Read CHAPTER XI of My New Curate , free online book, by P.A. Sheehan, on ReadCentral.com.

BESIDE THE SINGING RIVER

Father Letheby was coming home a few nights ago, a little after twelve o’clock, from a hurried sick-call, and he came down by the cliffs; for, as he said, he likes to see the waters when the Almighty flings his net over their depths, and then every sea-hillock is a star, and there is a moon in every hollow of the waves. As he skirted along the cliff that frowns down into the valleys of the sea on the one hand, and the valleys of the firs and poplars on the other, he thought he heard some voices deep down in the shadows, and he listened. Very soon the harsh rasp of a command came to his ears, and he heard: “’Shun! ’verse arms,” etc. He listened very attentively, and the tramp of armed men echoed down the darkness; and he thought he saw the glint of steel here and there where the moonbeams struck the trees.

“It was a horrible revelation,” he said, “that here in this quiet place we were nursing revolution, and had some secret society in full swing amongst us. But then, as the little bit of history brought up the past, I felt the tide of feeling sweeping through me, and all the dread enthusiasm of the race woke within me:

’There beside the singing river
That dark mass of men are seen,
Far above their shining weapons
Hung their own immortal green!’

But this is a bad business, sir, for soul and body. What’s to be done?”

“A bad business, indeed,” I echoed. “But worse for soul than body. These poor fellows will amuse themselves playing at soldiers, and probably catching pneumonia; and there ’t will end. You didn’t see any policemen about?”

“No. They could be hiding unknown to me.”

“Depend upon it, they were interested spectators of the midnight evolutions. I know there are some fellows in the village in receipt of secret service money, and all these poor boys’ names are in the Castle archives. But what is worse, this means anti-clericalism, and consequently abstention from Sacraments, and a long train of evils besides. It must be handled gently.”

“You don’t mean to say, sir,” he replied, “that that Continental poison has eaten its way in Ireland?”

“Not to a large extent; but it is there. There is no use in burying our heads in the sands and pretending not to see. But we must act judiciously. A good surgeon never acts hastily, never hurries over an operation. Lente, lente.”

I saw a smile faintly rippling around the corners of his mouth. But I was afraid he might rush matters here, and it would be dangerous. But where’s the use? He understood but one way of acting, to grapple with an abuse and strangle it. “You drop stones,” he used to say, “and they turn up armed men.”

How he learned their place of meeting I don’t know. But Sunday afternoon was a favorite time for the rebels; and the coursing match on the black hills and the rabbit hunt in the plantations were only preliminaries to more important and secret work. Whether by accident or design, Father Letheby stumbled on such a meeting about four o’clock one Sunday afternoon. A high ditch and a strong palisade of fir trees hid him from sight, and he was able to hear a good deal, and had no scruple in playing the listener. This is what he heard. The village tailor, lame in one leg, and familiarly known as “Hop-and-go-one,” was the orator:

“Fellow countrymen, de time for action has come. From ind to ind of the land, the downtrodden serfs of Ireland are rising in their millions. Too long have dey been juped by false pretences; too long have the hirelings of England chated and decaved them. We know now what a shimmera, what a fraud, was Home Rule. Our counthry has been dragged at the tail of English parties, who were purshuing their own interests. But ’t is all past. No more constitutional agitation, no more paceful struggle. Lead will do what fine speeches didn’t. And if the black militia, wid dere ordhers from Rome, attimpt this time to interfere, we know what answer to give dem. De West’s awake, and ’t isn’t priests will set us to sleep agin ”

At this juncture the orator was caught by the nape of the neck, and lifted bodily off the turf ditch, which was his forum. When he looked around, and saw who was his captor, he shrieked for mercy; and Father Letheby, dropping him, as one would drop a rat, he scurried off as fast as his lame leg would permit, whilst the priest, turning round to the stupefied boys, warned them of their folly and madness:

“God knows, boys,” he said, “I pity you. You are bent on a desperate and foolish course, the end of which no man can foresee. I know it is useless to reason with you on the score of danger; but I warn you that you are violating the laws of God and the Church, and that no blessing comes from such action. And yet,” he continued, placing his hand in the breast-pocket of his coat, and drawing out a blue official paper, “this may convince you of your folly; at least, it may convince you of the fact that there is a traitor and informer in your midst. Who he is I leave yourselves to conjecture!”

He read out slowly the name of every young man that had been sworn in that secret society in the parish. The young men listened sullenly, and swore angrily between their teeth. But they could not deny their betrayal. They were vexed, humbled, disgraced; but they had to make some defence.

“The priests are always agin the people,” said one keen-looking fellow, who had been abroad.

“That’s an utter falsehood,” said Father Letheby, “and you know it. You know that priests and people for seven hundred years have fought side by side the battle of Ireland’s freedom from civil and religious disabilities. I heard your own father say how well he remembered the time when the friar stole into the farmyard at night, disguised as a pedlar, and he showed me the cavern down there by the sea-shore where Mass was said, and the fishermen heard it, as they pretended to haul in their nets.”

“Thrue enough for you, your reverence,” said a few others; “’t is what our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers, have tould us.”

“And now,” continued Father Letheby, “look at the consequences of your present folly. Possible imprisonment in the dungeons of Portland and Dartmoor; exile to America, enforced by the threats of prosecution; and the sense of hostility to the Church, for you know you are breaking the laws. You dare not go to confession, for you cannot receive absolution; you are a constant terror to your mothers and sisters and all at the dictation of a few scoundrels, who are receiving secret service money from the government, and a few newspapers that are run by Freemasons and Jews.”

“Ah, now, your reverence,” said one of the boys, a litterateur, “you are drawing the long bow. How could Irish newspapers be run by Freemasons and Jews?”

“Would you be surprised to hear,” said Father Letheby, “that all the great Continental papers are the property of Freemasons and Jews; that all the rancor and bitterness stirred up against the Church for the past fifty years has been their work; that the anti-clerical feeling in Germany and in France has been carefully originated and fostered by them; that hatred of the Holy See is their motto; and that they have got into Ireland. You can see the cloven foot in the virulent anti-religious and anti-clerical articles that you read by the light of the fire at the forge; and yet, the very prayer-books you used at Mass to-day, and the beads that rolled through your mothers’ fingers, have been manufactured by them. But the Irish are always fools, never more so than now.”

It was a magnificent leap of imagination on Father Letheby’s part, that which attributed to Jews and Freemasons the manufacture of beads and prayer-books on the one hand, and anti-clericalism on the other. Yet there was truth in what he had said. Indeed, there were many indications, as I could point out to him to his surprise, which proved that the anti-Catholic agencies here in Ireland were pursuing exactly the same tactics which had led to the extinguishing of the faith in parts of France and Italy, namely, the dissemination of pornographic literature. They know well that there is but one thing that can destroy Irish faith, and that is the dissemination of ideas subversive of Catholic morality. Break down the earthworks that guard the purity of the nation, and the citadel of faith is taken. He was very silent all that evening, as I notice all Irish priests grow grave when this awful fact, which is under their very eyes, is made plain to them. It is so easy to look at things without seeing them. Then, as the full revelation of this new diablerie dawned upon him, he grew very angry. I think this is the most charming thing about my curate, that he is a thorough hater of everything cunning and concealed, and breaks out into noble philippics against whatever is foul and vicious. But I know he will be now on the alert; and God help any unfortunate that dares to peddle unwholesome wares under the necklaces and matches of his basket!

The tailor came duly to report Father Letheby for the drastic treatment he had received. He was rather too emphatic in demanding his immediate removal, and hinting at suspension. In lieu of that satisfaction, he would immediately institute proceedings in the Court of Queen’s Bench for assault and battery, and place the damages at several thousand pounds. I listened to him patiently, then hinted that an illiterate fellow like him should not be making treasonable speeches. He bridled up at the word “illiterate,” and repudiated the vile insinuation. He could read and write as well as any priest in Connaught.

“But you cannot read your own writing?” I said, tentatively.

“Couldn’t he? Try him!”

I thrust under his eyes his last letter to the sub-inspector of the district. I thought he would get a fit of apoplexy.

“Now, you scoundrel,” I said, folding the letter and placing it beyond reach, “I forgive you all your deception and treason. What Father Letheby has got in store for you I cannot say. But I’ll never forgive you, you most unscientific and unmathematical artist, for having given me so many shocking misfits lately, until I have looked like a scarecrow in a cornfield; even now you are smelling like a distillery. And tell me, you ruffian, what right had you to say at Mrs. Haley’s public house that I was ‘thauto thauto gogical’ in my preaching? If I, with all the privileges of senility, chose to repeat myself, to drive the truths of Christianity into the numskulls of this pre-Adamite village, what is that to you, you ninth part of a man? Was it not the immortal Homer that declared that every tailor ”

“For God’s sake, spare me, your reverence, and I’ll never do it again.”

“Do you promise to cut my garments mathematically in the future?”

“I do, your reverence.” He spoke as emphatically as if he were renewing his baptismal vows at a great mission.

“Do you promise to speak respectfully of me and my sermons for the future?”

“I do, your reverence.”

“Now, go. Exi, erumpe, evade, or I’ll turn you into a Sartor Resartus. I hand you over now, as the judge hands the culprit, to Father Letheby. Don’t be too much surprised at eventualities. Do you know, did you ever hear, what the women of Marblehead did to a certain Floyd Ireson? Well, go ask Father Letheby. He’ll tell you. And I shall be much surprised if the women of Kilronan are much behind their sisters of Marblehead in dealing with such a scoundrel as you.”

I proposed this conundrum to Father Letheby that same evening: “Why is it considered a greater crime to denounce and correct an evil than to commit it?” He looked at me as if he doubted my sanity. I put it in a more euphemistic form: “Why is success always the test of merit? To come down from the abstract to the concrete, Why is a gigantic swindler a great financier, and a poor fellow that steals a loaf of bread a felon and a thief? Why is a colossal liar a great diplomatist, and a petty prevaricator a base and ignoble fraud? Why is Napoleon a hero, and that wretched tramp an ever to be dreaded murderer? Why is Bismarck called great, though he crushed the French into a compost of blood and rags, ground them by taxation into paupers, jested at dying children, and lied most foully, and his minor imitators are dubbed criminals and thieves? Look here, now, young man! If you, by a quiet, firm, indomitable determination succeed in crushing out and stamping out forever this secret society here, it will redound to your infinite credit in all men’s eyes. But mark, if with all your energy and zeal you fail, or if you pass into a leaderette in some Freemason journal, and your zeal is held up as fanaticism and your energy as imprudence, the whole world will regard you as a hot-headed young fool, and will ask with rage and white lips, What is the Bishop doing in allowing these young men to take the reins into their own hands and drive the chariot of the sun? It is as great a crime to be a young man to-day as it was in the days of Pitt. Nothing can redeem the stigma and the shame but success. Of course, all this sounds very pagan, and I am not identifying myself with it. I believe with that dear barefooted philosopher, St. Francis, who is to me more than fifty Aristotles, as a Kempis is more than fifty Platos, that a man is just what he is in the eyes of God, and no more. But I am only submitting to you this speculative difficulty to keep your mind from growing fallow these winter evenings. And don’t be in a hurry to answer it. I’ll give you six months; and then you’ll say, like the interlocutor in a Christy Minstrel entertainment: ‘I give it up.’”