From "The Priest and the Acolyte
"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 fervor 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 priests 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
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 labor 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
"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
"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
"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 fervor 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
The Priest and the Acolyte - Part 2