in which Father Smith, after celebrating early Mass before
morning attack, spots and straightens up his former altar boy
Angus, who had become disenchanted about people and religion
while on sick leave at home.
They were to attack at dawn three mornings later. Father Smith said Mass at three o'clock in the major's dugout. He wore the vestments which Mother de la Tour had embroidered for him. Cloth of gold on one side, because cloth of gold could be used on all feasts and ferial days, and black on the other, because there were always requiems to be said, with so many poor fellows being killed.
Most of the Catholics in the batallion came to Mass and holy communion. Father Smith 'heard their confessions first, because they hadn't all been as good as they should have been, what with the red wine in the estaminets and the girls and all that. As there were almost fifty of them, the priest had to start in quite early - at one-thirty, to be precise which left only two minutes for each confession, so that mortal sins came spurting out at a fine rate and were as quickly polished off. The priest wanted to begin by hearing the boozy major's confession, but the major said that if Father Smith didn't mind he'd very much rather bat last, because there was no saying how many more sins he could commit in ninety minutes. So Father Smith sat on his packing cases and heard the old, old tales of human frailty, and the major was last man in, and he wasn't so very original either, but perhaps that was because he had scarcely had much opportunity since his last confession three days previously: bless him, Father, for he had sinned, and last morning at stand-to he had been dreaming that he had been talking to a pretty girl in green silk pantaloons and a blighter of a sergeant major had woken him up, and when he had gone back to sleep, he had tried to dream about her again because she really was a corker, bless him, Father, with eyes that were blue one moment and violet the next.
The priest used the packing case he had been sitting on to hear confessions for his altar, with his portable altar stone and two candles and a crucifix. As he turned and saw in the blur of the candlelight the men's stem faces sweetly praying, he knew that this was how Mass should always be said, in a great hush and near death. There was no bell to ring at the Sanctus, so the major beat a teaspoon against a tin mug and it sounded quite holy. It sounded even holier at the Elevation, with Christ again in the Host and trembling in the shadows of the wine. Praying on above the mystery, Father Smith thanked the great good God for this one safe sure little miracle which He had promised would endure for ever, that men might be drawn from their sins and fastened to the bright things of heaven. Then he was down among them, giving them communion, thrusting God under their roofs, that they might be cleansed from the great stinking abomination of the world and know Him again when He smiled at them in paradise.
Too soon was the magic over and the world back again with stark immediate things to be done. As soon as he had unvested, Father Smith went out to make his thanksgiving among the cold piled sandbags. As he stood on the parapet praying out across the invisible grasses, the sky began to lighten and the priest knew that it would soon be dawn. Slowly the blue was draining from the sky and the stars were going out and the earth hardening out again flat and unmysterious from its crenellation of huddle and hill.
Father Smith looked at the sentry standing a few feet away from him and wondered if he was being afraid to die. Then as the darkness lessened the man's aspect grew familiar, and with a start the priest recognized Angus McNab.
'Angus, my boy, what on earth are you doing here?' the priest cried.
'Heavens, Father Smith!' the young man exclaimed. 'I never kent that it was you was the R.C. padre. I only got back two days ago. Been back in Blighty for three months. Got a nice little packet in the airm. Nothing much really, just a flesh wound, but enough to keep me out of this sort of thing, thank God.'
The young man's tone and bearing frightened the priest.
'Angus, what's come over you?' he asked. 'Why were you not at confession and holy communion just now?'
'Och, hell, Father, don't let's talk about religion if you don't mind,' Angus said.
'My son, that's no way to speak to your old parish priest,' father Smith said sternly. 'And we are going to talk about religion, because religion's the only thing that's really worth talking about, and you know that every bit as well as I do.' He looked into the young man's eyes and away down the years back to when the boy had been his acolyte and had freckles on his nose and sometimes a dirty smudge round his mouth. 'Angus, Angus, who's been getting at you?' he asked.
'Nobody's been getting at me, Father,' the young man said. 'I just ken that religion's all havers, that's all. And the people at home are all havers, too. They pretend to care an awful lot about what happens to us puir sods out here, but they don't really, not deep down in their hearts they dinna. They sing an awful lot about keeping the hame fires burning and loving you and kissing you when you come back again, but it's only words. All they want is to stay at hame and be safe and have a good time. I ken because I've been on sick leave, and the folks didn't want to listen at all to what I had to tell them about things out here at the front. I ken because their eyes got empty and they were awa' off talking about something else before I'd finished speaking. And when I got on the tram with my sair airm in a great muckle splint and a yelly plaister, the auld bitches let on they didna see me, but sat on their great muckle doups clavering away about the price of tea and Mary Pickford and me with ma puir sticking-oot airm getting in everybody's way and nearly being cowped every time the tram turned a corner like. And the young lassies were just as bad. Christians! yon's no Christians! And it's for the likes o' them that I'm expected to hae me belly blawn oot aboot ma heid and to die a sair, sair death.' He suddenly clutched the priest. 'Father, Father, make them stop it. Make them no make me go over again. Father, Father, I'm that feared.'
The priest let the boy weep a little, because he knew that tears, if they flowed long enough, could float many a soul back to God.
'Angus, how old will you be now?' he asked at length.
'Twenty, Father,' the boy answered.
'Twenty, Angus, and you think yourself wiser than all the saints and doctors of the Church. Shame on you, Angus. Now you just stand there and tell me all you've done since your last confession. No, you needn't kneel. Just look out across no-man's land and be a sentry still, but get your sins quickly off your soul because the battle'll soon be beginning and we've no time to lose.'
When he had confessed Angus and given him absolution, the sky began to pale rapidly, but Father Smith still went on talking to the boy, because he still had some ghostly counsel to give.
'Listen, Angus,' he said, 'you mustn't be afraid to die, because you're in a state of grace now and ready to appear before our Lord. And you mustn't worry too much about the people at home being thoughtless and not understanding about the war. It's just lack of imagination, that's all. They'll understand all right when peace comes and they'll see what kind of world we've won for them. For the world's going to be a very wonderful place after the war, Angus, much more the kingdom of our Blessed Lord than ever it's been before.'
'You're sure of that, Father?' The young man's eyes were shining now and not with tears.
'I'm sure of it, Angus. The Bishop says so. Everybody says so. Besides, it's only common sense. Men aren't going back to being mean and petty and selfish after standing up for years and years to this sort of thing.'
'What about the German and the Austrian Catholics, Father? Are· they fighting for a better world too?'
'They've been misled by their temporal rulers in political matters, but once we've won our victory the scales will fall from their eyes and God's garment will be knit whole again,' Father Smith said.
'I don't think' I'd mind so much dying for that sort of world, Father,' Angus said. 'Thanks, Father, for helping me.' He self-consciously shook hands with the priest. 'I'm afraid I've been no end of a silly gowk,' he said.
They couldn't talk at all after that, because the barrage began, and the men came streaming up into the trenches and stood crouching under the parapet in their steel helmets. Some of them were joking and some of them stood drawn into themselves and grave, but through all of them the same question ran: 'Will it happen to me?' The noise of the guns and of the shells bursting was terrific. The priest wondered how the Germans were liking it and if they, too, were standing hammered into sanctity at the thought of the attack which they must know must be coming. He wondered, too, if there were Catholics among them and if a priest had just given them holy communion too, and how our Lord kept judging the Germans and the Britons that must for ever be trooping before Him, red and angry from the battlefield. Then he was afraid for himself, for he knew that he, too, might die at any moment, and he wanted to go on living among advertisements for cigarettes and soot and chemist shops and sin, which was foolish of him, because the next world must be ever so much pleasanter.
Then an officer was beside him looking at his watch, and Father Smith made the sign of the cross and murmured the words of the general absolution, and even some of those who weren't Catholics bowed their heads because they knew that Father Smith was a priest and that he was praying for them. Then their bayonets pointed again and their steel helmets were clamped down on their heads and they were all priests and victims together and had never invited pretty girls to cricket matches or listened to water lapping under a rowing boat. Then somebody shouted and they were all gone, over and up and forward into the blast.
Father Smith didn't see Angus go over the top, but when he went forward with his holy oils, he came upon the boozy major lying wounded in a shell hole, with a great bloody gape in his belly.
'It's all right, Father; I still think God is a Sahib,' he said as the priest bent to anoint him.
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