Another silence followed his remarks. The same novice stood, pulling back his hood. He was a handsome man with dark features. "What dangers should we expect to face if we join you in your mission of glory?"
De Béhaine squared his shoulders. "The East is a strange and mysterious place," he said. "Starvation is prevalent. Natural disasters are frequent. And death is commonplace. The natives do not believe in our God. Doubtless, you will be embarking on a very dangerous assignment."
Brother João mused, "Then, dear sir, should we risk our lives?" "You should, and you must," the priest replied. "Because it is your duty as a priest to serve God's kingdom and the Mother Church. Your life is not yours to keep. It belongs to our Heavenly Father."
He adjusted the pin on his right shoulder, which held his ankle-length silk cassock together. A large crucifix was suspended by a thong from his neck and tucked into the folds of his sash. He looked out again at the audience and saw that the painter had disappeared down one of the many corridors. All that was left where he had stood was the canvas he had been working on, placed on a bench next to a flickering candle.
The assembled crowd followed the monsignor's look. Decorum forgotten, the novices murmured at the image before them. The monsignor rapped his knuckles on the dais again, but the sound was lost.
De Béhaine stepped down from the altar and marched toward the painting. He forgot about his sermon as he lifted the sheepskin by its frame. The paint was still wet.
The monsignor took in the scene of mountains and palm jungles. The strength of the young man's brush had turned the silent landscape into successions of broken curves and angular turns. The river's pale blue water foamed where it passed through cliffs and emptied into a grassy ravine.
The monsignor laughed out loud in satisfaction. The artist, with his perceptive skills, had created a distant world with amazing accuracy. "Silence!" he commanded. "Does anyone know the painter who left behind this canvas?" He held the picture above his head so everyone could see.
"The Church allows strangers to come and go as they wish," answered Brother João. "We do not know who that was. He could have been a vagrant, coming here to seek alms and refuge in the church's sanctuary."
"No, the technique is much too sophisticated for a vagabond," replied de Béhaine. He lowered his voice. "Whoever he might be, he is certainly an educated man. This painting is not a gift. I have no doubt that I will meet that painter again."
From Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen, pages 3-8 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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