Chapter 5

in which Father Smith and his compadres are subjected to the experience of a movie theater.

It was in 1910 that the first cinema came to the town. Paolo Sarno took a chance on things and converted the old bus stables next his ice-cream shop, which was bang opposite the site on which Father Smith had already built the skeleton of his new tin church. The priest could see the advertisements from his presbytery window. They changed twice a week too, on Mondays and Thursdays: sometimes they were about a man called John Bunny and sometimes they were about two men called Gerald Ames and Stewart Rome, but the advertisement saying that afternoon tea would be served free of charge to patrons between three and four was always the same. People said that it was rather sporting of Sarno to be so enterprising, because the craze mightn't last any longer than the one for roller-skating in which the Italian had taken such a hard knock two years ago.

The canons of the chapter of the pro-Cathedral, however, didn't think it sporting at all. They were perturbed because weekday attendances at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament began to fall off and the evening devotions in the month of May were performed only by the elderly, and even some of them hadn't been above popping in for an hour's Vitagraph and a wee free tea during the holy season of Lent when they thought none of the priests were looking. It was in vain that Monsignor O'Duffy had thundered from the pulpit, 'It's no by sitting in red plush airmchairs watching a lot of silly gowks sauntering and daundering about a lot of helter-skeltering moving-picture postcairds that any of ye'll ever see the bonny Bessed Virgin Mary face to face in the kingdom of heaven'; the attendances at Benediction during the month of the Sacred Heart were as poor as during the month of May. Some of the canons at the chapter meeting maintained that it would be more prudent not to condemn the cinema until His Holiness Pope Pius X had made an official pronouncement, but Monsignor O'Duffy had said that that was all havers and clavers and nonsense, and that if they had to wait on the official verdict of the Church, they might be argy-bargying till Doomsday, and that the Church had taken nearly nineteen hundred years to make up its mind about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and that they couldn't afford to dilly and dally like that while young folk aye and auld folk, too, were walking straight into the jaws of hell at sixpence a time and children half price.

It was decided, therefore, to send a deputation to attend a performance. This was possible because, as Monsignor O'Duffy pointed out, although local ecclesiastical law forbade priests to attend theatrical performances, the cinematograph was a very different cup of tea, indeed, and so could not be held to fall within the ban. He said, too, that if the members of the chapter didn't mind, he intended to go himself, as there was no cleric in the diocese who knew more about wickedness than he did, and that he would take his old friends the Reverend Fathers Bonnyboat and Smith with him, because it wouldn't be fair on Signor Sarno to be letting only austere and wise canons have a keek at his new-fangled toboggan slide down to the depths of the nethermost pit.

Paolo Sarno seemed to have heard of their intended visit, for he was there in the vestibule to greet them, standing underneath a large framed photograph of a lady called Flora Finch. Father Smith wondered why he hadn't come right out into the street, because that would have been even more polite, but Father Bonnyboat said that he mightn't have heard of their intended visit at all and that it was just by chance that he was standing there, and Monsignor O'Duffy said it was only because he couldn't very well have let them pay for themselves through yon wee hole in the wall into the lassie's face if he had come right out on the pavement, ha, ha. Anyway there he was on the purple carpet with his thick light-brown fingers looking just like the advertisement for Palethorpe's sausages on the railway embankment.

'Buon giorno, reverendissimi signori,' he greeted, because he thought that they all spoke Italian. The priests said 'Buon giorno,' back, except Father Bonnyboat, who had studied in the Scots College in Valladolid instead of the Scots College in Rome, and who said, 'Buenos dias,' instead. This made Paolo Sarno laugh and say: 'Per Bacco! The reverendo father speaka the Italian like a Spanish cow, vero, no offence meant, reverendo father. You coma to see my show. Very good, very elevating, very pious. The reverendi fathers coma this way.'

The reverendi fathers came this way, carrying their inverted black hats in front of their faces like soup-plates, and as they trooped along, Monsignor O'Duffy said to Paolo Sarno in a loud voice: 'Wicked or elevating, shameful or pious, this new craze'll no last, Mr. Sarno, and in my opinion you'd have done much better to open one of yon miniature shooting ranges with wee celluloid balls dancing about on jets of water, which are without the suspicion of sin.'

It took Father Smith's eyes some little time to grow accustomed to the darkness, so that at first he seemed to be sitting in an immense black hole with Father Bonnyboat's overcoat on one side of him and Monsignor O'Duffy's overcoat on the other. Gradually, however, the darkness lightened to an amber haze in which he could make out lines of heads all about him like rows of chocolates in a box. On the screen they were showing a blue river meandering along beneath green bridges and an old mouldering church or two, which didn't seem to Father Smith very wicked, because the old mouldering churches were almost certainly Catholic churches with the Body of God safe inside them, and a piano was playing away most politely, tra-la-la-la-la-la.

The same thought must have struck Father Bonnyboat, for he said across Father Smith to Monsignor O'Duffy, 'Nothing very irreverent about that, Monsignor.'

'Just you wait till we get to the acting,' Monsignor O'Duffy said. 'They tell me it's worse than yon machines you turn the handles on and look down on piers.' He brought his ear very close to Father Smith's and whispered: 'Tights. Tell him,' he said.

But before Father Smith could pass this information on to Father Bonnyboat, a hat with a large pin stuck through it in the row in front of them turned round and said 'Sssh,' and Father Smith was left to wonder in silence how Monsignor O'Duffy knew so much about what was inside the machines you looked down and turned the handles on on piers. Then the piano suddenly stopped playing and there was a noise in the air just like the buzzing the rotary brush made in the barber's, and the green bridges and the mouldering old Churches went on for a moment or two and then they stopped, too, and the lights went up and the rows of heads in front of Father Smith had ears on them and the screen turned out to be not a hung-up sheet at all, but hard and rectangular and glossy with high lights on it here and there as though the paint had run.

'Most edifying, really,' Father Bonnyboat said.

'Just you wait, I tell you,' Monsignor O'Duffy said.

The lights went down again. This time the film was about a convict in prison. The convict wore a uniform striped broadly like a football jersey, and at first Father Smith was very sorry for him, because he seemed to be so miserable. But then the convict escaped and ran around a lot of street corners and the policemen ran round a lot of street corners after him, but the convict always managed to escape, even when the policemen came at him from both directions at once, because he dodged behind doorways and the policemen ran into one another and knocked one another over. When Father Smith laughed, he knew he wasn't doing anything wrong, because he could hear Monsignor O'Duffy and Father Bonnyboat laughing, too.

Then the convict ran along a beach, and there were a lot of pretty girls in bathing dresses eating chocolates on the sand, and the convict ran in among them and upset the chocolates, and Father Smith was wondering what Monsignor O'Duffy was going to say about the bathing dresses when down the gangway came a flashlight crying, 'Chocleets, cigarettes and matches.' Then the flashlight turned into Angus McNab's face above two sprays of gold buttons leaning across Monsignor O'Duffy's waistcoat and saying to Father Smith, 'Do ye no ken me, Father?' 'One of my altar boys,' Father Smith was going to explain to Monsignor O'Duffy, but up on the screen the policeman and the convict and the pretty girls were throwing tarts and pies at one another's faces and Monsignor O'Duffy was laughing too hard to be able to listen. The pie-throwing didn't seem very funny to Father Smith and it didn't appear to strike Father Bonnyboat as very funny either, but the rest of the audience roared their heads off and Monsignor O'Duffy laughed enough for both of them.

'Yon fellow's a right comic and no mistake,' he said as he sat wiping the tears from his eyes. Then he caught sight of a pretty waitress in a black frock and frisk of apron coming up the gangway. 'Hi, lassie, what about yon free tea?' he asked.

'It'll be served during Death or Dishonour, sir,' she said. And served during Death or Dishonour their tea was, right bang in the middle of the Sheriff's speech, 'Boys, I kinda reckon there's been dirty work at Red Gulch and we're going to put out that dirty skunk of a double-crossing horsethief Ned Tranter's lights for him so that our God-fearing women­folk can sleep safe in their beds o' nights and our maidens wander happy and careless 'neath a myriad stars,' flashed across the screen just like that, without any commas, but with lots of dots at the end to make up. There was a tray for each, with a teapot and a cup and saucer and two hard little biscuits with ribs running along the back. Monsignor O'Duffy said that if the management had wanted to do things really well, they would have given them a boiled egg to their teas as well, but he seemed to enjoy the biscuits all right, soaking them in his cup of tea before he ate them and making great appreciative gurglings, champings, and suckings.

On the screen, above the cups of tea, Ned Tranter had captured the Sheriff's pretty daughter, lassoing her while she was saying her prayers by her bedside and riding off with her on his horse to his mountain fastness. 'Ned Tranter,' she said to him in a great paragraph through her gag, 'you may starve me, beat me, flay me, but never shall I consent to befoul God's great gift of love by becoming the mother of your children, nay, nor shall I cook for you, sew for you, dust for you. Death rather than Dishonour, Ned Tranter, for my heart belongs to clean-limbed Patrick Hogan of Lone Ranch.' At this there was great cheering and clapping and stamping of feet, and Father Bonnyboat said that with a name like that Patrick Hogan must surely be a Catholic and Monsignor O'Duffy said that that just showed ye that even on the fillums the great Holy Kartholic Churrch played a royal and triumphant rôle. Father Smith was too intrigued with the drama to say anything. With eager eyes and beating heart he watched the Sheriff and Patrick Hogan and the other boys of Red Gulch set out to rescue Molly Kintyre, whose eyes were like forest pools with the ineffable glory of the stars mirrored in their purple depths, at least that was what Patrick Hogan had said when he was playing snooker in a saloon bar with Mickey Riley.

As they set out on horseback, they all fired their pistols into the air to let Molly Kintyre know that they were coming, but of course Ned Tranter didn't hear, because he always slept with his dirty head under the blankets. Up hill and down dale they rode, firing their pistols all the time. Sometimes it looked very much as though they were riding up the same hill twice, but Father Smith was too excited to care. With the others he clapped, groaned, lost heart and clapped again, but at last it was all over and Molly Kintyre was restored to the arms of Patrick Hogan, who swore, colleen bawn, that he would never play snooker in saloon bars again, and the Sheriff said, pointing his revolver at Ned Tranter: 'Nix on the gunplay, Tranter. Put 'em up. You're cornered.'

The three priests clapped with the rest of the audience, and Father Bonnyboat said that he hadn't seen anything so edifying for a very long time indeed, and Monsignor O'Duffy said that he was never afraid to confess when he was wrong and that it looked very much as though he had been wrong in what he had said about the cinema, and that if the remainder of the programme contained no unpleasant surprises, he would have to make amends to Signor Sarno by buying tickets for all the members of Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

There was, however, no remainder of the programme, for, as soon as the lights were lowered, the blue river and the green bridges and the mouldering old churches started all over again, with the piano going tra-la-la-la-la-la and all. Father Bonnyboat said that he supposed that they really ought to be going, but Monsignor O'Duffy said that that was all havers and nonsense and that 'continuous performance' meant that folks could stay in as long as they liked and that he was going to see yon bit again where they threw pies at one another, but that of course Father Bonnyboat and Father Smith could do what they liked. Even when, at the end of the blue river and the mouldering churches, they flashed an orange notice on the screen, 'PATRONS WHO HAVE SEEN THE FULL PROGRAMME ONCE ARE REQUESTED TO VACATE THEIR SEATS IN FAVOUR OF THOSE WAITING FOR ADMISSION,' even then he still held out, maintaining that it wasn't as though he were trying to get served with an extra free tea, but only that he wanted to see them fling yon pies again. But when he had seen them flinging the pies, he found that he wanted to see them setting out to round up Ned Tranter again as well, so they all stayed to the end of Death or Dishonour and tried not to think that the spectators standing up in the passage were staring at them.

'Of course, it's just a craze and it'll no last,' Monsignor O'Duffy said when they stood outside again on the unenchanted pavement.

Father Bonnyboat said that he thought somehow that it was more than a craze and even wondered whether the blessed in heaven might not be treated to a similar entertainment, since it was so uplifting; but Father Smith said that in heaven the blessed would have our Lord to look at and that nothing could be more uplifting than that. Whereupon they all took off their hats, saluting the priesthood that was in one another, and went back to their churches, because it was the first Thursday of the month and they had confessions to hear.


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