"On Saturday, Three Days Ago."
The plush curtain of the confessional rearranged its dismal creases, leaving exposed only the bottom of an old man's old shoe. Behind the curtain an immortal soul was alone with God and the Reverend Adolphus Schwartz, priest of the parish. Sound began, a labored whispering, sibilant and discreet, broken at intervals by the voice of the priest in audible question.
Rudolph Miller knelt in the pew beside the confessional and waited, straining nervously to hear, and yet not to hear what was being said within. The fact that the priest was audible alarmed him. His own turn came next, and the three or four others who waited might listen unscrupulously while he admitted his violations of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.
Rudolph had never committed adultery, nor even coveted his neighbor's wife--but it was the confession of the associate sins that was particularly hard to contemplate. In comparison he relished the less shameful fallings away--they formed a grayish background which relieved the ebony mark of sexual offenses upon his soul.
He had been covering his ears with his hands, hoping that his refusal to hear would be noticed, and a like courtesy rendered to him in turn, when a sharp movement of the penitent in the confessional made him sink his face precipitately into the crook of his elbow. Fear assumed solid form, and pressed out a lodging between his heart and his lungs. He must try now with all his might to be sorry for his sins--not because he was afraid, but because he had offended God. He must convince God that he was sorry and to do so he must first convince himself. After a tense emotional struggle he achieved a tremulous self-pity, and decided that he was now ready. If, by allowing no other thought to enter his head, he could preserve this state of emotion unimpaired until he went into that large coffin set on end, he would have survived another crisis in his religious life.
For some time, however, a demoniac notion had partially possessed him. He could go home now, before his turn came, and tell his mother that he had arrived too late, and found the priest gone. This, unfortunately, involved the risk of being caught in a lie. As an alternative he could say that he had gone to confession, but this meant that he must avoid communion next day, for communion taken upon an uncleansed soul would turn to poison in his mouth, and he would crumple limp and damned from the altar-rail.
Again Father Schwartz's voice became audible.
"And for your--"
The words blurred to a husky mumble, and Rudolph got excitedly to his feet. He felt that it was impossible for him to go to confession this afternoon. He hesitated tensely. Then from the confessional came a tap, a creak, and a sustained rustle. The slide had fallen and the plush curtain trembled. Temptation had come to him too late. . . .
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. . . . I confess to Almighty God and to you, Father, that I have sinned. . . . Since my last confession it has been one month and three days. . . . I accuse myself of--taking the Name of the Lord in vain. . . ."
This was an easy sin. His curses had been but bravado--telling of them was little less than a brag.
". . . of being mean to an old lady."
The wan shadow moved a little on the latticed slat.
"How, my child?"
"Old lady Swenson," Rudolph's murmur soared jubilantly. "She got our baseball that we knocked in her window, and she wouldn't give it back, so we yelled 'Twenty-three, Skidoo,' at her all afternoon. Then about five o'clock she had a fit, and they had to have the doctor."
"Go on, my child."
"Of--of not believing I was the son of my parents."
"What?" The interrogation was distinctly startled.
"Of not believing that I was the son of my parents."
"Oh, just pride," answered the penitent airily.
"You mean you thought you were too good to be the son of your parents?"
"Yes, Father." On a less jubilant note.
"Of being disobedient and calling my mother names. Of slandering people behind my back. Of smoking--"
Rudolph had now exhausted the minor offenses, and was approaching the sins it was agony to tell. He held his fingers against his face like bars as if to press out between them the shame in his heart.
"Of dirty words and immodest thoughts and desires," he whispered very low.
"I don't know."
"Once a week? Twice a week?"
"Twice a week."
"Did you yield to these desires?"
"Were you alone when you had them?"
"No, Father. I was with two boys and a girl."
"Don't you know, my child, that you should avoid the occasions of sin as well as the sin itself? Evil companionship leads to evil desires and evil desires to evil actions. Where were you when this happened?"
"In a barn in back of--"
"I don't want to hear any names," interrupted the priest sharply.
"Well, it was up in the loft of this barn and this girl and--a fella, they were saying things--saying immodest things, and I stayed."
"You should have gone--you should have told the girl to go."
He should have gone! He could not tell Father Schwartz how his pulse had bumped in his wrist, how a strange, romantic excitement had possessed him when those curious things had been said. Perhaps in the houses of delinquency among the dull and hard-eyed incorrigible girls can be found those for whom has burned the whitest fire.
"Have you anything else to tell me?"
"I don't think so, Father."
Rudolph felt a great relief. Perspiration had broken out under his tight-pressed fingers.
"Have you told any lies?"
The question startled him. Like all those who habitually and instinctively lie, he had an enormous respect and awe for the truth. Something almost exterior to himself dictated a quick, hurt answer.
"Oh, no, Father, I never tell lies."
For a moment, like the commoner in the king's chair, he tasted the pride of the situation. Then as the priest began to murmur conventional admonitions he realized that in heroically denying he had told lies, he had committed a terrible sin--he had told a lie in confession.
In automatic response to Father Schwartz's "Make an act of contrition," he began to repeat aloud meaninglessly:
"Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. . . ."
He must fix this now--it was a bad mistake--but as his teeth shut on the last words of his prayer there was a sharp sound, and the slat was closed.
A minute later when he emerged into the twilight the relief in coming from the muggy church into an open world of wheat and sky postponed the full realization of what he had done. Instead of worrying he took a deep breath of the crisp air and began to say over and over to himself the words "Blatchford Sarnemington, Blatchford Sarnemington!"
Blatchford Sarnemington was himself, and these words were in effect a lyric. When he became Blatchford Sarnemington a suave nobility flowed from him. Blatchford Sarnemington lived in great sweeping triumphs. When Rudolph half closed his eyes it meant that Blatchford had established dominance over him and, as he went by, there were envious mutters in the air: "Blatchford Sarnemington! There goes Blatchford Sarnemington."
He was Blatchford now for a while as he strutted homeward along the staggering road, but when the road braced itself in macadam in order to become the main street of Ludwig, Rudolph's exhilaration faded out and his mind cooled, and he felt the horror of his lie. God, of course, already knew of it--but Rudolph reserved a corner of his mind where he was safe from God, where he prepared the subterfuges with which he often tricked God. Hiding now in this corner he considered how he could best avoid the consequences of his misstatement.
At all costs he must avoid communion next day. The risk of angering God to such an extent was too great. He would have to drink water "by accident" in the morning, and thus, in accordance with a church law, render himself unfit to receive communion that day. In spite of its flimsiness this subterfuge was the most feasible that occurred to him. He accepted its risks and was concentrating on how best to put it into effect, as he turned the corner by Romberg's Drug Store and came in sight of his father's house.