The priest and the acolyte – Part 2

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The world is very stern with those that thwart her. She lays down her precepts, and woe to those who dare to think for themselves, who venture to exercise their own discretion as to whether they shall allow their individuality and natural characteristics to be stamped out, to be obliterated under the leaden fingers of convention.

Truly, convention is the stone that has become head of the corner in the jerry-built temple of our superficial, self-assertive civilization.

‘And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.’ [1]

If the world sees anything she cannot understand, she assigns the basest motives to all concerned, supposing the presence of some secret shame, the idea of which, at least, her narrow-minded intelligence is able to grasp.

The people no longer regarded their priest as a saint, and his acolyte as an angel. They still spoke of them with bated breath and with their fingers on their lips; they still drew back out of the way when they met either of them; but now they gathered together in groups of twos and threes and shook their heads.

The priest and his acolyte heeded not; they never even noticed the suspicious glances and half-suppressed murmurs. Each had found in the other perfect sympathy and perfect love: what could the outside world matter to them now? Each was to the other the perfect fulfilment of a scarcely preconceived ideal; neither heaven nor hell could offer more. But the stone of convention had been undermined; the time could not be far distant when it must fall.

The moonlight was very clear and very beautiful; the cool night air was heavy with the perfume of the old-fashioned flowers that bloomed so profusely in the little garden. But in the priest’s little room the closely drawn curtains shut out all the beauty of the night. Entirely forgetful of all the world, absolutely oblivious of everything but one another, wrapped in the beautiful visions of a love that far outshone all the splendour of the summer night, the priest and the little acolyte were together.

The little lad sat on his knees with his arms closely pressed round his neck and his golden curls laid against the priest’s close-cut hair; his white nightshirt contrasting strangely and beautifully with the dull black of the other’s long cassock.

There was a step on the road outside — a step drawing nearer and nearer; a knock at the door. They heard it not; completely absorbed in each other, intoxicated with the sweetly poisonous draught that is the gift of love, they sat in silence. But the end had come: the blow had fallen at last. The door opened, and there before them in the doorway stood the tall figure of the rector.

Neither said anything; only the little boy clung closer to his beloved, and his eyes grew large with fear. Then the young priest rose slowly to his feet and put the lad from him.

‘You had better go, Wilfred,’ was all he said.

The two priests stood in silence watching the child as he slipped through the window, stole across the grass, and vanished into the opposite cottage.

Then the two turned and faced each other.

The young priest sank into his chair and clasped his hands, waiting for the other to speak.

‘So it has come to this!’ he said: ‘the people were only too right in what they told me! Ah, God! that such a thing should have happened here! that it has fallen on me to expose your shame — our shame! That it is I who must give you up to justice, and see that you suffer the full penalty of your sin! Have you nothing to say?’

‘Nothing — nothing,’ he replied softly. ‘I cannot ask for pity: I cannot explain: you would never understand. I do not ask you anything for myself, I do not ask you to spare me; but think of the terrible scandal to our dear Church.’

‘It is better to expose these terrible scandals and see that they are cured. It is folly to conceal a sore: better show all our shame than let it fester.’

‘Think of the child.’

‘That was for you to do: you should have thought of him before. What has his shame to do with me? it was your business. Besides, I would not spare him if I could: what pity can I feel for such as he—?’

But the young man had risen, pale to the lips.

‘Hush!’ he said in a low voice; ‘I forbid you to speak of him before me with anything but respect’; then softly to himself, ‘with anything but reverence; with anything but devotion.’

The other was silent, awed for the moment. Then his anger rose.

‘Dare you speak openly like that? Where is your penitence, your shame? have you no sense of the horror of your sin?’

‘There is no sin for which I should feel shame,’ he answered very quietly. ‘God gave me my love for him, and He gave him also his love for me. Who is there that shall withstand God and the love that is His gift?’

‘Dare you profane the name by calling such a passion as this “love”?’

‘It was love, perfect love: it is perfect love.’

‘I can say no more now; tomorrow all shall be known. Thank God you shall pay dearly for all this disgrace,’ he added, in a sudden outburst of wrath.

‘I am sorry you have no mercy; — not that I fear exposure and punishment for myself. But mercy can seldom be found from a Christian,’ he added, as one that speaks from without.

The rector turned towards him suddenly, and stretched out his hands.

‘Heaven forgive me my hardness of heart,’ he said. ‘I have been cruel; I have spoken cruelly in my distress. Ah, can you say nothing to defend your crime?’

‘No: I do not think I can do any good by that. If I attempted to deny all guilt, you would only think I lied: though I should prove my innocence, yet my reputation, my career, my whole future, are ruined for ever. But will you listen to me for a little? I will tell you a little about myself.’

The rector sat down while his curate told him the story of his life, sitting by the empty grate with his chin resting on his clasped hands.

‘I was at a big public school, as you know. I was always different from other boys. I never cared much for games. I took little interest in those things for which boys usually care so much. I was not very happy in my boyhood, I think. My one ambition was to find the ideal for which I longed. It has always been thus: I have always had an indefinite longing for something, a vague something that never quite took shape, that I could never quite understand. My great desire has always been to find something that would satisfy me. I was attracted at once by sin: my whole early life is stained and polluted with the taint of sin. Sometimes even now I think that there are sins more beautiful than anything else in the world. There are vices that are bound to attract almost irresistibly anyone who loves beauty above everything. I have always sought for love: again and again I have been the victim of fits of passionate affection: time after time I have seemed to have found my ideal at last: the whole object of my life has been, times without number, to gain the love of some particular person. Several times my efforts were successful; each time I woke to find that the success I had obtained was worthless after all. As I grasped the prize, it lost all its attraction — I no longer cared for what I had once desired with my whole heart. In vain I endeavoured to drown the yearnings of my heart with the ordinary pleasures and vices that usually attract the young. I had to choose a profession. I became a priest. The whole aesthetic tendency of my soul was intensely attracted by the wonderful mysteries of Christianity, the artistic beauty of our services. Ever since my ordination I have been striving to cheat myself into the belief that peace had come at last — at last my yearning was satisfied: but all in vain. Unceasingly I have struggled with the old cravings for excitement, and, above all, the weary, incessant thirst for a perfect love. I have found, and still find, an exquisite delight in religion: not in the regular duties of a religious life, not in the ordinary round of parish organizations; — against these I chafe incessantly; — no, my delight is in the aesthetic beauty of the services — the ecstasy of devotion, the passionate fervour that comes with long fasting and meditation.’

‘Have you found no comfort in prayer?’ asked the rector.

‘Comfort? — no. But I have found in prayer pleasure, excitement, almost a fierce delight of sin.’

‘You should have married. I think that would have saved you.’

Ronald Heatherington rose to his feet and laid his hand on the rector’s arm.

‘You do not understand me. I have never been attracted by a woman in my life. Can you not see that people are different, totally different, from one another? To think that we are all the same is impossible; our natures, our temperaments, are utterly unlike. But this is what people will never see; they found all their opinions on a wrong basis. How can their deductions be just if their premises are wrong? One law laid down by the majority, who happen to be of one disposition, is only binding on the minority legally, not morally. What right have you, or anyone, to tell me that such and such a thing is sinful for me? Oh, why can I not explain to you and force you to see?’ and his grasp tightened on the other’s arm. Then he continued, speaking fast and earnestly:

‘For me, with my nature, to have married would have been sinful: it would have been a crime, a gross immorality, and my conscience would have revolted.’ Then he added, bitterly: ‘Conscience should be that divine instinct which bids us seek after that our natural disposition needs — we have forgotten that; to most of us, to the world, nay, even to Christians in general, conscience is merely another name for the cowardice that dreads to offend against convention. Ah, what a cursed thing convention is! I have committed no moral offence in this matter; in the sight of God my soul is blameless; but to you and to the world I am guilty of an abominable crime — abominable, because it is a sin against convention, forsooth! I met this boy: I loved him as I had never loved anyone or anything before: I had no need to labour to win his affection — he was mine by right: he loved me, even as I loved him, from the first: he was the necessary complement to my soul. How dare the world presume to judge us? What is convention to us? Nevertheless, although I really knew that such a love was beautiful and blameless, although from the bottom of my heart I despised the narrow judgement of the world, yet for his sake and for the sake of our Church, I tried at first to resist. I struggled against the fascination he possessed for me. I would never have gone to him and asked his love; I would have struggled on till the end: but what could I do? It was he that came to me, and offered me the wealth of love his beautiful soul possessed. How could I tell to such a nature as his the hideous picture the world would paint? Even as you saw him this evening, he has come to me night by night, — how dare I disturb the sweet purity of his soul by hinting at the horrible suspicions his presence might arouse? I knew what I was doing. I have faced the world and set myself up against it. I have openly scoffed at its dictates. I do not ask you to sympathize with me, nor do I pray you to stay your hand. Your eyes are blinded with a mental cataract. You are bound, bound with those miserable ties that have held you body and soul from the cradle. You must do what you believe to be your duty. In God’s eyes we are martyrs, and we shall not shrink even from death in this struggle against the idolatrous worship of convention.’

Ronald Heatherington sank into a chair, hiding his face in his hands, and the rector left the room in silence.

For some minutes the young priest sat with his face buried in his hands. Then with a sigh he rose and crept across the garden till he stood beneath the open window of his darling.

‘Wilfred,’ he called very softly.

The beautiful face, pale and wet with tears, appeared at the window.

‘I want you, my darling; will you come?’ he whispered.

‘Yes, father,’ the boy softly answered.

The priest led him back to his room; then, taking him very gently in his arms, he tried to warm the cold little feet with his hands.

‘My darling, it is all over.’ And he told him as gently as he could all that lay before them.

The boy hid his face on his shoulder, crying softly.

‘Can I do nothing for you, dear father?’

He was silent for a moment. ‘Yes, you can die for me; you can die with me.’

The loving arms were about his neck once more, and the warm, loving lips were kissing his own. ‘I will do anything for you. O father, let us die together!’

‘Yes, my darling, it is best: we will.’

Then very quietly and very tenderly he prepared the little fellow for his death; he heard his last confession and gave him his last absolution. Then they knelt together, hand in hand, before the crucifix.

‘Pray for me, my darling.’

Then together their prayers silently ascended that the dear Lord would have pity on the priest who had fallen in the terrible battle of life. There they knelt till midnight, when Ronald took the lad in his arms and carried him to the little chapel.

‘I will say Mass for the repose of our souls,’ he said.

Over his night-shirt the child arrayed himself in his little scarlet cassock and tiny lace cotta. He covered his naked feet with the scarlet sanctuary shoes; he lighted the tapers and reverently helped the priest to vest. Then before they left the vestry the priest took him in his arms and held him pressed closely to his breast; he stroked the soft hair and whispered cheeringly to him. The child was weeping quietly, his slender frame trembling with the sobs he could scarcely suppress. After a moment the tender embrace soothed him, and he raised his beautiful mouth to the priest’s. Their lips were pressed together, and their arms wrapped one another closely.

‘Oh, my darling, my own sweet darling!’ the priest whispered tenderly.

‘We shall be together for ever soon; nothing shall separate us now,’ the child said.

‘Yes, it is far better so; far better to be together in death than apart in life.’

They knelt before the altar in the silent night, the glimmer of the tapers lighting up the features of the crucifix with strange distinctness. Never had the priest’s voice trembled with such wonderful earnestness, never had the acolyte responded with such devotion, as at this midnight Mass for the peace of their own departing souls.

Just before the consecration the priest took a tiny phial from the pocket of his cassock, blessed it, and poured the contents into the chalice.

When the time came for him to receive from the chalice, he raised it to his lips, but did not taste of it.

He administered the sacred wafer to the child, and then he took the beautiful gold chalice, set with precious stones, in his hand; he turned towards him; but when he saw the light in the beautiful face he turned again to the crucifix with a low moan. For one instant his courage failed him; then he turned to the little fellow again, and held the chalice to his lips:

‘The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.’

Never had the priest beheld such perfect love, such perfect trust, in those dear eyes as shone from them now; now, as with face raised upwards he received his death from the loving hands of him that he loved best in the whole world.

The instant he had received, Ronald fell on his knees beside him and drained the chalice to the last drop. He set it down and threw his arms round the beautiful figure of his dearly loved acolyte. Their lips met in one last kiss of perfect love, and all was over.

When the sun was rising in the heavens it cast one broad ray upon the altar of the little chapel. The tapers were burning still, scarcely half burnt through. The sad-faced figure of the crucifix hung there in its majestic calm. On the steps of the altar was stretched the long, ascetic frame of the young priest, robed in the sacred vestments; close beside him, with his curly head pillowed on the gorgeous embroideries that covered his breast, lay the beautiful boy in scarlet and lace. Their arms were round each other; a strange hush lay like a shroud over all.

‘And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.’

June 1894.

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Notes et références

  1. King James Bible, Matthew 21:44.