The priest and the acolyte – Part 1

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The priest and the acolyte

Honi soit qui mal y pense


‘Pray, father, give me thy blessing, for I have sinned.’

The priest started; he was tired in mind and body; his soul was sad and his heart heavy as he sat in the terrible solitude of the confessional ever listening to the same dull round of oft-repeated sins. He was weary of the conventional tones and matter-of-fact expressions. Would the world always be the same? For nearly twenty centuries the Christian priests had sat in the confessional and listened to the same old tale. The world seemed to him no better; always the same, the same. The young priest sighed to himself, and for a moment almost wished people would be worse. Why could they not escape from these old wearily-made paths and be a little original in their vices, if sin they must? But the voice he now listened to aroused him from his reverie. It was so soft and gentle, so diffident and shy.

He gave the blessing, and listened. Ah, yes! he recognized the voice now. It was the voice he had heard for the first time only that very morning: the voice of the little acolyte that had served his Mass.

He turned his head and peered through the grating at the little bowed head beyond. There was no mistaking those long soft curls. Suddenly, for one moment, the face was raised, and the large moist blue eyes met his; he saw the little oval face flushed with shame at the simple boyish sins he was confessing, and a thrill shot through him, for he felt that here at least was something in the world that was beautiful, something that was really true. Would the day come when those soft scarlet lips would have grown hard and false? when the soft shy treble would have become careless and conventional? His eyes filled with tears, and in a voice that had lost its firmness he gave the absolution.

After a pause, he heard the boy rise to his feet, and watched him wend his way across the little chapel and kneel before the altar while he said his penance. The priest hid his thin tired face in his hands and sighed wearily.

The next morning, as he knelt before the altar and turned to say the words of confession to the little acolyte whose head was bent so reverently towards him, he bowed low till his hair just touched the golden halo that surrounded the little face, and he felt his veins burn and tingle with a strange new fascination.

When that most wonderful thing in the whole world, complete soul-absorbing love for another, suddenly strikes a man, that man knows what heaven means, and he understands hell: but if the man be an ascetic, a priest whose whole heart is given to ecstatic devotion, it were better for that man if he had never been born.

When they reached the vestry and the boy stood before him reverently receiving the sacred vestments, he knew that henceforth the entire devotion of his religion, the whole ecstatic fervour of his prayers, would be connected with, nay, inspired by, one object alone. With the same reverence and humility as he would have felt in touching the consecrated elements he laid his hands on the curl-crowned head, he touched the small pale face, and, raising it slightly, he bent forward and gently touched the smooth white brow with his lips.

When the child felt the caress of his fingers, for one moment every thing swam before his eyes; but when he felt the light touch of the tall priest’s lips a wonderful assurance took possession of him: he understood. He raised his little arms, and, clasping his slim white fingers around the priest’s neck kissed him on the lips. With a sharp cry the priest fell upon his knees, and, clasping the little figure clad in scarlet and lace to his heart, he covered the tender flushing face with burning kisses. Then suddenly there came upon them both a quick sense of fear; they parted hastily, with hot trembling fingers folded the sacred vestments, and separated in silent shyness.

* * * * *

The priest returned to his poor rooms and tried to sit down and think, but all in vain: he tried to eat, but could only thrust away his plate in disgust: he tried to pray, but instead of the calm figure on the cross, the calm, cold figure with the weary, weary face, he saw continually before him the flushed face of a lovely boy, the wide star-like eyes of his new-found love.

All that day the young priest went through the round of his various duties mechanically, but he could not eat nor sit quiet, for when alone, strange shrill bursts of song kept thrilling through his brain, and he felt that he must flee out into the open air or go mad.

At length, when night came, and the long, hot day had left him exhausted and worn out, he threw himself on his knees before his crucifix and compelled himself to think.

He called to mind his boyhood and his early youth; there returned to him the thought of the terrible struggles of the last five years. Here he knelt, Ronald Heatherington, priest of Holy Church, aged twenty-eight: what he had endured during these five years of fierce battling with those terrible passions he had fostered in his boyhood, was it all to be in vain? For the last year he had really felt that all passion was subdued, all those terrible outbursts of passionate love he had really believed to be stamped out for ever. He had worked so hard, so unceasingly, through all these five years since his ordination — he had given himself up solely and entirely to his sacred office; all the intensity of his nature had been concentrated, completely absorbed, in the beautiful mysteries of his religion. He had avoided all that could affect him, all that might call up any recollection of his early life. Then he had accepted this curacy, with sole charge of the little chapel that stood close beside the cottage where he was now living, the little mission-chapel that was the most distant of the several grouped round the old Parish Church of St. Anselm. He had arrived only two or three days before, and, going to call on the old couple who lived in the cottage, the back of which formed the boundary of his own little garden, had been offered the services of their grandson as acolyte.

‘My son was an artist fellow, sir,’ the old man had said: ‘he never was satisfied here, so we sent him off to London; he was made a lot of there, sir, and married a lady, but the cold weather carried him off one winter, and his poor young wife was left with the baby. She brought him up and taught him herself, sir, but last winter she was taken too so the poor lad came to live with us — so delicate he is, sir, and not one of the likes of us; he’s a gentleman born and bred, is Wilfred. His poor mother used to like him to go and serve at the church near them in London, and the boy was so fond of it himself that we thought, supposing you did not mind, sir, that it would be a treat for him to do the same here.’

‘How old is the boy?’ asked the young priest.

‘Fourteen, sir,’ replied the grandmother.

‘Very well, let him come to the chapel tomorrow morning,’ Ronald had agreed.

Entirely absorbed in his devotions, the young man had scarcely noticed the little acolyte who was serving for him, and it was not till he was hearing his confession later in the day that he had realized his wonderful loveliness.

‘Ah God! help me! pity me! After all this weary labour and toil, just when I am beginning to hope, is everything to be undone? am I to lose everything? Help me, help me, O God!’

Even while he prayed; even while his hands were stretched out in agonized supplication towards the feet of that crucifix before which his hardest battles had been fought and won; even while the tears of bitter contrition and miserable self-mistrust were dimming his eyes — there came a soft tap on the glass of the window beside him. He rose to his feet, and wonderingly drew back the dingy curtain. There in the moonlight, before the open window, stood a small white figure — there, with his bare feet on the moon-blanched turf, dressed only in his long white night-shirt, stood his little acolyte, the boy who held his whole future in his small childish hands.

‘Wilfred, what are you doing here?’ he asked in a trembling voice.

‘I could not sleep, father, for thinking of you, and I saw a light in your room, so I got out through the window and came to see you. Are you angry with me, father?’ he asked, his voice faltering as he saw the almost fierce expression in the thin ascetic face.

‘Why did you come to see me?’ The priest hardly dared recognize the situation, and scarcely heard what the boy said.

‘Because I love you, I love you — oh, so much! but you — you are angry with me — oh, why did I ever come! why did I ever come! — I never thought you would be angry!’ and the little fellow sank on the grass and burst into tears.

The priest sprang through the open window, and seizing the slim little figure in his arms, he carried him into the room. He drew the curtains and, sinking into the deep arm-chair, laid the little fair head upon his breast, kissing his curls again and again.

‘O my darling! my own beautiful darling!’ he whispered, ‘how could I ever be angry with you? You are more to me than all the world. Ah, God! how I love you, my darling! my own sweet darling!’

For nearly an hour the boy nestled there in his arms, pressing his soft cheek against his; then the priest told him he must go. For one long last kiss their lips met, and then the small white-clad figure slipped through the window, sped across the little moonlit garden, and vanished through the opposite window.

When they met in the vestry next morning, the lad raised his beautiful flower-like face, and the priest, gently putting his arms round him, kissed him tenderly on the lips.

‘My darling! my darling!’ was all he said; but the lad returned his kiss with a smile of wonderful almost heavenly love, in a silence that seemed to whisper something more than words.

‘I wonder what was the matter with the father this morning?’ said one old woman to another, as they were returning from the chapel; ‘he didn’t seem himself at all; he made more mistakes this morning than Father Thomas made in all the years he was here.’

‘Seemed as if he had never said a Mass before!’ replied her friend, with something of contempt.

And that night, and for many nights after, the priest, with the pale tired-looking face, drew the curtain over his crucifix and waited at the window for the glimmer of the pale summer moonlight on a crown of golden curls, for the sight of slim boyish limbs clad in the long white night-shirt, that only emphasized the grace of every movement, and the beautiful pallor of the little feet speeding across the grass. There at the window, night after night, he waited to feel tender loving arms thrown round his neck, and to feel the intoxicating delight of beautiful boyish lips raining kisses on his own.

Ronald Heatherington made no mistakes in the Mass now. He said the solemn words with a reverence and devotion that made the few poor people who happened to be there speak of him afterwards almost with awe; while the face of the little acolyte at his side shone with a fervour which made them ask each other what this strange light could mean. Surely the young priest must be a saint indeed, while the boy beside him looked more like an angel from heaven than any child of human birth.

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