"The Voluntary Convict." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
In the early summer of the year 1605, a coasting vessel was sailing along the beautiful Gulf of Lyons, the wind blowing gently in the sails, the blue Mediterranean lying glittering to the south, and the curved line of the French shore rising in purple and green tints, dotted with white towns and villages. Suddenly three light, white-sailed ships appeared in the offing, and the captain's practised eye detected that the wings that bore them were those of a bird of prey. He knew them for African brigantines, and though he made all sail, it was impossible to run into a French port, as on, on they came, not entirely depending on the wind, but, like steamers, impelled by unseen powers within them. Alas! that power was not the force of innocent steam, but the arms of Christian rowers chained to the oar. Sure as the pounce of a hawk upon a partridge was the swoop of the corsairs upon the French vessel. A signal to surrender followed, but the captain boldly refused, and armed his crew, bidding them stand to their guns. But the fight was too unequal, the brave little ship was disabled, the pirates boarded her, and, after a sharp fight on deck, three of the crew lay dead, all the rest were wounded, and the vessel was the prize of the pirates. The captain was at once killed, in revenge for his resistance, and all the rest of the crew and passengers were put in chains. Among these passengers was a young priest named Vincent de Paul, the son of a farmer in Languedoc, who had used his utmost endeavours to educate his son for the ministry, even selling the oxen from the plough to provide for the college expenses. A small legacy had just fallen to the young man, from a relation who had died at Marseilles; he had been thither to receive it, and had been persuaded by a friend to return home by sea. And this was the result of the pleasant voyage. The legacy was the prey of the pirates, and Vincent, severely wounded by an arrow, and heavily chained, lay half-stifled in a corner of the hold of the ship, a captive probably for life to the enemies of the faith. It was true that France had scandalized Europe by making peace with the Dey of Tunis, but this was a trifle to the corsairs; and when, after seven days' further cruising, they put into the harbour of Tunis, they drew up an account of their capture, calling it a Spanish vessel, to prevent the French Consul from claiming the prisoners.
The captives had the coarse blue and white garments of slaves given them, and were walked five or six times through the narrow streets and bazaars of Tunis, by way of exhibition. They were then brought back to their ship, and the purchasers came thither to bargain for them. They were examined at their meals, to see if they had good appetites; their sides were felt like those of oxen; their teeth looked at like those of horses; their wounds were searched, and they were made to run and walk to show the play of their limbs. All this Vincent endured with patient submission, constantly supported by the thought of Him who took upon Him the form of a servant for our sakes; and he did his best, ill as he was, to give his companions the same confidence.
Weak and unwell, Vincent was sold cheap to a fisherman; but in his new service it soon became apparent that the sea made him so ill as to be of no use, so he was sold again to one of the Moorish physicians, the like of whom may still be seen, smoking their pipes sleepily, under their white turbans, cross-legged, among the drugs in their shop windows–these being small open spaces beneath the beautiful stone lacework of the Moorish lattices. The physician was a great chemist and distiller, and for four years had been seeking the philosopher's stone, which was supposed to be the secret of making gold. He found his slave's learning and intelligence so useful that he grew very fond of him, and tried hard to persuade him to turn Mahometan, offering him not only liberty, but the inheritance of all his wealth, and the secrets that he had discovered.
The Christian priest felt the temptation sufficiently to be always grateful for the grace that had carried him through it. At the end of a year, the old doctor died, and his nephew sold Vincent again. His next master was a native of Nice, who had not held out against the temptation to renounce his faith in order to avoid a life of slavery, but had become a renegade, and had the charge of one of the farms of the Dey of Tunis. The farm was on a hillside in an extremely hot and exposed region, and Vincent suffered much from being there set to field labour, but he endured all without a murmur. His master had three wives, and one of them, who was of Turkish birth,, used often to come out and talk to him, asking him many questions about his religion. Sometimes she asked him to sing, and he would then chant the psalm of the captive Jews: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept;" and others of the "songs" of his Zion. The woman at last told her husband that he must have been wrong in forsaking a religion of which her slave had told her such wonderful things. Her words had such an effect on the renegade that he sought the slave, and in conversation with him soon came to a full sense of his own miserable position as an apostate. A change of religion on the part of a Mahometan is, however, always visited with death, both to the convert and his instructor. An Algerine, who was discovered to have become a Christian, was about this time said to have been walled up at once in the fortifications he had been building; and the story has been confirmed by the recent discovery, by the French engineers, of the remains of a man within a huge block of clay, that had taken a perfect cast of his Moorish features, and of the surface of his garments, and even had his black hair adhering to it. Vincent's master, terrified at such perils, resolved to make his escape in secret with his slave. It is disappointing to hear nothing of the wife; and not to know whether she would not or could not accompany them. All we know is, that master and slave trusted themselves alone to a small bark, and, safely crossing the Mediterranean, landed at Aigues Mortes, on the 28th of June, 1607; and that the renegade at once abjured his false faith, and soon after entered a brotherhood at Rome, whose office it was to wait on the sick in hospitals.
This part of Vincent de Paul's life has been told at length because it shows from what the Knights of St. John strove to protect the inhabitants of the coasts. We next find Vincent visiting at a hospital at Paris, where he gave such exceeding comfort to the patients that all with one voice declared him a messenger from heaven.
He afterwards became a tutor in the family of the Count de Joigni, a very excellent man, who was easily led by him to many good works. M. de Joigni was inspector general of the "Galeres", or Hulks, the ships in the chief harbours of France, such as Brest and Marseilles, where the convicts, closely chained, were kept to hard labour, and often made to toil at the oar, like the slaves of the Africans. Going the round of these prison ships, the horrible state of the convicts, their half-naked misery, and still more their fiendish ferocity went to the heart of the Count and of the Abbé de Paul; and, with full authority from the inspector, the tutor worked among these wretched beings with such good effect that on his doings being represented to the King, Louis XIII, he was made almoner general to the galleys.
While visiting those at Marseilles, he was much struck by the broken-down looks and exceeding sorrowfulness of one of the convicts. He entered into conversation with him, and, after many kind words, persuaded him to tell his troubles. His sorrow was far less for his own condition than for the misery to which his absence must needs reduce his wife and children. And what was Vencent's reply to this? His action was so striking that, though in itself it could hardly be safe to propose it as an example, it must be mentioned as the very height of self-sacrifice.
He absolutely changed places with the convict. Probably some arrangement was made with the immediate jailor of the gang, who, by the exchange of the priest for the convict, could make up his full tale of men to show when his numbers were counted. At any rate the prisoner went free, and returned to his home, whilst Vincent wore a convict's chain, did a convict's work, lived on convict's fare, and, what was worse, had only convict society. He was soon sought out and released, but the hurts he had received from the pressure of the chain lasted all his life. He never spoke of the event; it was kept a strict secret; and once when he had referred to it in a letter to a friend, he became so much afraid that the story would become known that he sent to ask for the letter back again. It was, however, not returned, and it makes the fact certain. It would be a dangerous precedent if prison chaplains were to change places with their charges; and, beautiful as was Vincent's spirit, the act can hardly be justified; but it should also be remembered that among the galleys of France there were then many who had been condemned for resistance to the arbitrary will of Cardinal de Richelieu, men not necessarily corrupt and degraded like the thieves and murderers with whom they were associated. At any rate, M. de Joigni did not displace the almoner, and Vincent worked on the consciences of the convicts with infinitely more force for having been for a time one of themselves. Many and many were won back to penitence, a hospital was founded for them, better regulations established, and, for a time, both prisons and galleys were wonderfully improved, although only for the lifetime of the good inpector and the saintly almoner. But who shall say how many souls were saved in those years by these men who did what they could?
The rest of the life of Vincent de Paul would be too lengthy to tell here, though acts of beneficence and self-devotion shine out in glory at each step. The work by which he is chiefly remembered is his establishment of the Order of Sisters of Charity, the excellent women who have for two hundred years been the prime workers in every charitable task in France, nursing the sick, teaching the young, tending deserted children, ever to be found where there is distress or pain.
But of these, and of his charities, we will not here speak, nor even of his influence for good on the King and Queen themselves. The whole tenor of his life was "golden" in one sense, and if we told all his golden deeds they would fill an entire book. So we will only wait to tell how he showed his remembrance of what he had gone through in his African captivity. The redemption of the prisoners there might have seemed his first thought, but that he did so much in other quarters. At different times, with the alms that he collected, and out of the revenues of his benefices, he ransomed no less then twelve hundred slaves from their captivity. At one time the French Consul at Tunis wrote to him that for a certain sum a large number might be set free, and he raised enough to release not only these, but seventy more, and he further wrought upon the King to obtain the consent of the Dey of Tunis that a party of Christian clergy should be permitted to reside in the consul's house, and to minister to the souls and bodies of the Christian slaves, of whom there were six thousand in Tunis alone, besides those in Algiers, Tangier, and Tripoli!
Permission was gained, and a mission of Lazarist brothers arrived. This, too, was an order founded by Vincent, consisting of priestly nurses like the Hospitaliers, though not like them warriors. They came in the midst of a dreadful visitation of the plague, and nursed and tended the sick, both Christians and Mahometans, with fearless devotion, day and night, till they won the honour and love of the Moors themselves.
The good Vincent de Paul died in the year 1660, but his brothers of St. Lazarus, and sisters of charity still tread in the paths he marked out for them, and his name scarcely needs the saintly epithet that his church as affixed to it to stand among the most honourable of charitable men.
The cruel deeds of the African pirates were never wholly checked till 1816, when the united fleets of England and France destroyed the old den of corsairs at Algiers, which has since become a French colony.
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