At three o’clock Mary Carson rose to her feet and yawned. “No, don’t stop the festivities! If I’m tired—which I am—I can go to bed, which is what I’m going to do. But there’s plenty of food and drink, the band has been engaged to play as long as someone wants to dance, and a little noise will only speed me into my dreams. Father, would you help me up the stairs, please?”
Once outside the reception room she did not turn to the majestic staircase, but guided the priest to her drawing room, leaning heavily on his arm. Its door had been locked; she waited while he used the key she handed him, then preceded him inside.
“It was a good party, Mary,” he said.
“Don’t say that, my dear.”
“Why not? I’m tired of living, Ralph, and I’m going to stop.” Her hard eyes mocked. “Do you doubt me? For over seventy years I’ve done precisely what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, so if Death thinks he’s the one to choose the time of my going, he’s very much mistaken. I’ll die when I choose the time, and no suicide, either. It’s our will to live keeps us kicking, Ralph; it isn’t hard to stop if we really want to. I’m tired, and I want to stop. Very simple.”
He was tired, too; not of living, exactly, but of the endless façade, the climate, the lack of friends with common interests, himself. The room was only faintly lit by a tall kerosene lamp of priceless ruby glass, and it cast transparent crimson shadows on Mary Carson’s face, conjuring out of her intractable bones something more diabolical. His feet and back ached; it was a long time since he had danced so much, though he prided himself on keeping up with whatever was the latest fad. Thirty-five years of age, a country monsignor, and as a power in the Church? Finished before he had begun. Oh, the dreams of youth! And the carelessness of youth’s tongue, the hotness of youth’s temper. He had not been strong enough to meet the test. But he would never make that mistake again. Never, never…
He moved restlessly, sighed; what was the use? The chance would not come again. Time he faced that fact squarely, time he stopped hoping and dreaming.
“Do you remember my saying, Ralph, that I’d beat you, that I’d hoist you with your own petard?”
The dry old voice snapped him out of the reverie his weariness had induced. He looked across at Mary Carson and smiled.
“Dear Mary, I never forget anything you say. What I would have done without you these past seven years I don’t know. Your wit, your malice, your perception…”
“If I’d been younger I’d have got you in a different way, Ralph. You’ll never know how I’ve longed to throw thirty years of my life out the window. If the Devil had come to me and offered to buy my soul for the chance to be young again, I’d have sold it in a second, and not stupidly regretted the bargain like that old idiot Faust. But no Devil. I really can’t bring myself to believe in God or the Devil, you know. I’ve never seen a scrap of evidence to the effect they exist. Have you?”
“No. But belief doesn’t rest on proof of existence, Mary. It rests on faith, and faith is the touchstone of the Church. Without faith, there is nothing.”
“A very ephemeral tenet.”
“Perhaps. Faith’s born in a man or a woman, I think. For me it’s a constant struggle, I admit that, but I’ll never give up.”
“I would like to destroy you.”
His blue eyes laughed, greyed in the light. “Oh, my dear Mary! I know that.”
“But do you know why?”
A terrifying tenderness crept against him, almost inside him, except that he fought it fiercely. “I know why, Mary, and believe me, I’m sorry.”
“Besides your mother, how many women have loved you?”
“Did my mother love me, I wonder? She ended in hating me, anyway. Most women do. My name ought to have been Hippolytos.”
“Oh! That tells me a lot!”
“As to other women, I think only Meggie…But she’s a little girl. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say hundreds of women have wanted me, but loved me? I doubt it very much.”
“I have loved you,” she said pathetically.
“No, you haven’t. I’m the goad of your old age, that’s all. When you look at me I remind you of what you cannot do, because of age.”
“You’re wrong. I have loved you. God, how much! Do you think my years automatically preclude it? Well, Father de Bricassart, let me tell you something. Inside this stupid body I’m still young—I still feel, I still want, I still dream, I still kick up my heels and chafe at restrictions like my body. Old age is the bitterest vengeance our vengeful God inflicts upon us. Why doesn’t He age our minds as well?” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, her teeth showing sourly. “I shall go to Hell, of course. But before I do, I hope I get the chance to tell God what a mean, spiteful, pitiful apology of a God He is!”