Chapter 18

in which Father Smith provides spiritual comfort to Angus at the time of his hanging.

They hanged Angus on the Feast of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, 1927, so Father Smith had to wear white vestments when he went to say Mass and give him holy communion in his cell.

Angus's confession was like most other confessions Father Smith had heard, a long thread of repeated rebellions against God, the suck and swish and swirl of silly sins. At first, as he listened the priest was too moved to pay much attention, because he was thinking of the dreadful thing that was going to happen to the young man and of how he himself was perhaps partly responsible, because he had told Angus in the trenches that the world was going to be a kind and just and holy place after the war; then he remembered that, as Cardinal Newman had pointed out, even the smallest of venial sins was, in the eyes of God, a greater evil than the destruction of the whole earth and the perishing of its inhabitants in agonies of torture, and he forced himself to listen carefully, so that when all had been said he might the more surely soothe with sacramental balm. For the world was 'about' being good and being bad and not 'about' trade winds and centres of depression and chemists' shops and the price of war loan, as deep down in their hearts most people knew, only they were afraid to say so out loud in case other people would laugh at them. Outside, as he thought this, the early morning trams clanged in the meaninglessness of another material day, and an early milk boy sang 'Charleston, Charleston, she told me that I couldn't dance the Charleston.'

When he had given Angus absolution, Father Smith vested and began the Mass in front of the same little portable altar which he had used in France. Angus, who had insisted on serving, answering back with a great common Scots accent which lent pathos to his Latin: 'Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam.' And what joy had God given to Angus's youth? Father Smith wondered. Angus hadn't been happy at the war, and he hadn't been happy after the war, with no job and his trollop of a wife carrying on with other men as soon as his back was turned. But perhaps Angus had been happy as a boy running with bare feet about the streets of the town. Perhaps he had been happy selling chocolates and cigarettes in Signor Sarno's cinema house. Or perhaps a glimpse of beauty had soaked colour into his soul: the noise of the sea at night, the shine of the rain on a policeman's cape, the wreaths of incense still smudged about the altar when High Mass was over. A rage against the rich rose in the priest as he thought of how easy things had been for them and how difficult for Angus. It was so simple for them, with their green lawns and their limousines and their conservatories and their holidays at Dinard, to talk about what they would do if they were workingmen, but it wasn't so easy for the workingman, especially when he hadn't any work to do.

'Father, I'm that feared,' Angus said when the Mass was over.

'Angus, when they come for you you will say: "Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; Lord Jesus, receive my soul," ' the priest said.

'Father, it's no right,' Angus said. 'She was a dirty stravaiging whore and she deserved all she got and I'm no going to take it lying down.'

'Angus, there'll be no peace in God's good world until taking things lying down become a contagion,' the priest said.

'I'm no going to take things lying down, I tell you,' Angus began to shout. 'It's no right; it's no fair. I fought in the war, in the muck and the blood, aye for four lang years, with the wind cauld aboot ma belly, and my boots tramping on deid men's tripes and they stinking like sewer pipes. They'd won an immortal fame, their names'd be written on golden scrolls in great big red and purple letters, so the fellies that slept at hame in their beds said. And I'd won immortal fame too; my name ought to have been written on golden scrolls for folks to have a read at, because my guts might have been lying at the bottom of a trench too, all stretched oot and cauld and trampit doon. But folk had forgotten the war by the time I got hame, they'd forgotten the laddies that fought and died and bled oot their sair red blood for them, and the fellies that had stayed at hame were oot o' their beds now, rubbing their great randy bellies against the lassies in the paly de donces. And what did I get for risking my ain one life for them and what did I get for my poor sair arm? I didna get whooring aroond with the lassies, at least not with the stuck-up yins with their heids in the air and their silken doups that only farted lavender and eau-de-cologne, I didna; I got a job at thirty bob a week and Annie Rooney wi' a great muckle airse on her like Ben Nevis and a great cauld mooth, at least when I got pitten oot by yon Sarno for asking for forty bob instead of thirty it was. And yet I loved her, Faither, I loved her because I thought she was all my ain. That's why I went oot along the dreich clarty streets selling matches and bootlaces in the wind and the rain and the snaw. That's why I climbed all yon steep stane steps to try to sell pencils to scribbling writing men with wee peery eyes and great big nebs in their offices that didna care how many laddies' banes lay rotting in Flanders' fields so long as they were safe and alive and screwing oot their sneaky wee figures. And all the time the dirty bitch was lying with her stinking meat in other men's airms with her yelly, yelly hair all streakit oot across the pillow and saying the same hot loving words in their lugs she used to say in mine. It's no fair, I tell you.' Suddenly the venom was out of him and he was sobbing in the priest's arms. 'Faither, Faither, I'm that feared,' he said.

'Angus, you mustn't talk like that,' the priest said. 'You're in a state of grace, remember, but you'll be out of it again before you know where you are if you go on like that. Don't forget the implications of Christianity, Angus. It was never intended to be an easy religion, but a difficult one. That's just what the world doesn't understand and yet it's precisely what our Blessed Lord came down from heaven to teach. And He didn't find it easy to die either. Try to model yourself on Him, Angus. Try to understand something of the law of mystical substitution.' He spoke quickly because he knew that time was short. 'Make an act of contrition for the sins of your whole life, Angus. Tell God that you are sorry for not having understood His purpose better. Say: "Into Thy Hands ..." ,' but already the warder was turning the key in the lock.

There were quite a few there to see Angus die: the governor, the magistrates, the doctor, the warders, the hangman, all neat and respectable in their boots, but the priest didn't look at them much because he was too busy holding up the crucifix to Angus and telling him to commend his soul to Jesus. When it was all over, he anointed the corpse because he had not been able to do so previously as Angus had been in no technical danger of death. Then he went out into the sad sunshine where a policeman was already pinning on the prison door the notice of Angus's death. The crowd of ghouls who had gathered on the pavement made way for him as they crammed forward to read the notice. Among them the priest noticed Councillor Thompson, who surprisingly raised his hat. Father Smith raised his hat back and then hurried home to the church where Canon Bonnyboat had promised to say the nine-o'clock Mass for the repose of Angus's soul.


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