THE PRIEST AND THE ACOLYTE BY JOHN BLOXAM
John Francis Bloxam (17 December 1873-6 April 1928) was “an undergraduate of strange beauty” at Exeter College, Oxford, when, in June 1894, he wrote this story. He published it the following December in the only issue of The Chameleon: a Bazaar of Dangerous and Smiling Chances, a periodical of which he was the editor, and to which Oscar Wilde also contributed.
Bloxam soon went on to become an Anglo-Catholic priest, well-loved and described by his friends “as a remarkable influence on any boy with whom he came into contact. Being wealthy, Father Bloxam put many of them on the road to good careers.”
The main historical interest of the story lies in its being the most overtly pederastic contribution to The Chameleon, for which reason it may be presumed to have had a key role both in the suppression of the periodical and in discrediting Oscar Wilde, who was held by association to be guilty of corrupting youth.
Wilde's opinion of it was that it was "too direct: there is no nuance: it profanes a little by revelation: God and other artists are always a little obscure. Still, it has interesting qualities, and is at moments poisonous: which is something."
“The rich, heady eroticism of ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’ owes its existence to a certain type of nineteenth-century French literature which zealously emphasized an essentially paederastic bias on the part of the clergy.”
Honi soit qui mal y pense
'Pray, father, give me thy blessing, for I have sinned.'
The priest started; he was tired in mind and body; his soul was sad and his heart heavy as he sat in the terrible solitude of the confessional ever listening to the same dull round of oft-repeated sins. He was weary of the conventional tones and matter-of-fact expressions. Would the world always be the same? For nearly twenty centuries the Christian priests had sat in the confessional and listened to the same old tale. The world seemed to him no better; always the same, the same. The young priest sighed to himself, and for a moment almost wished people would be worse. Why could they not escape from these old wearily-made paths and be a little original in their vices, if sin they must? But the voice he now listened to aroused him from his reverie. It was so soft and gentle, so diffident and shy.
He gave the blessing, and listened. Ah, yes! he recognized the voice now. It was the voice he had heard for the first time only that very morning: the voice of the little acolyte that had served his Mass.
He turned his head and peered through the grating at the little bowed head beyond. There was no mistaking those long soft curls. Suddenly, for one moment, the face was raised, and the large moist blue eyes met his; he saw the little oval face flushed with shame at the simple boyish sins he was confessing, and a thrill shot through him, for he felt that here at least was something in the world that was beautiful, something that was really true. Would the day come when those soft scarlet lips would have grown hard and false? when the soft shy treble would have become careless and conventional? His eyes filled with tears, and in a voice that had lost its firmness he gave the absolution.
After a pause, he heard the boy rise to his feet, and watched him wend his way across the little chapel and kneel before the altar while he said his penance. The priest hid his thin tired face in his hands and sighed wearily. The next morning, as he knelt before the altar and turned to say the words of confession to the little acolyte whose head was bent so reverently towards him, he bowed low till his hair just touched the golden halo that surrounded the little face, and he felt his veins burn and tingle with a strange new fascination.
When that most wonderful thing in the whole world, complete soul-absorbing love for another, suddenly strikes a man, that man knows what heaven means, and he understands hell: but if the man be an ascetic, a priest whose whole heart is given to ecstatic devotion, it were better for that man if he had never been born.
When they reached the vestry and the boy stood before him reverently receiving the sacred vestments, he knew that henceforth the entire devotion of his religion, the whole ecstatic fervour of his prayers, would be connected with, nay, inspired by, one object alone. With the same reverence and humility as he would have felt in touching the consecrated elements he laid his hands on the curl-crowned head, he touched the small pale face, and, raising it slightly, he bent forward and gently touched the smooth white brow with his lips.
When the child felt the caress of his fingers, for one moment every thing swam before his eyes; but when he felt the light touch of the tall priests lips a wonderful assurance took possession of him: he understood. He raised his little arms, and, clasping his slim white fingers around the priest's neck kissed him on the lips. With a sharp cry the priest fell upon his knees, and, clasping the little figure clad in scarlet and lace to his heart, he covered the tender flushing face with burning kisses. Then suddenly there came upon them both a quick sense of fear; they parted hastily, with hot trembling fingers folded the sacred vestments, and separated in silent shyness.
The priest returned to his poor rooms and tried to sit down and think, but all in vain: he tried to eat, but could only thrust away his plate in disgust: he tried to pray, but instead of the calm figure on the cross, the calm, cold figure with the weary, weary face, he saw continually before him the flushed face of a lovely boy, the wide star-like eyes of his new-found love.
All that day the young priest went through the round of his various duties mechanically, but he could not eat nor sit quiet, for when alone, strange shrill bursts of song kept thrilling through his brain, and he felt that he must flee out into the open air or go mad.
At length, when night came, and the long, hot day had left him exhausted and worn out, he threw himself on his knees before his crucifix and compelled himself to think.
He called to mind his boyhood and his early youth; there returned to him the thought of the terrible struggles of the last five years. Here he knelt, Ronald Heatherington, priest of Holy Church, aged twenty-eight: what he had endured during these five years of fierce battling with those terrible passions he had fostered in his boyhood, was it all to be in vain? For the last year he had really felt that all passion was subdued, all those terrible outbursts of passionate love he had really believed to be stamped out for ever. He had worked so hard, so unceasingly, through all these five years since his ordination - he had given himself up solely and entirely to his sacred office; all the intensity of his nature had been concentrated, completely absorbed, in the beautiful mysteries of his religion. He had avoided all that could affect him, all that might call up any recollection of his early life. Then he had accepted this curacy, with sole charge of the little chapel that stood close beside the cottage where he was now living, the little mission-chapel that was the most distant of the several grouped round the old Parish Church of St. Anselm. He had arrived only two or three days before, and, going to call on the old couple who lived in the cottage, the back of which formed the boundary of his own little garden, had been offered the services of their grandson as acolyte.
'My son was an artist fellow, sir,' the old man had said: 'he never was satisfied here, so we sent him off to London; he was made a lot of there, sir, and married a lady, but the cold weather carried him off one winter, and his poor young wife was left with the baby. She brought him up and taught him herself, sir, but last winter she was taken too so the poor lad came to live with us - so delicate he is, sir, and not one of the likes of us; he's a gentleman born and bred, is Wilfred. His poor mother used to like him to go and serve at the church near them in London, and the boy was so fond of it himself that we thought, supposing you did not mind, sir, that it would be a treat for him to do the same here.'
'How old is the boy?' asked the young priest.
'Fourteen, sir,' replied the grandmother.
'Very well, let him come to the chapel tomorrow morning,' Ronald had agreed.
Entirely absorbed in his devotions, the young man had scarcely noticed the little acolyte who was serving for him, and it was not till he was hearing his confession later in the day that he had realized his wonderful loveliness.
'Ah God! help me! pity me! After all this weary labour and toil, just when I am beginning to hope, is everything to be undone? am I to lose everything? Help me, help me, O God!'
Even while he prayed; even while his hands were stretched out in agonized supplication towards the feet of that crucifix before which his hardest battles had been fought and won; even while the tears of bitter contrition and miserable self-mistrust were dimming his eyes - there came a soft tap on the glass of the window beside him. He rose to his feet, and wonderingly drew back the dingy curtain. There in the moonlight, before the open window, stood a small white figure - there, with his bare feet on the moon-blanched turf, dressed only in his long white night-shirt, stood his little acolyte, the boy who held his whole future in his small childish hands.
'Wilfred, what are you doing here?' he asked in a trembling voice.
'I could not sleep, father, for thinking of you, and I saw a light in your room, so I got out through the window and came to see you. Are you angry with me, father?' he asked, his voice faltering as he saw the almost fierce expression in the thin ascetic face.
'Why did you come to see me?' The priest hardly dared recognize the situation, and scarcely heard what the boy said.
'Because I love you, I love you - oh, so much! but you - you are angry with me - oh, why did I ever come! why did I ever come! - I never thought you would be angry!' and the little fellow sank on the grass and burst into tears.
The priest sprang through the open Window, and siezing the slim little figure in his arms, he carried him into the room. He drew the curtains and, sinking into the deep arm-chair, laid the little fair head upon his breast, kissing his curls again and again.
'O my darling! my own beautiful darling!' he whispered, 'how could I ever be angry with you? You are more to me than all the world. Ah, God, how I love you, my darling! my own sweet darling!'
For nearly an hour the boy nestled there in his arms, pressing his soft cheek against his; then the priest told him he must go. For one long last kiss their lips met, and then the small white-clad figure slipped through the window, sped across the little moonlit garden, and vanished through the opposite window.
When they met in the vestry next morning, the lad raised his beautiful flower-like face, and the priest, gently putting his arms round him, kissed him tenderly on the lips.
'My darling! my darling!' was all he said; but the lad returned his kiss with a smile of wonderful almost heavenly love, in a silence that seemed to whisper something more than words.
'I wonder what was the matter with the father this morning?' said one old woman to another, as they were returning from the chapel; 'he didn't seem himself at all; he made more mistakes this morning than Father Thomas made in all the years he was here.'
'Seemed as if he had never said a Mass before!' replied her friend, with something of contempt.
And that night, and for many nights after, the priest, with the pale tired-looking face, drew the curtain over his crucifix and waited at the window for the glimmer of the pale summer moonlight on a crown of golden curls, for the sight of slim boyish limbs clad in the long white night-shirt, that only emphasized the grace of every movement, and the beautiful pallor of the little feet speeding across the grass. There at the window, night after night, he waited to feel tender loving arms thrown round his neck, and to feel the intoxicating delight of beautiful boyish lips raining kisses on his own.
Ronald Heatherington made no mistakes in the Mass now. He said the solemn words with a reverence and devotion that made the few poor people who happened to be there speak of him afterwards almost with awe; while the face of the little acolyte at his side shone with a fervour which made them ask each other what this strange light could mean. Surely the young priest must be a saint indeed, while the boy beside him looked more like an angel from heaven than any child of human birth.
The world is very stern with those that thwart her. She lays down her precepts, and woe to those who dare to think for themselves who venture to exercise their own discretion as to whether they shall allow their individuality and natural characteristics to be stamped out, to be obliterated under the leaden fingers of convention.
Truly, convention is the stone that has become head of the corner in the jerry-built temple of our superficial, self-assertive civilization.
'And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.'
If the world sees anything she cannot understand, she assigns the basest motives to all concerned, supposing the presence of some secret shame, the idea of which, at least, her narrow-minded intelligence is able to grasp.
The people no longer regarded their priest as a saint, and his acolyte as an angel. They still spoke of them with bated breath and with their fingers on their lips; they still drew back out of the way when they met either of them; but now they gathered together in groups of twos and threes and shook their heads.
The priest and his acolyte heeded not; they never even noticed the suspicious glances and half-suppressed murmurs. Each had found in the other perfect sympathy and perfect love: what could the outside world matter to them now? Each was to the other the perfect fulfilment of a scarcely preconceived ideal; neither heaven nor hell could offer more. But the stone of convention had been undermined; the time could not be far distant when it must fall.
The moonlight was very clear and very beautiful; the cool night air was heavy with the perfume of the old-fashioned flowers that bloomed so profusely in the little garden. But in the priest's little room the closely drawn curtains shut out all the beauty of the night. Entirely forgetful of all the world, absolutely oblivious of everything but one another, wrapped in the beautiful visions of a love that far outshone all the splendour of the summer night, the priest and the little acolyte were together.
The little lad sat on his knees with his arms closely pressed round his neck and his golden curls laid against the priest's close-cut hair; his white nightshirt contrasting strangely and beautifully with the dull black of the other's long cassock.
There was a step on the road outside - a step drawing nearer and nearer; a knock at the door. They heard it not; completely absorbed in each other, intoxicated with the sweetly poisonous draught that is the gift of love, they sat in silence. But the end had come: the blow had fallen at last. The door opened, and there before them in the doorway stood the tall figure of the rector.
Neither said anything; only the little boy clung closer to his beloved, and his eyes grew large with fear. Then the young priest rose slowly to his feet and put the lad from him.
'You had better go, Wilfred,' was all he said.
The two priests stood in silence watching the child as he slipped through the window, stole across the grass, and vanished into the opposite cottage.
Then the two turned and faced each other.
The young priest sank into his chair and clasped his hands, waiting for the other to speak.
So it has come to this!' he said: 'the people were only too right in what they told me! Ah, God! that such a thing should have happened here! that it has fallen on me to expose your shame - our shame! That it is I who must give you up to justice, and see that you suffer the full penalty of your sin! Have you nothing to say?'
'Nothing - nothing,' he replied softly. 'I cannot ask for pity: I cannot explain: you would never understand. I do not ask you anything for myself, I do not ask you to spare me; but think of the terrible scandal to our dear Church.'
'It is better to expose these terrible scandals and see that they are cured. It is folly to conceal a sore: better show all our shame than let it fester.'
'Think of the child.'
'That was for you to do: you should have thought of him before.
‘What has his shame to do with me? it was your business. Besides, I would not spare him if I could: what pity can I feel for such as he?'
But the young man had risen, pale to the lips.
'Hush!' he said in a low voice; 'I forbid you to speak of him before me with anything but respect'; then softly to himself, 'with anything but reverence; with anything but devotion.'
The other was silent, awed for the moment. Then his anger rose.
'Dare you speak openly like that? Where is your penitence, your shame? have you no sense of the horror of your sin?'
'There is no sin for which I should feel shame,' he answered very quietly. 'God gave me my love for him, and He gave him also his love for me. Who is there that shall withstand God and the love that is His gift?'
'Dare you profane the name by calling such a passion as this "love"?'
'It was love, perfect love: it is perfect love.'
'I can say no more now; tomorrow all shall be known. Thank God you shall pay dearly for all this disgrace,' he added, in a sudden outburst of wrath.
'I am sorry you have no mercy; - not that I fear exposure and punishment for myself. But mercy can seldom be found from a Christian,' he added, as one that speaks from without.
The rector turned towards him suddenly, and stretched out his hands.
'Heaven forgive me my hardness of heart,' he said. 'I have been cruel; I have spoken cruelly in my distress. Ah, can you say nothing to defend your crime?'
'No: I do not think I can do any good by that. If I attempted to deny all guilt, you would only think I lied: though I should prove my innocence, yet my reputation, my career, my whole future, are ruined for ever. But will you listen to me for a little? I will tell you a little about myself.'
The rector sat down while his curate told him the story of his life, sitting by the empty grate with his chin resting on his clasped hands.
'I was at a big public school, as you know. I was always different from other boys. I never cared much for games. I took little interest in those things for which boys usually care so much. I was not very happy in my boyhood, I think. My one ambition was to find the ideal for which I longed. It has always been thus: I have always had an indefinite longing for something, a vague something that never quite took shape, that I could never quite understand. My great desire has always been to find something that would satisfy me. I was attracted at once by sin: my whole early life is stained and polluted with the taint of sin. Sometimes even now I think that there are sins more beautiful than anything else in the world. There are vices that are bound to attract almost irresistibly anyone who loves beauty above everything. I have always sought for love: again and again I have been the victim of fits of passionate affection: time after time I have seemed to have found my ideal at last: the whole object of my life has been, times without number, to gain the love of some particular person. Several times my efforts were successful; each time I woke to find that the success I had obtained was worthless after all. As I grasped the prize, it lost all its attraction - I no longer cared for what I had once desired with my whole heart. In vain I endeavoured to drown the yearnings of my heart with the ordinary pleasures and vices that usually attract the young. I had to choose a profession. I became a priest. The whole aesthetic tendency of my soul was intensely attracted by the wonderful mysteries of Christianity, the artistic beauty of our services. Ever since my ordination I have been striving to cheat myself into the belief that peace had come at last - at last my yearning was satisfied: but all in vain. Unceasingly I have struggled with the old cravings for excitement, and, above all, the weary, incessant thirst for a perfect love. I have found, and still find, an exquisite delight in religion: not in the regular duties of a religious life, not in the ordinary round of parish organizations; - against these I chafe incessantly; - no, my delight is in the aesthetic beauty of the services~ the ecstasy of devotion, the passionate fervour that comes with long fasting and meditation.'
'Have you found no comfort in prayer?' asked the rector.
'Comfort? - no. But I have found in prayer pleasure, excitement, almost a fierce delight of sin.'
'You should have married. I think that would have saved you.'
Ronald Heatherington rose to his feet and laid his hand on the rector's arm.
'You do not understand me. I have never been attracted by a woman in my life. Can you not see that people are different, totally different, from one another? To think that we are all the same is impossible; our natures, our temperaments, are utterly unlike. But this is what people will never see; they found all their opinions on a wrong basis. How can their deductions be just if their premisses are wrong? One law laid down by the majority, who happen to be of one disposition, is only binding on the minority legally, not morally. What right have you, or anyone, to tell me that such and such a thing is sinful for me? Oh, why can I not explain to you and force you to see?' and his grasp tightened on the other's arm. Then he continued, speaking fast and earnestly:
'For me, with my nature, to have married would have been sinful: it would have been a crime, a gross immorality, and my conscience would have revolted.' Then he added, bitterly: 'Conscience should be that divine instinct which bids us seek after that our natural disposition needs - we have forgotten that; to most of us, to the world, nay, even to Christians in general, conscience is merely another name for the cowardice that dreads to offend against convention. Ah, what a cursed thing convention is! I have committed no moral offence in this matter; in the sight of God my soul is blameless; but to you and to the world I am guilty of an abominable crime - abominable, because it is a sin against convention, forsooth! I met this boy: I loved him as I had never loved anyone or anything before: I had no need to labour to win his affection - he was mine by right: he loved me, even as I loved him, from the first: he was the necessary complement to my soul. How dare the world presume to judge us ? What is convention to us ? Nevertheless, although I really knew that such a love was beautiful and blameless, although from the bottom of my heart I despised the narrow judgement of the world, yet for his sake and for the sake of our Church, I tried at first to resist. I struggled against the fascination he possessed for me. I would never have gone to him and asked his love; I would have struggled on till the end: but what could I do? It was he that came to me, and offered me the wealth of love his beautiful soul possessed. How could I tell to such a nature as his the hideous picture the world would paint? Even as you saw him this evening, he has come to me night by night, - how dare I disturb the sweet purity of his soul by hinting at the horrible suspicions his presence might arouse? I knew what I was doing. I have faced the world and set myself up against it. I have openly scoffed at its dictates. I do not ask you to sympathize with me, nor do I pray you to stay your hand. Your eyes are blinded with a mental cataract. You are bound, bound with those miserable ties that have held you body and soul from the cradle. You must do what you believe to be your duty. In God's eyes we are martyrs, and we shall not shrink even from death in this struggle against the idolatrous worship of convention.'
Ronald Heatherington sank into a chair, hiding his face in his hands, and the rector left the room in silence.
For some minutes the young priest sat with his face buried in his hands. Then with a sigh he rose and crept across the garden till he stood beneath the open window of his darling.
'Wilfred,' he called very softly.
The beautiful face, pale and wet with tears, appeared at the window.
'I want you, my darling; will you come?' he whispered.
'Yes, father,' the boy softly answered.
The priest led him back to his room; then, taking him very gently in his arms, he tried to warm the cold little feet with his hands.
'My darling, it is all over.' And he told him as gently as he could all that lay before them.
The boy hid his face on his shoulder, crying softly.
'Can I do nothing for you, dear father?'
He was silent for a moment. 'Yes, you can die for me; you can die with me.'
The loving arms were about his neck once more, and the warm, loving lips were kissing his own. 'I will do anything for you. O father, let us die together!'
'Yes, my darling, it is best: we will.'
Then very quietly and very tenderly he prepared the little fellow for his death; he heard his last confession and gave him his last absolution. Then they knelt together, hand in hand, before the crucifix.
'Pray for me, my darling.'
Then together their prayers silently ascended that the dear Lord would have pity on the priest who had fallen in the terrible battle of life. There they knelt till midnight, when Ronald took the lad in his arms and carried him to the little chapel.
'I will say Mass for the repose of our souls,' he said.
Over his night-shirt the child arrayed himself in his little scarlet cassock and tiny lace cotta. He covered his naked feet with the scarlet sanctuary shoes; he lighted the tapers and reverently helped the priest to vest. Then before they left the vestry the priest took him in his arms and held him pressed closely to his breast; he stroked the soft hair and whispered cheeringly to him. The child was weeping quietly, his slender frame trembling with the sobs he could scarcely suppress. After a moment the tender embrace soothed him, and he raised his beautiful mouth to the priest's. Their lips were pressed together, and their arms wrapped one another closely.
'Oh, my darling, my own sweet darling!' the priest whispered tenderly.
'We shall be together for ever soon; nothing shall separate us now,' the child said.
'Yes, it is far better so; far better to be together in death than apart in life.'
They knelt before the altar in the silent night, the glimmer of the tapers lighting up the features of the crucifix with strange distinctness. Never had the priest's voice trembled with such wonderful earnestness, never had the acolyte responded with such devotion, as at this midnight Mass for the peace of their own departing souls.
Just before the consecration the priest took a tiny phial from the pocket of his cassock, blessed it, and poured the contents into the chalice.
When the time came for him to receive from the chalice, he raised it to his lips, but did not taste of it.
He administered the sacred wafer to the child, and then he took the beautiful gold chalice, set with precious stones, in his hand; he turned towards him; but when he saw the light in the beautiful face he turned again to the crucifix with a low moan. For one instant his courage failed him; then he turned to the little fellow again, and held the chalice to his lips:
'The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.'
Never had the priest beheld such perfect love, such perfect trust, in those dear eyes as shone from them now; now, as with face raised upwards he received his death from the loving hands of him that he loved best in the whole world.
The instant he had received, Ronald fell on his knees beside him and drained the chalice to the last drop. He set it down and threw his arms round the beautiful figure of his dearly loved acolyte. Their lips met in one last kiss of perfect love, and all was over.
When the sun was rising in the heavens it cast one broad ray upon the altar of the little chapel. The tapers were burning still, scarcely half burnt through. The sad-faced figure of the crucifix hung there in its majestic calm. On the steps of the altar was stretched the long, ascetic frame of the young priest, robed in the sacred vestments; close beside him, with his curly head pillowed on the gorgeous embroideries that covered his breast, lay the beautiful boy in scarlet and lace. Their arms were round each other; a strange hush lay like a shroud over all.
'And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.'
 The words of Oscar Wilde in a letter of December 1894 to Ada Leverson: The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by R. Hart-Davis (London, 1962), p. 379.
 J. Z. Eglinton, “The Later Career of John Francis Bloxam” in the International Journal of Greek Love, II (1966), p. 40.
 Timothy d’Arch Smith, Love in Earnest (London, 1970), p. 56, where several examples are given.
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