A Sick Call by Morley Callaghan
Because it features a marriage outside of the Church, this story is for a more mature, discerning reader. Recommended for 11th and 12th grade students.
In this story, a priest admires the noble qualities of an anti-Catholic man’s love for his wife, but knows that the power to save has been given only to the Church. This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
Sometimes Father Macdowell mumbled out loud and took a deep wheezy breath as he walked up and down the room and read his office. He was a huge old priest, white-headed except for a shiny baby-pink bald spot on the top of his head, and he was a bit deaf in one ear. His florid face had many fine red interlacing vein lines. For hours he had been hearing confessions and he was tired, for he always had to hear more confessions than any other priest at the cathedral; young girls who were in trouble, and wild but at times repentant young men, always wanted to tell their confessions to Father Macdowell, because nothing seemed to shock or excite him, or make him really angry, and he was even tender with those who thought they were most guilty.
While he was mumbling and reading and trying to keep his glasses on his nose, the house girl knocked on the door and said, “There’s a young lady here to see you, Father. I think it’s about a sick call.”
“Did she ask for me especially?” he said in a deep but slightly cracked voice. “Indeed she did, Father. She wanted Father Macdowell and nobody else.”
So he went out to the waiting room, where a girl about thirty years of age, with fine brown eyes, fine cheek bones, and rather square shoulders, was sitting daubing her eyes with a handkerchief. She was wearing a dark coat with a gray wolf collar. “Good evening, Father,” she said. “My sister is sick. I wanted you to come and see her. We think she’s dying.”
“Be easy, child; what’s the matter with her? Speak louder. I can hardly hear you.”
“My sister’s had pneumonia. The doctor’s coming back to see her in an hour. I wanted you to anoint her, Father.”
“I see, I see. But she’s not lost yet. I’ll not give her extreme unction now. That may not be necessary. I’ll go with you and hear her confession.”
“Father, I ought to let you know, maybe. Her husband won’t want to let you see her. He’s not a Catholic, and my sister hasn’t been to church in a long time.”
“Oh, don’t mind that. He’ll let me see her,” Father Macdowell said, and he left the room to put on his hat and coat.
When he returned, the girl explained that her name was Jane Stanhope, and her sister lived only a few blocks away. “We’ll walk and you tell me about your sister,” he said. He put his black hat square on the top of his head, and pieces of white hair stuck out awkwardly at the sides. They went to the avenue together.
The night was mild and clear. Miss Stanhope began to walk slowly, because Father Macdowell’s rolling gait didn’t get him along the street very quickly. He walked as if his feet hurt him, though he wore a pair of large, soft, specially constructed shapeless shoes. “Now, my child, you go ahead and tell me about your sister,” he said, breathing with difficulty, yet giving the impression that nothing could have happened to the sister which would make him feel indignant.
There wasn’t much to say, Miss Stanhope replied. Her sister had married John Williams two years ago, and he was a good, hard-working fellow, only he was very bigoted and hated all church people. “My family wouldn’t have anything to do with Elsa after she married him, though I kept going to see her,” she said. She was talking in a loud voice to Father Macdowell so he could hear her.
“Is she happy with her husband?”
“She’s been very happy, Father. I must say that.” “Where is he now?”
“He was sitting beside her bed. I ran out because I thought he was going to cry. He said if I brought a priest near the place he’d break the priest’s head.”
“My goodness. Never mind, though. Does your sister want to see me?”
“She asked me to go and get a priest, but she doesn’t want John to know she did it.”
Turning into a side street, they stopped at the first apartment house, and the old priest followed Miss Stanhope up the stairs. His breath came with great difficulty. “Oh dear, I’m not getting any younger, not one day younger. It’s a caution how a man’s legs go back on him,” he said. As Miss Stanhope rapped on the door, she looked pleadingly at the old priest, trying to ask him not to be offended at anything that might happen, but he was smiling and looking huge in the narrow hallway. He wiped his head with his handkerchief.
The door was opened by a young man in a white shirt with no collar, with a head of thick black wavy hair. At first he looked dazed, then his eyes got bright with excitement when he saw the priest, as though he were glad to see someone he could destroy with pent-up energy. “What do you mean, Jane?” he said. “I told you not to bring a priest around here. My wife doesn’t want to see a priest.”
“What’s that you’re saying, young man?” “No one wants you here.”
“Speak up. Don’t be afraid. I’m a bit hard of hearing.” Father Macdowell smiled rosily. John Williams was confused by the unexpected deafness in the priest, but he stood there, blocking the door with sullen resolution as if waiting for the priest to try to launch a curse at him.
“Speak to him, Father,” Miss Stanhope said, but the priest didn’t seem to hear her; he was still smiling as he pushed past the young man, saying, “I’ll go in and sit down, if you don’t mind, son. I’m here on God’s errand, but I don’t mind saying I’m all out of breath from climbing those stairs.”
John was dreadfully uneasy to see he had been brushed aside, and he followed the priest into the apartment and said loudly, “I don’t want you here.”
Father Macdowell said, “Eh, eh?” Then he smiled sadly. “Don’t be angry with me, son,” he said. “I’m too old to try and be fierce and threatening.” Looking around, he said, “Where’s your wife?” and he started to walk along the hall, looking for the bedroom.
John followed him and took hold of his arm. “There’s no sense in your wasting your time talking to my wife, do you hear?” he said angrily.
Miss Stanhope called out suddenly, “Don’t be rude, John.” “It’s he that’s being rude. You mind your business,” John said.
“For the love of God let me sit down a moment with her, anyway. I’m tired,” the priest said. “What do you want to say to her? Say it to me, why don’t you?”
Then they both heard someone moan softly in the adjoining room, as if the sick woman had heard them. Father Macdowell, forgetting that the young man had hold of his arm, said, “I’ll go in and see her for a moment, if you don’t mind,” and he began to open the door.
“You’re not going to be alone with her, that’s all,” John said, following him into the bedroom.
Lying on the bed was a white-faced, fair girl, whose skin was so delicate that her cheek bones stood out sharply. She was feverish, but her eyes rolled toward the door, and she watched them coming in. Father Macdowell took off his coat, and as he mumbled to himself he looked around the room at the mauve-silk bed and the light wall-paper with the tiny birds in flight. It looked like a little girl’s room. “Good evening, Father,” Mrs. Williams whispered. She looked scared. She didn’t glance at her husband. The notion of dying had made her afraid. She loved her husband and wanted to die loving him, but she was afraid, and she looked up at the priest.
“You’re going to get well, child,” Father Macdowell said, smiling and patting her hand gently.
John, who was standing stiffly by the door, suddenly moved around the big priest, and he bent down over the bed and took his wife’s hand and began to caress her forehead.
“Now, if you don’t mind, my son, I’ll hear your wife’s confession,” the priest said.
“No, you won’t,” John said abruptly. “Her people didn’t want her, and they left us together, and they’re not going to separate us now. She’s satisfied with me.” He kept looking down at her face as if he could not bear to turn away.
Father Macdowell nodded his head up and down and sighed. “Poor boy,” he said. “God bless you.” Then he looked at Mrs. Williams, who had closed her eyes, and he saw a faint tear on her cheek. “Be sensible, my boy,” he said. “You’ll have to let me hear your wife’s confession. Leave us alone awhile.”
“I’m going to stay right here,” John said, and he sat down on the end of the bed. He was working himself up and staring savagely at the priest. All of a sudden he noticed the tears on his wife’s cheeks, and he muttered as though bewildered, “What’s the matter, Elsa? What’s the matter, darling? Are we bothering you? Just open your eyes and we’ll go out of the room and leave you alone till the doctor comes.” Then he turned and said to the priest, “I’m not going to leave you here with her, can’t you see that? Why don’t you go?”
“I could revile you, my son. I could threaten you; but I ask you, for the peace of your wife’s soul, leave us alone.”
Father Macdowell spoke with patient tenderness. He looked very big and solid and immovable as he stood by the bed. “I liked your face as soon as I saw you,” he said to John. “You’re a good fellow.”
John still held his wife’s wrist, but he rubbed one hand through his thick hair and said angrily, “You don’t get the point, sir. My wife and I were always left alone, and we merely want to be left alone now. Nothing is going to separate us. She’s been content with me. I’m sorry, sir; you’ll have to speak to her with me here, or you’ll have to go.”
“No; you’ll have to go for a while,” the priest said patiently.
Then Mrs. Williams moved her head on the pillow and said jerkily, “Pray for me, Father.”
So the old priest knelt down by the bed, and with a sweet unruffled expression on his florid face he began to pray. At times his breath came with a whistling noise as though a rumbling were inside him, and at other times he sighed and was full of sorrow. He was praying that young Mrs. Williams might get better, and while he prayed he knew that her husband was more afraid of losing her to the Church than losing her to death.
All the time Father Macdowell was on his knees, with his heavy prayer book in his two hands, John kept staring at him. John couldn’t understand the old priest’s patience and tolerance. He wanted to quarrel with him, but he kept on watching the light from overhead shining on the one baby-pink bald spot on the smooth white head, and at last he burst out, “You don’t understand, sir! We’ve been very happy together. Neither you nor her people came near her when she was in good health, so why should you bother her now? I don’t want anything to separate us now; neither does she. She came with me. You see you’d be separating us, don’t you?” He was trying to talk like a reasonable man who had no prejudices.
Father Macdowell got up clumsily. His knees hurt him, for the floor was hard. He said to Mrs. Williams in quite a loud voice, “Did you really intend to give up everything for this young fellow?” and he bent down close to her so he could hear.
“Yes, Father,” she whispered.
“In Heaven’s name, child, you couldn’t have known what you were doing.” “We loved each other, Father. We’ve been very happy.”
“All right. Supposing you were. What now? What about all eternity, child?”
“Oh, Father, I’m very sick and I’m afraid.” She looked up to try to show him how scared she was, and how much she wanted him to give her peace.
He sighed and seemed distressed, and at last he said to John, “Were you married in the church?”
“No, we weren’t. Look here, we’re talking pretty loud and it upsets her.”
“Ah, it’s a crime that I’m hard of hearing, I know. Never mind, I’ll go.” Picking up his coat, he put it over his arm; then he sighed as if he were very tired, and he said, “I wonder if you’d just fetch me a glass of water. I’d thank you for it.”
John hesitated, glancing at the tired old priest, who looked so pink and white and almost cherubic in his utter lack of guile.
“What’s the matter?” Father Macdowell said.
John was ashamed of himself for appearing so sullen, so he said hastily, “Nothing’s the matter. Just a moment. I won’t be a moment.” He hurried out of the room.
The old priest looked down at the floor and shook his head; and then, sighing and feeling uneasy, he bent over Mrs. Williams, with his good ear down to her, and he said, “I’ll just ask you a few questions in a hurry, my child. You answer them quickly and I’ll give you absolution.” He made the sign of the cross over her and asked if she repented for having strayed from the Church, and if she had often been angry, and whether she had always been faithful, and if she had ever lied or stolen—all so casually and quickly as if it hadn’t occurred to him that such a young woman could have serious sins. In the same breath he muttered, “Say a good act of contrition to yourself and that will be all, my dear.” He had hardly taken a minute.
When John returned to the room with the glass of water in his hand, he saw the old priest making the sign of the cross. Father Macdowell went on praying without even looking up at John. When he had finished, he turned and said, “Oh, there you are. Thanks for the water. I needed it. Well, my boy, I’m sorry if I worried you.”
John hardly said anything. He looked at his wife, who had closed her eyes, and he sat down on the end of the bed. He was too disappointed to speak.
Father Macdowell, who was expecting trouble, said, “Don’t be harsh, lad.”
“I’m not harsh,” he said mildly, looking up at the priest. “But you weren’t quite fair. And it’s as though she turned away from me at the last moment. I didn’t think she needed you.”
“God bless you, bless the both of you. She’ll get better,” Father Macdowell said. But he felt ill at ease as he put on his coat, and he couldn’t look directly at John.
Going along the hall, he spoke to Miss Stanhope, who wanted to apologize for her brother-in-law’s attitude. “I’m sorry if it was unpleasant for you, Father,” she said.
“It wasn’t unpleasant,” he said. “I was glad to meet John. He’s a fine fellow. It’s a great pity he isn’t a Catholic. I don’t know as I played fair with him.”
As he went down the stairs, puffing and sighing, he pondered the question of whether he had played fair with the young man. But by the time he reached the street he was rejoicing amiably to think he had so successfully ministered to one who had strayed from the faith and had called out to him at the last moment.
Walking along with the rolling motion as if his feet hurt him, he muttered, “Of course they were happy as they were . . . in a worldly way. I wonder if I did come between them?”
He shuffled along, feeling very tired, but he couldn’t help thinking, “What beauty there was to his staunch love for her!” Then he added quickly, “But it was just a pagan beauty, of course.”
As he began to wonder about the nature of this beauty, for some reason he felt inexpressibly sad.