The confession came only from Stephen’s lips and, while they spoke the words, a sudden memory had carried him to another scene called up, as if by magic, at the moment when he had noted the faint cruel dimples at the corners of Heron’s smiling lips and had felt the familiar stroke of the cane against his calf and had heard the familiar word of admonition:
It was towards the close of his first term in the college when he was in number six. His sensitive nature was still smarting under the lashes of an undivined and squalid way of life. His soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin. He had emerged from a two years’ spell of revery to find himself in the midst of a new scene, every event and figure of which affected him intimately, disheartened him or allured and, whether alluring or disheartening, filled him always with unrest and bitter thoughts. All the leisure which his school life left him was passed in the company of subversive writers whose jibes and violence of speech set up a ferment in his brain before they passed out of it into his crude writings.
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.