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

HOLLY AND IVY

The progress of my curate and myself in our study of the Greek authors is not so steady or so successful as we had anticipated. Somehow or other we drift away from the subject-matter of our evening lessons, and I am beginning to perceive that his tastes are more modern, or, to speak more correctly, they tend to less archaic and more interesting studies. Then again I have read somewhere that the Hebrew characters, with their minute vowel-points, have driven blind many an enthusiastic scholar, and I fear these black Greek letters are becoming too much for my old sight. There now, dear reader, don’t rush to the conclusion that this is just what you anticipated; you knew, of course, how it would be. You never had much faith in these transcendental enterprises of reviving Greek at the age of seventy-five, and you shook your incredulous head at the thought of an Academia of two honorary members at Kilronan. Now we have done a little. If you could only see the “Dream of Atossa” done into English pentameters by my curate, and my own “Prometheus” well, there, this won’t do Vanity of vanities, said the Preacher.

But this much I shall be pardoned. I cannot help feeling very solemn and almost sad at the approach of Christmas time. Whether it is the long, gloomy tunnel that runs through the year from November to April, these dark, sad days are ever weeping, or whether it is the tender associations that are linked with the hallowed time and the remembrance of the departed I know not; but some indescribable melancholy seems to hover around and hang down on my spirits at this holy season; and it is emphasized by a foreboding that somewhere in the future this great Christian festival will degenerate into a mere bank holiday, and lose its sacred and tender and thrice-sanctified associations. By the way, is it not curious that our governments are steadily increasing the number of secular holidays, whilst the hands of Pharisees are still uplifted in horror at the idleness and demoralization produced amongst Catholics by the eight or ten days that are given in the year to the honor of God’s elect?

Well, we shall stand by the old traditions to the end. And one of my oldest habits has been to read up at Christmas time every scrap of literature that had any bearing whatever on the most touching and the most important event in all human history. And so, on the Sunday evening preceding the celebration of Father Letheby’s first Christmas in Kilronan, I spoke to him at length on my ideas and principles in connection with this great day; and we went back, in that rambling, desultory way that conversation drifts into, back to ancient prophecies and forecastings, down to modern times, tales of travellers about Bethlehem, the sacrilegious possession of holy places by Moslems, etc., etc., until the eyes of my curate began to kindle, and I saw a possible Bernard or Peter in his fine, clear-cut face, and a “Deus vult” in the trembling of his lips. Ah me! what a glorious thing is this enthusiasm of the young, this noble idealism, that spurns the thought of consequences, only sees the finger of God beckoning and cares not whither!

“Hand me down that Virgil,” I said, to avert an explosion, for when he does break out on modern degeneracy he is not pleasant to hear.

“Now spare my old eyes, and read for me, with deliberation, those lines of the Fourth Eclogue which forecast the coming of our Lord!”

He read in his fine sonorous voice, and he did full justice to the noble lines:

“Ultima Cumaei venit jam carminis aetas;
Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.
Jam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
Jam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto,”

down to the two lines which I repeated as a prayer:

“O mihi tam longae maneat pars ultima vitae
Spiritus et, quantum sat erit tua dicere facta.”

“No wonder,” he said, at length, “that the world of the Middle Ages, which, by the way, were the ages of enlightenment, should have regarded Virgil as a magician and even as a saint.”

“But,” he said, after a pause, “the ‘Dream of the Dead Christ’ would be almost more appropriate nowadays. It is terrible to think how men are drifting away from Him. There’s Ormsby now, a calm, professed infidel; and absolutely nothing in the way to prevent his marriage with Miss Campion but his faith, or want of faith.”

“Ormsby!” I cried. “Infidel! Marriage with Miss Campion! want of faith!!! What in the world is this sudden discharge of fireworks and Catherine-wheels upon your pastor? Or where has all this gunpowder been hitherto stored?”

“I thought I had told you, sir,” he said, timidly, “but I have so many irons in the fire. You know that Ormsby’s marriage is only a question of weeks but for one thing.”

“And, if I am not trespassing too much on the secrecy of your confidential intercourse with these young people,” I said (I suppose I was a little huffed), “may I ask how long is all this matrimonial enterprise in progress, and how does Campion regard it?”

“I am afraid you are offended, sir,” he said, “and indeed quite naturally, because I have not spoken about this matter to you before; but really it appears so hopeless, and I hate speaking of things that are only conjectural. I suppose you had set your heart on Miss Campion’s becoming a nun?”

“God forbid!” I said fervently. “We don’t want to see all our best girls running into convents. I had set my heart on her being married to some good, excellent Catholic Irishman, like the Chief over at Kilkeel.”

“Neil Cullen? Campion wouldn’t listen to it. His name is a red rag to a bull. He never forgave Cullen for not firing on the people at that eviction over at Labbawally, some two or three years ago.”

“And what does the person most interested think of the matter?” I asked.

“Well, I think she is quite in favor of it,” he said. “Her father likes him, he will live in the old house, and she likes him, at least, she asked me to do all in my power to bring him into the Church.”

“The little puss,” I could not help saying. “Who would ever have thought it? And yet, would it not be best? I pity her living with that old sea-dog, that Viking in everything but his black mane of hair. But now, look here; this matter is important; let us talk it over quietly. Who or what is Ormsby? You have met him?”

“Several times. He is a young Trinity man, good-looking, gentlemanly, correct, moral. He has a pension of two hundred a year, his salary as Inspector of Coast Guards, and great expectations. But he has no faith.”

“And never had any, I suppose. That’s the way with all these fellows ”

“On the contrary, he was brought up a strict Evangelical, almost a Calvinist. Then he began to read, and like so many others he has drifted into unfaith.”

“Well, lend him some books. He knows nothing, of course, about us. Let him see the faith, and he’ll embrace it.”

“Unfortunately, there’s the rub. He has read everything. He has travelled the world; and reversing the venerable maxim, Coelum, non animum mutant, he has taken his faith from his climate. He has been a Theosophist in London, a ‘New Light’ in ’Frisco, as he calls it, a Moslem in Cairo (by the way, he thinks a lot of these Mussulmans, fine, manly, dignified fellows, he says, whose eloquence would bring a blush almost to the cheek of a member of Parliament). Then he has been hand in glove with Buddhist priests in the forests of Ceylon, and has been awfully impressed with their secret power, and still more with their calm philosophy. I believe,” said my curate, sinking his voice to a whisper of awe and mystery, “I believe he has kissed the tooth of Buddha!

“Indeed,” I replied, “and what good did that operation do him?”

“Not much, I suppose, except to confirm him in that gospel of the sceptic: ’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy!’”

“Humph! Here, then, stands the case. Our most interesting little parishioner has set her heart on this globe-trotter. There is a big wall in the way, and it won’t do to repeat the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Now, what is to be done to make the young fellow a Catholic? Has he any prejudices against us?”

“Not one? On the contrary, he rather likes us. He has received all kinds of hospitality from Catholic priests the wide world over, and he thinks us a right honest, jolly lot of fellows.”

“H’m! I am not sure that that is exactly what St. Liguori or Charles Borromeo would fancy. But never mind! Now does he know what we hold and believe?”

“Accurately. He has read our best books.”

“Has he had any intercourse with Catholics?”

“A good deal. They have not impressed him. Look at Campion now. Would any man become a Catholic with his example before him?”

“Hardly indeed, though we must speak kindly of him now, since you converted him. Had you any chat with him about his difficulties?”

“Yes, several. I walked home with him a few evenings from Campion’s. You know that path over the cliff and down to the coast-guard station?”

“Well. And what is his special trouble? Does he think he has an immortal soul?”

“There you struck it. That’s his trouble; and how to convince him of that beats me. I asked him again and again whether he was not self-conscious, that is, perfectly cognizant of the fact that there was a something, an Ego, outside and beyond the brain and inferior powers that commanded both? Was there not some intellectual entity that called up memory, and bade it unseal its tablets? And did he not feel and know that he could command and control the action of his brain, and even of every part of it? Now, I said, if the brain is only dumb matter, which you admit, and cannot create thought, where is this volition, or what is it? It is not cerebral, for then matter would create thought; that is, be the creator and the created at the same time.”

“Well?”

“He listened attentively and then said quietly: ’Quite true. But if the Ego is different from the brain and is self-conscious, where does the self-consciousness go when the brain becomes anæmic and sleeps, or when the faculties are chloroformed?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ’the organ is shut down, the stops are closed.’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but where goes the performer?’ By Jove, I was stranded. I tell you what it is, Father Dan, though you’ll call it treason, I’ll pitch AEschylus to the mischief, and study what is of human and vital interest to us priests.”

“That little objection needn’t alarm you,” I said, “you’ll find the answer in every handbook of Catholic philosophy.”

“What manual of Catholic philosophy in English could I get for Ormsby?” asked my curate.

“Alas! my dear young friend, I don’t know. There is the great hiatus. You cannot put a folio calf-bound volume of Suarez in his hands, he may not understand Latin. I know absolutely no book that you can put into the hands of an educated non-Catholic except Balmez’s ’Letters to a Sceptic.’”

He has read it,” said my curate.

We were both silent.

“Now, you know,” he continued, after a long pause, “I don’t attach the least importance to these objections and arguments. I lived long enough in England to know that faith is a pure, absolutely pure gift of the Almighty, not to be acquired by learning or study, but possibly by prayer. I see, therefore, only one hope, and that is, in our Lord and His Blessed Mother.”

“A profound and true remark,” I replied, as he rose up to depart. “Get these mites of children to pray, and to say the Rosary for that particular purpose. I can’t understand how God can refuse them anything.”

“By the way,” he said, as he put on his great coat, “it is a curious fact that, with all his incredulity, he is exceedingly superstitious. You can hardly believe how troubled he is about some gibberish of that old hag that sets charms for lame horses, etc. I’m not at all sure but that she set charms in the other way for my little mare.”

“Well, what has she told Ormsby?”

“Her language was slightly oracular. Out of a joke, he crossed her palm with a sixpence. She looked him all over, though she knew well what he had in his mind, examined the lines of his hand minutely, and then delivered three Sibylline sentences:

‘Set a stout heart to a steep brae.’

That did not disconcert him. Then she said:

‘He that tholes, overcomes.’

He quite agreed with her. It was a naval simile, and it pleased him.

‘But a white cloth and a stain never agree.’

He was struck as if by a blow. ‘Mind you,’ he said,’I am very candid. I have had my own faults and human weaknesses; but I never did anything immoral or dishonorable. What did she mean?’ ‘She meant,’ I said, to reassure him, ’that you have kept her carefully out of the coast-guard station; that you have not allowed her to interfere with the men, or their wives, or their servants; that therefore you have put many a sixpence out of her pocket; and that she must have her revenge. Dismiss her jargon from your mind as soon as you can.’ ’More easily said than done, Father,’ he replied, and he then began to mutter: ’A white cloth and a stain never agree.’ What does she mean?”

“The old story of Voltaire,” I said, when my curate had finished. “Don’t forget the children’s prayers.”

On Christmas eve he called at noonday, just as we were going out to the midday confessional. He had nothing new to tell. He was rather gloomy.

“You’ll meet Miss Campion in the church,” he said; “she’ll tell you all.”

“I don’t think,” I said, to cheer him for where is the use of fretting in this queer world? “there was so much need for Ormsby to go as far as Ceylon to find Buddha and the Nirvana. Look there.”

Leaning against the blank wall opposite my house were three silent figures. They were a little distance apart, and they leaned against their support with the composure of three cabinet ministers on their green benches on the night of a great debate. Their feet were slightly parted, and they gazed on the road with a solemn, placid expression, as of men to whom the Atlantean weight of this weary world was as the down on a feather. Calmly and judicially, as if seeing nothing, yet weighing all things, they looked on pebble and broken limestone, never raising their heads, never removing their hands from their pockets. They had been there since breakfast time that morning, and it was now past noon.

“My God,” said Father Letheby, when I told him, “’t is awful!”

“’T is the sublime,” I said.

“And do you mean to tell me that they have never stirred from that posture for two long hours?”

“You have my word for it,” I replied; “and you know the opinion entertained about my veracity, ’he’d no more tell a lie than the parish priest.’”

“I notice it everywhere,” he said, in his impetuous way. “If I drive along the roads, my mare’s head is right over the car or butt, before the fellow wakes up to see me; and then the exasperating coolness and deliberation with which he draws the reins to pull aside. My boy, too, when waiting on the road for a few minutes whilst I am attending a patient, falls fast asleep, like the fat boy in Pickwick; down there, under the cliffs, the men sleep all day in, or under, their boats. Why does not Charcot send all his nervous patients to Ireland? The air is not only a sedative, but a soporific. ’T is the calm of the eternal gods, the sleep of the immortals.”

“’T is the sleep of Enceladus in Etna,” I replied. “When they wake up and turn, ’t is hot lava and ashes.”

“That’s true, too,” he said, musingly; “we are a strange people.”

My own voice again echoing out of the dead past.

Miss Campion and “her friend from Dublin,” Miss Leslie, were very busy about the Christmas decorations. Mrs. Darcy helped in her own way. I am afraid she did not approve of all that was being done. Miss Campion’s and Mrs. Darcy’s ideas of “the beautiful” were not exactly alike. Miss Campion’s art is reticent and economical. Mrs. Darcy’s is loud and pronounced. Miss Campion affects mosaics and miniatures. Mrs. Darcy wants a circus-poster, or the canvas of a diorama. Where Mrs. Darcy, on former occasions, put huge limbs of holly and a tangled wilderness of ivy, Miss Campion puts three or four dainty glistening leaves with a heart of red coral berries in the centre. Mrs. Darcy does not like it, and she thinks it her duty to art and religion to remonstrate.

“Wisha, Miss, I wouldn’t be sparin’ the holly if I was you. Sure ’t is chape.”

“Ah, well, now, Mrs. Darcy, don’t you think this looks neat and pretty?”

“As nate and purty as yourself, Miss; but sure the parish priest won’t mind the expinse. ’T is Christmas times, and his heart is open.”

This wasn’t too kind of Mrs. Darcy; but it does not matter. She looked ruefully at the fallen forest of greenery that strewed the chapel floor.

Miss Campion saw her distress, and said, kindly:

“Now, Mrs. Darcy, is there any improvement you would kindly suggest before we conclude?”

“Wisha, Miss, there isn’t much, indeed. You have made it lovely. But I’d like to see a little bit of holly in the Blessed Virgin’s crown, and just a weeshy little bit in her Child’s fingers. Sure, whatever is going these Christmas times, them have the best right to it.”

Miss Campion smiled, and yielded to the pious wishes of the chapel woman, and then said:

“Now, Mrs. Darcy, we’ll put a few noble branches around the front porch, and whatever is left you must take it home, and let Jemmy decorate the dresser.”

The first suggestion met Mrs. Darcy’s tastes to perfection; the second went straight to her mother’s heart.

“May God bless you, Miss; and may it be many a long day till throuble or sorrow crass the thrishol’ of your dure.”

The neighbors flocked in on Christmas eve to see Mrs. Darcy’s cabin. Jemmy had risen to the occasion. The polished pewter vessels and the brass candlesticks shone resplendent from the background of black holly and veined ivy, and the red pearls of the berries. The comments, like all human criticisms, varied according to the subjectivity and prejudices of the visitors.

“Wisha, ’t is purty, indeed. God bless those that gave it to the poor widow.”

“Wisha, Jemmy, agra, there’s no knowing what you’ll be when you grows up.”

“Wisha, thin, Mrs. Darcy, you wor always the good nabor. Would it be asking too much, ma’am, to give us thim few kippeens on the floor? Sure Abby says she’d like to have a little bit of holly to stick round the Infant Jesus this holy and blessed night.”

“’T is aisy for some people to be proud. Aisy got, aisy gone. But ’t is quare to be taking what ought to go to the house of God to make a babby-show for ourselves.”

“Yerra, whisht, ’uman, we must hould our heads as high as we can while we have it. It may go soon, and Mary Darcy may wish to be no betther thin her nabors.”

Ah me! Here is the great world in miniature.

“There is not a word of news going?” I said to Miss Campion, as we walked up and down the moss-covered walk that lay to the south side of the little church.

“Nothing, Father,” she said, “except, indeed, that father makes his Christmas Communion in the morning; and oh! I am so thankful to God and to Father Letheby.”

“It is really good news, Beata,” I replied. I sometimes called her Beata, for Bittra sounds horrid. I intend to compromise on her wedding morn by calling her Béatrix. “Really good news. It will add considerably to the happiness of one, whose only object in life appears to be to make every one around her happy. But there is no other news that may be supposed to interest in a far-off way the old pastor, who gave Beata her First Communion, and ?”

She blushed crimson, and held down her head.

“Now,” I said, “give your old parish priest your arm, for I am getting more and more feeble every day, and tell him all. Perhaps he could help you too.”

“Oh, Father, if you could; but it is almost too much to expect from God. Perhaps I’d forget Him.”

“Not much fear of that,” I exclaimed fervently; “but now let us calculate the chances.”

“But oh, Father, if you only knew Rex, he is so good, so gentle, he takes so kindly to the poor, ("the clever rascal,” I ejaculated under my breath,) and he likes us so much, I’m sure it needs but little to make him an excellent Catholic.”

Well, now, what is a poor old man to do? Here am I, prepared to calculate and balance chances of this young man’s conversion, the pros and cons of a serious matter; and here this young lady branches off into a magnificent apotheosis of her young demigod! What has the cold yellow candle light of reason to do in the camera obscura of the human heart? Let us fling open the shutters, and let in the golden sunshine.

“So I’ve heard,” I said. “And I also know this, Beata, that is, I’ve read something like it in good books, written by holy and thoughtful men, that the gift of faith is given freely by the Holy Spirit to those who, like your fiance, have led pure and unsullied lives.”

She started at the word fiance, and the smile on her face was a study. Poor old Dante! no wonder you walked on air, and lightly spurned the stars, when your lady beckoned.

“Beatrice in suso, ed io in lei guardava.”

So shall it be to the end.

Well, we talked the whole thing over; debated all possibilities, laughed at difficulties, cut through obstacles, leaped over obstructions, and, at last, saw in imagination, written on the cold, frosty air of December, the mystic legend, I WILL, surrounded by a gorgeous corona of orange blossoms.

Then, of course, the superb unreason of women. Beata began to cry as I handed her over to Miss Leslie, who looked daggers at me, and I am quite sure called me, in her own mind, “A horrid old thing!”

Father Letheby, after his unusually heavy confessional, was jubilant. Nothing exhilarates him like work. Given a scanty confessional, and he is as gloomy as Sisyphus; given a hard, laborious day, and he is as bright as Ariel. He was in uncommonly good spirits to-day.

“By Jove, Father Dan,” he said, as we walked home together to our little bit of fish, “I have it. I’ll try him with the Kampaner Thal!

“The very thing,” I replied.

“Don’t you think it would do? You know he regards all our arguments as so much special pleading, and he discounts them accordingly.”

“Of course,” I said. “Wonder you never thought of it before!”

“That is curious now. But you always find things in unexpected quarters. But you’re sure ’t will do?”

“Quite sure. By the way, what is the Kampaner Thal?

He looked squarely at me.

“’Pon my word, Father Dan, I confess I sometimes think you are rather fond of a joke.”

“Come along, never mind,” I replied. “After air and water, the power of a pleasant and kind word is the best and cheapest thing God gives us, His children.”