Chapter 35

in which Father Smith himself passes on.

Canon Smith liked the lighted lamps the nuns carried when Canon Muldoon brought him holy communion in bed. He liked to think of the pools of amber they made on the polished floors of the corridors, because it was just the sort of reflection the Blessed Sacrament cast on men's souls as it was hoisted above the unhappiness of the world. He liked to think of the nuns' habits as they swept along through the convent and of bent old Canon Muldoon following behind with the humeral veil wrapped round his precious Burden, because it was the whisper of God's poetry trickling on.

He liked it, too, when he was anointed, with the sky outside the window and the trees still there. As Canon Muldoon traced the last mercies on his weary body, far away out the bend of the railway line, at the junction of the golf course and Sir Dugald Ippecacuanha's estate, a puff of smoke appeared, and a miniature worm of train rolled tinily along the embankment. Canon Smith liked looking at it, because seemed to be part of God's poetry too. He lay thinking of the rhythm of the seasons and how right Canon Bonnyboat had been when had compared the liturgy of the Church to the flowers and the leaves, which God painted new every year.

'Buon giorno, reverendo padre mio, e come sta?' Elvira said as she came in her junior subaltern's uniform and knelt beside the bed, but he knew from the way that smiled at him that she didn't expect him to answer, and sides Canon Muldoon was praying out the great grim words on which his soul must shortly sail: '... in the name of angels and archangels; in the name of thrones and dominions; in the name of principalities and powers; in the name of virtues, cherubim and seraphim; in the name of patriarchs and prophets ...' Reverend Mother was kneeling beside the bed, too, with her face all wrinkled and wise, and she took his hand in both of hers and pressed it and he knew that she was saying good-bye to him in Christ Jesus their Lord. The new young nuns were there as well, with lovely red shiny faces like apples and eyes that would never grow old, because they were Christ's brides. Lady Ippecacuanha was there, too, making great gobbling noises in her throat, and the Polish chaplain and the new Bishop and old dried-up Councillor Thompson who had used to say such dreadful things about God's Church.

'... In the name of holy monks and hermits ...' He would be seeing quite a lot of old friends soon, if God was merciful and he landed on the right side of the fence. Angus McNab and the Bishop and the boozy major and the old sailor and Monsignor O'Duffy and Mother de la Tour and Mother Leclerc and Annie Rooney and a host of others who had been studded in the calendar of his prayers. He wondered if there would be flowers in heaven for Mother de la Tour and whether Angus would be allowed to wear the ribbon of the D.C.M. and if Annie Rooney liked singing the Magnificat now that God had made all things plain to her. For that was what death really was: a making of things plain, a shining forth from behind bomber aeroplanes and advertisements for syrup of figs.

And suddenly as he lay there he knew the answer to it all: how the lame and the sick should be healed and how the poor should be rewarded and how God's saints might eat peas off their knives; how the banker might be last and the harlot first; how a priest's hands never failed however flat his words; how the Church was all glorious within because the freight she carried healed all her cracks; why God often chose ugly blunt men to do the task of angels; why God was patient and why priests must be patient too; how mighty was their calling and how certain their ointment; and how it was in the answer that each man gave to Christ in the silence of his soul that the fairness of tomorrow's meadows lay. It was all so simple really, and he wanted to tell them before he went, but already the shore of them lined along his bed was retreating and he had time only to cry out at the Polish chaplain.

'Don't forget to let them know there'll be Mass on Sunday in the fish market,' he said.


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