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A Gentle Murderer
By Dorothy Salisbury Davis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1951 Dorothy Salisbury Davis
All rights reserved.
"BLESS ME, FATHER, FOR I have sinned ..."
Father Duffy had heard the phrase over and over again that night, for it was Saturday and he was assistant pastor of St. Timothy's, one of the largest parishes in Manhattan. He had heard small voices whisper of disobedience, untruths and petty thefts, older voices stumbling in their quest for delicate ways to phrase indelicate sins ... lust, drunkenness, cruelty and sloth; and he had listened to the urgent rasp of the aged, repeating sins long since forgiven but well remembered by the sinner whose each accounting might be his last. Some had come on tiptoe, some in bold clicking heels and some in measured shuffling from the last pew in the church, where even now they would be sitting like Lazarus, repeating their unworthiness.
It was after nine o'clock and neither side of the confessional was occupied. The priest sat in the semi-darkness, his body stiff and aching, with his hand on his breviary. He was waiting for perhaps one tardy penitent, as a child watches for one last drop from a turned-off faucet. He smiled at himself for the stubbornness that kept him waiting there, sweat-soaked, for just one more. That was greed of a sort. Through the open window above him the August heat rolled in like a fat old man, and settled with him in the cubicle. It brought the smell of dust, bus exhaust, frankfurters and tobacco smoke. He would have liked a cigarette ... ten minutes more. He held his watch to the dim, curtained light: nine twenty-three. In a brief hush in the flow of traffic down Ninth Avenue someone called, "Good night, Father."
That would be to Father Gonzales, another assistant. His stole laid away for the night, Gonzales would be standing a moment on the church steps before going around to the rectory for sandwiches and a cold drink. A wave of street traffic muffled the voices. Father Duffy felt the ribbon in his breviary and opened the book, still without turning on the light although he had yet a half-hour's reading to finish his office of the day.
Why should he wait like this? Why should he wait in the darkness? A thousand priests had confessed a hundred thousand sinners that night, and in the morning as many more as needed would be confessed. And even now, for as many as confessed ... he heard a roar of drunken laughter somewhere, a woman's giggle, a police siren, the smashing of a bottle ... "Father ..."
He was startled at the voice, having heard no sound near him, nor noticed any light as the curtain parted. He glanced at the face beyond the screen, thinking he might have imagined the voice, weary as he was. He averted his eyes immediately. But in the darkness beneath him he could still see the outline of the face. As his imagination held it, the facial contours were like the negative of a film in which the lines are so exaggerated as to suggest great suffering. And yet the wide eyes were full of calm, he thought. The penitent was there, having won a great struggle with himself. He was a young man, and the small, worn face reminded Father Duffy of pictures of St. Francis. He was reminded also of boys he had seen in the war after their first experience under fire ... boys no longer ... all this in the instant while he drew the panel across the empty section and made the sign of the cross.
"Father, I think I've done a terrible thing. I always wanted to do something good in my life, always, and it's never worked out that way. I wanted to be a priest. I didn't want to and I did want to ... my mother saved ..."
He spoke a little above a whisper, calmly for the first few words and then with mounting excitement. Father Duffy did not look up. He nodded his head slowly to quiet and encourage the distraught man.
"Father, I think I've killed someone. I wanted to die myself. But I committed murder instead. I wanted to do some good. I tried. I went up there—Father, are you listening?"
Again he nodded, trying to do it more slowly, no more than half-time to his heartbeat. Without articulating the prayer, the priest craved wisdom from heaven.
"I was always welcome up there, Father. All I had to do was let her know I was there if she was home. She was kind to me. Now I think she tried. I took a hammer with me. My mother gave me a hammer for my tenth birthday. It was the only present she ever gave me. St. Joseph was a carpenter, she said. I had the hammer, and when she said 'why?' I couldn't remember why. That's something I always wanted to know myself. Why? Why couldn't I? Why didn't anyone care? Why didn't anybody pay attention? Why? Why? They could have. I didn't run away. Now I remember why I took the hammer—her windows always stuck this time of year. It's so hot ... You don't believe me, do you, Father? No. I can see you don't ..."
From a humble, pathetic outpouring, the tone was changing to something close to abuse. "If you don't believe me ..." The voice hesitated again.
Out of an inspired discretion, Father Duffy said almost matter-of-factly, "How long is it since your last confession?"
There was a long moment's silence and Father Duffy anchored his chin upon his breast that his reflexes might not betray him into a sudden startling move.
"Oh, Father, when I was a child ... Father McGohey gave me a prayerbook for my first Communion. Then he took it away because I was fighting, he said. But I'll tell you the truth, Father. I always knew he didn't take it away because I was fighting. He took it away because I lost the fight. Then my mother gave me the hammer. I wanted one with claws. She knew it. She had to give me one with two heads. I couldn't take out nails if I made a mistake. I had to smash things ... full of blood and hair. I washed it in the sink. The funny thing then, Father—I felt clean then, too. I never felt so clean before. I walked out without even looking back to see her ..."
Somewhere near by a siren sounded ... police, fire, ambulance ... Father Duffy could not tell. The man beside him heard it, too. The priest could hear him suck in his breath through his teeth.
"They're coming for me, Father. Only I don't want them to come for me. It's not that I'm afraid. I just want to walk in to them myself. I want to hang on just once. I want to be clean just once. I dreamed I was right up to my neck in slime once. It was all stinking and I kept trying to keep my mouth clean but it kept sucking me in. That's what the world's like if you let yourself get dirty once ..."
The breviary slipped from the priest's sweating hand. He let it go. Gratefully he felt it fall on his leg and slide down his cassock noiselessly.
"I thought if I could just keep my mouth clean I wouldn't dirty anything kissing it. But I couldn't even kiss the crucifix. I knew I couldn't ever touch anything again without getting the slime all over it ..."
The sirened car roared past the church, its wail sloughing off. Again the man's voice changed, calmer now.
"I can make it now, Father. There's still time. How much time we're given in this world and how little to do with it that we really have to do! I had to commit murder to finally have something important to do with this half-hour. Sometimes I watch people with briefcases and suitcases fighting for taxis. That's a sin, too. How jealous I am of them—only I'm not jealous of them for taking taxis. It's just being important, having to be some place in such a hurry and somebody waiting for them. Father, absolve me, please, and let me hurry. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I confess to Almighty God, and to you, Father, that I have sinned ..."
He had begun the routine of confession as he had learned it from the catechism as a boy. While the words of the confiteor flowed out by rote, Father Duffy strove in his own mind for the words that he would say to this man. How often he had striven to give each penitent a bit of guidance that would be especially his, that would give him hope and confidence that he could go and sin no more ... To say to this man, "Go and sin no more ..."
"... May the almighty and merciful God grant me pardon, absolution and full remission of my sins. Amen."
Father Duffy moistened his lips. "There is penance you will do according to the laws of society beyond any I should give you," he said slowly, sickening at his own inadequacy—the pompous, hollow words ... "You are going to the police now?"
When he received no answer, he glanced at the man to see him nodding that he would. His eyes were streaming with tears. If he was sane, his soul was racked with remorse, the priest thought. Sane or insane, he was suffering and had suffered. But so also had his victim ...
"God give you courage," the priest said, "and me wisdom. I know you are aware how grave your sin is. You are truly sorry before God?"
"Father, I'm sorry that she suffered, that I made her suffer. I'm not sorry she died. There's nothing dies but something lives. Don't you see, I'm confessing everything that made me do this ..."
"But you have blamed yourself for murder ..."
"You're mixed up, Father, and I haven't got time to straighten you out ..."
"There is time."
"No. There isn't. Just this once there isn't. If you'd asked me yesterday, I'd have explained it all to you. Father, bless me. I'm going now."
"God give you courage," the priest repeated, for the man was already on his feet, his hands on the ledge of the window between them. "If you want me to, I'll go with you, and you can explain it on the way."
"You'd spoil everything by coming with me. Don't you see? I've got to walk in there and say: 'Here I am.' Have you given me absolution, Father?"
"I'll give you conditional absolution. I'll visit you."
The man had the curtain parted now. The pale light from one high chandelier silhouetted his frail shape, and for an instant Father Duffy saw something else; he was still carrying the hammer.
"I'll offer my Mass in the morning ..." the priest called out.
"You wouldn't even tell me to go in peace. And you were right, Father. It wouldn't do any good. There isn't any peace on earth. Especially for men of good will, there's no peace."
When the curtain dropped from the man's hand, it left the priest in darkness. And he had never known a darkness more profound.CHAPTER 2
WHEN FATHER DUFFY LEFT the confessional, only two people remained in the church, one of whom he knew to be blind, Mrs. Callahan. Every Saturday night she was the last one out of the church. Her son guided her to the next to the last pew early in the evening and then went down to O'Reilly's Bar and Grill to pass the time until she was ready to go home. More than once Father Duffy had guided her along Sixty-third Street himself, and then up four flights to the small apartment she kept as neat as a match box, for all her blindness.
"Mind, it's not that he forgets me, Father," she would say. "It's just that he forgets the time."
The other occupant of the church was a younger woman who, as the priest went down the aisle, got up, genuflected and left. He did not recognize her and decided she had probably been walking down Ninth Avenue, and, passing the church, stopped in for a visit. As he heard the great door swing closed behind her, he stopped. Somewhere not far from there was the man with the hammer. The priest looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to ten. At most the man was no more than a few minutes away. Suppose he had lost his resolve to go to the police? By now he might be afraid of betrayal. Suppose she had looked up at him, or that he had thought she had looked up at him? Father Duffy lifted his cassock in his haste to follow her into the street. He slowed his pace on the church steps. The girl was talking with a young man who had obviously waited outside the church for her. They walked off, arm in arm.
"Well, Father, do you think the old lady's got enough of them out of purgatory to suit her for one night?"
It was Mrs. Callahan's son. The smell of beer was heavy on him.
"Well, she's got you out of O'Reilly's at least," the priest said. "Good night, Tom."
Inside the church again, he walked its length uneasily. Had he left the confessional at the same time Father Gonzales had left his, where would the man have gone? Directly to the police? Had he picked the church at random? Had he done his terrible deed in the vicinity? The priest laid his stole away and extinguished the church lights. He knelt a moment at the altar and then went down the darkened aisle and locked the doors. It was after ten when he set the lock in the side door by the sacristy and let it slide closed behind him.
A heavy breeze seeped up from the south, dank with the smell of fish and the sea. What oppressed him most was the conviction that the man was sincere in his confession, or at least in his intention—that he was aware of guilt and the need for retribution. It placed the priest under the seal of confession. He could not break it before his conscience. Nor was he expected under law to divulge his information—not even if justice or a human life depended on it. Whatever anxiety tortured the little man who trudged the streets of New York with a hammer in his hand at that hour, it was no greater than the burden of it he had placed on Father Duffy.
In his room he finished reading his office distractedly. He was sensitive to every sound of the city—the screeching brakes, running feet, a shout, a crying child, the rectory doorbell, Father Gonzales's footsteps on the stair and past his door, Monsignor Brady's door opening and closing at the front of the hall. In his shirtsleeves, he turned on the radio—music ... hill-billy, jive and "music to read by." Music to sweat by, he thought, plucking the shirt from where it clung to his back. He rubbed the aching muscles.
The minute-hand on his alarm clock lumbered toward eleven. It reached it simultaneously with the time signal on the radio. The newscaster began as he did every other night of the year. He numbered the global tragedies, fears and fiascoes, and finished off his reports with the metropolitan roundup—robbery and rescue, pathos and nonsense. Murder in New York was not among them. Nor was the word mentioned in the news summary at midnight.
As he turned off the radio he remembered the man's last words: "No peace on earth, especially for men of good will."CHAPTER 3
THERE WAS A PARTY going on that night when Tim Brandon returned to the boarding house on Twelfth Street. There was generally a party on Saturday night. He could hear it half a block away. But then there were parties in most of the houses in the block, and with the windows open, the songs of one reached out to join the laughter of another. But Tim recognized Mrs. Galli's voice. The laughter rolled up in her, shaking one layer in her buxom figure after another, and then exploded into the faces of those around her. They invariably rocked with it as though the whole room were shaking, even if they didn't know what she was laughing at. Whatever Mrs. Galli did, the world did with her.
She had been calling up the stairs to him all night, Tim thought. The more wine she had, the more people she thought of to call into the party, and she would want him, especially him.
Her son's concertina started as Tim went up the outside steps. He paused a moment and looked in through the limp curtains. "When I was a fisherman there by the shore ..." Johnny Galli sang. He was a baker and the son of a baker, and if ever he had caught a fish he had trapped it in his mother's goldfish bowl, Tim thought. He thought about goldfish and bowls for a moment, and how much like them people were, except that most of them didn't know they were in the bowl. He knew it. It was why he liked the darkness and preferred to see a party from where he watched now. The chorus of Johnny's song was picked up in Italian. The singers swayed with the music and closed their eyes, remembering the shore they sang about, the long white beach and the blue Mediterranean and the great gulls flying ...
Tim was more weary than he could remember ever having been before. He entered the house and went upstairs unnoticed. In five minutes he was sprawled on his bed, clothes and shoes still on, and asleep.
He awoke suddenly to the sound of his name. He looked about the dark room frantically, trying to get his bearings, for he had been torn out of a wild and terrible dream.
"Tim, Tim, are you in there?"
He heard music now behind the voice and the knocking, and fumbled his hands over the bed. The tufted quilt was familiar. He turned his head and felt the coolness where the air sluiced his wet neck and forehead. He moistened his lips and breathed deeply. The knocking persisted.
"What is it?" he called out.
Excerpted from A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1951 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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