Chapter 9

in which Father Smith says good-bye to a French chaplain and, during a night march to the front, answers theological questions.

As soon as he had shriven the boozy major, Father Smith wanted to get holy communion into him quickly before he could go out on the booze again, so he took advantage of the dispensation which allowed the faithful to communicate without fasting in the battle area. Along with a Portuguese private and two corporals of the Cameron Highlanders, the major knelt at the altar rails in the dark evening church at Noeux-les-Mines. Father Smith put on a white stole over his uniform and gave them holy communion, because they were all going up the line that night and might soon be blown into knowing more about Almighty God than the Holy Father himself.

The major had been educated at Ampleforth, but since then he had racketed about a lot, although in argument with Father Smith he always maintained that God was a Sahib in these matters and wouldn't send a chap to burn for ever in hell just because he had a bit of fun with the girls and the bottles. In his blander moments Father Smith had felt inclined to agree with the major, because he had always held that the practice of Christianity was something more than the permanganate of burgess repression and that not everyone that said unto Him, 'Lord, Lord, I have not slept with a pretty actress,' should enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he never admitted this to the major for fear of stimulating his devotion to the popular sins. Instead, he had quoted Monsignor O'Duffy preaching on the feast of Saints Hippolytus and Cassian, 1911, to the whiskery members of the West of Scotland Catholic Needlework Guild: 'Make no mistake about it, my dear friends: the pavements of hell pullulate with liars, thieves, murderers, bibbers of gin, and fornicators; but far the biggest queue for the flames is that of the fornicators, worse by far than the biggest jam of folks you ever saw at a cup final.'

When he had finished giving the major holy communion, Father Smith didn't walk back to headquarters with him, because he knew that that might make the major feel awkward after what he had just had to say in confession about the girl in Rouen. Instead, he stayed on to pray in front of the tabernacle with its curtains hanging white and still in the warm evening air. 'O my God,' he prayed, 'make good come out of this war; make men as courageous in Thy service as they are in their country's; make women more demure but not less beautiful; mould their maidenhood upon Thy Blessed Mother's and place their feet in her pattern; calm youth to Thy contemplation; bless and increase priests and poets; root out from our hearts all love of eminence, comfort, and pleasure; confound wealth and destroy politics; and pour out Thy grace in tumbling rivers.' He felt happier when he had prayed his prayer. Then he prayed for the old sailor whom he had shriven on his deathbed in 1908, in case he might still be in purgatory. Then he prayed for himself, lest he mistake the wickedness of others for a reflection of his own excellence. Far away the guns sounded like hills rolling and Father Smith prayed for those who might even then be dying.

The French priest with the beard came in and knelt down a few chairs away. Father Smith always felt ashamed when he saw the French priest, because the French priest wasn't an officer like he was, but a private soldier who had to march and muck and fight just like any other French soldier and all for next to nothing a day. Father Smith knew the French priest quite well, because they had used the same altar in the mornings for a fortnight now. They used the same vestments, too, because the French priest always finished his Mass five minutes before Father Smith began his and the curé of the parish didn't like his sacristan laying out two sets. The French priest stayed behind to hear Father Smith's Mass when he could, because he said that he found it even more devotional to hear Mass than to say it. When they came out of the church together, the French priest would talk for a little in the sun and the early morning ivy and then jump on his bicycle and ride back to his regiment, looking very ordinary; but Father Smith knew that it wasn't only because he was in a hurry, but because he didn't want to compromise Father Smith by being seen walking through the streets with him when Father Smith was an officer and he wasn't.

This evening the French priest didn't seem to have very long prayers to say, because he came out of the church at the same time as Father Smith. The ivy could no longer be seen because it was dark, but it could be smelt and tasted on the tongue, rich and damp and bitter.

'This time it's good-bye, I am afraid,' Father Smith said.

'You mean you go away?'

'I am afraid I do.'

'That is sad because I liked talking to you.'

'I liked talking to you too.' Father Smith felt that there was something terribly important which he ought to say to the French priest, something about how wonderful it was for them both to be priests together, ministers of the patience of Christ, toilers at the great effort, but the words wouldn't come and probably never could until they both met in heaven. Instead he said:

'Did I tell you that where I come from in Scotland there are French nuns?'

'Then when you will see them again you will tell them from me that it will not be long before they will be back again in France,' the French priest said. 'Or at least I hope that it will not be long.'

'I am sure of it,' Father Smith said. 'I am sure that in France as in Britain there will be a great return to religion as soon as the war has ended.'

'Our Lord cannot fail to hear all these prayers,' the French priest said. 'And these so young boys when they will have died, they too will pray and God will listen.' He dropped suddenly on his knees before Father Smith. 'Perhaps before you will go you will bless me,' he said.

'Benedicat te Omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus' Father Smith said, tracing the sign of the cross. 'And now, monsieur l'abbé, perhaps you, too, will bless me.'

They did not talk again when they had blessed each other, but shook hands in silence and each went his way. Father Smith walked back happily and humbly beneath the high scatter of the stars. When he reached headquarters, he found the battalion already fallen in, their steel helmets stamped like saints' haloes on the dark blue window of the sky.

'Well and where the hell have you been?' the colonel asked, but Father Smith knew that he didn't really mean it rudely because, although the colonel had often said that he had no use for parsons, he had also said that he didn't mind priests coming into the front line at all because he knew that they had a special job to do.

When at length they moved off, Father Smith found himself side by side with the boozy major, but at first they didn't talk much, perhaps because the night was so beautiful. The marching men looked beautiful, too, with their rows and rows of heads going on and on. From time to time they sang the secular psalms that seemed to soothe their spirit: 'There's a long, long trail awinding into the land of my dreams'; 'You called me baby doll a year ago; you told me I was very nice to know'; 'At seventeen he falls in love quite madly with eyes of a tender blue.' Although he knew that there was no harm in the songs, Father Smith could not help feeling how very much more appropriate it would have been if they had sung psalms like the nuns sang, especially since they were fighting a righteous war. To cheer himself he began singing to himself under his breath, 'Montes exultaverunt ut arietes: et colles sicut agni ovium'; but somehow the words didn't rhyme to the rumble of 'We are Fred Karno's army,' and he gave it up. Instead, he let his thoughts slide along in lazy images and speculations. How very wonderful it would be, he thought, if he were to win the Military Cross. And the Distinguished Service Order. And the Victoria Cross. The colonel wouldn't ask him where the hell he'd been then. The colonel would respect him then. And the Bishop, how pleased the old man would be! And the nuns and Monsignor O'Duffy and Father Bonnyboat and all his parishioners. The send-off he got at the station would be as nothing compared with the welcome which he would receive at the same station when he arrived back with the three bright ribbons on his breast. They'd all be there to meet him and the Town Council as well, and the nuns' eyes would be shining, and Monsignor O'Duffy would wave his huge red handkerchief in the air and cry: 'My lord Bishop and folks, I now have great pleasure in calling upon ye all for to give three cheers for that great hero, the Reverend Father Thomas Edmund Smith, V.C., D.S.O., M.C.' Then with haste he chased the picturing from his mind, for he knew it to be sinful, because pride had made him seek honour and glory in dreams and because such visionings multiplied by a million produced much of the world's misery. He reminded himself of how he had vowed at his ordination that he would never seek advancement or preferment, but would be Christ's doormat all the days of his life. This oath he now repeated silently within himself. A great happiness rose in him because he knew again what Jesus had meant when He said, 'He who loseth his life shall find it.'

'I say, Father, do you mind if I ask you a rather theological question?' the boozy major suddenly asked. 'Tell me: is it a sin to kiss a girl at a dance when you've no intention of proposing marriage to her?'

'That all depends on how the kissing's done.' Father Smith answered.

'In other words, a chap mustn't get too much of a kick out of it?'

'I'm afraid not.'

'That's what's laid down in the rubrics, is it?' The 'major didn't seem to expect an answer, for he added: 'I must say, God's a bit hard on a chap at times. Still, in spite of what you say, I'm sure God's too much of a Sahib to run a fellow in for ever and ever just because he got messed up with a bit of fluff.'

They didn't talk much after that, but Father Smith thought over what the major had said. Perhaps the major was right. Perhaps God didn't take the genial sins too seriously. After all, malice was necessary for the commission of mortal sin, and the majority of men who drank to excess and ran wild with the girls were at bottom decent fellows. Lying, cheating, stealing, underpaying employees, money-grubbing, and mouthing big phrases to hide little thoughts - these were the sins that cried to God for punishment, since they harmed others more than their perpetrators. And yet being a decent fellow wasn't enough. The practice of a more heroic virtue was required if society as well as the individual was to be saved; but now that men had learned to be heroic in war, perhaps they would learn to be heroic in peace. Father Smith hoped that they would. The glow of the stars on the helmets of the marching men made them look very beautiful and austere. The crunch, crunch, crunch, of their feet beat the priest's hope into certainty. After all, they were brave men and brave men could not possibly go back to the old cowardice. 'Beatus vir qui timet Dominum,' Father Smith murmured, and this time found no difficulty in going on with the psalm.


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