A Classic American Short Story by
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
The American Mercury, June 1924
There was once a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears. He wept because the afternoons were warm and long, and he was unable to attain a complete mystical union with our Lord. Sometimes, near four o’clock, there was a rustle of Swede girls along the path by his window, and in their shrill laughter he found a terrible dissonance that made him pray aloud for the twilight to come. At twilight the laughter and the voices were quieter, but several times he had walked past Romberg’s Drug Store when it was dusk and the yellow lights shone inside and the nickel taps of the soda-fountain were gleaming, and he had found the scent of cheap toilet soap desperately sweet upon the air. He passed that way when he returned from hearing confessions on Saturday nights, and he grew careful to walk on the other side of the street so that the smell of the soap would float upward before it reached his nostrils as it drifted, rather like incense, toward the summer moon.
But there was no escape from the hot madness of four o’clock. From his window, as far as he could see, the Dakota wheat thronged the valley of the Red River. The wheat was terrible to look upon and the carpet pattern to which in agony he bent his eyes sent his thought brooding through grotesque labyrinths, open always to the unavoidable sun.
One afternoon when he had reached the point where the mind runs down like an old clock, his housekeeper brought into his study a beautiful, intense little boy of eleven named Rudolph Miller. The little boy sat down in a patch of sunshine, and the priest, at his walnut desk, pretended to be very busy. This was to conceal his relief that some one had come into his haunted room.
Presently he turned around and found himself staring into two enormous, staccato eyes, lit with gleaming points of cobalt light. For a moment their expression startled him–then he saw that his visitor was in a state of abject fear.
“Your mouth is trembling,” said Father Schwartz, in a haggard voice.
The little boy covered his quivering mouth with his hand.
“Are you in trouble?” asked Father Schwartz, sharply. “Take your hand away from your mouth and tell me what’s the matter.”
The boy–Father Schwartz recognized him now as the son of a parishioner, Mr. Miller, the freight-agent–moved his hand reluctantly off his mouth and became articulate in a despairing whisper.
“Father Schwartz–I’ve committed a terrible sin.”
“A sin against purity?”
“No, Father . . . worse.”
Father Schwartz’s body jerked sharply.
“Have you killed somebody?”
“No–but I’m afraid–” the voice rose to a shrill whimper.
“Do you want to go to confession?”
The little boy shook his head miserably. Father Schwartz cleared his throat so that he could make his voice soft and say some quiet, kind thing. In this moment he should forget his own agony, and try to act like God. He repeated to himself a devotional phrase, hoping that in return God would help him to act correctly.
“Tell me what you’ve done,” said his new soft voice.
The little boy looked at him through his tears, and was reassured by the impression of moral resiliency which the distraught priest had created. Abandoning as much of himself as he was able to this man, Rudolph Miller began to tell his story.
“On Saturday, three days ago, my father he said I had to go to confession, because I hadn’t been for a month, and the family they go every week, and I hadn’t been. So I just as leave go, I didn’t care. So I put it off till after supper because I was playing with a bunch of kids and father asked me if I went, and I said ‘no,’ and he took me by the neck and he said ‘You go now,’ so I said ‘All right,’ so I went over to church. And he yelled after me: ‘Don’t come back till you go.’ . . .”
“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.
Rudolph’s father, the local freight-agent, had floated with the second wave of German and Irish stock to the Minnesota-Dakota country. Theoretically, great opportunities lay ahead of a young man of energy in that day and place, but Carl Miller had been incapable of establishing either with his superiors or his subordinates the reputation for approximate immutability which is essential to success in a hierarchic industry. Somewhat gross, he was, nevertheless, insufficiently hard-headed and unable to take fundamental relationships for granted, and this inability made him suspicious, unrestful, and continually dismayed.
His two bonds with the colorful life were his faith in the Roman Catholic Church and his mystical worship of the Empire Builder, James J. Hill. Hill was the apotheosis of that quality in which Miller himself was deficient–the sense of things, the feel of things, the hint of rain in the wind on the cheek. Miller’s mind worked late on the old decisions of other men, and he had never in his life felt the balance of any single thing in his hands. His weary, sprightly, undersized body was growing old in Hill’s gigantic shadow. For twenty years he had lived alone with Hill’s name and God.
On Sunday morning Carl Miller awoke in the dustless quiet of six o’clock. Kneeling by the side of the bed he bent his yellow-gray hair and the full dapple bangs of his mustache into the pillow, and prayed for several minutes. Then he drew off his night-shirt–like the rest of his generation he had never been able to endure pajamas–and clothed his thin, white, hairless body in woollen underwear.
He shaved. Silence in the other bedroom where his wife lay nervously asleep. Silence from the screened-off corner of the hall where his son’s cot stood, and his son slept among his Alger books, his collection of cigar-bands, his mothy pennants–”Cornell,” “Hamlin,” and “Greetings from Pueblo, New Mexico”–and the other possessions of his private life. From outside Miller could hear the shrill birds and the whirring movement of the poultry, and, as an undertone, the low, swelling click-a-tick of the six-fifteen through-train for Montana and the green coast beyond. Then as the cold water dripped from the wash-rag in his hand he raised his head suddenly–he had heard a furtive sound from the kitchen below.
He dried his razor hastily, slipped his dangling suspenders to his shoulder, and listened. Some one was walking in the kitchen, and he knew by the light footfall that it was not his wife. With his mouth faintly ajar he ran quickly down the stairs and opened the kitchen door.
Standing by the sink, with one hand on the still dripping faucet and the other clutching a full glass of water, stood his son. The boy’s eyes, still heavy with sleep, met his father’s with a frightened, reproachful beauty. He was barefooted, and his pajamas were rolled up at the knees and sleeves.
For a moment they both remained motionless–Carl Miller’s brow went down and his son’s went up, as though they were striking a balance between the extremes of emotion which filled them. Then the bangs of the parent’s moustache descended portentously until they obscured his mouth, and he gave a short glance around to see if anything had been disturbed.
The kitchen was garnished with sunlight which beat on the pans and made the smooth boards of the floor and table yellow and clean as wheat. It was the center of the house where the fire burned and the tins fitted into tins like toys, and the steam whistled all day on a thin pastel note. Nothing was moved, nothing touched–except the faucet where beads of water still formed and dripped with a white flash into the sink below.
“What are you doing?”
“I got awful thirsty, so I thought I’d just come down and get–”
“I thought you were going to communion.”
A look of vehement astonishment spread over his son’s face.
“I forgot all about it.”
“Have you drunk any water?”
As the word left his mouth Rudolph knew it was the wrong answer, but the faded indignant eyes facing him had signalled up the truth before the boy’s will could act. He realized, too, that he should never have come downstairs; some vague necessity for verisimilitude had made him want to leave a wet glass as evidence by the sink; the honesty of his imagination had betrayed him.
“Pour it out,” commanded his father, “that water!”
Rudolph despairingly inverted the tumbler.
“What’s the matter with you, anyways?” demanded Miller angrily.
“Did you go to confession yesterday?”
“Then why were you going to drink water?”
“I don’t know–I forgot.”
“Maybe you care more about being a little bit thirsty than you do about your religion.”
“I forgot.” Rudolph could feel the tears straining in his eyes.
“That’s no answer.”
“Well, I did.”
“You better look out!” His father held to a high, persistent, inquisitory note: “If you’re so forgetful that you can’t remember your religion something better be done about it.”
Rudolph filled a sharp pause with:
“I can remember it all right.”
“First you begin to neglect your religion,” cried his father, fanning his own fierceness, “the next thing you’ll begin to lie and steal, and the next thing is the reform school!”
Not even this familiar threat could deepen the abyss that Rudolph saw before him. He must either tell all now, offering his body for what he knew would be a ferocious beating, or else tempt the thunderbolts by receiving the Body and Blood of Christ with sacrilege upon his soul. And of the two the former seemed more terrible–it was not so much the beating he dreaded as the savage ferocity, outlet of the ineffectual man, which would lie behind it.
“Put down that glass and go up-stairs and dress!” his father ordered, “and when we get to church, before you go to communion, you better kneel down and ask God to forgive you for your carelessness.”
Some accidental emphasis in the phrasing of this command acted like a catalytic agent on the confusion and terror of Rudolph’s mind. A wild, proud anger rose in him, and he dashed the tumbler passionately into the sink.
His father uttered a strained, husky sound, and sprang for him. Rudolph dodged to the side, tipped over a chair, and tried to get beyond the kitchen table. He cried out sharply when a hand grasped his pajama shoulder, then he felt the dull impact of a fist against the side of his head, and glancing blows on the upper part of his body. As he slipped here and there in his father’s grasp, dragged or lifted when he clung instinctively to an arm, aware of sharp smarts and strains, he made no sound except that he laughed hysterically several times. Then in less than a minute the blows abruptly ceased. After a lull during which Rudolph was tightly held, and during which they both trembled violently and uttered strange, truncated words, Carl Miller half dragged, half threatened his son up-stairs.
“Put on your clothes!”
Rudolph was now both hysterical and cold. His head hurt him, and there was a long, shallow scratch on his neck from his father’s finger-nail, and he sobbed and trembled as he dressed. He was aware of his mother standing at the doorway in a wrapper, her wrinkled face compressing and squeezing and opening out into new series of wrinkles which floated and eddied from neck to brow. Despising her nervous ineffectuality and avoiding her rudely when she tried to touch his neck with witch-hazel, he made a hasty, choking toilet. Then he followed his father out of the house and along the road toward the Catholic church.
They walked without speaking except when Carl Miller acknowledged automatically the existence of passers-by. Rudolph’s uneven breathing alone ruffled the hot Sunday silence.
His father stopped decisively at the door of the church.
“I’ve decided you’d better go to confession again. Go in and tell Father Schwartz what you did and ask God’s pardon.”
“You lost your temper, too!” said Rudolph quickly.
Carl Miller took a step toward his son, who moved cautiously backward.
“All right, I’ll go.”
“Are you going to do what I say?” cried his father in a hoarse whisper.
Rudolph walked into the church, and for the second time in two days entered the confessional and knelt down. The slat went up almost at once.
“I accuse myself of missing my morning prayers.”
“Is that all?”
A maudlin exultation filled him. Not easily ever again would he be able to put an abstraction before the necessities of his ease and pride. An invisible line had been crossed, and he had become aware of his isolation–aware that it applied not only to those moments when he was Blatchford Sarnemington but that it applied to all his inner life. Hitherto such phenomena as “crazy” ambitions and petty shames and fears had been but private reservations, unacknowledged before the throne of his official soul. Now he realized unconsciously that his private reservations were himself–and all the rest a garnished front and a conventional flag. The pressure of his environment had driven him into the lonely secret road of adolescence.
He knelt in the pew beside his father. Mass began. Rudolph knelt up–when he was alone he slumped his posterior back against the seat–and tasted the consciousness of a sharp, subtle revenge. Beside him his father prayed that God would forgive Rudolph, and asked also that his own outbreak of temper would be pardoned. He glanced sidewise at his son, and was relieved to see that the strained, wild look had gone from his face and that he had ceased sobbing. The Grace of God, inherent in the Sacrament, would do the rest, and perhaps after Mass everything would be better. He was proud of Rudolph in his heart, and beginning to be truly as well as formally sorry for what he had done.
Usually, the passing of the collection box was a significant point for Rudolph in the services. If, as was often the case, he had no money to drop in he would be furiously ashamed and bow his head and pretend not to see the box, lest Jeanne Brady in the pew behind should take notice and suspect an acute family poverty. But to-day he glanced coldly into it as it skimmed under his eyes, noting with casual interest the large number of pennies it contained.
When the bell rang for communion, however, he quivered. There was no reason why God should not stop his heart. During the past twelve hours he had committed a series of mortal sins increasing in gravity, and he was now to crown them all with a blasphemous sacrilege.
“Domini, non sum dignus; ut interes sub tectum meum; sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea. . . .“
There was a rustle in the pews, and the communicants worked their ways into the aisle with downcast eyes and joined hands. Those of larger piety pressed together their finger-tips to form steeples. Among these latter was Carl Miller. Rudolph followed him toward the altar-rail and knelt down, automatically taking up the napkin under his chin. The bell rang sharply, and the priest turned from the altar with the white Host held above the chalice:
“Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam meam in vitam aeternam.”
A cold sweat broke out on Rudolph’s forehead as the communion began. Along the line Father Schwartz moved, and with gathering nausea Rudolph felt his heart-valves weakening at the will of God. It seemed to him that the church was darker and that a great quiet had fallen, broken only by the inarticulate mumble which announced the approach of the Creator of Heaven and Earth. He dropped his head down between his shoulders and waited for the blow.
Then he felt a sharp nudge in his side. His father was poking him to sit up, not to slump against the rail; the priest was only two places away.
“Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam meam in vitam aeternam.”
Rudolph opened his mouth. He felt the sticky wax taste of the wafer on his tongue. He remained motionless for what seemed an interminable period of time, his head still raised, the wafer undissolved in his mouth. Then again he started at the pressure of his father’s elbow, and saw that the people were falling away from the altar like leaves and turning with blind downcast eyes to their pews, alone with God.
Rudolph was alone with himself, drenched with perspiration and deep in mortal sin. As he walked back to his pew the sharp taps of his cloven hoofs were loud upon the floor, and he knew that it was a dark poison he carried in his heart.
“Sagitta Volante in Dei”
The beautiful little boy with eyes like blue stones, and lashes that sprayed open from them like flower-petals had finished telling his sin to Father Schwartz–and the square of sunshine in which he sat had moved forward half an hour into the room. Rudolph had become less frightened now; once eased of the story a reaction had set in. He knew that as long as he was in the room with this priest God would not stop his heart, so he sighed and sat quietly, waiting for the priest to speak.
Father Schwartz’s cold watery eyes were fixed upon the carpet pattern on which the sun had brought out the swastikas and the flat bloomless vines and the pale echoes of flowers. The hall-clock ticked insistently toward sunset, and from the ugly room and from the afternoon outside the window arose a stiff monotony, shattered now and then by the reverberate clapping of a far-away hammer on the dry air. The priest’s nerves were strung thin and the beads of his rosary were crawling and squirming like snakes upon the green felt of his table top. He could not remember now what it was he should say.
Of all the things in this lost Swede town he was most aware of this little boy’s eyes–the beautiful eyes, with lashes that left them reluctantly and curved back as though to meet them once more.
For a moment longer the silence persisted while Rudolph waited, and the priest struggled to remember something that was slipping farther and farther away from him, and the clock ticked in the broken house. Then Father Schwartz stared hard at the little boy and remarked in a peculiar voice:
“When a lot of people get together in the best places things go glimmering.”
Rudolph started and looked quickly at Father Schwartz’s face.
“I said–” began the priest, and paused, listening. “Do you hear the hammer and the clock ticking and the bees? Well, that’s no good. The thing is to have a lot of people in the center of the world, wherever that happens to be. Then”–his watery eyes widened knowingly–”things go glimmering.”
“Yes, Father,” agreed Rudolph, feeling a little frightened.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?”
“Well, I was going to be a baseball-player for a while,” answered Rudolph nervously, “but I don’t think that’s a very good ambition, so I think I’ll be an actor or a Navy officer.”
Again the priest stared at him.
“I see exactly what you mean,” he said, with a fierce air.
Rudolph had not meant anything in particular, and at the implication that he had, he became more uneasy.
“This man is crazy,” he thought, “and I’m scared of him. He wants me to help him out some way, and I don’t want to.”
“You look as if things went glimmering,” cried Father Schwartz wildly. “Did you ever go to a party?”
“And did you notice that everybody was properly dressed? That’s what I mean. Just as you went into the party there was a moment when everybody was properly dressed. Maybe two little girls were standing by the door and some boys were leaning over the banisters, and there were bowls around full of flowers.”
“I’ve been to a lot of parties,” said Rudolph, rather relieved that the conversation had taken this turn.
“Of course,” continued Father Schwartz triumphantly, “I knew you’d agree with me. But my theory is that when a whole lot of people get together in the best places things go glimmering all the time.”
Rudolph found himself thinking of Blatchford Sarnemington.
“Please listen to me!” commanded the priest impatiently. “Stop worrying about last Saturday. Apostasy implies an absolute damnation only on the supposition of a previous perfect faith. Does that fix it?”
Rudolph had not the faintest idea what Father Schwartz was talking about, but he nodded and the priest nodded back at him and returned to his mysterious preoccupation.
“Why,” he cried, “they have lights now as big as stars–do you realize that? I heard of one light they had in Paris or somewhere that was as big as a star. A lot of people had it–a lot of gay people. They have all sorts of things now that you never dreamed of.”
“Look here–” He came nearer to Rudolph, but the boy drew away, so Father Schwartz went back and sat down in his chair, his eyes dried out and hot. “Did you ever see an amusement park?”
“Well, go and see an amusement park.” The priest waved his hand vaguely. “It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place–under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts–and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon–like a big yellow lantern on a pole.”
Father Schwartz frowned as he suddenly thought of something.
“But don’t get up close,” he warned Rudolph, “because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.”
All this talking seemed particularly strange and awful to Rudolph, because this man was a priest. He sat there, half terrified, his beautiful eyes open wide and staring at Father Schwartz. But underneath his terror he felt that his own inner convictions were confirmed. There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God. He no longer thought that God was angry at him about the original lie, because He must have understood that Rudolph had done it to make things finer in the confessional, brightening up the dinginess of his admissions by saying a thing radiant and proud. At the moment when he had affirmed immaculate honor a silver pennon had flapped out into the breeze somewhere and there had been the crunch of leather and the shine of silver spurs and a troop of horsemen waiting for dawn on a low green hill. The sun had made stars of light on their breastplates like the picture at home of the German cuirassiers at Sedan.
But now the priest was muttering inarticulate and heart-broken words, and the boy became wildly afraid. Horror entered suddenly in at the open window, and the atmosphere of the room changed. Father Schwartz collapsed precipitously down on his knees, and let his body settle back against a chair.
“Oh, my God!” he cried out, in a strange voice, and wilted to the floor.
Then a human oppression rose from the priest’s worn clothes, and mingled with the faint smell of old food in the corners. Rudolph gave a sharp cry and ran in a panic from the house–while the collapsed man lay there quite still, filling his room, filling it with voices and faces until it was crowded with echolalia, and rang loud with a steady, shrill note of laughter.
Outside the window the blue sirocco trembled over the wheat, and girls with yellow hair walked sensuously along roads that bounded the fields, calling innocent, exciting things to the young men who were working in the lines between the grain. Legs were shaped under starchless gingham, and rims of the necks of dresses were warm and damp. For five hours now hot fertile life had burned in the afternoon. It would be night in three hours, and all along the land there would be these blonde Northern girls and the tall young men from the farms lying out beside the wheat, under the moon.