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: