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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Last Rite
By Harold Frederic (1856–1898)
 
From ‘The Damnation of Theron Ware’

WALKING homeward briskly now, with his eyes on the sidewalk, and his mind all aglow with crowding suggestions for the new work and impatience to be at it, Theron Ware came abruptly upon a group of men and boys who occupied the whole path, and were moving forward so noiselessly that he had not heard them coming. He almost ran into the leader of this little procession, and began a stammering apology, the final words of which were left unspoken, so solemnly heedless of him and his talk were all the faces he saw.  1
  In the centre of the group were four workingmen, bearing between them an extemporized litter of two poles and a blanket hastily secured across them with spikes. Most of what this litter held was covered by another blanket, rounded in coarse folds over a shapeless bulk. From beneath its farther end protruded a big broom-like black beard, thrown upward at such an angle as to hide everything beyond those in front. The tall young minister, stepping aside and standing tiptoe, could see sloping downward, behind this hedge of beard, a pinched and chalk-like face, with wide-open, staring eyes. Its lips, of a dull lilac hue, were moving ceaselessly, and made a dry, clicking sound.  2
  Theron instinctively joined himself to those who followed the litter, a motley dozen of street idlers, chiefly boys. One of these in whispers explained to him that the man was one of Jerry Madden’s workmen in the wagon-shops, who had been deployed to trim an elm-tree in front of his employer’s house, and being unused to such work, had fallen from the top and broken all his bones. They would have cared for him at Madden’s house, but he insisted upon being taken home. His name was MacEvoy, and he was Joey MacEvoy’s father, and likewise Jim’s and Hughey’s and Martin’s. After a pause, the lad, a bright-eyed, freckled, barefooted wee Irishman, volunteered the further information that his big brother had run to bring “Father Forbess,” on the chance that he might be in time to administer “extry munction.”  3
  The way of the silent little procession led through back streets,—where women hanging up clothes in the yards hurried to the gates, their aprons full of clothes-pins, to stare open-mouthed at the passers-by,—and came to a halt at last in an irregular and muddy lane, before one of a half-dozen shanties reared among the ash-heaps and débris of the town’s most bedraggled outskirts.  4
  A stout, middle-aged, red-armed woman, already warned by some messenger of calamity, stood waiting on the roadside bank. There were whimpering children clinging to her skirts, and a surrounding cluster of women of the neighborhood; some of the more elderly of whom, shriveled little crones in tidy caps, and with their aprons to their eyes, were beginning in a low-murmured minor the wail which presently should rise into the keen of death. Mrs. MacEvoy herself made no moan, and her broad ruddy face was stern in expression rather than sorrowful. When the litter stopped beside her, she laid a hand for an instant on her husband’s wet brow, and looked—one could have sworn impassively—into his staring eyes. Then, still without a word, she waved the bearers toward the door, and led the way herself.  5
  Theron, somewhat wonderingly, found himself a minute later inside a dark and ill-smelling room, the air of which was humid with the steam from a boiler of clothes on the stove, and not in other ways improved by the presence of a jostling score of women, all straining their gaze upon the open door of the only other apartment, the bedchamber. Through this they could see the workmen laying MacEvoy on the bed, and standing awkwardly about thereafter, getting in the way of the wife and old Maggie Quirk as they strove to remove the garments from his crushed limbs. As the neighbors watched what could be seen of these proceedings, they whispered among themselves eulogies of the injured man’s industry and good temper, his habit of bringing his money home to his wife, and the way he kept his Father Mathew pledge and attended to his religious duties. They admitted freely that by the light of his example, their own husbands and sons left much to be desired; and from this wandered easily off into domestic digressions of their own. But all the while their eyes were bent upon the bedroom door; and Theron made out, after he had grown accustomed to the gloom and the smell, that many of them were telling their beads even while they kept the muttered conversation alive. None of them paid any attention to him, or seemed to regard his presence there as unusual.  6
  Presently he saw enter through the sunlit street doorway a person of a different class. The bright light shone for a passing instant upon a fashionable, flowered hat, and upon some remarkably brilliant shade of red hair beneath it. In another moment there had edged along through the throng, to almost within touch of him, a tall young woman, the owner of this hat and wonderful hair. She was clad in light and pleasing spring attire, and carried a parasol with a long oxidized silver handle of a quaint pattern. She looked at him, and he saw that her face was of a lengthened oval, with a luminous rose-tinted skin, full red lips, and big brown, frank eyes with heavy auburn lashes. She made a grave little inclination of her head toward him, and he bowed in response. Since her arrival, he noted, the chattering of the others had entirely ceased.  7
  “I followed the others in, in the hope that I might be of some assistance,” he ventured to explain to her in a low murmur, feeling that at last here was some one to whom an explanation of his presence in this Romish house was due. “I hope they won’t feel that I have intruded.”  8
  She nodded her head as if she quite understood.  9
  “They’ll take the will for the deed,” she whispered back. “Father Forbes will be here in a minute. Do you know, is it too late?”  10
  Even as she spoke, the outer doorway was darkened by the commanding bulk of a new-comer’s figure. The flash of a silk hat, and the deferential way in which the assembled neighbors fell back to clear a passage, made his identity clear. Theron felt his blood tingle in an unaccustomed way as this priest of a strange Church advanced across the room,—a broad-shouldered, portly man of more than middle height, with a shapely, strong-lined face of almost waxen pallor, and a firm, commanding tread. He carried in his hands, besides his hat, a small leather-bound case. To this and to him the women curtsied and bowed their heads as he passed.  11
  “Come with me,” whispered the tall girl with the parasol, to Theron; and he found himself pushing along in her wake until they intercepted the priest just outside the bedroom door. She touched Father Forbes on the arm.  12
  “Just to tell you that I am here,” she said. The priest nodded with a grave face, and passed into the other room. In a minute or two the workmen, Mrs. MacEvoy, and her helper came out, and the door was shut behind them.  13
  “He is making his confession,” explained the young lady. “Stay here for a minute.”  14
  She moved over to where the woman of the house stood, glum-faced and tearless, and whispered something to her. A confused movement among the crowd followed, and out of it presently resulted a small table, covered with a white cloth, and bearing on it two unlighted candles, a basin of water, and a spoon, which was brought forward and placed in readiness before the closed door. Some of those nearest this cleared space were kneeling now, and murmuring a low buzz of prayer to the click of beads on their rosaries.  15
  The door opened, and Theron saw the priest standing in the doorway with an uplifted hand. He wore now a surplice, with a purple band over his shoulders, and on his pale face there shone a tranquil and tender light.  16
  One of the workmen fetched from the stove a brand, lighted the two candles, and bore the table with its contents into the bedroom. The young woman plucked Theron’s sleeve, and he dumbly followed her into the chamber of death, making one of the group of a dozen, headed by Mrs. MacEvoy and her children, which filled the little room, and overflowed now outward to the street door. He found himself bowing with the others to receive the sprinkled holy water from the priest’s white fingers; kneeling with the others for the prayers; following in impressed silence with the others the strange ceremonial by which the priest traced crosses of holy oil with his thumb upon the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet of the dying man, wiping off the oil with a piece of cotton-batting each time after he had repeated the invocation to forgiveness for that particular sense. But most of all he was moved by the rich, novel sound of the Latin as the priest rolled it forth in the ‘Asperges me, Domine,’ and ‘Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus,’ with its soft Continental vowels and liquid r’s. It seemed to him that he had never really heard Latin before. Then the astonishing young woman with the red hair declaimed the ‘Confiteor’ vigorously and with a resonant distinctness of enunciation. It was a different Latin, harsher and more sonorous; and while it still dominated the murmured undertone of the other’s prayers the last moment came.  17
  Theron had stood face to face with death at many other bed-sides; no other final scene had stirred him like this. It must have been the girl’s Latin chant, with its clanging reiteration of the great names,—‘beatum Michaelem Archangelum,’ ‘beatum Joannem Baptistam,’ ‘sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum,’—invoked with such proud confidence in this squalid little shanty, which so strangely affected him.  18
  He came out with the others at last,—the candles and the folded hands over the crucifix left behind,—and walked as one in a dream. Even by the time that he had gained the outer doorway, and stood blinking at the bright light and filling his lungs with honest air once more, it had begun to seem incredible to him that he had seen and done all this.  19
 
 
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