Chapter 15

in which Father Smith advises Joseph and Elvira about serving God in their future life and then fails to save his former altar boy Angus from losing his job.

Father Smith found it easy enough to pray for Hottentots whom he had never seen, but there were still occasions on which he found it difficult to pray for Canon Bonnyboat, especially when the latter said the seven-o'clock Mass and got into breakfast before he did and bagged first shot at the Highland Herald. This afternoon, too, he was finding it difficult to 'pray for his rector, because the canon had just handed over to him for instruction a Protestant railway porter who wanted to marry a Catholic scullery-maid. For more than half an hour Father Smith had explained to the young man's big ears the doctrine of transubstantiation and how wonderful it was that our Lord should choose to remain on among us in this way, and then, when at the end of the lesson he had asked his catechumen Who was present in the Mass, the young man had replied: 'I ken that one all right, Father; the Virgin Mary, of course.'

He was just recovering from the shock when Brigid, the new housekeeper, announced that Elvira and Joseph were wanting to see him in the parlour.

'Buon giorno, carissimo padre mio,' Elvira greeted, who often spoke to him in Italian, now that she knew that Father Smith had studied in Rome. 'E come sta?'

'Sto bene, grazie,' the priest replied, loving the marvel of her accent, as true in Italian as in Scots. 'E tu, come stai?'

'Benissimo,' Elvira said, and added 'per Bacco,' because she knew the exclamation always amused the priest. 'Joseph - no, shut up, Joseph, and let me do the talking - Joseph thinks that he would like to become a priest when he grows up and he wants to know if you think he's holy enough.'

'Per Bacco!' the priest exclaimed and laughed aloud for sheer joy, because it was all so heartening after what that dreadful young man had said about the Blessed Virgin being really and truly present in the Eucharist.

'You see, Father,' the boy said gravely, '1 want to do some good in the world and I don't think I could ever be satisfied just going into business and making money.'

'Laus Tibi, Christe,' the priest sang silently in his heart; 'praise be to Thee, O Christ, because Thou raisest up ever more priests and more poets to rhyme Thy honour and glory.' He had always loved Joseph Scott since the day when, as a boy of four, he had come running up to him in the street and thrust his small hand into his and asked, 'Can I chum you, Father?'

'How old are you now, Joseph?' he asked.

'Fifteen, Father,' the boy answered.

'Well, you've got time enough to think it over, haven't you?' the priest said. 'Remember that a priest's is a hard and difficult calling and is not to be entered upon lightly. But I am sure that if you still have the same dispositions in two or three years' time you will make a very good priest indeed. And you, Elvira,' he asked, because he felt that if he didn't make a joke he would disgrace himself by bursting out into tears, 'you're not thinking of becoming a nun by any chance?'

Elvira shook her head smilingly.

'Not unless I could wear pretty dresses occasionally,' she said. 'Tell me, Father: do nuns never get into mufti?'

'Nuns never get into mufti because their souls never get into mufti,' Father Smith said.

'It's not that I don't love our Lord, but I love pretty clothes as well,' Elvira said. 'Indeed, I rather think I want to become an actress and have the men all turn and stare at me when I walk into the lounge of the Carlton-Elite Hotel. Tell me, Father: is that very wicked of me?'

'She's terribly worldly, isn't she?' Joseph said.

'I know a lady who was told by a Jesuit that it might be her vocation to be the best-dressed woman in every room she walked into as long as she did it to the greater glory of God, so boo!' Elvira said.

'Most things are all right as long as we do them to the greater glory of God,' Father Smith said. Then, feeling that perhaps he had been a little too sententious, he added: 'You two seem great friends, don't you?'

'Perhaps that's because you baptized us both on the same day,' Elvira said. They stood swinging hands in front of him quite naturally. 'Tell us: did we cry much?'

'Do you know I can't for the life of me remember,' Father Smith said. 'You see, I baptize so many babies.'

'That's what must be so wonderful about a priest's life,' Joseph said. 'All the good that one's constantly doing.'

'All God's beginnings and middlings and endings,' Father Smith said. 'It teaches you that a thousand years in God's sight are but an evening gone.'

'Then you really think, Father, that I have got a vocation?' Joseph asked.

'I didn't say that yet, did I?' Father Smith laughed.

They went as they had come, hand-in-hand. Father Smith wondered for a moment if it was right for a boy who thought he had a vocation to the priesthood to be holding the hand of a girl so pretty as Elvira, but he told himself that they were both too young and innocent to realize that there could be any danger in their affection, and that our Lord Himself had said that unless people became as little children they should not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Through the window the advertisements for the cinema on the other side of the road were all about a lady called NAZIMOVA, but the priest hadn't long to think about that because the presbytery bell rang again and Brigid announced that Angus McNab was waiting to see him in the parlour.

Father Smith saw at once that something was wrong. The young man was untidy and dishevelled and had an angry look burning in his eye.

'What for did you tell me wrong, Father?' he began at once. 'What for did you tell me wrong?'

The priest said gently that he was afraid that he did not understand.

'Fine ye understand, and if ye dinna I'll tell ye,' Angus ranted on. 'Do you mean to say that ye dinna mind telling me in the trenches that people wouldn't be thoughtless any more about the war, once it was over and won? "The world's going to be a very wonderful place after the war, Angus," ye said. Those were your very words, Father. I ken fine they were, because they've been aye dinging away in my ears ever since. Well, let me tell you that it's no wonderful at all. It's just a great big stinking clarty pig's breakfast like it aye was. Distinguished Conduct Medal, indeed! Folk don't care aboot that sort of thing any mair. "The war's over and done with now," they say, "and it's time you young lads settled down and forgot all yon blether aboot the trenches." Aye, but they weren't in the trenches; they didna see the blood and the muck and the sclutter; they didna feel the sair bullets and steel in their bellies, so it's gey fine ham for them to talk. And they havna got to go tramping up and doon in front of a picture hoose and a lot of photies of rich lassies sliding their sleekit wee bodies in and oot of motor cars, and all for forty bob a week. And they dinna get the sack from a great big yellow dago when they get married and ask for a ten-bob rise and have their ain wee wife say that she canna go on living with them unless they make mair money and look slippy about it.' His anger left him and he stood blubbering and snottering and twisting his hands. 'Faither, I'm that miserable,' he said.

Slowly Father Smith drew the whole story from him. Soon after they had been married, Annie had told him that she couldn't possibly make both ends meet on two pounds a week. Whereupon Angus had gone to Signor Sarno and asked for an increase in wages, but Signor Sarno had said that forty shillings a week was all that he could afford to pay a commissionaire and that Angus, could either take it or leave it. Angus had neither taken it nor left it, hut had tried to organize a strike among the employees of the cinema, and Signor Sarno had got to hear of it and had dismissed him. Since then Angus had hunted in vain for employment and Annie had threatened on more than one occasion to leave him.

As he prepared to deliver a little lecture on the mystery of suffering and the spiritual benefits to be derived from sorrow, Father Smith wondered if it had indeed been Annie whom he had seen with that sailor a year previously. Then he wondered what benefit he himself would have derived from a lecture on the mystery of suffering if he had had to live hard as Angus lived hard and had lost his job and had a slut of a wife he couldn't trust out of his sight, so he changed his tactic and said that he would call personally on Signor Sarno and see if he couldn't prevail upon him to take Angus back.

'Thank you, Father,' Angus said, wringing both the priest's hands. 'And I'm sorry for what I said about you being wrang yon day in the trenches, because it's the world that's wrang and no you.'

But Signor Sarno was quite adamant when Father Smith saw him half an hour later beneath a signed photograph of Pauline Frederick.

'Per Bacco, reverendo Father, but what you ask is impossible,' he said. 'A communista, that's what young McNab is. Seeking to ruin my business by inciting others to strike. Santa Madonna, that shall I not have. I do not like communistas and I shall not employ them. And they are against our holy religion as His Holiness the Pope has himself said and Monsignor O'Duffy has said, too, on the Feast of the Immaculate Exception. And Mussolini, the leader of my so beautiful country, has said so too, per Bacco. Che puzza di merda, tutti quei communisti, excusing me for the rude word, reverendo Father. But Mussolini, he will chase them all out and my country shall be great again, so, oh so, so great, as you will see, reverendo Father.'

'It is not countries that we want to be great, but individual men,' Father Smith said gently. 'Great as our Lord would have them be great, not with trumpets and banners and guns and battleships, but in generosity, selflessness, and humility. And you, Signor Sarno, you would be very great indeed if you were to take Angus McNab back into your employment. I think that I can promise you that he will not be so foolish again. And he fought very valiantly indeed in the war, remember.'

'So did millions of other young men, but they cannot expect to be heroes for ever,' Signor Sarno said. 'And discipline is no less a heroism than facing bullets, as that great leader of my country, Benito Mussolini, has said, and one cannot maintain discipline unless one punishes those who offend against it. No, reverendo Father, I regret exceedingly, but I shall be unable to do what you ask me. I am sorry for Angus McNab, but if he wants employment, he will require to look for it elsewhere.'

When Father Smith came out of the cinema, they were taking down the advertisement about Nazimova and putting up one up about a dog called Rin-Tin-Tin instead, because next day was Thursday when the programme changed; but the priest did not notice, because he was too busy praying that Angus would find another job.


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