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On this day, however, the sharp eyes grew a little less keen and somewhat wider, while that smile was fixed rather by habit than inclination. In fact, his expression might be called a frozen kindliness as he looked across the table to Father Victor.
It required a most indomitable geniality, indeed, to outface the rigid piety of Jean Paul Victor. His missionary work had carried him far north, where the cold burns men thin. The eternal frost of the Arctics lay on his hair, and his starved eyes looked out from hollows shadowed with blue. He might have posed for a painting of one of those damned souls whom Dante placed in the frozen circle of the “Inferno.”
It was his own spirit which tortured him—the zeal which drove him north and north and north over untracked regions, drove him until his body failed, drove him even now, though his body was crippled.
A mighty yearning, and a still mightier self-contempt whipped him on, and the school over which he was master groaned and suffered under his régime, and the disciples caught his spirit and went out like warriors in the name of God to spread the faith.
He despised them as he despised himself, for he said continually in his heart: “How great is the purpose and how little is our labor!”
Some such thought as that curled his thin lip as he stared across at Father Anthony like a wolf that has not eaten for a fortnight. The good father sustained the gaze, but he shivered a little and sighed. There was awe, and pity, and even a touch of horror in his eyes.
He said gently: “Are there none among all your lads, dear Father Victor, whom you find something more than imperfect machines?”
The man of the north drew from a pocket of his robe a letter. His marvelously lean fingers touched it almost with a caress, and when he spoke the softening which could not appear in the rigid features came into his voice and made it lower and deeper.
Father Anthony started in astonishment, as one might start to hear a divine prophet admit a mistake, but being wise he remained silent, waiting. Jean Paul Victor peered into space.
“Pierre Ryder. He is like a pleasant summer, and I”—he clasped his colorless hands—”am frozen—frozen to the heart.”
Still Father Anthony waited, but his eyes were like diamonds for brightness.
“He shall carry on my mission in the north. I, who am silent, have done much; but Pierre sings, and he will do more. I had to fight my first battle to conquer my own stubborn soul, and the battle left me weak for the great work in the snows, but Pierre will not fight that battle, for I have trained him.”
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