There was perfect silence in the study. Thirty-seven postulants were stooping over their high desks, reading and writing, their pens moving over their exercise books with the cumbersome stupidity of boyhood, their heads held between their hands as they repeated over and over again the conjugation of some Latin or Greek noun and tried to retain it in their racked memories. In the rear desk, three auxiliary prefects, wearing black soutanes, worked and conversed in whispers, disobeying the law of silence which they imposed on the junior postulants. For even in religious orders officials disobey their own laws.
It was after six o'clock. The angelus had been said. It was still an hour before the first auxiliary would bang his desk and recite the prayer before leaving the study for the refectory and supper.
A terrible hour, thought Francis Cleary. He sat in the second desk to the left of the passage, and although he had his Euripides open on his desk he was not reading it. He was listening to every sound with beating heart, thinking that the very next moment there would be a heavy step outside the door. Then the door would open slowly and the father-director's large, red, melancholy face would appear. Holding his biretta in his hand he would advance slowly down the study, picking his steps with difficulty on account of his corns. He would pause at Cleary's desk and he would tip Cleary's right shoulder gently. Then without a word he would walk back again to the door and Cleary would have to follow him.
Cleary kept going over this routine of movement in his mind, and every time he came to the gentle tip on the shoulder, he started and a flow of blood went to his head that made him flush and tremble. It was terrible waiting like this. He had expected the priest every moment since five o'clock, when they had entered the study from the recreation ground. Why had he not come? Why was he torturing him like this?
There were three other boys guilty and they also were waiting, but they all knew that Cleary would be first. Why? Just with the instinct of boyhood and the peculiar cunning that life in a religious seminary engenders, where life is so closely scrutinized and public that each knows the others better than brothers and sisters know one another in a large family. So Cleary was known to be the most religious and devout boy in the scholasticate. The father-director paid especial attention to him. There were great hopes of his ultimate sanctity. Therefore he would be first. It would be through him that the guilt of the others would be made known or concealed. The others knew that. Cleary knew it and he trembled, because he felt that he would never have the courage to hold back information from Father Harty. Already he heard the boys hissing "spy" at him.
At last the ominous sound came. The auxiliaries stopped whispering. Cleary became absolutely numb with terror. He heard the slow irregular footsteps approach. He felt the gentle tip on his shoulder and he heard the priest's asthmatic breathing over him. He rose immediately, and as he followed the priest's broad black back, he cast a hurried glance behind him. The three faces were watching him with terror in their eyes, but also with a peculiar warning look, as much as to say: "You know what you are going to get if you tell."
The father-director's room was across the passage. Cleary was always terrified at that dark door that seemed to lead into a tunnel. On Saturday nights they all waited outside the door and entered into the lamplit gloom to kneel beside the little prayer stool, where Father Harty sat hearing confessions. Now it would be another sort of confession, a more terrible one.
Father Harty never spoke until he had lit the lamp and sunk into his easy chair by the fire. Then he put his head between his hands and rubbed his face from the temples to chin with the peculiar melancholy movement that was customary with him. Cleary, standing by the door, erect and motionless, felt pity and love for the priest. He was tender and kind to him, that priest. Why was he now afraid of that priest?
But it seemed to him now that some other being was sitting in the chair instead of the good priest, who had once been a great athlete and a heavy drinker. This middleaged man with the red face, on which a terrible mental suffering was stamped, was like an extraordinary and terrible being, merciless, insane, overpowered by a monstrous fanaticism that licked all tenderness and understanding out of his consciousness, like a devilish flame licking up the tender moisture of humanity, leaving only the charred bones of the terrible dogmas that had brought that constant suffering into his features. This was not the kind Father Harty but a terrible fanatic.
Cleary was only sixteen. He had not yet begun to think out of his own experience. Until now he had assimilated without question all the precepts that were offered to his mind, in the lecture rooms, in the chapel and in the study, where Father Harty gave sermons on personal conduct and on the lives of the saints. Cleary's mind was hitherto just a receptacle for all these precepts, and he had shrunk in terror from any personal thought, lest it might lead him into doubt and sin. But now his consciousness had been completely roused by his terror and this first questioning of the justice of the situation in which he was placed. His superiors were not just, something suggested to him. And almost immediately his mind had begun to think independently and he doubted the wisdom of his superiors. And then a little wall had thrust itself in front of his own personality, and for the first time in his life he found himself standing behind this wall, ready to fight his superior. That was an enemy sitting in that chair. Not Father Harty whom he loved, but the embodiment of the terrible dogmas that made men do such cruel things as this, this terrible torture of a youth. That was an enemy.
With the extraordinary instinct of youthful persons, whose judgments are not deflected and obscured by elaborate reasonings, he could see the difference as clearly as if there were two persons sitting in the chair instead of one. And from that moment, when this difference became manifest to him, Cleary had ceased to believe in God with his whole soul as he had hitherto done. He no longer loved God as an omnipotent friend and father. He now feared him.
"Well," said the priest heavily, without looking at Cleary, "this is terrible."
There was a short silence. Cleary's legs trembled and his head seemed to go round and round. The sacred pictures on the walls, the gleaming gilt backs of the books on the shelves, the dark polished wainscotting, the oilcloth on the floor, all seemed occult and terrifying to his eyes wandering about, trying to find some point on which to concentrate, instead of on the recumbent figure of the priest.
"How did this happen?" continued the priest sadly. "How did this terrible craze grow within you? If you had been lukewarm and ... and casual in your devotions, I could perhaps have understood your giving way to this terrible temptation. But I had placed such faith in your purity. I had such hopes of you. Perhaps I encouraged you too much. Conceit is a terrible danger. Francis, tell me everything."
Cleary's lips began to tremble and tears came to his eyes, but he could not speak. The gentle sadness of the priest's voice knocked down the wall of defence at one blow, and Cleary felt himself an utter miscreant. The enormity of his sin appeared so terrible that he abandoned all hope and he was ready to do anything, anything in order to lighten the grief of the priest. And yet, at the same time, his over-whelmed mind simmered with revolt against this appeal to his heart. He could not speak, and he was glad that he could not speak.
"Tell me Francis. Open your mind to me. Then this demon of temptation will be overcome. I am certain that you have been led astray by your companions. I have no doubt of it. I could not be so mistaken in your character. Others older and less pure in mind than yourself have been the cause of this. Speak, Francis."
"I can't speak, father," blubbered Cleary, bursting completely into tears. "I have done nothing. I have done nothing."
"But my child, I have just spent an hour with the Father-Superior. An hour. And I tell you it was very hard on me. Very hard. You went to the town this morning to visit the dentist. Father Moran saw you coming out of a tobacconist's shop. He stopped you to ask you what you had bought and found a packet of cigarettes in your pocket. Do you call that nothing?"
Cleary wept, and in weeping he found relief from the load of grief and terror that oppressed his heart. It seemed too that all his pity for the priest had been washed away with the tears. And when the father director mentioned Father Moran, the superior, Cleary knew immediately that he loathed the Father-Superior with a terrible loathing. He loathed his paunch, his fat hands, his fat red neck, his little ferret-like eyes and the syrupy tone of his voice, like the soft loathsome voice of some reptile, hissing and snake-like. And this terrible hatred, so new to his soul, made him cold and hard, so that his mind became clear and active again.
"They were not for myself," he said. "I don't smoke."
"I am glad, Francis," said the priest. "I am very glad. But you must tell me now who they were for. It is your duty to tell me."
The priest sat up suddenly and his face hardened.
"That would not be honourable," muttered Cleary.
"Honourable!" cried the priest. "My God! Where have you been hearing these words? In religious life there is nothing honourable but the love of God and obedience to his holy rules. Do you think it's honourable to shield the sinful acts of your fellow postulants? My child, I command you to tell who those cigarettes were for. As your director I command you. You know what disobedience of my order means."
The priest had risen to his feet. Standing he looked enormous in the gloom. Cleary shrunk away in terror. In his terror he thought that the priest was God himself, the terrible avenging God of the testament, who cried: "Spare neither women nor children." His terror had become physical, and he thought that he would immediately be struck dead if he did not speak. But even in that moment of terror, when his lips were going to utter the words that would kill all love in his soul, his mind exulted, for it had become relieved of fear. Henceforth it would be free to exult in thought, free and hidden from observation, with a wall around it, formed by cunning and deceit, to protect it from these terrible exponents of dogmas that were now its enemies.
"They were for John Hourigan and Michael O'Connor and Paddy Kelly," he cried almost in a scream.
"Michael O'Connor, John Hourigan and Paddy Kelly," repeated the priest slowly, as he sat down again in his chair, groaning as he sat.
Then he placed his hands again on his temples and rubbed them slowly down over his face, as if he were erasing some picture from his memory. A phantom.
Cleary's eyes now shone wildly. His body went rigid and he was ready to jump, he thought. His face twitched. But he felt a great relief. He had come to a decision. Nothing mattered to him now. He felt a great strength in his jaws, where they joined the muscles of his neck, and he didn't have to blink his eyes, as he was in the habit of doing. His eyes remained wide open without effort, and the lids seemed to be very cold and rigid.
The priest's attitude changed again. He began to lecture. Cleary thoughtlessly repeated the words of the lecture to himself after the priest, while his newly functioning mind planned other things.
"In the first place it's against the rules to go into a shop. Secondly, it's a grave sin to procure the means of sin for another soul. Thirdly, 'tis a..."
And his mind exulted, ravenously devouring all sorts of new ideas, let loose into the whole cosmos of things without restraint. Free now and cunning and deceitful, and securely hidden behind a thick wall of deceit, through which nothing could pierce. Free and alone, and hating everything. Free to found a new cosmos, to fashion a new order of thought and a new God. Through hatred to a new love. Through terrible suffering in loneliness to a new light. Through agony to a new peace.
The priest ceased. Then he said.
"Send Michael O'Connor in to me. I will speak to you later about your penance."
Cleary bowed and left the room. He no longer feared entering the study. He went to the auxiliary desk and asked permission to speak to Michael O'Connor. He went to O'Connor and said: "Father Harty wants you." He paid no heed to the threat that O'Connor uttered.
He went to his desk and covering his face with his hands he smiled.
In the morning he would run away, he thought.