The day before Absalom is to be executed, Stephen tells his wife that he needs to go into the mountain. She understands. Stephen has gone to the mountain several times in his life—once, when Absalom was young and very ill, another time when Stephen had been sexually tempted by a teacher in town, another time when he was considering leaving the ministry. Stephen asks his wife to come with him, but because Absalom’s wife is very near her due date, she cannot leave her. She makes him some cakes and tea, and Stephen begins the walk.
The mountain is where Stephen goes when his soul is facing a great trial or temptation. Though he had gone of the journey of this novel with so many others, this time, he must go alone. He must be alone with God, with his faith.
As he begins on the path, he sees James Jarvis. James thanks him for the flowers, and says that the plans for the new church will be coming shortly. He asks after Napoleon, and then tells Stephen that he is going to be leaving Ndotsheni for Johannesburg. When James asks Stephen where he is going, Stephen says that he is going into the mountain. Even though he does not explain why, James understands.
His final interaction with James before his pilgrimage shows that the two men have come to peace with one another, and with their own losses.
Stephen continues up the mountain. Because he is old, he climbs slowly. He eventually reaches the summit, and finds the spot where he has always sat. He confesses all of his sins, openly, and then gives thanks for all of the wonderful things that he can remember. Stephen falls asleep, but then wakes up again. He knows that at dawn, his son will be executed, and so he waits for dawn. He thinks about South Africa and the people in it.
Stephen confesses to his sins and weaknesses and failures, and thanks God for everything that he has been given. In these moments of suffering, Stephen’s faith supports him.
Stephen falls asleep again, and wakes just before dawn. He wonders about his son, about what he must be thinking and doing this hour before his death. He wonders if he will face his execution, or weep? Will he pray? Stephen takes out the cakes and tea and eats them and gives thanks, and as the sun rises he takes off his hat and prays.
Before his son’s death, Stephen takes a kind of communion. Even as his son dies, he prays to God, showing his undying faith.
The narrator describes the sun’s light tipping over the mountains and into the valleys, one by one. Dawn has always come, and dawn will continue to come. But when dawn will come on all of this fear and suffering, that is still unknown.
The narrator insists that dawn will always come, that even though understanding does not come all at once, it, too, is inevitable. But when it comes—when this great cycle of suffering will end—that is not known by anyone. And the fact that this is unknown is the reason for the importance of faith. One can respond to the unknown with fear—by retreating, by trying to control, by segregating—or one can respond with faith, with compassion, by reaching out to others. Stephen has shown that only the latter can solve the complicated problems that afflict South Africa.