From "The Priest and the Acolyte
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
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 whom so ever it
shall fall, it will grind him to powder."
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 fulfillment 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 splendor of the summer night, the priest and the little acolyte
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
"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
"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 endeavored 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 fervor 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 labor 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 judgment 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
"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
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."