'At first I believed that this bird was sent to warn me from going, but it was that bird that put the idea into my head how I might escape from the parish without giving scandal. Life is so strange that one doesn't know what to think. Of what use are signs and omens if the interpretation is always obscure? They merely wring the will out of us; and well we may ask, Who would care for his life if he knew he was going to lose it on the morrow? And what mother would love her children if she were certain they would fall into evil ways, or if she believed the soothsayers who told her that her children would oppose her ideas? She might love them independent of their opposition, but how could she love them if she knew they were only born to do wrong? Volumes have been written on the subject of predestination and freewill, and the truth is that it is as impossible to believe in one as in the other. Nevertheless, prognostications have a knack of coming true, and if I am drowned crossing the lake you will be convinced of the truth of omens. Perhaps I should not write you these things, but the truth is, I cannot help myself; there is no power of resistance in me. I do not know if I am well or ill; my brain is on fire, and I go on thinking and thinking, trying to arrive at some rational belief, but never succeeding. Sometimes I think of myself as a fly on a window-pane, crawling and buzzing, and crawling and buzzing again, and so on and so on....
'You are one of those who seem to have been born without much interest in religion or fear of the here-after, and in a way I am like you, but with a difference: I acquiesced in early childhood, and accepted traditional beliefs, and tried to find happiness in the familiar rather than in the unknown. Whether I should have found the familiar enough if I hadn't met you, I shall never know. I've thought a good deal on this subject, and it has come to seem to me that we are too much in the habit of thinking of the intellect and the flesh as separate things, whereas they are but one thing. I could write a great deal on this subject, but I stop, as it were, on the threshold of my thought, for this is no time for philosophical writing. I am all a-tremble, and though my brain is working quickly, my thoughts are not mature and deliberate. My brain reminds me at times of the skies that followed Father Moran's visit—skies restlessly flowing, always different and always the same. These last days are merciless days, and I have to write to you in order to get some respite from purposeless thinking. Sometimes I stop in my walk to ask myself who I am and what I am, and where I am going. Will you be shocked to hear that, when I awoke and heard the wind howling, I nearly got out of bed to pray to God, to thank him for having sent Moran to warn me from crossing the lake? I think I did say a prayer, thanking him for his mercy. Then I felt that I should pray to him for grace that I might remain at home and be a good priest always, but that prayer I couldn't formulate, and I suffered a great deal. I know that such vacillations between belief and unbelief are neither profitable nor admirable; I know that to pray to God to thank him for having saved me from death while in mortal sin, and yet to find myself unable to pray to him to do his will, is illogical, and I confess that my fear is now lest old beliefs will claim me before the time comes. A poor, weak, tried mortal man am I, but being what I am, I cannot be different. I am calm enough now, and it seems as if my sufferings were at an end; but to-morrow some new fear will rise up like mist, and I shall be enveloped. What an awful thing it would be if I should find myself without will on the fifteenth, or the sixteenth, or the seventeenth of August! If the wind should rise again, and the lake be windy while the moon is full, my chance for leaving here this summer will be at an end. The water will be too cold in September.
'And now you know all, and if you don't get a letter from New York, understand that what appears in the newspapers is true—that I was drowned whilst bathing. I needn't apologize for this long letter; you will understand that the writing of it has taken me out of myself, and that is a great gain. There is no one else to whom I can write, and it pleases me to know this. I am sorry for my sisters in the convent; they will believe me dead. I have a brother in America, the one who sent the harmonium that you used to play on so beautifully. He will believe in my death, unless we meet in America, and that is not likely. I look forward to writing to you from New York.
Two evenings were passed pleasantly on the composition and the copying of this letter, and, not daring to entrust it to the postboy, he took it himself to Bohola; and he measured the time carefully, so as to get there a few minutes before the postmistress sealed up the bag. He delayed in the office till she sealed it, and returned home, following the letter in imagination to Dublin, across the Channel to Beechwood Hall. The servant in charge would redirect it. His thoughts were at ramble, and they followed the steamer down the Mediterranean. It would lie in the post-office at Jerusalem or some frontier town, or maybe a dragoman attached to some Turkish caravansary would take charge of it, and it might reach Nora by caravan. She might read it in the waste. Or maybe it would have been better if he had written 'Not to be forwarded' on the envelope. But the servant at Beechwood Hall would know what to do, and he returned home smiling, unable to believe in himself or in anything else, so extraordinary did it seem to him that he should be writing to Nora Glynn, who was going in search of the Christian river, while he was planning a journey westward.
A few days more, and the day of departure was almost at hand; but it seemed a very long time coming. What he needed was a material occupation, and he spent hours in his garden watering and weeding, and at gaze in front of a bed of fiery-cross. Was its scarlet not finer than Lady Hindlip? Lady Hindlip, like fiery-cross, is scentless, and not so hardy. No white carnation compares with Shiela; but her calyx often bursts, and he considered the claims of an old pink-flaked clove carnation, striped like a French brocade. But it straggled a little in growth, and he decided that for hardiness he must give the verdict to Raby Castle. True that everyone grows Raby Castle, but no carnation is so hardy or flowers so freely. As he stood admiring her great trusses of bloom among the tea-roses, he remembered suddenly that it was his love of flowers that had brought him to Garranard, and if he hadn't come to this parish, he wouldn't have known her. And if he hadn't known her, he wouldn't have been himself. And which self did he think the worthier, his present or his dead self?
His brain would not cease thinking; his bodily life seemed to have dissipated, and he seemed to himself to be no more than a mind, and, glad to interest himself in the business of the parish, he listened with greater attention than he had ever listened before to the complaints that were brought to him—to the man who had failed to give up a piece of land that he had promised to include in his daughter's fortune, and to Patsy Murphy, who had come to tell him that his house had been broken into while he was away in Tinnick. The old man had spent the winter in Tinnick with some relations, for the house that the Colonel had given him permission to build at the edge of the lake proved too cold for a winter residence.
Patsy seemed to have grown older since the autumn; he seemed like a doll out of which the sawdust was running, a poor shaking thing—a large head afloat on a weak neck. Tresses of white hair hung on his shoulders, and his watery eyes were red and restless like a ferret's. He opened his mouth, and there were two teeth on either side like tusks. Gray stubble covered his face, and he wore a brown suit, the trousers retained about his pot-belly—all that remained of his body—by a scarf. There was some limp linen and a red muffler about his throat. He spoke of his age—he was ninety-five—and the priest said he was a fine-looking, hearty man for his years. There wasn't a doubt but he'd pass the hundred. Patsy was inclined to believe he would go to one hundred and one; for he had been told in a vision he would go as far as that.
'You see, living in the house alone, the brain empties and the vision comes.'
That was how he explained his belief as he flopped along by the priest's side, his head shaking and his tongue going, telling tales of all kinds, half-remembered things: how the Gormleys and the Actons had driven the Colonel out of the country, and dispersed all his family with their goings-on. That was why they didn't want him—he knew too much about them. One of his tales was how they had frightened the Colonel's mother by tying a lame hare by a horsehair to the knocker of the hall door. Whenever the hare moved a rapping was heard at the front-door. But nobody could discover the horsehair, and the rapping was attributed to a family ghost.
He seemed to have forgotten his sword, and was now inclined to talk of his fists, and he stopped the priest in the middle of the road to tell a long tale how once, in Liverpool, someone had spoken against the Colonel, and, holding up his clenched fist, he said that no one ever escaped alive from the fist of Patsy Murphy.
It was a trial to Father Oliver to hear him, for he could not help thinking that to become like him it was only necessary to live as long as he. But it was difficult to get rid of the old fellow, who followed the priest as far as the village, and would have followed him further if Mrs. Egan were not standing there waiting for Father Oliver—a delicate-featured woman with a thin aquiline nose, who was still good-looking, though her age was apparent. She was forty-five, or perhaps fifty, and she held her daughter's baby in her coarse peasant hands. Since the birth of the child a dispute had been raging between the two mothers-in-law: the whole village was talking, and wondering what was going to happen next.
Mrs. Egan's daughter had married a soldier, a Protestant, some two years ago, a man called Rean. Father Oliver always found him a straightforward fellow, who, although he would not give up his own religion, never tried to interfere with his wife's; he always said that if Mary liked she could bring up her children Catholics. But hitherto they were not blessed with children, and Mary was jeered at more than once, the people saying that her barrenness was a punishment sent by God. At last a child was given them, and all would have gone well if Rean's mother had not come to Garranard for her daughter-in-law's confinement. Being a black Protestant, she wouldn't hear of the child being brought up a Catholic or even baptized in a Catholic Church. The child was now a week old and Rean was fairly distracted, for neither his own mother nor his mother-in-law would give way; each was trying to outdo the other. Mrs. Rean watched Mrs. Egan, and Mrs. Egan watched Mrs. Rean, and the poor mother lay all day with the baby at her breast, listening to the two of them quarrelling.
'She's gone behind the hedge for a minute, your reverence, so I whipped the child out of me daughter's bed; and if your reverence would only hurry up we could have the poor cratur baptized in the Holy Faith. Only there's no time to be lost; she do be watchin' every stir, your reverence.'
'Very well, Mrs. Egan: I'll be waiting for you up at the chapel.'
'A strange rusticity of mind,' he said to himself as he wended his way along the village street, and at the chapel gate a smile gathered about his lips, for he couldn't help thinking how Mrs. Rean the elder would rage when the child was brought back to her a Catholic. So this was going to be his last priestly act, the baptism of the child, the saving of the child to the Holy Faith. He told Mike to get the things ready, and turned into the sacristy to put on his surplice.
The familiar presses gave out a pleasant odour, and the vestments which he might never wear again interested him, and he stood seemingly lost in thought. 'But I mustn't keep the child waiting,' he said, waking up suddenly; and coming out of the sacristy, he found twenty villagers collected round the font, come up from the cottages to see the child baptized in the holy religion.
'Where's the child, Mrs. Egan?'
The group began talking suddenly, trying to make plain to him what had happened.
'Now, if you all talk together, I shall never understand.'
'Will you leave off pushing me?' said one.
'Wasn't it I that saw Patsy? Will your reverence listen to me?' said Mrs. Egan. 'It was just as I was telling your reverence, if they'd be letting me alone. Your reverence had only just turned in the chapel gate when Mrs. Rean ran from behind the hedge, and, getting in front of me who was going to the chapel with the baby in me arms, she said: "Now I'll be damned if I'll have that child christened a Catholic!" and didn't she snatch the child and run away, taking a short-cut across the fields to the minister's.'
'Patsy Kivel has gone after her, and he'll catch up on her, surely, and she with six ditches forninst her.'
'If he doesn't itself, maybe the minister isn't there, and then she'll be bet.'
'All I'm hopin' is that the poor child won't come to any harm between them; but isn't she a fearful terrible woman, and may the curse of the Son of God be on her for stealin' away a poor child the like of that!'
'I'd cut the livers out of the likes of them.'
'Now will you mind what you're sayin', and the priest listenin' to you?'
'Your reverence, will the child be always a Protestant? Hasn't the holy water of the Church more power in it than the water they have? Don't they only throw it at the child?'
'Now, Mrs. Egan—'
'Ah, your reverence, you're going to say that I shouldn't have given the child to her, and I wouldn't if I hadn't trod on a stone and fallen against the wall, and got afeard the child might be hurt.'
'Well, well,' said Father Oliver, 'you see there's no child—'
'But you'll be waitin' a minute for the sake of the poor child, your reverence? Patsy will be comin' back in a minute.'
On that Mrs. Egan went to the chapel door and stood there, so that she might catch the first glimpse of him as he came across the fields. And it was about ten minutes after, when the priest and his parishioners were talking of other things, that Mrs. Egan began to wave her arm, crying out that somebody should hurry.
'Will you make haste, and his reverence waitin' here this half-hour to baptize the innocent child! He'll be here in less than a minute now, your reverence. Will you have patience, and the poor child will be safe?'
The child was snatched from Patsy, and so violently that the infant began to cry, and Mrs. Egan didn't know if it was a hurt it had received, for the panting Patsy was unable to answer her.
'The child's all right,' he blurted out at last. 'She said I might take it and welcome, now it was a Protestant.'
'Ah, sure, you great thickhead of a boy! weren't you quick enough for her?'
'Now, what are you talkin' about? Hadn't she half a mile start of me, and the minister at the door just as I was gettin' over the last bit of a wall!'
'And didn't you go in after them?'
'What would I be doin', going into a Protestant church?'
Patsy's sense of his responsibility was discussed violently until Father Oliver said:
'Now, I can't be waiting any longer. Do you want me to baptize the child or not?'
'It would be safer, wouldn't it?' said Mrs. Egan.
'It would,' said Father Oliver; 'the parson mightn't have said the words while he was pouring the water.'
And, going towards the font with the child, Father Oliver took a cup of water, but, having regard for the child's cries, he was a little sparing with it.
'Now don't be sparin' with the water, your reverence, and don't be a mindin' its noise; it's twicest the quantity of holy water it'll be wanting, and it half an hour a Protestant.'
It was at that moment Mrs. Rean appeared in the doorway, and Patsy Kivel, who didn't care to enter the Protestant church, rushed to put her out of his.
'You can do what you like now with the child; it's a Protestant, for all your tricks.'
'Go along, you old heretic bitch!'
'Now, Patsy, will you behave yourself when you're standing in the Church of God! Be leaving the woman alone,' said Father Oliver; but before he got to the door to separate the two, Mrs. Rean was running down the chapel yard followed by the crowd of disputants, and he heard the quarrel growing fainter in the village street.
Rose-coloured clouds had just begun to appear midway in the pale sky—a beautiful sky, all gray and rose—and all this babble about baptism seemed strangely out of his mind. 'And to think that men are still seeking scrolls in Turkestan to prove—' The sentence did not finish itself in his mind; a ray of western light falling across the altar steps in the stillness of the church awakened a remembrance in him of the music that Nora's hands drew from the harmonium, and, leaning against the Communion-rails, he allowed the music to absorb him. He could hear it so distinctly in his mind that he refrained from going up into the gallery and playing it, for in his playing he would perceive how much he had forgotten, how imperfect was his memory. It were better to lose himself in the emotion of the memory of the music; it was in his blood, and he could see her hands playing it, and the music was coloured with the memory of her hair and her eyes. His teeth clenched a little as if in pain, and then he feared the enchantment would soon pass away; but the music preserved it longer than he had expected, and it might have lasted still longer if he had not become aware that someone was standing in the doorway.
The feeling suddenly came over him that he was not alone; it was borne in upon him—he knew not how, neither by sight nor sound—through some exceptional sense. And turning towards the sunlit doorway, he saw a poor man standing there, not daring to disturb the priest, thinking, no doubt, that he was engaged in prayer. The poor man was Pat Kearney. So the priest was a little overcome, for that Pat Kearney should come to him at such a time was portentous. 'It is strange, certainly, coincidence after coincidence,' he said; and he stood looking at Pat as if he didn't know him, till the poor man was frightened and began to wonder, for no one had ever looked at him with such interest, not even the neighbour whom he had asked to marry him three weeks ago. And this Pat Kearney, who was a short, thick-set man, sinking into years, began to wonder what new misfortune had tracked him down. His teeth were worn and yellow as Indian meal, and his rough, ill-shaven cheeks and pale eyes reminded the priest of the country in which Pat lived, and of the four acres of land at the end of the boreen that Pat was digging these many years.
He had come to ask Father Oliver if he would marry him for a pound, but, as Father Oliver didn't answer him, he fell to thinking that it was his clothes that the priest was admiring, 'for hadn't his reverence given him the clothes himself? And if it weren't for the self-same clothes, he wouldn't have the pound in his pocket to give the priest to marry him,'
'It was yourself, your reverence—'
'Yes, I remember very well.'
Pat had come to tell him that there was work to be had in Tinnick, but that he didn't dare to show himself in Tinnick for lack of clothes, and he stood humbly before the priest in a pair of corduroy trousers that hardly covered his nakedness.
And it was as Father Oliver stood examining and pitying his parishioner's poverty it had occurred to him that, if he were to buy two suits of clothes in Tinnick and give one to Pat Kearney, he might wrap the other one in a bundle, and place it on the rocks on the Joycetown side. It was not likely that the shopman in Tinnick would remember, after three months, that he had sold two suits to the priest; but should he remember this, the explanation would be that he had bought them for Pat Kearney. Now, looking at this poor man who had come to ask him if he would marry him for a pound, the priest was lost in wonder.
'So you're going to be married, Pat?'
And Pat, who hadn't spoken to anyone since the woman whose potatoes he was digging said she'd as soon marry him as another, began to chatter, and to ramble in his chatter. There was so much to tell that he did not know how to tell it. There was his rent and the woman's holding, for now they would have nine acres of land, money would be required to stock it, and he didn't know if the bank would lend him the money. Perhaps the priest would help him to get it.
'But why did you come to me to marry you? Aren't you two miles nearer to Father Moran than you are to me?'
Pat hesitated, not liking to say that he would be hard set to get round Father Moran. So he began to talk of the Egans and the Reans. For hadn't he heard, as he came up the street, that Mrs. Rean had stolen the child from Mrs. Egan, and had had it baptized by the minister? And he hoped to obtain the priest's sympathy by saying:
'What a terrible thing it was that the police should allow a black Protestant to steal a Catholic child, and its mother a Catholic and all her people before her!'
'When Mrs. Rean snatched the child, it hadn't been baptized, and was neither a Catholic nor a Protestant,' the priest said maliciously.
Pat Kearney, whose theological knowledge did not extend very far, remained silent, and the priest was glad of his silence, for he was thinking that in a few minutes he would catch sight of the square whitewashed school-house on the hillside by the pine-wood, and the thought came into his mind that he would like to see again the place where he and Nora once stood talking together. But a long field lay between his house and the school-house, and what would it avail him to see the empty room? He looked, instead, for the hawthorn-bush by which he and Nora had lingered, and it was a sad pleasure to think how she had gone up the road after bidding him good-bye.
But Pat Kearney began to talk again of how he could get an advance from the bank.
'I can back no bill for you, Pat, but I'll give you a letter to Father Moran telling him that you can't afford to pay more than a pound.'
Nora's letters were in the drawer of his writing-table; he unlocked it, and put the packet into his pocket, and when he had scribbled a little note to Father Moran, he said:
'Now take this and be off with you; I've other business to attend to besides you;' and he called to Catherine for his towels.
'Now, is it out bathing you're going, your reverence? You won't be swimming out to Castle Island, and forgetting that you have confessions at seven?'
'I shall be back in time,' he answered testily, and soon after he began to regret his irritation; for he would never see Catherine again, saying to himself that it was a pity he had answered her testily. But he couldn't go back. Moran might call. Catherine might send Moran after him, saying his reverence had gone down to bathe, or any parishioner, however unwarranted his errand, might try to see him out. 'And all errands will be unwarranted to-day,' he said as he hurried along the shore, thinking of the different paths round the rocks and through the blackthorn-bushes.
His mind was on the big wood; there he could baffle anybody following him, for while his pursuer would be going round one way he would be coming back the other. But it would be lonely in the big wood; and as he hurried down the old cart-track he thought how he might while away an hour among the ferns in the little spare fields at the end of the plantation, watching the sunset, for hours would have to pass before the moon rose, and the time would pass slowly under the melancholy hazel-thickets into which the sun had not looked for thousands of years. A wood had always been there. The Welshmen had felled trees in it to build rafts and boats to reach their island castles. Bears and wolves had been slain in it; and thinking how it was still a refuge for foxes, martens and badgers and hawks, he made his way along the shore through the rough fields. He ran a little, and after waiting a while ran on again. On reaching the edge of the wood, he hid himself behind a bush, and did not dare to move, lest there might be somebody about. It was not till he made sure there was no one that he stooped under the blackthorns, and followed a trail, thinking the animal, probably a badger, had its den under the old stones; and to pass the time he sought for a den, but could find none.
A small bird, a wren, was picking among the moss; every now and then it fluttered a little way, stopped, and picked again. 'Now what instinct guided its search for worms?' he asked, and getting up, he followed the bird, but it escaped into a thicket. There were only hazel-stems in the interspace he had chosen to hide himself in, but there were thickets nearly all about it, and it took some time to find a path through these. After a time one was found, and by noticing everything he tried to pass the time away and make himself secure against being surprised.
The path soon came to an end, and he walked round to the other side of the wood, to see if the bushes were thick enough to prevent anyone from coming upon him suddenly from that side; and when all searches were finished he came back, thinking of what his future life would be without Nora. But he must not think of her, he must learn to forget her; for the time being at least, his consideration must be of himself in his present circumstances, and he felt that if he did not fix his thoughts on external things, his courage—or should he say his will?—would desert him. It did not need much courage to swim across the lake, much more to leave the parish, and once on the other side he must go any whither, no whither, for he couldn't return to Catherine in a frieze coat and a pair of corduroy trousers. Her face when she saw him! But of what use thinking of these things? He was going; everything was settled. If he could only restrain his thoughts—they were as wild as bees.
Standing by a hazel-stem, his hand upon a bough, he fell to thinking what his life would be, and very soon becoming implicated in a dream, he lost consciousness of time and place, and was borne away as by a current; he floated down his future life, seeing his garret room more clearly than he had ever seen it—his bed, his washhand-stand, and the little table on which he did his writing. No doubt most of it would be done in the office, but some of it would be done at home; and at nightfall he would descend from his garret like a bat from the eaves.
Journalists flutter like bats about newspaper offices. The bats haunt the same eaves, but the journalist drifts from city to city, from county to county, busying himself with ideas that were not his yesterday, and will not be his to-morrow. An interview with a statesman is followed by a review of a book, and the day after he may be thousands of miles away, describing a great flood or a railway accident. The journalist has no time to make friends, and he lives in no place long enough to know it intimately; passing acquaintance and exterior aspects of things are his share of the world. And it was in quest of such vagrancy of ideas and affections that he was going.
At that moment a sudden sound in the wood startled him from his reverie, and he peered, a scared expression on his face, certain that the noise he had heard was Father Moran's footstep. It was but a hare lolloping through the underwood, and wondering at the disappointment he felt, he asked if he were disappointed that Moran had not come again to stop him. He didn't think he was, only the course of his life had been so long dependent on a single act of will that a hope had begun in his mind that some outward event might decide his fate for him. Last month he was full of courage, his nerves were like iron; to-day he was a poor vacillating creature, walking in a hazel-wood, uncertain lest delay had taken the savour out of his adventure, his attention distracted by the sounds of the wood, by the snapping of a dry twig, by a leaf falling through the branches.
'Time is passing,' he said, 'and I must decide whether I go to America to write newspaper articles, or stay at home to say Mass—a simple matter, surely.'
The ordinary newspaper article he thought he could do as well as another—in fact, he knew he could. But could he hope that in time his mind would widen and deepen sufficiently to enable him to write something worth writing, something that might win her admiration? Perhaps, when he had shed all his opinions. Many had gone already, more would follow, and one day he would be as free as she was. She had been a great intellectual stimulus, and soon he began to wonder how it was that all the paraphernalia of religion interested him no longer, how he seemed to have suddenly outgrown the things belonging to the ages of faith, and the subtle question, if passion were essential to the growth of the mind, arose. For it seemed to him that his mind had grown, though he had not read the Scriptures, and he doubted if the reading of the Scriptures would have taught him as much as Nora's beauty. 'After all,' he said, 'woman's beauty is more important to the world than a scroll.' He had begun to love and to put his trust in what was natural, spontaneous, instinctive, and might succeed in New York better than he expected. But he would not like to think that it was hope of literary success that tempted him from Garranard. He would like to think that in leaving his poor people he was serving their best interests, and this was surely the case. For hadn't he begun to feel that what they needed was a really efficient priest, one who would look after their temporal interests? In Ireland the priest is a temporal as well as a spiritual need. Who else would take an interest in this forlorn Garranard and its people, the reeds and rushes of existence?
He had striven to get the Government to build a bridge, but had lost patience; he had wearied of the task. Certain priests he knew would not have wearied of it; they would have gone on heckling the Government and the different Boards until the building of the bridge could no longer be resisted. His failure to get this bridge was typical, and it proved beyond doubt that he was right in thinking he had no aptitude for the temporal direction of his parish.
But a curate had once lived in Bridget Clery's cottage who had served his people excellently well, had intrigued successfully, and forced the Government to build houses and advance money for drainage and other useful works. And this curate had served his people in many capacities—as scrivener, land-valuer, surveyor, and engineer. It was not till he came to Garranard that he seemed to get out of touch with practical affairs, and he began to wonder if it was the comfortable house he lived in, if it were the wine he drank, the cigars he smoked, that had produced this degeneracy, if it were degeneracy. Or was it that he had worn out a certain side of his nature in Bridget Clery's cottage? It might well be that. Many a man has mistaken a passing tendency for a vocation. We all write poetry in the beginning of our lives; but most of us leave off writing poetry after some years, unless the instinct is very deep or one is a fool. It might well be that his philanthropic instincts were exhausted; and it might well be that this was not the case, for one never gets at the root of one's nature.
The only thing he was sure of was that he had changed a great deal, and, he thought, for the better. He seemed to himself a much more real person than he was a year ago, being now in full possession of his soul, and surely the possession of one's soul is a great reality. By the soul he meant a special way of feeling and seeing. But the soul is more than that—it is a light; and this inner light, faint at first, had not been blown out. If he had blown it out, as many priests had done, he would not have experienced any qualms of conscience. The other priests in the diocese experienced none when they drove erring women out of their parishes, and the reason of this was that they followed a light from without, deliberately shutting out the light of the soul.
The question interested him, and he pondered it a long while, finding himself at last forced to conclude that there is no moral law except one's own conscience, and that the moral obligation of every man is to separate the personal conscience from the impersonal conscience. By the impersonal conscience he meant the opinions of others, traditional beliefs, and the rest; and thinking of these things he wandered round the Druid stones, and when his thoughts returned to Nora's special case he seemed to understand that if any other priest had acted as he had acted he would have acted rightly, for in driving a sinful woman out of the parish he would be giving expression to the moral law as he understood it and as Garranard understood it. This primitive code of morals was all Garranard could understand in its present civilization, and any code is better than no code. Of course, if the priest were a transgressor himself he could not administer the law. Happily, that was a circumstance that did not arise often. So it was said; but what did he know of the souls of the priests with whom he dined, smoked pipes, and played cards? And he stopped, surprised, for it had never occurred to him that all a man knows of his fellow is whether he be clean or dirty, short or tall, thin or stout. 'Even the soul of Moran is obscure to me,' he said—'obscure as this wood;' and at that moment the mystery of the wood seemed to deepen, and he stood for a long while looking through the twilight of the hazels.
Very likely many of the priests he knew had been tempted by women: some had resisted temptation, and some had sinned and repented. There might be a priest who had sinned and lived for years in sin; even so if he didn't leave his parish, if he didn't become an apostate priest, faith would return to him in the end. But the apostate priest is anathema in the eyes of the Church; the doctrine always has been that a sin matters little if the sinner repent. Father Oliver suddenly saw himself years hence, still in Garranard, administering the Sacraments, and faith returning like an incoming tide, covering the weedy shore, lapping round the high rock of doubt. If he desired faith, all he had to do was to go on saying Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing the young, burying the old, and in twenty years—maybe it would take thirty—when his hair was white and his skin shrivelled, he would be again a good priest, beloved by his parishioners, and carried in the fulness of time by them to the green churchyard where Father Peter lay near the green pines.
Only the other day, coming home from his after-noon's walk, he stopped to admire his house. The long shadow of its familiar trees awakened an extraordinary love in him, and when he crossed the threshold and sat down in his armchair, his love for his house had surprised him, and he sat like one enchanted by his own fireside, lost in admiration of the old mahogany bookcase with the inlaid panels, that he had bought at an auction. How sombre and quaint it looked, furnished with his books that he had had bound in Dublin, and what pleasure it always was to him to see a ray lighting up the parchment bindings! He had hung some engravings on his walls, and these had become very dear to him; and there were some spoons, bought at an auction some time ago—old, worn Georgian spoons—that his hands were accustomed to the use of; there was an old tea-service, with flowers painted inside the cups, and he was leaving these things; why? He sought for a reason for his leaving them. If he were going away to join Nora in America he could understand his going. But he would never see her again—at least, it was not probable that he would. He was not following her, but an idea, an abstraction, an opinion; he was separating himself, and for ever, from his native land and his past life, and his quest was, alas! not her, but—He was following what? Life? Yes; but what is life? Do we find life in adventure or by our own fireside? For all he knew he might be flying from the very thing he thought he was following. His thoughts zigzagged, and, almost unaware of his thoughts, he compared life to a flower—to a flower that yields up its perfume only after long cultivation—and then to a wine that gains its fragrance only after it has been lying in the same cellar for many years, and he started up convinced that he must return home at once. But he had not taken many steps before he stopped:
'No, no, I cannot stay here year after year! I cannot stay here till I die, seeing that lake always. I couldn't bear it. I am going. It matters little to me whether life is to be found at home or abroad, in adventure or in habits and customs. One thing matters—do I stay or go?'
He turned into the woods and walked aimlessly, trying to escape from his thoughts, and to do so he admired the pattern of the leaves, the flight of the birds, and he stopped by the old stones that may have been Druid altars; and he came back an hour after, walking slowly through the hazel-stems, thinking that the law of change is the law of life. At that moment the cormorants were coming down the glittering lake to their roost. With a flutter of wings they perched on the old castle, and his mind continued to formulate arguments, and the last always seemed the best.
At half-past seven he was thinking that life is gained by escaping from the past rather than by trying to retain it; he had begun to feel more and more sure that tradition is but dead flesh which we must cut off if we would live.... But just at this spot, an hour ago, he had acquiesced in the belief that if a priest continued to administer the Sacraments faith would return to him; and no doubt the Sacraments would bring about some sort of religious stupor, but not that sensible, passionate faith which he had once possessed, and which did not meet with the approval of his superiors at Maynooth. He had said that in flying from the monotony of tradition he would find only another monotony, and a worse one—that of adventure; and no doubt the journalist's life is made up of fugitive interests. But every man has, or should have, an intimate life as well as an external life; and in losing interest in religion he had lost the intimate life which the priesthood had once given him. The Mass was a mere Latin formula, and the vestments and the chalice, the Host itself, a sort of fetishism—that is to say, a symbolism from which life had departed, shells retaining hardly a murmur of the ancient ecstasy. It was therefore his fate to go in quest of—what? Not of adventure. He liked better to think that his quest was the personal life—that intimate exaltation that comes to him who has striven to be himself, and nothing but himself. The life he was going to might lead him even to a new faith. Religious forms arise and die. The Catholic Church had come to the end of its thread; the spool seemed pretty well empty, and he sat down so that he might think better what the new faith might be. What would be its first principle? he asked himself, and not finding any answer to this question, he began to think of his life in America. He would begin as a mere recorder of passing events. But why should he assume that he would not rise higher? And if he remained to the end of his day a humble reporter, he would still have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he had not resigned himself body and soul to the life of the pool, to a frog-like acquiescence in the stagnant pool.
His hand held back a hazel-branch, and he stood staring at the lake. The wild ducks rose in great flocks out of the reeds and went away to feed in the fields, and their departure was followed by a long interval, during which no single thought crossed his mind—at least, none that he could remember. No doubt his tired mind had fallen into lethargy, from which a sudden fear had roughly awakened him. What if some countryman, seeking his goats among the rocks, had come upon the bundle and taken it home! And at once he imagined himself climbing up the rocks naked. Pat Kearney's cabin was close by, but Pat had no clothes except those on his back, and would have to go round the lake to Garranard; and the priest thought how he would sit naked in Kearney's cottage hour after hour.
'If anyone comes to the cabin I shall have to hold the door to. There is a comic side to every adventure,' he said, 'and a more absurd one it would be difficult to imagine.'
The day had begun in a ridiculous adventure—the baptism of the poor child, baptized first a Protestant, then a Catholic. And he laughed a little, and then he sighed.
'Is the whole thing a fairy-tale, a piece of midsummer madness, I wonder? No matter, I can't stay here, so why should I trouble to discover a reason for my going? In America I shall be living a life in agreement with God's instincts. My quest is life.'
And, remembering some words in her last letter, his heart cried out that his love must bring her back to him eventually, though Poole were to take her to the end of the earth, and at once he was carried quickly beyond the light of common sense into a dim happy world where all things came and went or were transformed in obedience to his unexpressed will. Whether the sun were curtained by leafage or by silken folds he did not know—only this: that she was coming towards him, borne lightly as a ball of thistle-down. He perceived the colour of her hair, and eyes, and hands, and of the pale dress she wore; but her presence seemed revealed to him through the exaltation of some sense latent or non-existent in him in his waking moods. His delight was of the understanding, for they neither touched hands nor spoke. A little surprise rose to the surface of his rapture—surprise at the fact that he experienced no pang of jealousy. She had said that true love could not exist without jealousy! But was she right in this? It seemed to him that we begin to love when we cease to judge. If she were different she wouldn't be herself, and it was herself he loved—the mystery of her sunny, singing nature. There is no judgment where there is perfect sympathy, and he understood that it would be as vain for him to lament that her eyebrows were fair as to lament or reprove her conduct.
Continuing the same train of thought, he remembered that, though she was young to-day, she would pass into middle, maybe old age; that the day would come when her hair would be less bright, her figure would lose its willowness; but these changes would not lessen his love for her. Should he not welcome change? Thinking that perhaps fruit-time is better than blossom-time, he foresaw a deeper love awaiting him, and a tenderness that he could not feel to-day might be his in years to come. Nor could habit blunt his perceptions or intimacy unravel the mystery of her sunny nature. So the bourne could never be reached; for when everything had been said, something would remain unspoken. The two rhythms out of which the music of life is made, intimacy and adventure, would meet, would merge, and become one; and she, who was to-day an adventure, would become in the end the home of his affections.
A great bird swooped out of the branches above him, startling him, and he cried out: 'An owl—only an owl!' The wood was quiet and dark, and in fear he groped his way to the old stones; for one thing still remained to be done before he left—he must burn her letters.
He burnt them one by one, shielding the flame with his hand lest it should attract some passer-by, and when the last was burnt he feared no longer anything. His wonder was why he had hesitated, why his mind had been torn by doubt. At the back of his mind he had always known he was going. Had he not written saying he was going, and wasn't that enough? And he thought for a moment of what her opinion of him would be if he stayed in Garranard. In a cowardly moment he hoped that something would happen to save him from the ultimate decision, and now doubt was overcome.
A yellow disc appeared, cutting the flat sky sharply, and he laid his priest's clothes in the middle of a patch of white sand where they could be easily seen. Placing the Roman collar upon the top, and, stepping from stone to stone, he stood on the last one as on a pedestal, tall and gray in the moonlight—buttocks hard as a faun's, and dimpled like a faun's when he draws himself up before plunging after a nymph.
When he emerged he was among the reeds, shaking the water from his face and hair. The night was so warm that it was like swimming in a bath, and when he had swum a quarter of a mile he turned over on his back to see the moon shining. Then he turned over to see how near he was to the island. 'Too near,' he thought, for he had started before his time. But he might delay a little on the island, and he walked up the shore, his blood in happy circulation, his flesh and brain a-tingle, a little captivated by the vigour of his muscles, and ready and anxious to plunge into the water on the other side, to tire himself if he could, in the mile and a half of gray lake that lay between him and shore.
There were lights in every cottage window; the villagers would be about the roads for an hour or more, and it would be well to delay on the island, and he chose a high rock to sit upon. His hand ran the water off his hard thighs, and then off his long, thin arms, and he watched the laggard moon rising slowly in the dusky night, like a duck from the marshes. Supporting himself with one arm, he let himself down the rock and dabbled his foot in the water, and the splashing of the water reminded him of little Philip Rean, who had been baptized twice that morning notwithstanding his loud protest. And now one of his baptizers was baptized, and in a few minutes would plunge again into the beneficent flood.
The night was so still and warm that it was happiness to be naked, and he thought he could sit for hours on that rock without feeling cold, watching the red moon rolling up through the trees round Tinnick; and when the moon turned from red to gold he wondered how it was that the mere brightening of the moon could put such joy into a man's heart.
Derrinrush was the nearest shore, and far away in the wood he heard a fox bark. 'On the trail of some rabbit,' he thought, and again he admired the great gold moon rising heavily through the dusky sky, and the lake formless and spectral beneath it.
Catherine no doubt had begun to feel agitated; she would be walking about at midnight, too scared to go to sleep. He was sorry for her; perhaps she would be the only one who would prefer to hear he was in America and doing well than at the bottom of the lake. Eliza would regret in a way, as much as her administration of the convent would allow her; Mary would pray for him—so would Eliza, for the matter of that; and their prayers would come easily, thinking him dead. Poor women! if only for their peace of mind he would undertake the second half of the crossing.
A long mile of water lay between him and Joycetown, but there was a courage he had never felt before in his heart, and a strength he had never felt before in his limbs. Once he stood up in the water, sorry that the crossing was not longer. 'Perhaps I shall have had enough of it before I get there;' and he turned on his side and swam half a mile before changing his stroke. He changed it and got on his back because he was beginning to feel cold and tired, and soon after he began to think that it would be about as much as he could do to reach the shore. A little later he was swimming frog-fashion, but the change did not seem to rest him, and seeing the shore still a long way off he began to think that perhaps after all he would find his end in the lake. His mind set on it, however, that the lake should be foiled, he struggled on, and when the water shallowed he felt he had come to the end of his strength. 'Another hundred yards would have done for me,' he said, and he was so cold that he could not think, and sought his clothes vaguely, sitting down to rest from time to time among the rocks. He didn't know for certain if he would find them, and if he didn't he must die of cold. So the rough shirt was very welcome when he discovered it, and so were the woollen socks. As soon as he was dressed he thought that he felt nearly strong enough to climb up the rocks, but he was not as strong as he thought, and it took him a long time to get to the top. But at the top the sward was pleasant—it was the sward of the terrace of the old house; and lying at length, fearful lest sleep might overtake him, he looked across the lake. 'A queer dusky night,' he said, 'with hardly a star, and that great moon pouring silver down the lake.'
'I shall never see that lake again, but I shall never forget it,' and as he dozed in the train, in a corner of an empty carriage, the spectral light of the lake awoke him, and when he arrived at Cork it seemed to him that he was being engulfed in the deep pool by the Joycetown shore. On the deck of the steamer he heard the lake's warble above the violence of the waves. 'There is a lake in every man's heart,' he said, 'and he listens to its monotonous whisper year by year, more and more attentive till at last he ungirds.'