Chapter 17

in which Father Smith is disturbed by the general strike, consoles Elvira, who fell in love with Joseph, who decided to become a priest, and arrives just in time to administer the last rites to dying Annie, who had been flung out of the window by her husband Angus.

Already in May, 1926, when Father Smith went to admire Mother de la Tour's daffodils, there were lots of people walking, grown-up, about the town whom the priest did not remember ever having seen before. He supposed that it must be that the children were men and women now, only he thought it strange that he could no longer see the reflection of their infant chubbiness through the aggressive set of their eyes and chins. He himself was growing old, but he still seemed to see out of his face at the trams and the cobbles and the People's Friend posters in the same old way. On the bills outside his cinema, Signor Sarno was advertising Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd, and the balcony seats had gone up to one-and-nine, but the priest did not pay much attention because the general strike was on and policemen were walking about in groups and sleek young men of the upper classes were driving the trams.

Father Smith did not know quite what to make of the strike, because it seemed to him that the working people had a genuine grievance, only he didn't like the way they lounged about the town with their hands in their pockets. He didn't like the way the rich went about being loyal either, because he thought that it was easy for them to do poor men's work free for fun, and so he didn't know how to greet Lady Ippecacuanha when he came upon her, big, brassy, red-haired, and monocled, punching tickets and ringing the bell on the tram which was to take him from the presbytery to the convent.

'Dear Father Smith, I think it's simply marvellous the way everybody has been so loyal, don't you?' she boomed through her tusky teeth as she thrust a ticket upon him.

Loyal to what or to whom, Father Smith wondered, as he smiled foolishly back at her slice of face. Loyal to their bank balances, their dividends, and their dinner jackets or to their sense of Emmanuel, God-with-us? After all, it was as easy for Lady Ippecacuanha to be loyal-as it was for Angus McNab to be disloyal. She had never sweated with fear in a trench, slept in mud, dared a sore torn-apart death and been rewarded by having to hawk bootlaces on the street to the civilization she had helped to save. The immortal deeds of fame soon faded in men's memories and the more immediate selfishness took their place. And was it right that the same people should go on being comfortable all the time? He was glad when the tram reached the convent and he was able to get off and walk away from Lady Ippecacuanha's make-thee-mightier-yet smile.

In the school the children were practising the sequence for Corpus Christi. Their young voices came out of the open windows to Father Smith as he walked on the lawn with Mother de la Tour:

'Sit laus plena, sit sonora,
Sit jucunda, sit decora
Mentis jubilatio.'

If only the whole world could sing such songs and mean them, there would be no more wars or unemployment or strikes or misery, Father Smith thought.

'Jamais la Révérende Mère ne vous pardonnera si vous n'allez pas leur dire un petit bon jour,' Mother de la Tour said as she took up her watering can.

They were still singing when the priest entered the classroom. The big girls and the small girls were all there, wearing their white veils too, for they had been rehearsing the procession as well, when the Bishop would carry the Blessed Sacrament along the path under the trees and they would walk with lighted candles in front of him. Mother Leclerc, who was choirmistress, was conducting the singing while Reverend Mother sat on the dais beaming at them all through her spectacles.

'Caro cibus, sanguis potus:
Manet tamen Christus totus
Sub utraque specie.'

Reverend Mother waited until they had finished the whole sequence before she let Father Smith see that she was aware of his presence, and then she made him mount up onto the dais and said:

'Et maintenant, mes enfants, le Révérend Père Smith va bien vouloir nous dire quelque mots.'

Feeling very foolish, as he always did when he had to speak in public in Reverend Mother's presence, Father Smith spoke briefly of the beauty of the great feast which they were about to celebrate. He told them that when they grew up and went out into the world, wicked men and women might try to make them forget the sweet doctrines which they had learned in the convent, but that they must not do so, because these doctrines were not only beautiful but true as well. One had only to hear the lovely hymn in honour of the Blessed Sacrament which they had just sung to realize that God had intended the world to be a great golden place and indeed He had made it such, because it was God Who had sculptured the mountains and hollowed the valleys and poured out the seas, while it was men who had bricked the cities and that was why they were sometimes so ugly. The only time men had seemed able to create something really beautiful was when they had built the churches and cathedrals in the Middle Ages, and that was because they were thinking about God all the time they worked, and so lovely spires and stately steeples had come tapering out through their fingers. But they must always remember that no cathedral, no loch, and no mountain could ever be nearly as beautiful as our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, as they would realize for themselves one day when they saw Him face to face in heaven.

The children clapped a little when Father Smith had said this, but the priest was sure that they did so only out of politeness. It was impossible to tell from Reverend Mother's expression what she thought of his address. She did not tell him when they were alone together either, but merely thanked him for his kindness in coming to see them and said Elvira had asked to be allowed to speak to him in the parlour.

Elvira was eighteen now. Standing looking at the photograph of Cardinal Amette, late Archbishop of Paris, she seemed older, but when she turned to greet him the innocence of her face made her look younger.

'Buon giorno, carissimo padre mio,' she greeted, and then her brave smile went and she flung herself upon the priest's shoulder, sobbing. 'Per Bacco, but I am so miserable, Father, and nobody but you will understand. You see, I love him such a lot. Tell me, Father, is it wrong of me to love him when he is going away to learn to become a priest?'

Drawing her to a chair, Father Smith sat down beside her.

'Dear child,' he said, 'dear child, of course it is not wrong of you to love Joseph because he is going to become a priest. On the contrary, you should love him all the more because he is giving up everything for our Lord. But there are two kinds of love, Elvira: the earthly and the supernatural; and it is with the supernatural love that you must love Joseph.'

'But if I never let him see that I love him with an earthly love?' she asked. 'If I never hold his hand again or smile too much when I see him coming up the garden path?'

'Sweet child, you must learn to love him only in Christ,' Father Smith said.

'But I love my enemies in Christ,' Elvira protested. 'I love them because our Lord died for them as He died for me; I love them because their bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost, just as my body is; I love them because God commands me to love them. But that is not the way I love Joseph. I love him that way too, of course, but I love him other ways as well. I love his eyes and I love his nose and I love his mouth and I love the way his hair grows. Tell me, Father: is it wrong for a girl to love the way a priest's hair grows?'

'If it is not wrong at least it is dangerous,' Father Smith said.

'Our Lord asks an awful lot of us at times, doesn't He?' Elvira said.

'We must remember that we shan't wake up in heaven wondering how on earth we got there,' Father Smith said, smiling inwardly to himself as he quoted Canon Bonnyboat's favourite thunder.

'I'm still going to be an actress, but when men turn to stare at me in the lounge of the Carlton-Elite, I'll still wish it was Joseph who was staring,' Elvira said. 'And I'll never, never marry anybody else, and I'll wear all my pretty clothes to the greater glory of God because Joseph will be too busy being a priest to be interested. And every night I'll pray that God will grant him the grace of a happy death. Tell me, Father: if a girl can't love the way a priest's hair grows, surely she can still pray that God will grant him the grace of a happy death?'

'You'll grow out of your unhappiness, child, and in the meantime the only thing you can do is to offer it up to God,' Father Smith said as he left her. He felt that he ought to have been able to say something more consoling, especially when Elvira thanked him at the gate for having helped her so much.

Standing at the new traffic lights, James Scott, who had recently been promoted to pointsman, was controlling the arrival and the departure of the trams. With his now grey head growing up into his peaked blue cap, he blew one blast on his whistle for the trams to move into town and two blasts for them to move out of town. Crossing to congratulate him on not having gone out on strike, Father Smith wondered if he could have served the Lord as bravely as James Scott had done for the last twenty years if he had had to do it by punching tickets and blowing whistles. James Scott, however, did not seem to think that there was anything particularly brave in his not having gone out on strike, although he was manifestly pleased when Father Smith started to talk about Joseph and about how good a priest he thought the boy would make.

Thinking of one parishioner made Father Smith think of another, and so he decided that he would go and call on Angus McNab and see how the young man was getting on. He set out, therefore, along the mean streets which led to the slum where Angus and his wife lived. As he moved among the dirty children, he tried to smile at them as he thought Monsignor O'Duffy would have smiled at them, because he knew that it wasn't only clean children that God wanted priests to love, but dirty ones especially, because they had so much to be compensated for; but he hadn't the monsignore's manner, because the children didn't smile back, and some of their parents even scowled, as though they were bracketing the priests with the employers. Father Smith began to wish that he had come another day, when there hadn't been a general strike, but he knew that was weak and cowardly of him.

He arrived at the tenement just in time to give Annie conditional absolution when Angus flung her out of the window. Kneeling on the pavement beside her broken body, he muttered the holy words while around him the stupid hostile faces mooned. 'Make an act of contrition,' he exhorted the pulp and the blood and the matted hair. Say: ' "O my God, Who are infinitely good in Thyself ..." '; but no words came back from the pulp and the blood and the matted hair, and the policemen were already upstairs to take Angus away.


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