Chapter 30

in which Father Smith and the Reverend Mother learn the news of France surrendering to the German forces.

On the eve of the Feast of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, deacon, confessor, and Doctor of the Church, 1940, when Canon Smith went to the convent to hear the nuns' confessions and say his office beneath the trees, there were still more people walking, grown up, about the streets whom he didn't know', but he knew Signor Sarno all right, swinging out from his cinema in his Local Defence Volunteer uniform with a glengarry cocked over one Neapolitan eye, just as though he had been born in Pittenweem. The bills over the cinema were now saying something about a man called Tyrone Power, but there was also another bill, almost as big, which said: THIS CINEMA IS BRITISH-OWNED.

'Buon giorno, reverendo padre mio,' Signor Sarno greeted. 'E come sta per questo bel tempo?' Reverendo Father, you were right, but so right. That Mussolini is a scoundrel, an oh, so blown-out bladder of conceit. And to attack poor France at such a momento. Reverendo Father, it make my Scottish blood boll but terribly, for I am Pritish now, reverendo Father, and willingly will I give my unworthy life in defence of democracy and freedom, and the ponny purple heather. And Elvira she think the same as I do, for she send me in a letter from America to say that she is going to make no more pictures, but is coming home to fight for truth with the valorous and courageous women of the A.T.S., though what it stands for ho completamente dimenticato.'

When he had heard the nuns' confessions, the canon walked among Mother de la Tour's flowers because Reverend Mother had given him. permission to say his office there. Up and down he paced with the trees throwing lovely shadows on the red and black Latin words in his breviary. 'Excelsus super omnes gentes Dominus: et super coelos gloria eius.' The canon felt guilty at being able to say such beautiful words in a summer garden when so many young men were at that very moment dying so painfully in France. As he thanked God for his good fortune, Reverend Mother came across the grass to talk to him. The canon could see from her eyes that she had been weeping about France, so he began to speak of something else.

'I passed on my way here two undertakers' assistants marching along the pavements with their agnostic bowler hats banged well down over their ears and I thought how dreadful it was that even Catholics should give their dead to the care of such ghouls,' he said. 'It has long been my opinion that the dead should be laved, shrouded, and carried to the earth by those who have known their bodies for a long time and have, through association and affection, come to realize that they are indeed the temple of the Holy Ghost; but failing that, they should be handed over to be tended by a religious order whose members would reverently perform the last tidying, since they would know that the body of even a wicked man is holy when it is dead, because it is the shadow of a soul terribly at Christ's mercy. And then even the saints, as Cardinal Manning said, were once as we were, with hands and feet and ears and eyes. Reverend Mother, you are not listening,' he said.

'Je pense à mon pauvre pays, si terriblement meutri,' Reverend Mother said. 'Oh, I know well that France has sinned, that she has had great lusts and great passions, but at least they were great lusts and great passions. And I know that she has persecuted the Church and driven out the monks and nuns, but at least that showed that she was not indifferent to religion, and hatred can so often be lighted into love. And then think of all the saints who have trodden her roads and loved Almighty God beneath her thatches. It is not just, monsieur le chanoine, it is not just.'

'Canon Scott said a very wise thing the other day,' Canon Smith said. 'I know that some people think that it was a little unwise on the part of the Bishop to have appointed so young a man administrator of the Cathedral, but Canon Scott has shown many proofs of his wisdom. For one thing, he was fair about the Spanish civil war when most of the rest of us clergy were unfair. Well, he told me the other day that in his opinion delayed action Holy Ghost was very much more dangerous than delayed action bombs. Indeed, he said that it was because of delayed action Holy Ghost that we have the delayed action bombs. In other words, we are reaping the rewards of putting off till an indefinite tomorrow the imperative duty of corresponding with God's grace. And even now that the indefinite tomorrow has become the definite today, we only hear the still, small voice.'

'But Paris,' Reverend Mother said. 'To think of all those filthy boots in Paris! But surely somewhere they will hold them. On the Loire, perhaps. Perhaps on the wireless there is news already that our fortunes have turned.'

But Mother de la Tour's wireless when they went in to listen to it was inspiring the war for freedom, righteousness, truth, and democracy only by moaning:

'I love the sound of the chapel bells,
I love the dancing in the good hotels.'

Canon Smith listened with a bitter expression, but Reverend Mother placed her hand behind her ear because she felt that some important news might come through at any moment. When at length it did and the impersonal voice announced that Marshal Pétain had asked the German High Command to make known on what terms they would be prepared to grant an armistice, she shut her eyes and stood up very straight.

'De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine,' she said. 'Canon, there is something I should very much like you to help me to do.'

Half an hour later, when Canon Smith left the convent, the flag was flying from the gates at half-mast, only this time it wasn't the white flag of France, but the tricolor.


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