Chapter 19

in which Father Smith enjoys conversations with the nuns, especially after they learn about Elvira's success in Hollywood.

In May, 1928, Mother de la Tour's wireless set was able to make such a noise that she didn't need any earphones to hear what the pretty girls were singing in London. But not all the noises it made were holy, so Reverend Mother suggested that it should be turned on as seldom as possible, although she admitted that she had no serious objection to 'Tea for Two and Two for Tea,' and 'Rose Marie, I Love You,' even if neither song contributed positively to the sanctification of souls. The films, too, were talking now, and Monsignor O'Duffy went so far as to predict that in another few years they would be stinking as well, but that didn't worry Signor Sarno, who had a nice lot of new names on the advertisements outside his cinema: gentlemen called R. Novarro and J. Gilbert, and ladies called C. Bennett and. G. Garbo, all of whom were wows, but Miss G. Garbo especially, because of the superb way she could wear a mackintosh. The novelists, too, were in full song: John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Uncle Hugh Walpole, and all. In 1927, Gentlemen had Preferred Blondes, but now there was The Bridge of San Luis Rey and All Quiet on the Western Front, and everybody agreed that war was a very terrible scourge indeed, and the Highland Herald went even so far as to state that if bagpipes helped to arouse the martial spirit, then bagpipes ought to be shunned, sequestred, suppressed, and shattered in order that war might never, never come again. Everywhere progress was on the upgrade and culture was having a boom: there were transatlantic flights, Al Capone, crossword puzzles, zip fasteners, contraceptives in slot machines, and contract bridge, and people began to feel a little sorry for the Greeks who had only had Aristotle and Socrates and Plato, even although they had had a word for it.

The Church, however, still had her confessors, doctors, virgins, and martyrs, and although Saints Marius, Martha, Audifax, and Abachum were, for the moment, less well known than Harold Lloyd and Gloria Swanson, they looked as though they might last longer. So indeed thought Father Smith as he made his way one Friday afternoon to the convent to hear the nuns' confessions. Only that morning he had read in the Daily Bugle of a young American millionaire who employed to answer his social correspondence fifty typists, all of whom had to have red hair and pale green eyes. Interviewed in his favourite bathroom by a press representative, the millionaire had said: 'I am a progressive. Freed from the shackles of superstition and dogma, I believe in the pulsation of life and in the elemental biologic principle. I want a good time and as I've got the mazuma, why the heck shouldn't I have it?'

It didn't make sense to Father Smith who had never been able to understand how people who split their infinitives, read Edgar Wallace for pleasure, and believed that black cats were unlucky should be intellectually insulted by the doctrine of transubstantiation; but then nothing ever did make sense in the Daily Bugle, which simultaneously held up for the admiration of its readers Steve Donoghue, Dean lnge, the Dolly Sisters, the Aga Khan, and Mrs. Aimée MacPherson.

The nuns' confessions always cheered Father Smith, because they made him realize that other people in the world were fighting the same lonely battle for grace. They also made him feel humble, because it was evident that the nuns were so much better at being holy than he was: they never lost their tempers, they never criticized their fellows, they never tried to jog God's elbow; they accepted their own tribulations and other people's imperfections as natural in this vale of tears. Listening to their swift French amid the smell of incense and old wood and clean linen, Father Smith often felt that it ought to have been he who should confess to them and not they to him.

He was always a little nervous when Reverend Mother came into the box, because he knew that spiritually she was ever so much better informed than he was and that he would need no end of help from the Holy Ghost if he were not to appear a fool when he gave her counsel. Today, however, she made him smile for the first time. Last Saturday she had had occasion to address the girls of the junior school, who were aged from five to ten, and she had told them how very wrong it was for girls to put cosmetics on their faces because it was an insult to our Blessed Lord's handiwork, since, if He had intended women's lips to be vermillion, He would have created them that colour Himself. At the time she had forgotten that she had been speaking to such very young girls and now she wondered whether she had acted wisely or foolishly. Might she not have done more harm than good? Might she not inadvertently have encouraged some girls to contemplate a practice of which they had not heard until she had spoken of it to them? Bless her, Father, for she had sinned, but she would very much like Father Smith's advice on the subject.

Afterwards, as they walked together in the garden, the priest was still smiling. He had given Reverend Mother an extra Hail Mary to say 'for spiritual indiscretion' and he was amused by the recollection. They paced up and down the flower beds in the smell of new-mown grass and the rosary hanging from the Reverend Mother's girdle made a clicking wooden noise as she walked.

'Alors, mon père?' she asked, because she knew that the priest always liked to discuss with her the signs that he imagined he discerned in the outer world.

'God's Kingdom is not yet, ma révérende mère, but there are stirrings which are indicative of a change of spirit,' he said.

Reverend Mother did not say anything, but walked on with her hands folded beneath her scapular waiting for the priest to continue.

'The people are foolish,' Father Smith said. 'They clamour for a new thing, but then they have always clamoured for new things. Just now the new things are flying across the Atlantic, getting married by Protestant clergymen in diving suits at the bottom of swimming pools or dancing for twenty­four hours on end without stopping, but one day, when the leaders of the world have learned wisdom and passed it on, the people will realize that there's much more fun to be had out of obeying God. And there are signs that the leaders of the world are waking up, or at least that the thinkers of the world are going to make them wake up. Two good books have been published: one is called The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the other is called All Quiet on the Western Front. The first is a beautiful book which sweetly shows forth the transcendent justice of Almighty God. It is, I think, encouraging that such a book should be a best-seller. The second is an ugly book, or perhaps it would be true to say that its subject-matter is ugly, since its treats of war, its waste, and its futility. It was written by a German and is enjoying huge sales in all countries. Now, if only statesmen could be brought to understand that war is an evil, but that it is not a necessarily recurrent evil. Tribal warfare has vanished. Why should not international warfare also vanish? Why should statesmen not be brought to realize that murder is no more justifiable when committed by a collectivity than when committed by an individual? Why should they not be brought to understand that a man who is wounded in the stomach suffers no less because another three hundred thousand men are simultaneously wounded in the stomach? And if wars can be banished from the earth, the opportunity for men to serve God will increase. I have always held that one of the reasons men fail so badly is that they do not live long enough to learn from their mistakes. Well, having no wars will be one way for humanity as a whole to live longer.' He had uttered most of his speech down to the moving carpet of the grass, but now that he had finished, he looked up into Reverend Mother's wise smooth face to see how she had taken it all.

'Mon père, I hope that you are right, but I am afraid that you are wrong,' Reverend Mother said. 'In all ages there have been men who have dreamed of banishing wars and they have always failed. They have failed because men will not obey God and love Him and their neighbours as themselves. War comes because of the absence of love, but that does not mean that love will come because of the absence of war. The Church has always been buffeted by many winds, mon père: by the hatred of her enemies, by the disobedience of her children, by the ambition of her less worthy prelates. And I think that she will always be so buffeted because it is only in heaven that our Lord has promised that the Church will be triumphant. In the meantime we can only pray and thank Almighty God that green grass smells so sweet and hope that it will smell as sweet in heaven.'

'But we must act as well, ma révérende mère, we must cooperate with sanctifying grace,' Father Smith said.

He felt that he could have gone on talking to Reverend Mother for hours yet, but Mother Leclerc came out across the lawn in her flopping black habit and said that they must both come into the parlour at once, and see Elvira Sarno's new photograph which had just arrived from America, from a place called Hollywood.

Elvira had been in America for more than a year now, and Father Smith wanted very much to see her photograph, but he wanted even more to tell Reverend Mother that in his opinion the leaders of the Church had grown so used to the spectacle of the world neglecting the Wisdom of Christ that they had ceased to be shocked by it and that what was wanted was a renewal of the apostolic spirit among cardinals and archbishops and papal nuncios. It was no use preaching the gospel only to those who came to church to hear it. The gospel ought to be preached to those who didn't want to hear it as well: to industrialists in their offices, to clubmen in their windows, to workers in their yards and factories, to bibbers in their taverns, to harlots in their doorways, to all those should the sweet tidings of Christ be taught. It was a sorry matter for reflection that it was only heretics who dared to brave the sneers of the mob by crying aloud the Name of Jesus at street corners and in the market place. All this he wanted to say to Reverend Mother, but Mother Leclerc kept chattering away beside them about how beautiful Elvira was in her photograph and not nearly as worldly-looking as she had feared, and in any case it was rather a complicated sequence of sentiments for him to put into immediate French.

Elvira did, indeed, looked beautiful on her glossy photograph on which she had written in the corner: 'To my dear sweet nuns in memory of many happy yesterdays. Elvira Sarno.' Reverend Mother held the photograph up to the light and examined it attentively, and Father Smith knew that she was scrutinizing the eyes for the evidence of compromission with the world. He, too, examined the photograph closely: the shiny lips looked almost black and the eyebrows seemed strangely thin, but the eyes were the same eyes that he had seen gazing starrily across the altar rail at her first communion.

'We shall have the photograph framed and hung in the parlour,' Reverend Mother decided.

'But will his lordship the Bishop approve?' Mother Leclerc asked. 'Je sais qu'elle est ravissante, mais elle est tout de même actrice, et ma mère m'a toujours dit que les actrices c'étaient tout de même des actrices, et puis il y a déjà la photographie de Sa Sainteté.'

'His lordship will approve, because he knows just as well as I do that it is possible to act as well as to stoke furnaces or to pray to the greater glory of God,' Reverend Mother said. 'And I am sure that His Holiness wouldn't mind either. Elvira Sarno was our pupil and she is now our friend. Even if she has chosen a dangerous profession, it is our duty to pray for her, that she may carry into strange places the lamp we lighted for her here. And even if she fails, it will still be our duty to pray for her, so that she may become again the child she was when she was at this school.'

Father Smith felt that he could have kissed Reverend Mother for this speech. Instead, he said that he thought that he had at the presbytery the very frame to fit the photograph. At present it held the image of a friend of his who had recently become a Vicar Apostolic in Basutoland, but he didn't think the Vicar Apostolic would mind giving up the frame to Elvira, especially as the photograph was very faded now. In any case he would bring the frame along tomorrow. Reverend Mother and Mother Leclerc said that that was very kind of Father Smith, and Mother Leclerc added that perhaps Elvira would one day bring great honour to them all by acting in a film the part of Bernadette Soubirous or Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus or Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque or even our Blessed Lady herself.

When he was happy, Father Smith always sang snatches from the psalms as he walked along the street. Today as he returned to. the presbytery he sang the Magnificat. He was so pleased about what Reverend Mother had said about Elvira that he almost bawled the verses: 'Magnificat anima mea Dominum. Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.' People turned to stare at him as he passed, but. the priest was too elated to notice, and kept right on to the end, shouting his gratitude up to God, thundering Latin, false notes and all: 'Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros: Abraham et semini eius in saecula.' When he stopped, he found himself in front of Signor Sarno's cinema. The proprietor himself was standing on the steps airing his three rings of chin.

'Buona sera, reverendo padre mio,' Signor Sarno greeted. 'You come see my little girl act. Very nice. Very moving. In the bathroom scene she is especially magnificent. Very passionate, very pure. "Bill," she says, "you get to hell out of it or I'll throw you out on your ear," and then she has her bath and sings "Ave Maria" just to show she ain't no floosie. You pop in for a look-see, reverendo Father. I stand you exquisitely upholstered seat.'

Father Smith wondered why it was that he hadn't noticed the name, Elvira Sarno, on the bills, but he supposed that it must be because down the years he had seen so many names from Hoot Gibson to Tom Mix larded up there that he had ceased to pay any real attention to them. All the films seemed to have similar titles and to deal with similarly trivial problems; such as whether a wife could run an advertising agency and yet be at her brightest and best when she dined downtown with her stockbroker husband. The title of Elvira's film did not sound very profound either: LOVE FOR AN HOUR. Because he wished at all costs to be able to go on believing in Elvira, the priest decided that he would not accept her father's invitation. He knew that it was cowardly of him, hut he consoled himself by remembering that Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson had always refrained from reading the New Testament in Greek in case the exercise would destroy his faith.

Signor Sarno seemed disappointed when Father Smith declined his offer, but he brightened when, out of politeness, the priest asked him if he thought that conditions were better in Italy after six years of fascist rule.

'Questo Mussolini è il piu gran uomo di stato del mondo,' he said. 'He has made of my country an ordered house. No more bits of dirty paper lying about the streets, no more late trains, only in-time trains. And soon he will make of it a powerful country as well. In ten years' time we shall have a population of sixty million people, sesanta milioni d'abitanti, reverendo Father, and then these dirty Frenchmen can look out for their skins. And in the meantime we prepare. In my country the sale of All Quiet on the Western Front has been prohibited, because in fascist Italy we know that no country can be great without war. "The nineteenth century has been the century of our freedom, but the twentieth century will be the century of our power," so Mussolini says. Evviva il Duce!'

Father Smith told Signor Sarno then and there, and as blisteringly as was consistent with his priestly calling, just how great a book he thought All Quiet on the Western Front and how ignoble the ambitions of Mussolini, who ought to understand that the true grandeur of nations, as of individuals, came from their souls and not from their possessions; but Signor Sarno merely smiled and shook his head as he had smiled and shaken his head when the priest had asked him to take Angus McNab back into employment.

Crossing the road to the presbytery, Father Smith sang no more psalms, because his heart was heavy within him that even great men could be so foolish. Outside the presbytery door itself a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. He did not look sincere, but the priest gave him a shilling which he couldn't afford, because Monsignor O'Duffy always maintained that it was a Christian's duty to risk giving wrongly rather than to risk sending one truly representing our Lord empty away.


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