A Selection From Book Four of Set All Afire: A Novel about Saint Francis Xavier | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight | Part One | Part Two
The names of the villages they passed were of the same ilk. Alantalai, Periytalai, Tiruchendur, Talambuli, Virapandianpatnam, Punaikayal, Palayakayal, Kayalpamam and Kombuturé.
He did not stick to his original idea, to start working only when he had reached Tuticorin. He could not wait. It was bitter to see the shrines and temples on the way, with obscene gods of stone performing obscene actions on temple friezes, with phallic symbols abounding; bitter to see trembling villagers watching overfed cows eating all their food without daring to disturb the sacred animals; bitter to hear that the pearl fishers paid a good percentage of their catch to sorcerers for spells and talismans against the bite of sharks, and paid still more for mantrams against any other kind of danger, trouble and illness.
At Kombuturé they told him about a woman who had been three days in labor and was dying, although her husband had paid the sorcerer for all the aid he could give and the house was full of mantrams of all kinds.
Coelho shook his head sadly. "The demons are more powerful than the sorcerer and the mantrams", he murmured.
Francis exploded. "Where is that house?" he asked.
Coelho and the other two students tried to hold him back, but they might as well have tried to stop the monsoon with their hands.
Francis stalked into the house.
The sorcerer, with two apprentices, was squatting on the floor; all three of them were drumming on some kind of musical instruments and chanting invocations at the top of their voices. They had put a kettle on the floor, filled with some burning substance that sent up clouds of stinking smoke. In a corner of the room the husband and at least half a dozen youngsters of all ages were crouching, moaning and rolling their eyes in abject fear.
A grotesque figure of clay and half a dozen mantrams were tied to the body of the suffering woman.
Francis took one look. Then he seized the kettle and swung it at the sorcerer and his helpers. They did not wait for what might happen next, but jumped up and raced out. Francis threw the kettle after them, untied the idol and the mantrams and threw them out as well.
A midwife, sitting at the feet of the woman, looked up at him as if she were seeing a demon. The woman herself kept her eyes closed. Now that the noise had subsided, Francis could hear her moaning softly.
He knew nothing of childbirth. The hospitals in which he had nursed his patients in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Goa were only for men. He thought the woman was dying, as he had been told that she was. She certainly looked as if she were dying. And into a dying woman's room he brought his Lord. It was all he could do and all he set out to do.
"Coelho— translate. Tell her that I am coming in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth..."
Coelho's lips were trembling a little. Perhaps Father Francis was not quite aware of the risk they were taking. Now if the woman died, as surely she would, the sorcerer would say that it was all the fault of these interfering strangers...
"Translate", ordered Francis. "I command you."
Coelho translated. The woman opened her eyes. She fastened her gaze not on Coelho but on the strange face of the white man with its complete absence of fear, with its tranquil smile. Being a woman, she recognized love when she saw it.
"Tell her, Our Blessed Lord wants her to live with him forever. Tell her what he wants her to believe. Visuvasa manthiram—paralogathiyum ...."
She stared at Francis. Her lips moved a little and then she echoed his smile.
"Are you ready to accept what you have heard?" asked Francis gently, when Coelho had finished translating the last part of the Creed. "Can you believe it?"
Oh yes, she could. She could.
He took the New Testament out of his pocket and read out the story of the birth of the Christ Child. Coelho translated again. From time to time he looked towards the entrance of the house. The crowd outside was growing larger and larger. They would never get away alive. He was sweating. But he went on translating.
"Water", said Francis. When they brought it to him, he baptized the woman.
Coelho, looking on, prayed for all he was worth. In a state of utter confusion he implored God to save their lives, to save the woman, to prevent the sorcerer from making the villagers storm the hut, to have mercy on him, on Father Francis—on everybody.
A sudden tremor went through the body of the woman, she threw back her head and gave a loud cry. Instantly the midwife sprang up.
Francis took a step backwards.
At first he did not know that labor had started again after hours of interruption. But he knew it soon enough.
Minutes later the child was there, and a few seconds later yelling lustily.
Outside the villagers broke into a howl of enthusiasm that shook the hut.
Two hours later Francis had baptized the husband, three sons, four daughters and the newly born infant, another son.
Coelho was grinning from ear to ear.
But for Francis this was no more than the beginning. He stepped outside, where the villagers were still howling their joy to heaven and asked for the headman. Coelho had to tell him that Father Francis wanted the entire village to accept Jesus Christ as their God and Lord.
The headman scratched himself thoughtfully. They would do so gladly, but they could not—not without the permission of the Rajah.
"Where is that Rajah?" asked Francis curtly.
Coelho passed on the question. The Rajah was far away, very far away, but there was an official here, who represented him. He had come to collect the taxes for his master.
Francis went to see him at once.
The tax collector was at first a little suspicious. If these people accepted this new belief, would they still be willing to pay their taxes to the Rajah? They would? Well...
Francis began to explain the tenets of Christianity to the man who listened politely. In the end he gave permission in the name of his master. He himself? No, no. This new thing seemed very good, but he himself could not accept it. He was the Rajah's man. The Rajah would have to give the order to him personally.
"It is a pitee—a great pitee", said Coelho, when the man withdrew, rather hastily. "We could have called him Matthew."
It took all next day to baptize every man, woman and child of the village and two days more to tell them at least the rudiments of what they must know.
As they left, they saw the woman with her newborn babe in her arms standing in the door of the hut, smiling at them and making the sign of the Cross.
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Louis de Wohl (1903-1961) was a distinguished and internationally respected Catholic writer whose books on Catholic saints were bestsellers worldwide. He wrote over fifty books; sixteen of those books were made into films. Pope John XXIII conferred on him the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
• Read de Wohl's thoughts about being a Catholic and a novelist.