Book One—Chapter Summaries
They pay their visit to Ezenzeleni, but Stephen has no heart for sightseeing, and is left to meditate. He broods unhappily. Some thoughts console him, he has momentary visions of a reconstituted family at Ndotsheni; but he is deeply oppressed by his fear for Absalom, and his anxiety about the destruction of the traditional African social order. He ends up in despair, but Msimangu, as a fellow priest, chides him, and he accepts the admonition. We then get a glimpse of the creative work that is done for and with blind people at the mission. Then Msimangu preaches. He speaks particularly to those with "blind eyes", but it soon becomes clear to Stephen that he is speaking to him too, encouraging his audience with the message of God's bounty and his ability to turn darkness into light. Msimangu speaks eloquently. Stephen is moved, and his faith is renewed. But there is a final twist: some say that Msimangu, without realising it, is helping the white government, as "he touches people at the hearts, and sends them marching to heaven instead of to Pretoria". So the enigma of how best to approach the South African problem remains.
Stephen seeks some solace with Mrs. Lithebe, Gertrude and her son; but Msimangu and the young white reformatory official arrive with very grim news. Stephen's worst fears are realized: Absalom, his cousin and another have been arrested for the murder of Jarvis; it was Absalom who fired the shot. Stephen is stunned by the blow: he behaves erratically, and seems suddenly aged. They go to his brother John, who, having greeted them jovially, is shocked by the news. Then they all go off to the great prison, where the brothers meet their sons in separate rooms. Stephen's encounter with Absalom is deeply unsatisfactory. The father overwhelms the son with questions, but the latter has very little to say by way of answer or explanation. They torture each other; we are shown something of Absalom's pained bewilderment as well as that of his father. Absalom does say, however, that he wishes to marry the girl. After the interview Stephen speaks to John, who suggests that he'll employ a lawyer to argue that his son wasn't present at the scene of the crime. It is now the turn of the official, in his grieving frustration, to behave oddly. It is a bleak situation.
The young official comes to Stephen to apologize for his irrational outburst. He thinks Stephen should engage a lawyer, and the two of them go to Father Vincent, a sympathetic priest from England, who knows of a good advocate whom they can approach. The two priests are then alone, and Stephen pours out his distress. Father Vincent is moved and overwhelmed, and tries to offer some consolation. Stephen describes the pain of his journey, the suspense, the final revelation of Absalom's crime, and his sense that this horror had been building for so long. Father Vincent says, tentatively and gently, "Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving." But Stephen, who is appalled by his son's act—murdering a generous and talented young husband and father—and by his apparent incapacity to understand or to feel remorse, is inconsolable. Father Vincent then speaks to him as a priest, tells him to rest, and offers him a way of getting things into some perspective and directing his prayers: one has to try to accept God's incomprehensibility, and there are many things to pray about, and also things to be grateful for. Stephen accepts all this.