The essay was for him the chief labour of his week and every Tuesday, as he marched from home to the school, he read his fate in the incidents of the way, pitting himself against some figure ahead of him and quickening his pace to outstrip it before a certain goal was reached or planting his steps scrupulously in the spaces of the patchwork of the pathway and telling himself that he would be first and not first in the weekly essay.
On a certain Tuesday the course of his triumphs was rudely broken. Mr Tate, the English master, pointed his finger at him and said bluntly:
— This fellow has heresy in his essay.
A hush fell on the class. Mr Tate did not break it but dug with his hand between his thighs while his heavily starched linen creaked about his neck and wrists. Stephen did not look up. It was a raw spring morning and his eyes were still smarting and weak. He was conscious of failure and of detection, of the squalor of his own mind and home, and felt against his neck the raw edge of his turned and jagged collar.
A short loud laugh from Mr Tate set the class more at ease.
— Perhaps you didn't know that, he said.
— Where? asked Stephen.
Mr Tate withdrew his delving hand and spread out the essay.
— Here. It's about the Creator and the soul. Rrm . . . rrm . . . rrm . . . Ah! WITHOUT A POSSIBILITY OF EVER APPROACHING NEARER. That's heresy.
— I meant WITHOUT A POSSIBILITY OF EVER REACHING.
It was a submission and Mr Tate, appeased, folded up the essay and passed it across to him, saying:
— O . . . Ah! EVER REACHING. That's another story.
But the class was not so soon appeased. Though nobody spoke to him of the affair after class he could feel about him a vague general malignant joy.
A few nights after this public chiding he was walking with a letter along the Drumcondra Road when he heard a voice cry:
He turned and saw three boys of his own class coming towards him in the dusk. It was Heron who had called out and, as he marched forward between his two attendants, he cleft the air before him with a thin cane in time to their steps. Boland, his friend, marched beside him, a large grin on his face, while Nash came on a few steps behind, blowing from the pace and wagging his great red head.
As soon as the boys had turned into Clonliffe Road together they began to speak about books and writers, saying what books they were reading and how many books there were in their fathers' bookcases at home. Stephen listened to them in some wonderment for Boland was the dunce and Nash the idler of the class. In fact, after some talk about their favourite writers, Nash declared for Captain Marryat who, he said, was the greatest writer.
— Fudge! said Heron. Ask Dedalus. Who is the greatest writer, Dedalus?
Stephen noted the mockery in the question and said:
— Of prose do you mean?
— Newman, I think.
— Is it Cardinal Newman? asked Boland.
— Yes, answered Stephen.
The grin broadened on Nash's freckled face as he turned to Stephen and said:
— And do you like Cardinal Newman, Dedalus?
— O, many say that Newman has the best prose style, Heron said to the other two in explanation, of course he's not a poet.
— And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.
— Lord Tennyson, of course, answered Heron.
— O, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.
At this Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:
— Tennyson a poet! Why, he's only a rhymester!
— O, get out! said Heron. Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.
— And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.
— Byron, of course, answered Stephen.
Heron gave the lead and all three joined in a scornful laugh.
— What are you laughing at? asked Stephen.
— You, said Heron. Byron the greatest poet! He's only a poet for uneducated people.
— He must be a fine poet! said Boland.
— You may keep your mouth shut, said Stephen, turning on him boldly. All you know about poetry is what you wrote up on the slates in the yard and were going to be sent to the loft for.
Boland, in fact, was said to have written on the slates in the yard a couplet about a classmate of his who often rode home from the college on a pony:
As Tyson was riding into Jerusalem He fell and hurt his Alec Kafoozelum.
This thrust put the two lieutenants to silence but Heron went on:
— In any case Byron was a heretic and immoral too.
— I don't care what he was, cried Stephen hotly.
— You don't care whether he was a heretic or not? said Nash.
— What do you know about it? shouted Stephen. You never read a line of anything in your life except a trans, or Boland either.
— I know that Byron was a bad man, said Boland.
— Here, catch hold of this heretic, Heron called out. In a moment Stephen was a prisoner.
— Tate made you buck up the other day, Heron went on, about the heresy in your essay.
— I'll tell him tomorrow, said Boland.
— Will you? said Stephen. You'd be afraid to open your lips.
— Ay. Afraid of your life.
— Behave yourself! cried Heron, cutting at Stephen's legs with his cane.
It was the signal for their onset. Nash pinioned his arms behind while Boland seized a long cabbage stump which was lying in the gutter. Struggling and kicking under the cuts of the cane and the blows of the knotty stump Stephen was borne back against a barbed wire fence.
— Admit that Byron was no good.
— No. No.
At last after a fury of plunges he wrenched himself free. His tormentors set off towards Jones's Road, laughing and jeering at him, while he, half blinded with tears, stumbled on, clenching his fists madly and sobbing.
While he was still repeating the CONFITEOR amid the indulgent laughter of his hearers and while the scenes of that malignant episode were still passing sharply and swiftly before his mind he wondered why he bore no malice now to those who had tormented him. He had not forgotten a whit of their cowardice and cruelty but the memory of it called forth no anger from him. All the descriptions of fierce love and hatred which he had met in books had seemed to him therefore unreal. Even that night as he stumbled homewards along Jones's Road he had felt that some power was divesting him of that sudden-woven anger as easily as a fruit is divested of its soft ripe peel.
He remained standing with his two companions at the end of the shed listening idly to their talk or to the bursts of applause in the theatre. She was sitting there among the others perhaps waiting for him to appear. He tried to recall her appearance but could not. He could remember only that she had worn a shawl about her head like a cowl and that her dark eyes had invited and unnerved him. He wondered had he been in her thoughts as she had been in his. Then in the dark and unseen by the other two he rested the tips of the fingers of one hand upon the palm of the other hand, scarcely touching it lightly. But the pressure of her fingers had been lighter and steadier: and suddenly the memory of their touch traversed his brain and body like an invisible wave.