Graham Greene

"What an appalling mockery. To have had you and then to let you go. Why, we lost two men looking for you. They'd be alive today ..." The candle sizzled as the drops of rain came through the roof. "This American wasn't worth two lives. He did no real harm."

The rain poured ceaselessly down. They sat in silence. Suddenly the lieutenant said, "Keep your hand away from your pocket."

"I was only feeling for a pack of cards. I thought Perhaps it would help to pass the time. . ."

"I don't play cards," the lieutenant said harshly.

"No, no. Not a game. Just a few tricks I can show you. May I?"

"All right. If you wish to."

The priest said, "Here, you see, are three cards. The ace, the king, and the jack. Now," he spread them fanwise out on the floor, "tell me which is the ace."

"This, of course," the lieutenant said grudgingly, showing no interest.

"But you are wrong," the priest said, turning it up. "That is the jack."

The lieutenant said contemptuously, "A game for gamblers or children."

"There is another trick," the priest said, "called Fly-away Jack. I cut the pack into three --- so. And I take this Jack of Hearts and I put it into the centre pack --- so. Now I tap the three packs." His face lit up as he spoke --- it was such a long time since he had handled cards --- he forgot the storm, the dead man and the stubborn unfriendly face opposite him. "I say 'Fly-away Jack'" --- he cut the left-hand pack in half and disclosed the jack --- "and there he is."

"Of course there are two jacks."

"See for yourself." Unwillingly the lieutenant leant forward and inspected the centre pack. He said, "I suppose you tell the Indians that that is a miracle of God."

"Oh no," the priest giggled, "I learnt it from an Indian. He was the richest man in the village. Do you wonder? with such a hand. No, I used to show the tricks at any entertainments we had in the parish --- for the Guilds, you know."

A look of physical disgust crossed the lieutenant's face. He said, "I remember those Guilds."

"When you were a boy?"

"I was old enough to know..."


"The trickery." He broke out furiously, with one hand on his gun, as though it had crossed his mind that it would be better to eliminate this beast, now, at this instant, for ever. "What an excuse it all was, what a fake. Sell all and give to the poor --- that was the lesson, wasn't it? and Seņora So- and-so, the druggist's wife, would say the family wasn't really deserving of charity, and Seņor This, That and the Other would say that if they starved, what else did they deserve, they were Socialists anyway, and the priest --- you --- would notice who had done his Easter duty and paid his Easter offering." His voice rose --- a policeman looked into the hut anxiously and withdrew again through the lashing rain. "The Church was poor, the priest was poor, therefore everyone should sell all and give to the Church."

The priest said, "You are so right." He added quickly, "Wrong too, of course."

"How do you mean?" the lieutenant asked savagely. "Right? Won't you even defend ... ?"

"I felt at once that you were a good man when you gave me money at the prison."

The lieutenant said, "I only listen to you because you have no hope. No hope at all. Nothing you say will make any difference."


He had no intention of angering the police officer, but he had had very little practice the last eight years in talking to any but a few peasants and Indians. Now something in his tone infuriated the lieutenant. He said, "You're a danger. That's why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man."

"Of course not. It's God you're against. I'm the sort of man you shut up every day --- and give money to."

"No, I don't fight against a fiction."

"But I'm not worth fighting, am I? You've said so. A liar, a drunkard. That man's worth a bullet more than I am."

"It's your ideas." The lieutenant sweated a little in the hot steamy air. He said, "You are so cunning, you people. But tell me this --- what have you ever done in Mexico for us? Have you ever told a landlord he shouldn't beat his peon --- oh yes, I know, in the confessional perhaps, and it's your duty, to forget it at once. You come out and have dinner with him and it's your duty not to know that he has murdered a peasant. That's all finished. He's left it behind in your box."

"Go on," the priest said. He sat on the packing-case with his hands on his knees and his head bent; he couldn't, though he tried, keep his mind on what the lieutenant was saying. He was thinking --- forty-eight hours to the capital. Today is Sunday. Perhaps on Wednesday I shall be dead. He felt it as a treachery that he was more afraid of the pain of bullets than of what came after.

"Well, we have ideas too," the lieutenant was saying. "No more money for saying prayers, no more money for building places to say prayers in. We'll give people food instead, teach them to read, give them books. We'll see they don't suffer."

"But if they want to suffer . . ."

"A man may want to rape a woman. Are we to allow it because he wants to? Suffering is wrong."

"And you suffer all the time," the priest commented, watching the sour Indian face behind the candle-flame. He said, "It sounds fine, doesn't it? Does the jefe feel like that too?"

"Oh, we have our bad men." "And what happens afterwards? I mean after everybody has got enough to eat and can read the right books --- the books you let them read?"

"Nothing. Death's a fact. We don't try to alter facts."

"We agree about a lot of things," the priest said, idly dealing out his cards. "We have facts, too, we don't try to alter --- that the world's unhappy whether you are rich or poor --- unless you are a saint, and there aren't many of those. It's not worth bothering too much about a little pain here. There's one belief we both of us have --- that we'll all be dead in a hundred years." He fumbled, trying to shuffle, and bent the cards: his hands were not steady.

"All the same, You're worried now about a little pain," the lieutenant said maliciously, watching his fingers.

"But I'm not a saint," the priest said. "I'm not even a brave man." He looked up apprehensively: light was coming back: the candle was no longer necessary. It would soon be clear enough to start the long journey back. He felt a desire to go on talking, to delay even by a few minutes the decision to start. He said, "That's another difference between us. It's no good your working for your end unless you're a good man yourself. And there won't always be good men in your party. Then you'll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn't matter so much my being a coward --- and all the rest. I can put God into a man's mouth just the same --- and I can give him God's pardon. It wouldn't make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me."

"That's another thing I don't understand," the lieutenant said, "why you --- of all people --- should have stayed when the others ran."

"They didn't all run," the priest said.

"But why did you stay?"

"Once," the priest said, "I asked myself that. The fact is, a man isn't presented suddenly with two courses to follow: one good and one bad. He gets caught up. The first year --- well, I didn't believe there was really any cause to run. Churches have been burnt before now. You know how often. It doesn't mean much. I thought I'd stay till next month, say, and see if things were better. Then --- oh, you don't know how time can slip by." It was quite light again now: the afternoon rain was over: life had to go on. A policeman passed the entrance of the hut and looked in curiously at the pair of them. "Do you know I suddenly realized that I was the only priest left for miles around? The law which made priests marry finished them. They went: they were quite right to go. There was one priest in particular --- he had always disapproved of me. I have a tongue, you know, and it used to wag. He said --- quite rightly --- that I wasn't a firm character. He escaped. It felt --- you'll laugh at this --- just as it did at school when a bully I had been afraid of --- for years --- got too old for any more teaching and was turned out. You see, I didn't have to think about anybody's opinion any more. The people --- they didn't worry me. They liked me." He gave a weak smile, sideways, towards the humped Yankee.

"Go on," the lieutenant said moodily.

"You'll know all there is to know about me at this rate," the priest said, with a nervous giggle, "by the time I get to, well, prison."

"It's just as well. To know an enemy, I mean."

"That other priest was right. It was when he left I began to go to pieces. One thing went after another. I got careless about my duties. I began to drink. It would have been much better, I think, if I had gone too. Because pride was at work all the time. Not love of God." He sat bowed on the packing-case, a small plump man in cast-off clothes. He said, "Pride was what made the angels fall. Pride's the worst thing of all. I thought I was a fine fellow to have stayed when the others had gone. And then I thought I was so grand I could make my own rules. I gave up fasting, daily Mass. I neglected my prayers --- and one day because I was drunk and lonely --- well, you know how it was, I got a child. It was all pride. Just pride because I'd stayed. I wasn't any use, but I stayed. At least, not much use. I'd got so that I didn't have a hundred communicants a month. If I'd gone I'd have given God to twelve times that number. It's a mistake one makes --- to think just because a thing is difficult or dangerous..." He made a flapping motion with his hands.

The lieutenant said in a tone of fury, "Well, You're going to be a martyr --- you've got that satisfaction."

"Oh no. Martyrs are not like me. They don't think all the time --- if I had drunk more brandy I shouldn't be so afraid."

The lieutenant said sharply to a man in the entrance, "Well, what is it? What are you hanging round for?"

"The storm's over, lieutenant. We wondered when we were to start?"

"We start immediately."

He got up and put back the pistol in his holster. He said, "Get a horse ready for the prisoner. And have some men dig a grave quickly for the Yankee."

The priest put the cards in his pocket and stood up. He said, "You have listened very patiently . . ." "I am not afraid," the lieutenant said, "of other people's ideas."

---from The Power and the Glory

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up