Chapter 23

in which Elvira, after getting rich in Hollywood, gives generous presents to Father Smith's parish, to the nuns, and then - while talking to Father Smith - learns of new challenges that humankind faces.

Elvira hadn't forgotten the Church of the Holy Name while she had been away in America, making a fortune, telling Clark Gable and Franchot Tone to step on it, Steve, and entertaining the Misses Dietrich, Harlow, West, Rogers, and Loy at her palatial residence on Beverly Hills. She gave the canon a cheque for five thousand pounds so that he could build a real stone church as the old tin one was beginning to leak. The canon, when he had thanked her, said that he would build the new chancel first, as this was the most important. She also brought him for High Mass six sets of vestments in all the colours of the Roman sequence, including pink, for Lactare and Gaudete Sundays. For this the canon was very grateful because the green chasuble with the lamb on the back, which, from a distance, looked like a horse, was beginning to get rather faded. Elvira hadn't forgotten the nuns at the convent either, for she had brought them vestments as well, white, red, green, purple, and black, and a gold monstrance set with rubies and sapphires. She also invited the canon to lunch with her at the Carlton-Elite, because she said that she wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with him.

Canon Smith hadn't been in the Carlton-Elite since five years previously, when he had taken the last sacraments to a dying Portuguese admiral, and he found the vestibule very worldly, with painted young women standing about with their overcoats thrown loosely over their shoulders and smoking with aggressive venom as though they were doing something both wicked and complicated, like committing adultery in Russian. The men who were with them all seemed to have sallow faces and wide trousers and suede shoes and to be talking about a tip a broker johnny had given them that morning or what sort of time old Charlie had had at Monty. Used to contemplating sin and futility only from the pulpit and the confessional, the canon was appalled when he met them on the same carpet and, in order not to be obliged to inspect them too closely, he crossed to the bookstall, which was piled with Magnolia Street and The Fountain.

'Buon giorno, carissimo padre mio; mi scusi di averla fatto aspettare.' Elvira, the priest saw as he turned to greet her, was also wearing her overcoat thrown loosely over her shoulders, and so he concluded that the affectation couldn't be so wicked after all. 'Per Bacco,' she added, not because it was appropriate, but just to make his old tired face laugh.

'Per Bacco, ma sei veramente incantevole,' Canon Smith said with a gallantry which was as sincere as it was unwonted.

'That's not at all the sort of thing that a holy man of God should say to a cinema star,' Elvira said as she led him into the cocktail lounge.

For all his sixty-four years the canon had never been in a cocktail lounge before, but Monsignor O'Duffy had told him that they were places where men and women who didn't believe in the Trinity forgathered to make lewd merriment over outlandish brews and potations. He looked about him with interest, therefore. All over the room the same patterns of pink-putty people as he had seen parading in the vestibule were sitting about at small tables drinking tight little lakes of coloured drinks out of glasses with long stems. Certainly none of them seemed to be dressed in such a way as to suggest that they believed very ardently in the Trinity, and some of the brews and potations they were consuming looked as though they might, indeed, be outlandish, but the canon didn't see any signs of merriment, lewd or innocent. Instead, there were hopelessness, envy, and disappointment in their unlighted eyes, although they stretched their lips politely and showed great teeth like horses, when their companions spoke to them. Alone against the wall on the other side of the room a fat little bald man pulled out a thick gold watch, held it to his ear, and put it back into his pocket again.

When the waiter came and asked them what they wanted to drink, the canon was at a loss what to say, because there were so many names he didn't know to choose from: martinis, manhattans, bronxes, angel's kisses, and sidecars; but Elvira helped him out and said that she thought that they'd both' better have a sidecar.

The strange drink when it came looked rather like soapy water, but Elvira said that it tasted much nicer than it looked, and indeed it did, and after a sip or two the canon began to be able to believe that the tweed suits and fur coats and high heels and silk stockings all around weren't perhaps as worldly as they looked and might even love our Blessed Lord a little, provided there was an organ playing.

'Are you happy, child?' he asked at length.

'When men stare at me I still wish it was he that was staring,' she said. 'When we go into the dining-room in a minute, men will turn and stare again and I'll still wish that it was he who was staring. And all I can do is to pray that God will give him the grace of a happy death, which he is pretty certain to have in any case as he is a priest. But there's nothing to be afraid of, Father,' she said, observing his worry. 'In these matters it takes two to make a danger. Why, Joseph scarcely knows that I exist now. Do you know what he said to me in the sacristy this morning when I went to give him my good wishes? "Oh, hello, Elvira. Nice to see you again. You're on the stage or in opera or something, aren't you?" '

'You must remember that the study of the contemporary cinema is not encouraged in seminaries,' Canon Smith said.

They finished their drinks in silence and then rose and went into the dining-room. As Elvira had predicted, people turned to stare at her, but the canon could not make out whether it was because she was beautiful or because they knew that she was a famous cinema actress. The headwaiter showed them to a table at the window, with a view, of the tramways passing, all plastered with advertisements and tiny people hurrying. At the next table four red faced businessmen were swilling down gin and Italians and talking with loud jocosity.

'We'd better order a dozen of these things each and have done with it,' one of them said as he gulped with relish. 'Waiter, another four same agains and look slippy about it.'

'Now this johnny Hitler,' another of them said.

'What johnny Hitler?' another of them asked.

'He means the chap who's trying to form a new party in' Germany,' another of them said.

'Just a flash in the pan, that's all,' the first man said. 'All these continental politicians are alike: they never last. And in any case who wants to worry about Germany? We licked her, didn't we?'

'This chap Hitler says he's out to make Germany strong and powerful again,' the second man said.

'Well, if there's another war, all I can say is I'm waiting till they come and fetch me,' the third man said. 'Look at what the last one did to us: messed up business and now there's no money left for anybody.'

'He's a fine one to talk,' the fourth man said. 'Made a nice little packet the other day, he did.'

'Now look here, Jimmy, just because I bought the missus a new Daimler. And what about Harry here with his Rolls?'

A gentleman, with a nose like a purple pumice stone and mean little piggy eyes, raised his glass benevolently in the air.

'I've always maintained that all this talk about a slump was demoralizing,' he said. 'Talk about a slump and chaps tread on your ear. Don't talk about a slump and keep your optics skinned, and before you know where you are you're in the dough.'

'All the same, you can't deny that there's serious unemployment in the country,' Jimmy said.

'Sheer damned laziness if you ask me,' Harry said. 'Now if I were a shipwright and there was no work for me in the shipyards, I'd walk the country till I found work on a farm or down a mine or humphing luggage on barrows in a railway station. Wouldn't matter what it was so long as it was good honest work. But no; the modern workingman isn't like that: he prefers to sit at home and draw the dole. And who's paying for it? The same old mutts, of course: you and me. It's just as well the company's had a good year.'

'I say, Tom, what did you say that German chap's name was?' the third man asked.

'You mean Hitler,' Tom answered. 'Aitch-aye - damn it, Andrew, I can't remember whether there are two tees or only one. Waiter, another four same agains.'

Elvira and the canon had just finished ordering their lunch when across the square came a procession of tattered men with banners. They were the unemployed shipyard workers marching out to call on the Prime Minister in London. Lean and haggard and with angry eyes they came, shuffling, out-of-step, dank, dreary, and dirty. Some of them wore their war medals on their breasts and some of them had great cracked boots with socks and sometimes toes showing through, and some of them raised a clenched fist as they passed the hotel windows. Two tables away from the canon, a girl, with a pale face and a long neck which made her look like a lily, raised crescents of spiked eyelashes in insolent enquiry, but the lily was too busy shovelling down steak and kidney pie to watch for long. The other lunchers looked out casually, too, and then went on lining themselves with soup and hors-d'oeuvres. In a dais beneath a droop of palms Oliver Ogilvie's Ohio Octette began to drool out 'I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madame.'

'That's the third of those disgraceful processions I've seen this week,' the first businessman said.

'You're right, Arthur: sheer damned lazy, that's what they are,' the second man said.

'What beats me is why the fools can't understand that it's simply a question of economics and that employers can't afford to pay workers for doing nothing,' the third man said.

'They ought to turn a machine-gun on the swine,' the fourth man said. 'Waiter, another four same agains.'

'Tell me, Father,' Elvira said across the table to the canon. 'There's something very wrong with this country, isn't there?'

'With the whole world, I'm afraid, my dear,' the Canon said.

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