Zeal: A Short Story
J.F. Powers May 10, 2014 - 4:41pm
SOUTH of St. Paul the conductor appeared at the head of the coach, held up his ticket punch, and clicked it. The Bishop felt for his ticket. It was there.
"I know it's not a pass," said Father Early. He had been talking across the aisle to one of the pilgrims he was leading to Rome, but now he was back on the subject of the so-called clergy pass. "But it is a privilege."
The Bishop said nothing. He'd meant to imply by his silence before, when Father Early brought up the matter, that there was nothing wrong with an arrangement which permitted the clergy to travel in parlor cars at coach rates. The Bishop wished the arrangement were in effect in all parts of the country, and on all trains.
"But on a run like this, Bishop, with these fine coaches, I daresay there aren't many snobs who'll go to the trouble of filling out the form."
The Bishop looked away. Father Early had a nose like a parrot's and something on it like psoriasis that held the Bishop's attention—unfortunately, for Father Early seemed to think it was his talk. The Bishop had a priest or two in his diocese like Father Early.
"Oh, the railroads, I daresay, mean well."
"Yes," said the Bishop, distantly. The voice at his right ear went on without him. He gazed out the window, up at the limestone scarred by its primeval intercourse with the Mississippi, now shrunk down to itself, and there he saw a cave, another cave, and another. Criminals had been discovered in them, he understood, and ammunition from the Civil War, and further down the river, in the high bluffs, rattlesnakes were said to be numerous still.
"Bishop, I don't think I'm one to strain at a gnat." (The Bishop glanced at Father Early's nose with interest.) "But I must say I fear privilege more than persecution. Of course the one follows the other, as the night the day."
"Is it true, Father, that there are rattlesnakes along here?"
"Very likely," said Father Early, hardly bothering to look out the window. "Bishop, I was dining in New York, in a crowded place, observed by all and sundry, when the management tried to present me with a bottle of wine. Well!"
The Bishop, spying a whole row of caves, thought of the ancient Nile. Here, though, the country was too fresh and frigid. Here the desert fathers would've married early and gone fishing. The aborigines, by their fruits, pretty much proved that. He tried again to interrupt Father Early. "There must be a cave for you up here, somewhere, Father."
Father Early responded with a laugh that sounded exactly like ha-ha, no more or less. "I'll tell you a secret, Bishop. When I was in seminary, they called me Crazy Early. I understand they still do. Perhaps you knew."
"No," said the Bishop. Father Early flattered himself. The Bishop had never heard of him until that day.
"I thought perhaps Monsignor Reed had told you."
"I seldom see him." He saw Reed only by accident, at somebody's funeral or jubilee celebration or, it seemed, in railroad stations, which had happened again in Minneapolis that morning. It was Reed who had introduced Father Early to him then. Had Reed known what he was doing? It was six hours to Chicago, hours of this…
"I suppose you know Macaulay's England, Bishop."
"No." There was something to be gained by a frank admission of ignorance when it was assumed anyway.
"Read the section dealing with the status of the common clergy in the 18th century. I'm talking about the Anglican clergy. Hardly the equal of servants, knaves, figures of fun! The fault of the Reformation, you say? Yes, of course"—the Bishop had in no way signified assent—"but I say it could happen anywhere, everywhere, anytime! Take what's going on in parts of Europe today. When you consider the status of the Church there in the past, and the overwhelmingly Catholic population even now. I wonder, though, if it doesn't take something to bring us to our senses from time to time—now what do you say, Bishop?"
If the conductor hadn't been upon them, the Bishop would've said there was probably less danger of the clergy getting above themselves than there was of their being accepted for less than they were; or at least for less than they were supposed to be; or was that what Father Early was saying?
The conductor took up their tickets, placed two receipts overhead, one white and one blue. Before he moved on, he advised the Bishop to bring his receipt with him, the blue one, when he moved into the parlor car.
The Bishop nodded serenely.
Beside him, Father Early was full of silence, and opening his breviary.
The Bishop, who had expected to be told apologetically that it was a matter of no importance if he'd used his clergy pass, had an uncomfortable feeling that Father Early was praying for him.
AT WINONA, the train stopped for a minute. The Bishop from his window saw Father Early on the platform below talking to an elderly woman. In parting, they pecked at each other, and she handed him a box. Returning to his seat, he said he'd had a nice visit with his sister. He went to the head of the coach with the box, and came slowly back down the aisle, offering the contents to the pilgrims. "Divinity? Divinity?" The Bishop, when his turn came, took a piece, and consumed it. Then he felt committed to stay with Father Early until Chicago.
It was some time before Father Early returned to his seat—from making the acquaintance of Monsignor Reed's parishioners. "What we did was split the responsibility. Miss Culhane's in charge of Monsignor's people. Of course, the ultimate responsibility is mine." Peering up the aisle at two middle-aged women drawing water from the cooler, Father Early said, "The one coming this way now," and gazed out the window.
Miss Culhane, a paper cup in each hand, smiled at the Bishop. He smiled back.
When Miss Culhane bad passed, Father Early said, "She's been abroad once, and that's more than most of 'em can say. She's a secretary in private life, and it's hard to find a man with much sense of detail. But I don't know… From what I've heard already I'd say the good people don't like the idea. I'm afraid they think she stands between them and me."
The other woman, also carrying paper cups, came down the aisle, and again Father Early gazed out the window. So did the Bishop. When the woman had gone by, Father Early commented dryly: "Her friend, whose name escapes me. Between the two of 'em, Bishop…Oh, it'll be better for all concerned when Monsignor joins us."
The Bishop knew nothing about this. Reed had told him nothing. "Monsignor?"
"Claims he's allergic to trains."
Again Father Early treated the question as rhetorical. ''His plane doesn't arrive until noon tomorrow. We sail at four. That doesn't give us much time in New York."
The Bishop was putting it all together. Evidently Reed was planning to have as much privacy as he could on the trip. Seeing his little flock running around loose in the station, though, he must have felt guilty—and then the Bishop had happened along. Would Reed do this to him? Reed had done this to him. Reed had once called the Bishop's diocese the next thing to a titular see.
"I'm sorry he isn't sailing with us," said Father Early.
"He's got business of some kind—stained glass, I believe—that'll keep him in New York for a few days. He may have to go to Boston. So he's flying over. I wonder, Bishop, if he isn't allergic to boats too." Father Early smiled at the Bishop as one good sailor to another.
The Bishop wasn't able to smile back. He was thinking how much he preferred to travel alone. When he was being hustled into the coach by Reed and Father Early, he hadn't considered the embarrassment there might be in the end; together on the train to Chicago and again on the one to New York and then crossing on the same liner, apart, getting an occasional glimpse of each other across the barriers. The perfidious Reed had united them, knowing full well that the Bishop was traveling first class and that Father Early and the group were going tourist. The Bishop hoped there would be time for him to see Reed in New York. According to Father Early, though, Reed didn't want them to look for him until they saw him. The Bishop wouldn't.
Miss Culhane, in the aisle again, returned with more water. When she passed, the Bishop and Father Early were both looking out the window. "You can't blame 'em," Father Early said. "I wish he'd picked a man for the job. No, they want more than a man, Bishop. They want a priest."
"They've got you," said the Bishop. "And Monsignor will soon be with you."
"Not until we reach Rome."
"No?" The Bishop was rocked by this new evidence of Reed's ruthlessness. Father Early and the group were going to Ireland and England first, as the Bishop was, but they'd be spending more time in those countries, about two weeks.
"No," said Father Early. "He won't."
The Bishop got out his breviary. He feared that Father Early would not be easily discouraged. The Bishop, if he could be persuaded to join the group, would more than make up for the loss of Reed. To share the command with such a man as Father Early, however, would be impossible. It would be to serve under him—as Reed may have realized. The Bishop would have to watch out. It would be dangerous for him to offer Father Early plausible excuses, to point out, for instance, that they'd be isolated from each other once they sailed from New York. Such an excuse, regretfully tendered now, could easily commit him to service on this train, and on the next one, and in New York—and the Bishop wasn't at all sure that Father Early wouldn't find a way for him to be with the group aboard ship. The Bishop turned a page.
When Father Early rose and led the pilgrims in the recitation of the rosary, the Bishop put aside his breviary, took out his beads and prayed along with them. After that, Father Early directed the pilgrims in the singing of "Onward, Christian Soldiers"—which was not a Protestant hymn, not originally, he said. Monsignor Reed's parishioners didn't know the words, but Father Early got around that difficulty by having everyone sing the notes of the scale, the ladies la, the men do. The Bishop cursed his luck and wouldn't even pretend to sing. Father Early was in the aisle, beating time with his fist, exhorting some by name to contribute more to the din, clutching others (males) by the shoulders until they did. The Bishop grew afraid that even he might not be exempt, and again sought the protection of his breviary.
HE HAD an early lunch. When he returned to his seat, it was just past noon, and Father Early was waiting in the aisle for him.
"How about a bite to eat, Bishop?"
"I've eaten, Father."
"You eat early, Bishop."
"I couldn't wait."
Father Early did his little ha-ha laugh. "By the way, Bishop, are you planning anything for the time we'll have in Chicago between trains?" Before the Bishop, who was weighing the significance of the question, could reply, Father Early told him that the group was planning a visit to the Art Institute. "The Art Treasures of Vienna are there now."
"I believe I've seen them, Father."
"In Vienna, Bishop?"
"Well, they should be well worth seeing again."
"Yes. But I don't think I'll be seeing them." Not expecting the perfect silence that followed—this from Father Early was more punishing than his talk—the Bishop added: "Not today." Then, after more of that silence, "I've nothing planned, Father." Quickly, not liking the sound of that: "I do have a few things I might do."
Father Early nodded curtly and went away.
The Bishop heard him inviting some of the group to have lunch with him.
During the rest of the afternoon, the indefatigable voice of Father Early came to the Bishop from all over the coach, but the man himself didn't return to his seat. And when the train pulled into the station, Father Early wasn't in the coach. The Bishop guessed he was with the conductor, to whom he had a lot to say, or with the other employees of the railroad who never seem to be around at the end of a journey. Stepping out of the coach, the Bishop felt like a free man.
Miss Culhane, however, was waiting for him. She introduced him to an elderly couple, the Doyles, who were the only ones in the group not planning to visit the Art Institute. Father Early, she said, understood that the Bishop wasn't planning to do anything in Chicago and would be grateful if the Bishop would keep an eye on the Doyles there. They hadn't been there before.
The Bishop showed them Grant Park from a taxicab, and pointed out the Planetarium, the Aquarium, the Field Museum. "Thought it was the stockyards," Mr. Doyle commented on Soldier's Field, giving Mrs. Doyle a laugh. "I'm afraid there isn't time to go there," the Bishop said. He was puzzled by the Doyles. They didn't seem to realize the sightseeing was for them. He tried them on foot in department stores until he discovered from something Mrs. Doyle said, that they were bearing with him. Soon after that they were standing across the street from the Art Institute, with the Bishop asking if they didn't want to cross over and join the group inside. Mr. Doyle said he didn't think they could make it over there alive—a reference to the heavy traffic, serious or not, the Bishop couldn't tell, but offered to take them across. The Doyles could not be tempted. So the three of them wandered around some more, the Doyles usually a step or two behind the Bishop. At last, in the lobby of the Congress Hotel, Mrs. Doyle expressed a desire to sit down. And there they sat, three in a row, in silence, until it was time to take a cab to the station. On the way over, Mr. Doyle, watching the meter, said, "These things could sure cost you."
In the station the Bishop gave the Doyles a gentle shove in the direction of the gate through which some members of the group were passing. A few minutes later, after a visit to the newsstand, he went through the gate unaccompanied. As soon as he entered his pullman his ears informed him that he'd reckoned without Mr. Hope, the travel agent in Minneapolis. Old pastors wise in the ways of the world and to the escapist urge to which so many of the men, sooner or later succumbed, thinking it only love of travel, approved of Mr. Hope's system. If Mr. Hope had a priest going somewhere, he tried to make it a pair; dealt two, he worked for three of a kind; and so on—nuns, of course, were wild, their presence eminently sobering. All day the Bishop had thought the odds safely against their having accommodations in the same pullman car, but he found himself next door to Father Early.
THEY had dinner together. In the Bishop's view, it was fortunate that the young couple seated across the table was resilient from drink. Father Early opened up on the subject of tipping.
"These men," he said, his glance taking in several waiters and his mouth almost in the ear of the one who was serving them, a cross-looking colored man, "are in a wonderful position to assert their dignity as human beings—which dignity, being from God, may not be sold with impunity. And for a mere pittance at that! Or, what's worse, bought!"
The Bishop, laying down his soup spoon, sat gazing out the window, for which he was again grateful. It was getting dark. The world seen from a train always looked sadder then. Indiana. Ohio next, but he wouldn't see it. Pennsylvania, perhaps, in the early morning, if he didn't sleep well.
"I see what you mean," he heard the young woman saying, "but I just charge it up to expenses."
"Ah, ha," said Father Early. "Then you don't see what I mean."
"Oh, don't I? Well, it's not important. And please—don't explain."
The Bishop, coloring, heard nothing from Father Early and thanked God for that. They had been coming to this, or something like it, inevitably they had. And again the Bishop suffered the thought that the couple was associating him with Father Early.
When he had served dessert across the table, the waiter addressed himself to Father Early. "As far as I'm concerned, sir, you're right," he said, and moved off.
The young woman, watching the waiter go, said, "He can't do that to me."
Airily, Father Early was saying, "And this time tomorrow we'll be on our way to Europe."
The Bishop was afraid the conversation would lapse entirely—which might have been the best thing for it in the long run—but the young man was nodding.
"Will this be your first trip?" asked the young woman. She sounded as though she thought it would be.
"My fifth, God willing," Father Early said. "I don't mean that as a commentary on the boat we're taking. Only as a little reminder to myself that we're all of us hanging by a thread here, only a heart's beat from eternity. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't do our best while here. On the contrary. Some people think Catholics oppose progress here below. Look on your garbage can and what do you see? Galvanized. Galvan was a Catholic. Look on your light bulb. Watts. Watt was a Catholic. The Church never harmed Galileo."
Father Early, as if to see how he was doing, turned to the Bishop. The Bishop, however, was dining with his reflection in the window. He had displayed a spark of interest when Father Early began to talk of the trip, believing there was to be a change of subject matter, but Father Early had tricked him.
"And how long in Rome?" asked the young woman.
"Only two days. Some members of the group intend to stay longer, but they won't return with me. Two days doesn't seem long enough, does it? Well, I can't say that I care for Rome. I didn't feel at home there, or anywhere on the continent. We'll have two good weeks in the British Isles."
"Some people don't travel to feel at home," said the young woman.
To this Father Early replied: "Ireland first and then England. It may interest you to know that about half of the people in the group are carrying the complete works of Shakespeare. I'm hoping the rest of the group will manage to secure copies of the plays and read them before we visit Stratford."
"It sounds like a large order," said the young woman.
"Paperback editions are to be had everywhere," Father Early said with enthusiasm. "By the way, what book would you want if you were shipwrecked on a desert island?"
Apparently the question had novelty for the young man. "That's a hard one," he said.
"Indeed it is. Chesterton, one of the great Catholic writers, said he'd like a manual of shipbuilding, but I don't consider that a serious answer to the question. I'll make it two books because, of course, you'd want the Bible. Some people think Catholics don't read the Bible. But who preserved Scripture in the dark ages? Holy monks. Now what do you say? No. Ladies first."
"I think I'd like that book on shipbuilding," said the young woman.
Father Early smiled. "And you, sir?"
"Shakespeare, I guess."
"I was hoping you'd say that."
Then the Bishop heard the young woman inquiring: "Shakespeare wasn't a Catholic, was he?"
The Bishop reached for his glass of water, and saw Father Early observing a moment of down-staring silence. When he spoke his voice was deficient. "As a matter of fact, we don't know. Arguments both ways. But we just don't know. Perhaps it's better that way," he said, and that was all he said. At last he was eating his dinner.
When the young couple rose to leave, the Bishop, who had been waiting for this moment, turned in time to see the young man almost carry out Father Early's strict counsel against tipping. With one look, however, the young woman prevailed over him. The waiter came at once and removed the tip. With difficulty, the Bishop put down the urge to comment. He wanted to say that he believed people should do what they could do, little though it might be, and shouldn't be asked to attempt what was obviously beyond them. The young woman who probably thought Father Early was just tight was better off than the young man.
After the waiter came and went again Father Early sat back and said, "I'm always being surprised by the capacity ordinary people have for sacrifice."
The Bishop swallowed what—again—would have been his comment. Evidently Father Early was forgetting about the young man.
"Thanks for looking after the Doyles. I would've asked you myself but I was in the baggage car. Someone wanted me to say hello to a dog that's going to South Bend. No trouble, were they? What'd you see?"
The Bishop couldn't bring himself to answer either question. "It's hard to know what other people want to do," he said. "They might've had a better guide."
"I can tell you they enjoyed your company, Bishop.”
"Oh?" The Bishop, though touched, had a terrible vision of himself doing the capitals of the world with the Doyles.
Father Early handed the Bishop a cigar. "Joe Quirke keeps me well supplied with these," he said, nodding to a beefy middle-aged man two tables away who looked pleased at having caught Father Early's eye. "I believe you know him."
"I met him," the Bishop said, making a distinction. Mr. Quirke had sat down next to him in the club car before dinner, taken up a magazine, put it down after a minute, and offered to buy the Bishop a drink. When the Bishop (who'd been about to order one) refused, Mr. Quirke had apparently taken him for a teetotaler with a past. He said he'd had a little problem until Father Early got hold of him.
Father Early was discussing the youth eating with Mr. Quirke. "Glenn's been in a little trouble at home and at school. Three schools, I believe. Good family. I have his father's permission to leave him with the Christian Brothers in Ireland, if they'll have him."
When Glenn got up from the table, the Bishop decided he didn't like the look of him. Glenn was shorthaired, long-legged, a Doberman pinscher of a boy. He loped out of the diner, followed by Mr. Quirke.
Two problems, thought the Bishop, getting ready to happen—and doubtless there were more of them in the group. Miss Culhane, in her fashion, could make trouble.
"There's something I'd like to discuss with you, Bishop."
The Bishop stiffened. Now it was coming, he feared, the all-out attempt to recruit him.
Father Early was looking across the table, at the empty places there. "You realize they'd been drinking?"
The Bishop refused to comment. Now what?
"It wouldn't surprise me if they met on this train."
"Bishop, in my opinion the boy is or has been a practicing Catholic."
In the Bishop's opinion, it was none of Father Early's business. He knew what Father Early was getting at, and he didn't like it. Father Early was thinking of taking on more trouble.
"I believe the boy's in danger," Father Early said. "Real danger."
The Bishop opened his mouth to tell Father Early off, but not much came out. "I wouldn't call him a boy." The Bishop felt that Father Early had expected something of the sort from him, nothing, and no support. Father Early had definitely gone into one of his silences. The Bishop, fussing with his cuffs, suddenly reached, but Father Early beat him to the checks.
Father Early complimented the waiter on the service and food, rewarding him with golden words.
The Bishop was going to leave a tip, to be on the safe side, but apparently the waiter was as good as his word. They left the diner in the blaze of his hospitality.
The Bishop had expected to be asked where in New York he'd be saying Mass in the rooming, but when they arrived at their doors, Father Early smiled and put out his hand. It certainly looked like goodbye.
They shook hands.
And then, suddenly, Father Early was on his knees, his head bowed and waiting for the Bishop's blessing.
HIS MIND was full of the day and he was afraid he was in for one of those nights he'd had on trains before. He kept looking at his watch in the dark, listening for sounds of activity next door, and finally he admitted to himself that he was waiting for Father Early to come in. So he gave Father Early until midnight… and then he got dressed and went out to look for him.
Up ahead he saw Glenn step into the corridor from an end room and go around the corner. The Bishop prepared to say hello. But when he was about to pass, the atmosphere filled up with cigarette smoke. The Bishop hurried through it, unrecognized, he hoped, considering the lateness of the hour and the significance of another visit to the club car, as it might appear to Glenn who could have observed him there earlier in the evening.
The club car was empty except for a man with a magazine in the middle of the car, the waiter serving him a drink, and the young man and Father Early at the tail end of the train, seated on a sofa facing upon the tracks. The Bishop advanced with difficulty to the rear. The train was traveling too fast.
Father Early glanced around. He moved over on the sofa to make room for the Bishop, and had the young man move. The Bishop sat down beside the young man who was now in the middle.
"One I went to—we're talking about fairs, Bishop—had an educated donkey, as the fellow called it. This donkey could tell one color from another—knew them all by name. The fellow had these paddles, you've seen them, painted different colors. Red, green, blue, brown, black, orange, yellow, white—oh, all colors…"
The Bishop, from the tone of this, sensed that nothing had been resolved and that Father Early's objective was to keep the young man up all night with him. It was a siege.
"The fellow would say, 'Now, Trixie'—I remember the little donkey's name. You might've seen her at some time."
The young man shook his head.
"'Now, Trixie,' the fellow would say, 'bring me the yellow paddle,' and that's what she'd do. She'd go to the rack, where all the paddles were hanging, pick out the yellow one, and carry it to the fellow. Did it with her teeth, of course. Then the fellow would say, 'Trixie, bring me the green paddle.'"
"And she brought the green one," said the young man patiently.
"That's right. The fellow would say, 'Now, Trixie, bring me the paddles that are the colors of the flag.'" Father Early addressed the Bishop: "Red, white, and blue."
"Yes,'' said the Bishop. What an intricate instrument for good a simple man could be! Perhaps Father Early was only a fool, a ward of heaven, not subject to the usual penalties for meddling. No, it was zeal, and people, however far gone, still expected it from a man of God. But, even so, Father Early ought to be more careful, humbler before the mystery of iniquity. And still…
"My, that was a nice little animal, that Trixie.'' Father Early paused, giving his attention to the signal lights blinking down the tracks, and continued. "Red, green, all colors. Most fairs have little to recommend them. Some fairs, however, are worthwhile." Father Early stood up. "I'll be right back," he said, and went to the lavatory.
The Bishop was about to say something—to keep the ball rolling—when the young man got up and left, without a word.
The Bishop sat where he was until he heard the lavatory door open and shut. Then he got up to meet Father Early. Father Early looked beyond the Bishop, toward the place where the young man had been, and then at the Bishop. He didn't appear to blame the Bishop at all. Nothing was said.
They walked in the direction from which Father Early had just come. The Bishop thought they were calling it a day, but Father Early was onto something else, trying the waiter on baseball.
"Good night, Father."
"Oh?" said Father Early, as if he'd expected the Bishop to stick around for it.
"Good night, Father." The Bishop had a feeling that baseball wouldn't last, that the sermon on tipping was due again.
"Good night, Bishop."
The Bishop moved off comically, as the train made up for lost time. Entering his pullman car, he saw the young man, who must have been kept waiting, disappear into the room Glenn had come out of earlier.
The Bishop slept well that night, after all, but not before he thought of Father Early still out there, on his feet and trying, which was what counted in the sight of God, not success. Thinkest thou that I cannot ask my father, and he will give me presently more than twelve legions of angels?
"Would you like me to run through these names with you, Bishop, or do you want to familiarize yourself with the people as we go along."
"I'd prefer that, I think. And I wish you'd keep the list, Miss Culhane."
"I don't think Father Early would want you to be without it, Bishop."
"No? Very well, I'll keep it then."
Copyright 1956 by J. F. Powers. This story [appeared] In Mr. Powers's The Presence of Grace (Doubleday).
About the Author
J.F. Powers is author of numerous short stories, several of which have been honored by inclusion in various anthologies.