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


Glorious summer weather, gold on sea and land, but gloom of death and dole on our hearts, and dark forebodings of what the future has in store. I could hardly believe it possible that one night’s agony could work such a change in the appearance; but when, next morning, I saw the face of Father Letheby, white and drawn, as if Sorrow had dragged his rack over it, and the dark circles under his eyes, and the mute despair of his mouth, I remembered all that I had ever read of the blanching of hair in one night, and the dread metamorphoses that follow in the furrows where Anguish has driven his plough. It appeared, then, that between the buoyancy of the day’s success, and the society of friends, and the little excitements of the evening, he had not realized the extent of his losses and responsibilities. But in the loneliness of midnight it all came back; and he read, in flaming letters on the dark background of his future, the one word: Ruin! And it was not the financial and monetary bankruptcy that he dreaded, but the shame that follows defeat, and the secret exultation that many would feel at the toppling over of such airy castles and the destruction of such ambitious hopes. He was young, and life had looked fair before him, holding out all kinds of roseate promises; and now, at one blow, the whole is shattered, and shame and disgrace, indelible as the biting of a burning acid, was his for all the long years of life. It was no use to argue: “You have done nothing wrong or dishonorable”; here was defeat and financial ruin, and no amount of whitewashing by reason or argument could cover the dread consequences.

“Come out,” I cried, after we had talked and reasoned to no purpose; “sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Let us have a walk; and the sea air will clear the cobwebs off our brains.”

We strolled down by the sea, which to-day looked so calm and beautiful, its surface fluted with grooves where the sunlight reposed, and the colored plaits of the waves weaving themselves lazily until they broke into the white lace-work of sandy shoals. Nothing was there to show the pitiless capacity or the deep revenge it takes from time to time on its helpless conquerors. As we passed down by the creek, the “Great House” came into sight, all its blinds drawn and the white windows staring blankly at the sea.

“This poor child has a heavier cross before her than you,” I said.

“Yes, but hers shall be healed in time. But who will wipe out dishonor?”

“I cannot see where the dishonor comes in,” I replied. “You have neither robbed nor embezzled.”

“I am a hopeless insolvent,” he said. “I am security, sole security, for those men over at Kilkeel, whom I promised and guaranteed to safeguard. That I am bound to do on every principle of honor.”

“Well, looking at it in its worst aspect,” I replied, “insolvency is not dishonorable ”

“It is the very acme of dishonor in a priest,” he said.

Then I saw the inutility of reason in such a case.

We dined together that evening; and just as the Angelus bell rang, we heard the hootings and derisive shouts of the villagers after the new hands that had been taken on at the factory. In a few minutes these poor girls came to the door to explain that they could not return to work. It was the last straw. For a moment his anger flamed up in a torrent of rage against these miscreants whom he had saved from poverty. Then it died down in meek submission to what he considered the higher decree.

“Never mind, girls,” he said; “tell Kate Ginivan to close the room and bring me the key.”

That was all, except that a certain listener treasured up all this ingratitude in his heart; and the following Sunday at both Masses, the walls of Kilronan chapel echoed to a torrent of vituperation, an avalanche of anger, sarcasm, and reproach, that made the faces of the congregation redden with shame and whiten with fear, and made the ladies of the fringes and the cuffs wish to call unto the hills to cover them and the mountains to hide them.

Nothing on earth can convince the villagers that the shipwreck was an accident and not premeditated.

“They saw us coming, and made for us. Sure we had a right to expect it. They wanted to make us drunk at the fishing-fleet; but the cap’n wouldn’t lave ’em.”

“You don’t mean to say they dreaded your poor boat?”

“Dreaded? They don’t want Irishmen anywhere. Sure, ’t was only last year, whin they wanted to start a steamer between Galway and Newfoundland the shortest run to America the captain was bribed on his first trip, and tho’ there isn’t nothing but ninety fathoms of blue say-wather betune Arran and Salthill, he wint out of his way to find a rock, three miles out av his coorse, and he found it. The Liverpool min settled Galway.”

“And didn’t the cap’n cry: ‘Port! d n you, port!’ and they turned her nose right on us.”

“But they were kind when they picked you up?”

“So far as talking gibberish and pouring whiskey into us, they were; but whin they landed us, one dirty frog-eater sang out:

“It’s addiyou, not O revwar!”

Just a week after these events, that is, the Wednesday after my great sermon, which is now a respectable landmark, or datemark, at Kilronan, I got the first letter from Bittra. Here it is, brief and pitiful:

Hotel Bristol, Paris, Sunday.

Rev. dear Father Dan: Here we are in the world’s capital. The air is so light that you should sift the heavy atmosphere of Kilronan a hundred times to make it as soft and exhilarating. We ran through London, seeing enough to make one wish to escape it; and we are boulevarding, opera-seeing, picture-gallery-visiting, church-going since. The churches are superb; but the people! Fancy only two men at Mass at Ste. Clotilde’s, and these two leaned against a pillar the whole time, even during the Elevation. I had a terrible distraction; I couldn’t help saying all the time: “If Father Dan was here, he’d soon make ye kneel down;” and I fancied you standing before them, and making them kneel down by one look. But the women are pious. It’s all beautiful; but I wish I were home again! Rex is all kindness; but he’s a little shocked at our French customs. “Are these Catholics?” he says, and then is silent. How is dear father? I fear he’ll be lonesome without his petite mignonne. Mind, you are hereby invited and commanded to dine every evening with papa, and also Father Letheby. Love to St. Dolores! Tell Mrs. Darcy I inquired for her. What havoc she would make of the cobwebs here!

Dear Father Dan,
Always your affectionate child,
Bittra Ormsby.

P. S. Remember you dine with papa every day. No ceremony. He likes
to be treated en bon camarade! Isn’t that good French?

“You never know what a pitiful thing human wisdom is,” said Father Letheby, one of these dismal days of suspense, “until you come to test it in sorrow. Now, here’s a writer that gives me most intense pleasure when I have been happy; and I say to every sentence he writes: ’How true! How beautiful! What superb analysis of human emotion and feeling!’ But now, it’s all words, words, words, and the oil of gladness is dried up from their bare and barren rhetoric. Listen to this:

“’A time will come, must come, when we shall be commanded by mortality not only to cease tormenting others, but also ourselves. A time must come, when man, even on earth, shall wipe away most of his tears, were it only from pride. Nature, indeed, draws tears out of the eyes, and sighs out of the breath so quickly, that the wise man can never wholly lay aside the garb of mourning from his body; but let his soul wear none. For if it is ever a merit to bear a small suffering with cheerfulness, so must the calm and patient endurance of the worst be a merit, and will only differ in being a greater one, as the same reason, which is valid for the forgiveness of small injuries, is equally valid for the forgiveness of the greatest.... Then let thy spirit be lifted up in pride, and let it contemn the tear, and that for which it falls, saying: “Thou art much too insignificant, thou every-day life, for the inconsolableness of an immortal, thou tattered, misshapen, wholesale existence!” Upon this sphere, which is rounded with the ashes of thousands of years, amid the storms of earth, made up of vapors, in this lamentation of a dream, it is a disgrace that the sigh should only be dissipated together with the bosom that gives it birth, and that the tear should not perish except with the eye from which it flows.’”

“It sounds sweetly and rhythmically,” I replied, “but it rests on human pride, which is a poor, sandy foundation. I would rather one verse of the ‘Imitation.’ But he seems to be a good man and an eloquent one.”

“He apologizes for the defects of philosophy,” said Father Letheby. “He says:

“’We must not exact of philosophy that, with one stroke of the pen, it shall reverse the transformation of Rubens, who, with one stroke of his brush, changed a laughing child into a weeping one. It is enough if it change the full mourning of the soul into half-mourning; it is enough if I can say to myself, “I will be content to endure the sorrow that philosophy has left me; without it, it would be greater, and the gnat’s bite would be the wasp’s sting."’

“Now, this is a tremendous admission from a philosopher in love with his science. It shows that he cares for truth more than for mere wisdom ”

“Look here, young man, something has brightened you up; this is the first day for the fortnight that you have condescended to turn your thoughts away from the luxury of fretting.”

“Ay, indeed,” he said, and there was a faint halo around his face. “Three things work, Dolores, and my weekly hour. I have trampled all my bitterness under the hoofs of hard work. I have my first chapter of ’The Cappadocians’ ready for the printer. I tell you work is a noble tonic. It was the best thing Carlyle wrote, that essay on Work. Then this afflicted child shames me. She takes her crucifixion so gloriously. And last, but not least, when I pass my hour before the Blessed Sacrament an hour is a long time, Father Dan, and you think of a lot of things and when all the Christian philosophy about shame, and defeat, and suffering, and ignominy comes back to me, I assure you I have been angry with myself, and almost loathe myself for being such a coward as to whimper under such a little trial.”

“Very good! Now, that’s common sense. Have you heard from the Board?”

“Yes; that’s all right. They are going to hold an investigation to try and make that French steamer responsible, as I believe she is, for two reasons: she was going full speed in the fog; and she should have observed the rule of the road, or of the sea, that a steamer is always bound to give way to a sailing vessel. And I am becoming thoroughly convinced now, from all that I can hear, that it was no accident. I should like to know what took that steamer away from the fleet, and five miles out of her ordinary course. I’m sure the Board will mulct her heavily.”

“But has the Board jurisdiction over foreign vessels ten or twelve miles from shore?”

“That I don’t know. I wish Ormsby were home.”

“So do I, except for the tragedy we’ll have to witness with that poor child.”

“Have you heard lately?”

“Not since she wrote from Paris.”

“Alice had a letter from Florence yesterday. Such a pitiful letter, all about her father. There was a good deal that Alice did not understand, about Dante, and Savonarola, and the Certosa, but she said I’d explain it. Clearly she knows nothing as yet.”

But the revelation was not long delayed, and it came about in this wise. I had a letter a long letter from Bittra from Rome, in which she wrote enthusiastically about everything, for she had seen all the sacred places and objects that make Rome so revered that even Protestants call it home and feel lonely when leaving it. And she had seen the Holy Father, and got blessings for us all, for her own father, for Daddy Dan, for Dolores, for Father Letheby. “And,” she wrote, “I cannot tell you what I felt when I put on the black dress and mantelletta and veil, which are de rigueur when a lady is granted an audience with the Pope. I felt that this should be my costume, not my travelling bridal dress; and I would have continued to wear it but that Rex preferred to see me dressed otherwise. But it is all delightful. The dear old ruins, the awful Coliseum, where Felicitas and Perpetua suffered, as you often told us; and here Pancratius was choked by the leopard; and there were those dreadful emperors and praetors, and even Roman women, looking down at the whole horrible tragedy. I almost heard the howl of the wild beasts, and saw them spring forward, and then crouch and creep onwards towards the martyrs. Some day, Rex says, we’ll all come here together again you, and papa, and Father Letheby, and we’ll have a real long holiday, and Rex will be our guide, for he knows everything, and he’ll charge nothing.” Alas! her presentiment about the mourning dress was not far from verification. They travelled home rapidly, up through Lombardy, merely glancing at Turin and Milan and the Lakes. At Milan they caught the Swiss mail, and passed up and through the mountains, emerging from the St. Gothard tunnel just as a trainful of passengers burst from the refreshment rooms at Goschenen and thronged the mail to Brindisi. Here they rested; and here Bittra, anxious to hear English or Irish news, took up eagerly the “Times” of a month past, that lay on a side table, and, after a few rapid glances, read:

“A sad accident occurred off the Galway coast, on Monday, June . The ‘Star of the Sea,’ a new fishing-smack, especially built for the deep-sea fisheries, was struck on her trial trip by a French steamer and instantly submerged. Her crew were saved, except Captain Campion, the well-known yachtsman, who had taken charge of the boat for the occasion. He must have been struck insensible by the prow of the steamer, for he made no effort to save himself, but sank instantly. As the disaster occurred ten miles from land, there is no hope that his body will be recovered.”

How she took the intelligence, her blank stare of horror, when Ormsby entered the dining-room, whilst she could only point in mute despair to the paper; how, the first shock over, she fell back upon the sublime teachings of religion for consolation; and how the one thing that concerned her most deeply manifested itself in her repeated exclamations of prayer and despair: “His soul! his soul! poor papa!” all this Ormsby told us afterwards in detail. They hurried through Lucerne to Geneva, from Geneva to Paris, from Paris home, travelling night and day, his strong arm supporting her bravely, and he, in turn, strengthened in his new-born faith by the tenderness of her affection and the sublimity of her faith.

Of course, we knew nothing of all this whilst the days, the long days, of July drew drearily along with cloudless skies, but, oh! such clouded hearts! Suspense and uncertainty weighed heavily on us all. We did not know what to-morrow might bring. Occasionally a visitor came over through curiosity to see the theatre of the accident, shrug his shoulders, wonder at the folly of young men, and depart with an air of smug self-satisfaction. There were a few letters from the factory at Loughboro’, complaining and then threatening, and at last came a bill for L96.0.0, due on the twelve machines, and an additional bill for L30.0.0, due on material. Then I wrote, asking the proprietor to take back machines and material, and make due allowance for both. I received a courteous reply to the effect that this was contrary to all business habits and customs. There the matter rested, except that one last letter came, after a certain interval, peremptorily demanding payment and threatening law proceedings.

One shamefaced, dreary deputation came to me from the young girls who had been employed in the factory. They expressed all kinds of regrets for what they had done, promised amendment, guaranteed steady work for the future, would only ask half pay, would work for some weeks for nothing even until the debts were paid off. I referred them briefly to Father Letheby.

“They couldn’t face him. If he was mad with them and scolded them, they could bear it and be glad of it; but they couldn’t bear to see his white face and his eyes. Would I go and see him for them, and bring back the key to Kate Ginivan?”

I did, and came back with a laconic No! Then for the first time they understood that they had knocked their foolish heads against adamant.

“There’s nothing for us, then, but America, your reverence,” they said.

“It would be a good thing for the country if some of you went, whatever,” I said.

The following Sunday a deputation appeared in the village, the good merchants from Kilkeel, who had subscribed the balance of two hundred pounds for the boat. They called just as Father Letheby was at breakfast, immediately after his last Mass. He received them courteously, but waited for what they had to say.

“That was an unfortunate thing about the boat, your reverence,” said the spokesman.

“Very much so, indeed,” said Father Letheby.

“A great misfortune, entirely,” said another, looking steadily at the floor.

“We come to know, your reverence, what’s going to be done,” said the foreman.

“Well, the matter lies thus, gentlemen,” said Father Letheby. “The Board of Trade is making careful investigations with a view to legal proceedings; and, I understand, are sanguine of success. They hope to make that steamer responsible for the entire amount.”

“The law is slow and uncertain,” said the foreman.

“And we understand that the crew do not even know the name of the steamer that ran them down,” said another.

“You may be sure, gentlemen,” said Father Letheby, “that the Board will leave nothing undone to secure their own rights and those of the proprietors. They have already intimated to me that I shall be called upon to prosecute in case the Inspector of the Board of Trade finds that there was malice prepense or culpable negligence on the part of the master of the steamer, and I am fully prepared to meet their wishes. This means a prosecution, out of which, I am sanguine, we shall emerge victorious; and then there will be no delay in discharging our obligations to you individually.”

“Live, horse, and you’ll get grass,” said one of the deputation insolently, presuming on the quiet tone Father Letheby had assumed.

“’T is hunting for a needle in a bundle of straw,” said another.

Father Letheby flushed up, but said nothing. The foreman assumed a calm, magisterial air.

“You will remember, Reverend sir,” he said, “that this subscription to what some considered a Uropean idea was not, I may say, advanced on our part. It was only at your repeated solicitations, Reverend sir, that we consented to advance this sum out of our hard earnings ”

“Hard enough, begor,” said a member; “‘t isn’t by booklarnin’, but by honest labor, we got it.”

“If you would kindly allow me, Mr. ,” said the foreman, in a commiserating tone, “perhaps I could explain to the Reverend gentleman our views in a more in a more in a more satisfactory manner.”

“There’s simply nothing to be explained,” said Father Letheby. “The boat is at the bottom of the sea; I am responsible to you for two hundred pounds. That’s all.”

“Pardon me, sir,” said the eloquent foreman, who was nettled at the idea that his oratory was not acceptable and he had once proposed a Member for Parliament “pardon me, that is not all. We a are accustomed to repose in our clergymen the highest, and indeed, I may add, the deepest confidence. When that good lady I quite forget her name, it is so long since I read my classics perhaps, sir, you could help me ahem!”

“I am quite at a loss to know to what excellent lady you refer,” said Father Letheby.

“I’m very sorry to hear such a statement from the lips of a clergyman,” said the foreman, with much severity; “for the lady to whom I refer is the representative, and, indeed, the personification of Justice ”

“Oh, you mean ‘Astraea,’” said Father Letheby.

“Quite so, sir,” said the merchant, pompously. “When Astery left the earth she took refuge in the Church.”

“Indeed!” said Father Letheby, “I was not aware of that interesting fact.”

“Well, sir,” said the merchant, nettled at this sarcastic coolness, “at least we, laymen, are accustomed to think so. We have been taught to repose unbounded confidence in our clergy ”

“And how have I forfeited that confidence?” said Father Letheby, who began to see a certain deliberate insult under all this silliness.

“Well, you see, sir,” he continued, “we relied on your word of honor, and did not demand the usual securities for the advance of our money. And now we find ourselves in a curious predicament our money gone, and no redress.”

“You doubt my word of honor now?” said Father Letheby, who, to his own seeming, had been a miracle of patience.

“We have been deceived, sir,” said the merchant, grandly.

“Pray, how?” said Father Letheby. “You may not be aware of the meaning of your language, nor of the usual amenities of civilized society, but you should at least know that your language approaches very closely to insult.”

“We have been deceived, sir,” said the other, severely.

“Might I repeat my question, and ask you how?” said Father Letheby.

“We got the most repeated assurance, sir,” said the merchant, “that this boat would be a mine of wealth. Instead of that, it is, if I may so speak, a tornado of ruin and misfortune. It lies, if I may use the expression, at the bottom of the briny sea.”

“To cut a long story short,” said another of the deputation, “that boat was a swindle from beginning to end, and I know it ”

“Pardon me, gentlemen,” said Father Letheby, rising, “but I must now cut short the interview, and ask you to retire ”

“Ask us to retire with our money in your pocket!”

“Turn us out, and we ”

“Now, gentlemen, there is no use in prolonging this unpleasantness. Be good enough to leave my house. Lizzie, show these gentlemen the door.” He had touched the bell.

“We retire, sir, but we shall come again. We retreat, but we return. Like Marius,” the foreman was now in the street, and there was a pretty fair crowd around the door, “like Marius, like Marius ”

“Who the d l would marry the likes of you, you miserable omadhaun,” said Jem Deady, who knew by instinct that this was a hostile expedition. “Give us de word, your reverence, and we’ll chuck the whole bloomin’ lot into the say. It was many a long day since they had a bat’, if we’re to judge by dere dirty mugs.”

This was the signal for a fierce demonstration. In a moment the village was in arms, men rushed for stones, women, hastily leaving the dinner-tables, gathered up every kind of village refuse; and amidst the din of execration and abuse the shopkeepers of Kilkeel climbed on their cars and fled; not, however, without taking with them specimens, more or less decayed, of the fauna and flora of Kilronan, in the shape of eggs redolent of sulphuretted hydrogen, a few dead cats, and such potatoes and other vegetables as could be spared from the Sunday dinner. The people of Kilronan had, of course, a perfect right to annoy and worry their own priests, especially in the cause of Trades-Unionism; but the idea of a lot of well-dressed malcontents coming over from Kilkeel to insult their beloved curate was simply intolerable.

Nevertheless, that lonely walk by the sea-cliffs that Sunday afternoon was about the most miserable experience in Father Letheby’s life. He did not know whither to turn. Every taunt and insult of these ignorant men came back to sting him. What would it be if the whole thing came to publicity in the courts, and he was made the butt of unjust insinuations by some unscrupulous barrister, or the object of the lofty, moral indignation of the bench! Yet he felt bound, by every law of honor, to pay these men two hundred pounds. He might as well be asked to clear off the national debt. Now and again he paused in his walk, and, leaning on his umbrella, scrutinized the ground in anxious reverie; then he lifted up his eyes to the far horizon, beneath whose thin and misty line boat and captain were sleeping. Then he went on, trying in vain to choke down his emotion. “Star of the Sea! Star of the Sea!” he muttered. Then, half unconsciously: “Stella maris! Stella maris!! Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti surgere qui curat populo!”