He is barely fifteen, his beard only just making a tentative appearance in odd places, a teenaged boy with the unique gift of somehow presenting his gangly too-long limbs as earnest rather than foolhardy.
If asked, he’d say he was partaking in a lively discussion. His father -- coming to retrieve him in a few hours and trying his best to temper his frustration with that unique combination of sternness and wisdom that all parents must learn in raising their children -- would use the word “arguing”.
With a priest, no less.
“-- make sense! If God loves His children equally he would not have made it such that some are condemned to sin before they have any say in the matter, I --”
“There is always a choice, René” says Father Antoine, continuing to arrange the candlesticks in his desk drawer, utterly serene. His cassock is rolled up at the elbows, economical, a man with an air about him that suggests he is either completely accustomed to the indignation of the boy in front of the desk or is just the rare sort of person whose gentility cannot be disrupted by anything short of the most cataclysmic of events.
“There isn’t , though!” says René, the exclamation cracking at its very end -- whether through force of delivery or the nature of adolescence or the fact that he has slammed his bruised knuckles onto the desk in an effort to further punctuate his point, it can’t be known.
“And so you decided to hit Pierre across the face this morning,” says Father Antoine, holding up one of the candles as though to inspect it for flaws, “because he claimed that whores and bastards go to Hell.”
“ Yes ,” says René. And then ducks his head, his long fringe falling forward lopsidedly to cover the sudden flush on his cheeks. He doesn’t know himself if it is out of embarrassment or lingering, resurging anger. His mother, perhaps, would know -- she always knew -- but she is not here, now.
His father, though a kind man, rarely knows.
At any rate, René, in the muddled emotion of his young years, could anchor that yes to a great many other statements. He could have said, I should have shoved him for good measure . He could have said, he looked at me like I was nothing, like the slime on his boot . He could -- and perhaps this would have been the strongest anchor of all -- have said, I miss my mother .
(He does not say any of these things.)
“Hm,” says Father Antoine, narrowing his eyes at the candle in his hand.
“I mean --” René continues, shaking his head as though to dispel his own errant emotions (an act of dubious success) “-- no , he was being cruel to the younger children anyway, I only thought that he --”
“Deserved it?” asks Father Antoine patiently. He taps the candle with one work-roughened finger and tuts disapprovingly. “There is a crack along the edge of this candle. This will not do at all, I think.”
“Father Antoine, please --”
“God decides who deserves what, René.” The old man places the offending candle neatly aligned on the corner of the desk and finally looks up. “That is His place, not yours or mine.”
“But you said --”
“That people always have a choice, yes. And that they will be judged for their choices.”
“By the Church,” says René, voice catching in a way that suggests he himself is not sure of why and how the hint of bitterness inserted itself into his throat. His eyebrows crease, but he does not apologize, rather tugs impulsively at the sleeves of his shirt and, after a moment's impatient bouncing on the soles of his boots, trails after Father Antoine as the older man takes his leave of the room. Where Father Antoine’s footsteps are quiet on the stone, René’s are echoing, stuttering where he nearly trips over a bench in an effort to overtake the priest. “Isn’t that unfair, though?” he asks, finally whirling around to stop Antoine’s retreat, face flushed high on the cheekbones with the unique mix of uncertainty and righteousness that only young people can carry. “That people are -- are derided and hated by others when the decision is God’s? Even if the Church can condemn them, that doesn’t give others the right --”
“The right?” Father Antoine sounds amused. “What an interesting word, my dear boy.”
“You know what I mean,” says René, one hand running through his hair impulsively. The ends of it stick up haphazardly into the air, dark curls flying in all different directions and reflecting his agitation with wonderful irony. “My point is, a God who is loving would not want --”
“Ah-ah-ah.” Father Antoine clasps his hands in front of his belt, and smiles very slightly when René’s intense expression falters at the interruption. “Therein lies your problem, René.”
“You presume that you know what God wants.” Antoine raises an eyebrow. “A rather grandiose assumption, don’t you think?”
Father Antoine watches as René’s face falls almost comically, any trace of argumentativeness coming to a screeching halt.
“I --” A frown, now, the underlids of his eyes twitching but not narrowing. “I don’t --”
“There, you see. You presume, as Pierre does, that you speak for something much larger than yourself. Pierre’s comments were rude and untoward, and --” and here, a pause, such that it becomes clear Father Antoine knows exactly why René had hit the boy but is too tactful to address it. “He must be chastised accordingly,” finishes Antoine. “However. You must think to yourself, René. Why do you assume to know what God would want?”
René is frowning at his hands, which are once more fiddling -- now with the clasp of his braces. He makes as thought to start speaking again -- once, twice, and then finally:
“If I -- if I didn’t , then how could I possibly live -- how could I know what is right and what is not?” He is frowning in earnest, now, a lock of his hair having fallen impetuously over his left eyebrow.
“How could you, indeed,” says Father Antoine, suddenly somewhat brusque. “Most people would trust the Church.”
“But --” starts René again, shoulders hunching forwards in the very minute fashion of a person who is about to vault right back into an argument that they were forced to drop unceremoniously.
“ You , however, are not most people, as I am sure your father has lamented many times over.” René opens his mouth in the tell-tale gesture of a child defending himself and Antoine ploughs smoothly over him, unfaltering. “Tell me, dear boy, you know how to read?”
René blinks. “I -- yes, the, the basics, I can --”
“Good. You must do better than basics. What do you read?”
“I don’t -- I don’t know.”
“Hm,” says Father Antoine. “And mathematics? History? What can you tell me about the lives of the saints?”
“I can’t,” says René, a kind of wonderment coating his stuttering confession, the tension in his shoulders loosening slightly. “Father, what --”
Abruptly, Father Antoine turns and starts going back the way he came, the efficiency of an old man who has not known a day’s idleness in his step. René stands, motionless for but a moment, before he seems to register that Antoine is already halfway down the hall.
“Wait! Wait -- Father --”
“You have been blessed with the opportunity and ability of literacy,” says Antoine, voice raised and businesslike, as he continues his striding gait to his cell. “These gifts are not given to be wasted.” He arrives at his desk, one sleeve slipping down to his wrist as he pulls the drawers open and starts rummaging. Sunlight is streaming in from the small window in the corner, high up on the wall, and it casts a shadow behind the old priest that hovers beside René, following Antoine’s every move. “If you want answers, you use the eyes God gave you and seek them out yourself.”
The old man turns back, holding a small object in his hands.
“God helps those who help themselves,” says Father Antoine, in a way that suggests the conversation is over. “You want to know how one learns what God wants?”
“ Yes ,” says René. “But I don’t understand --”
“You read His word,” says Antoine, taking René’s wrist in a firm grip, and with his other hand presses a small, leather-bound book into the boy’s hand. “And you use your wits and heart to make sense of it.” He sighs, shakes his head slightly, the corners of his lips finally softening and twitching with a faint colouring of amusement. “God Himself knows that you’re never going to just take the word of an old man like me on these things, let alone some bishop you’ve never met in your life.” He huffs. “Foolish boy.”
René looks down at the book in his hands, his fingers tracing the tiny gold cross embossed on the front. He blinks a few times; a lesser man than Father Antoine might mistake the spark of light in his eyes as a trick of the sunlight. Father Antoine is not a lesser man.
“How -- how many times -- when do I have to give it back?”
“Give it back?” Antoine releases René’s wrist and uses his newly free fingers to flick the boy’s ear, tutting once more when he twitches and splutters. “One does not return gifts, Monsieur d’Herblay.”
His eyes go wide.
“God helps those who help themselves,” repeats Father Antoine. “Now, as I am under no illusions as to whether or not you’ll be apologizing to Pierre for the nasty bruise on his cheek, you’re going to be helping me empty the chamber pots until your father arrives. And reciting three hail marys before bed tonight.” He pauses, cocks his head. “I am assuming you have no objections to this?”
“Hm?” René looks up, tearing his eyes away from the little book. “Oh, I -- I’d promised I’d help Mademoiselle Chevreuse with her father’s new mare, but I can -- I can tell her I’ll have to, to stay here.” He frowns slightly, and looks back down at the book, like he’s not sure which promise he is more eager to attend to.
Father Antoine sighs.
“And I assume that the lovely Isobelle’s father knows you promised to help with this horse?”
René flushes once more, now for a very different reason, fingers jumping from the Bible in his hands to scratch at the back of his neck. “He won’t mind. It’s only a horse.”
“ Only a horse ,” repeats Father Antoine. “I see. One other thing, dear boy -- learn to control your emotions, perhaps. You’re as transparent as those brand new windowpanes the grand cathedral at Paris is rumored to have purchased. With funds from Rome , no doubt. A place of God must be modest, not eye-pleasing.”
René’s head ducks down again, fingers now scratching behind his ear, and then -- he inhales, sharply, like he’s about to say something that would likely not be said if he stopped to give himself time to think.
“My mother used to say I was like my father.”
Father Antoine regards him for a moment, head cocked.
“Hm,” he says, finally. “Your father tries his best, as all good parents should, I think. And you must learn to properly smother your temper.” He makes to leave the room, shoulders straight and sleeves once more even. “Mildness and grace, René, that is what we must comport ourselves with. I can tell you if there’s anything God would like to see , it’s that. What He wants is another matter entirely.” He reaches the door and sighs, tapping his knuckles against the doorframe. “Shall we start with the cells on the far right of the building, then?”
“Mildness and grace,” repeats René, as though to himself. “Father Antoine --”
“No more questions until you have read through that book at least once, yes?”
“No, I only meant --” Father Antoine turns to offer René an amused smile that René barely sees, as in barely the blink of an eye Antoine finds himself in an abrupt and lanky embrace. “Thanks,” says the boy, muffled into the hood of the old priest’s cassock.
René does not see Father Antoine turn his eyes skyward, almost knowingly, but he does it all the same.