Francis Chisholm—a kindhearted and straightforward Scottish priest—walks a path of his own, making him unpopular with other members of the clergy. Ostracized by the clerical community and looked down on by his superiors, Chisholm takes a position in China where he supervises a mission beset by poverty, civil war, and plague. He encounters fierce resistance from the local Chinese who distrust his motives, especially as they do not understand or condone his faith. Despite enormous obstacles and temptations, Father Chisholm continues to live in accordance with what he holds as the ultimate truth—serving humanity is the one true religion of the world.
The Keys of the Kingdom was adapted into the 1944 film starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a role for which he earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Hailed as “a magnificent story of the great adventure of individual goodness” by the New York Times Book Review and “full of life and people and color” by Harper’s Magazine, The Keys of the Kingdom is considered by many to be AJ Cronin’s finest work.
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Beginning of the End
Late one afternoon in September 1938 old Father Francis Chisholm limped up the steep path from the church of St. Columba to his house upon the hill. He preferred this way, despite his infirmities, to the less arduous ascent of Mercat Wynd; and, having reached the narrow door of his walled-in garden, he paused with a kind of naive triumph — recovering his breath, contemplating the view he had always loved.
Beneath him was the river Tweed, a great wide sweep of placid silver, tinted by the low saffron smudge of autumn sunset. Down the slope of the northern Scottish bank tumbled the town of Tweedside, its tiled roofs a crazy quilt of pink and yellow, masking the maze of cobbled streets. High stone ramparts still ringed this Border burgh, with captured Crimean cannon making perches for the gulls as they pecked at partan crabs. At the river's mouth a wraith lay upon the sandbar, misting the lines of drying nets, the masts of smacks inside the harbor pointing upward, brittle and motionless. Inland, dusk was already creeping upon the still bronze woods of Derham, toward which, as he gazed, a lonely heron made labored flight. The air was thin and clear, stringent with woodsmoke and the tang of fallen apples, sharp with the hint of early frost.
With a contented sigh, Father Chisholm turned into his garden: a patch beside his pleasance upon the Hill of Brilliant Green Jade, but a pretty one, and, like all Scots gardens, productive, with a few fine fruit trees splayed on the mellow wall. The Jargonelle espalier in the south corner was at its best. Since there was no sign of the tyrant Dougal, with a cautious glance toward the kitchen window he stole the finest pear from his own tree, slid it under his soutane. His yellow, wrinkled cheek was ripe with triumph as he hobbled — dot and carry — down the graveled drive, leaning on his one indulgence, the new umbrella of Chisholm tartan that replaced his battered favorite of Pai-tan. And there, standing at the front porch, was the car.
His face puckered slowly. Though his memory was bad and his fits of absentmindedness a perpetual embarrassment, he now recollected the vexation of the bishop's letter, proposing, or rather announcing, this visit of his secretary Monsignor Sleeth. He hastened forward to welcome his guest.
Monsignor Sleeth was in the parlor, standing, dark, thin, distinguished, and not quite at ease, with his back to the empty fireplace — his youthful impatience heightened, his clerical dignity repelled, by the mean surroundings in which he found himself. He had looked for a note of individuality: some piece of porcelain perhaps, or lacquer, a souvenir from the East. But the apartment was bare and nondescript, with poor linoleum, horsehair chairs, and a chipped mantelpiece on which, out of the corner of a disapproving eye, he had already noted a spinning top beside an uncounted litter of collection pennies. Yet he was resolved to be pleasant. Smoothing his frown, he stifled Father Chisholm's apology with a gracious gesture.
"Your housekeeper has already shown me my room. I trust it will not disturb you to have me here for a few days. What a superb afternoon it has been. The colorings! — as I drove up from Tynecastle I almost fancied myself in dear San Morales." He gazed away, through the darkening window, with a studied air.
The old man nearly smiled at the imprint of Father Tarrant and the seminary — Sleeth's elegance, that bladelike look, even the hint of hardness in the nostril, made him a perfect replica.
"I hope you'll be comfortable," he murmured. "We'll have our bite presently. I'm sorry I can't offer you dinner. Somehow we've just fallen to the habit of a Scots high tea!" Sleeth, head half-averted, nodded noncommittally. Indeed, at that moment, Miss Moffat entered and, having drawn the drab chenille curtains, stealthily began to set the table. He could not but reflect, ironically, how the neutral creature, darting him one frightened glance, matched the room. Though it caused him a passing asperity to observe her lay places for three, her presence enabled him to lead the conversation safely into generalities.
As the two priests sat down at table he was eulogizing the special marble which the bishop had brought from Carrara for the transept of the new Tynecastle procathedral. Helping himself with good appetite from the ashet of ham, eggs, and kidneys before him, he accepted a cup of tea poured from the Britannia metal teapot. Then, busy buttering brown toast, he heard his host remark mildly:
"You won't mind if Andrew sups his porridge with us. Andrew — this is Monsignor Sleeth!"
Sleeth raised his head abruptly. A boy about nine years of age had come silently into the room and now, after an instant's indecision, when he stood tugging at his blue jersey, his long pale face intense with nervousness, slipped into his place, reaching mechanically for the milk jug. As he bent over his plate a lock of dank brown hair — tribute to Miss Moffat's sponge — fell over his ugly bony forehead. His eyes, of a remarkable blue, held a childish prescience of crisis — they were so uneasy he dared not lift them up.
The bishop's secretary relaxed his attitude, slowly resumed his meal. After all, the moment was not opportune. Yet from time to time his stare traveled covertly toward the boy.
"So you are Andrew!" Decency demanded speech, even a hint of benignity. "And you go to school here?"
"Come then! Let us see how much you know." Amiably enough, he propounded a few simple questions. The boy, flushed and inarticulate, too confused to think, betrayed humiliating ignorance.
Monsignor Sleeth's eyebrows lifted. Dreadful, he thought. Quite a gutter brat!
He helped himself to another kidney — then suddenly became aware that while he trifled with the rich meats of the table the other two kept soberly to porridge. He flushed: this show of asceticism on the old man's part was insufferable affectation.
Perhaps Father Chisholm had a wry perception of that thought. He shook his head: "I went without good Scots oatmeal so many years I never miss it now I have the chance."
Sleeth received the remark in silence. Presently, with a hurried glance, out of his downcast muteness, Andrew begged permission to depart. Rising to say his grace, he knocked a spoon spinning with his elbow. His stiff boots made an uncouth scuffling toward the door.
Another pause. Then, having concluded his meal, Monsignor Sleeth rose easily and repossessed, without apparent purpose, the fleshless hearth rug. With feet apart and hands clasped behind his back he considered, without seeming to do so, his aged colleague, who, still seated, had the curious air of waiting. Dear God, thought Sleeth, what a pitiable presentation of the priesthood — this shabby old man, with a stained soutane, soiled collar, and sallow, desiccated skin! On one cheek was an ugly weal, a kind of cicatrix that everted the lower eyelid, seemed to tug the head down and sideways. The impression was that of a permanent wry neck, counterpoising the lame and shortened leg. His eyes, usually lowered, took thus — on the rare occasions that he raised them — a penetrating obliqueness, which was strangely disconcerting.
Sleeth cleared his throat. He judged it time for him to speak and, forcing a note of cordiality, he inquired: "How long have you been here, Father Chisholm?"
"Ah, yes. It was a kindly gesture of His Grace to send you — on your return — to your native parish."
Sleeth inclined his head suavely. "I was aware that His Grace shared with you the distinction of having been born here. Let me see ... what age are you, Father? Nearly seventy is it not?"
Father Chisholm nodded, adding with gentle senile pride: "I am no older than Anselm Mealey."
Sleeth's frown at the familiarity melted into a half-pitying smile. "No doubt — but life has treated you rather differently. To be brief" — he gathered himself up, firm, but not unkind — "the bishop and I both have the feeling that your long and faithful years should now be recompensed; that you should, in short, retire!"
There was a moment of strange quiet.
"But I have no wish to retire."
"It is a painful duty for me to come here" — Sleeth kept his gaze discreetly on the ceiling — "to investigate ... and report to His Grace. But there are certain things that cannot be overlooked."
Sleeth moved irritably. "Six — ten — a dozen things! It isn't my place to enumerate your — your Oriental eccentricities!"
"I'm sorry." A slow spark kindled in the old man's eyes. "You must remember that I spent thirty-five years in China."
"Your parish affairs are in a hopeless muddle."
"Am I in debt?"
"How are we to know? No returns on your quarterly collections for six months." Sleeth's voice rose; he spoke a little faster. "Everything so ... so unbusinesslike. ... For instance when Bland's traveler presented his bill last month — three pounds for candles, and so forth — you paid him entirely in coppers!"
"That's how it comes to me." Father Chisholm viewed his visitor thoughtfully, as though he looked straight through him. "I've always been stupid about money. I've never had any, you see. ... But after all ... do you think money so dreadfully important?"
To his annoyance Monsignor Sleeth found himself reddening. "It makes talk, Father." He rushed on. "And there is other talk. Some of your sermons ... the advice you give ... certain points of doctrine." He consulted a morocco-covered notebook already in his palm. "They seem dangerously peculiar."
"On Whitsunday you told your congregation, 'Don't think heaven is in the sky ... it's in the hollow of your hand ... it's everywhere and anywhere.'" Sleeth frowned censoriously as he turned the pages. "And again ... here is an incredible remark you made during Holy Week. 'Atheists may not all go to hell. I knew one who didn't. Hell is only for those who spit in the face of God!' And, good gracious, this atrocity: 'Christ was a perfect man, but Confucius had a better sense of humor!'" Another page was turned indignantly. "And this incredible incident ... when one of your best parishioners, Mrs. Glendenning, who cannot of course help her extreme stoutness, came to you for spiritual guidance you looked at her and replied, 'Eat less. The gates of paradise are narrow.' But why should I continue?" Decisively, Monsignor Sleeth closed the gilt-edged book. "To say the least, you seem to have lost your command of souls."
"But ..." Calmly: "I don't want to command anyone's soul."
Sleeth's color heightened disagreeably. He did not see himself in theological discussion with this shambling dotard.
"There remains the matter of this boy whom you have so misguidedly adopted."
"Who is to look after him — if I don't?"
"Our own sisters at Ralstone. It is the finest orphanage in the diocese."
Again Father Chisholm raised his disconcerting eyes. "Would you have wished to spend your own childhood at that orphanage?"
"Need we be personal, Father? I've told you ... even conceding the circumstances ... the situation is highly irregular and must be ended. Besides ..." He threw out his hands. "If you are going away — we must find some place for him."
"You seem determined to be rid of us. Am I to be entrusted to the sisters too?"
"Of course not. You can go to the aged priests' home at Clinton. It is a perfect haven of rest."
The old man actually laughed — a dry short laugh. "I'll have enough perfect rest when I'm dead. While I'm alive I don't want to be mixed up with a lot of aged priests. You may think it strange — but I never have been able to stand the clergy in bulk."
Sleeth's smile was pained and flustered. "I think nothing strange from you, Father. Forgive me, but to say the least of it ... your reputation, even before you went to China ... your whole life has been peculiar!"
There was a pause. Father Chisholm said in a quiet voice: "I shall render an account of my life to God."
The younger man dropped his eyelids with an unhappy sense of indiscretion. He had gone too far. Though his nature was cold he strove always to be just, even considerate. He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "Naturally I don't presume to be your judge — or your inquisitor. Nothing is decided yet. That is why I am here. We must see what the next few days bring forth." He stepped toward the door. "I am going to the church now. Please don't trouble. I know my way." His mouth creased into an unwilling smile. He went out.
Father Chisholm remained seated, motionless, at the table, his hand shading his eyes, as though thinking deeply. He felt crushed by this threat that had gathered, so suddenly, above the quiet of his hard-won retreat. His sense of resignation, long overtaxed, refused acceptance of it. All at once he felt empty and used up, unwanted by God or man. A burning desolation filled his breast. Such a little thing, and yet so much. He wanted to cry out: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? He rose heavily, and went upstairs.
In his attic above the spare room the boy Andrew was already in bed and asleep. He lay upon his side, one skinny arm crooked before him on the pillow, defensively. Watching him, Father Chisholm took the pear from his pocket and placed it on the clothes folded upon the cane-bottomed chair beside the bed. There seemed nothing more for him to do.
A faint breeze swayed the muslin curtains. He moved to the window and parted them. Stars were quivering in the frosty sky. Under these stars the span of his years reached out in all its ineptitude, built of his puny strivings, without form or nobility. It seemed such a short time since he had been a boy himself, running and laughing in this same town of Tweedside. His thoughts flew back. If there were any pattern in his life at all the first fateful stroke was surely drawn on that April Saturday sixty years ago when, out of untroubled happiness, so deep it passed unrecognized ...CHAPTER 2
That spring morning, at early breakfast in the snug dark kitchen, with the fire warm to his stockinged feet and the smell of kindling wood and hot oatcakes making him hungry, he was happy, despite the rain, because it was Saturday and the tide was right for salmon.
His mother finished her brisk stirring with the wooden spurtle, and placed the blue-ringed bowl of pease brose on the scrubbed table between his father and himself. He reached for his horn spoon, dipped in the bowl, then in the cup of buttermilk before him. He rolled his tongue over the smooth golden brose, made perfectly, without lumps or gritty unmixed meal.
His father, in worn blue jersey and darned fishing stockings, sat opposite, his big frame bowed, supping in silence, with quiet slow movements of his red hands. His mother shook the last batch of oatcakes from the griddle, set them on their ends against the bowl, and sat down to her cup of tea. The yellow butter melted on the broken oatcake that she took. There was silence and comradeship in the little kitchen, with the flames leaping across the bright fender and the pipe-clayed hearth. He was nine years of age, and he was going to the bothy with his father.
There, he was known — he was Alex Chisholm's laddie, accepted by the men in their woolen jerseys and leather hip boots with a quiet nod or, better still, a friendly silence. He had a dark secret glow of pride as he went out with them, the big flat cobble sweeping wide round the butt, the rowlocks creaking, the seine skillfully payed out by his father in the stern. Back on the butt, their tackets rasping the wet stones, the men huddled themselves low against the wind, some squatting with a yellowed sailcloth across their shoulders, others sucking warmth from a blackened inch-long clay. He stood with his father, apart. Alex Chisholm was the headman, the watcher of Tweed Fisheries Station No. 3. Together, not speaking, cut by the wind, they stood watching the far circle of corks dancing in the choppy backlash where the river met the sea. Often the glare of sun upon the ripples made his head swim. But he would not, he could not, blink. Missing even a single second might mean the missing of a dozen fish — so hard to come by, these days, that in distant Billingsgate they brought the fisheries company a good half crown a pound. His father's tall figure, the head sunk a little on the shoulders, the profile keen beneath the old peaked cap, a fine blood whipped into the high cheekbones, had the same still unswerving tensity. At times, mingled exquisitely in his consciousness with the smell of wrack, the distant strike of the Burgess Clock, the cawing of the Derham rooks, the sense of this unspeaking comradeship drew moisture to the boy's already smarting eyes.
Suddenly his father shouted. Try as he might Francis could never win first sight of the dipping cork: not that tidal bobbing, which sometimes caused him foolishly to start, but the slow downward tug, which to long experience denoted the thrusting of a fish. At the quick high shout there was an instant clatter as the crew jumped to the windlass that hauled the net. Usage never staled that moment: though the men drew a poundage bonus on their catch, the thought of money did not stir them; this deep excitement sprang from far primeval roots. In came the net, slowly, dripping, flaked with kelp, the guide ropes squeaking on the wooden drum. A final heave, then, in the purse of the billowing seine, a molten flash, powerful, exquisite — salmon.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Keys of the Kingdom"
Copyright © 2015 A.J. Cronin.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Beginning of the End,
II Strange Vocation,
III An Unsuccessful Curate,
IV The China Incident,
V The Return,
VI End of the Beginning,