sacred Host. All the women and all the men knelt, thus exposing the little man standing up in the middle of a side circle. Recollecting that he was still wearing his fur cap, he took it off hastily and held it in his hands, while he knelt down like his neighbours, and this was how it came about that he bowed twice— when the priest lifted the Sacred Host and then the Chalice. As he got up, he even made the Sign of the Cross. But this was out of place, Standing against one of the pillars which supported the vaulted ceiling, Mathias had spotted him. During the Elevation, he had forced himself to keep still. But as soon as the bell had rung for the last time, he resumed his observation of the little man's movements: he saw him forcing his way between the people getting up from their knees. Mathias reached the exit at the same moment as the little man, but he deliberately let him get a little ahead.
The police agent quickly leapt on to the staircase and climbed the steps as rapidly as he could. When he emerged into the open air, he stopped, gave a sigh of relief and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. Then he put on his fur cap again and remarked, mockingly, in German : "Thanks to You, God of the Christians!"
A trip-up from behind made him fall just as he was about to walk on.
Mathias's knee was already crushing his chest, and the point of a long hunting knife rested against his throat.
(To be continued) "God's Secret Agent" will be published in June by Arthur Barker Ltd., under the title of "The Messenger."