A Tale of ‘16
IF the Order Above be but the reflection of the Order Below (as that Ancient affirms, who had some knowledge of the Order), it is not outside the Order of Things that there should have been confusion also in the Department of Death. The world’s steadily falling death-rate, the rising proportion of scientifically prolonged fatal illnesses, which allowed months of warning to all concerned, had weakened initiative throughout the Necrological Departments. When the War came, these were as unprepared as civilised mankind; and, like mankind, they improvised and recriminated in the face of Heaven.
As Death himself observed to St. Peter, who had just come off The Gate for a rest: ‘One does the best one can with the means at one’s disposal, but —’
‘I know,’ said the good Saint sympathetically. ‘Even with what help I can muster, I’m on The Gate twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four.’
‘Do you find your volunteer staff any real use?’ Death went on. ‘Isn’t it easier to do the work oneself than —’
‘One must guard against that point of view,’ St. Peter returned, ‘but I know what you mean. Office officialises the best of us . . . What is it now?’ He turned to a prim-lipped Seraph who had followed him with an expulsion-form for signature. St. Peter glanced it over. ‘Private R. M. Buckland,’ he read, ‘on the charge of saying that there is no God. ‘That all?’
‘He says he is prepared to prove it, sir, and — according to the Rules — ‘
‘If you will make yourself acquainted with the Rules, you’ll find they lay down that “the fool says in his heart, there is no God.” That decides it; probably shell-shock. Have you tested his reflexes?’
‘No, sir. He kept on saying that there —’
‘Pass him in at once! Tell off some one to argue with him and give him the best of the argument till St. Luke’s free. Anything else?’
‘A hospital-nurse’s record, sir. She has been nursing for two years.’
‘A long while.’ St. Peter spoke severely. ‘She may very well have grown careless.’
‘It’s her civilian record, sir. I judged best to refer it to you.’ The Seraph handed him a vivid scarlet docket.
‘The next time,’ said St. Peter, folding it down and writing on one corner, ‘that you get one of these — er — tinted forms, mark it Q.M.A. and pass bearer at once. Don’t worry over trifles.’ The Seraph flashed off and returned to the clamorous Gate.
‘Which Department is Q.M.A.?’ said Death. St. Peter chuckled .
‘It’s not a department. It’s a Ruling. “Quia multum amavit.” A most useful Ruling. I’ve stretched it to . . . Now, I wonder what that child actually did die of.’
‘I’ll ask,’ said Death, and moved to a public telephone near by. ‘Give me War Check and Audit: English side: non-combatant,’ he began. ‘Latest returns . . . Surely you’ve got them posted up to date by now! . . . Yes! Hospital Nurse in France . . . No! Not “nature and aliases.” I said — what-was-nature-of-illness? . . . Thanks.’ He turned to St. Peter. ‘Quite normal,’ he said. ‘Heart-failure after neglected pleurisy following overwork.’
‘Good!’ St. Peter rubbed his hands. ‘That brings her under the higher allowance G.L.H. scale —“Greater love hath no man —” But my people ought to have known that from the first.’
‘Who is that clerk of yours?’ asked Death. ‘He seems rather a stickler for the proprieties.’
‘The usual type nowadays,’ St. Peter returned. ‘A young Power in charge of some half-baked Universe. Never having dealt with life yet, he’s somewhat nebulous.’
Death sighed. ‘It’s the same with my old Departmental Heads. Nothing on earth will make my fossils on the Normal Civil Side realise that we are dying in a new age. Come and look at them. They might interest you.’
‘Thanks, I will, but — Excuse me a minute! Here’s my zealous young assistant on the wing once more.’
The Seraph had returned to report the arrival of overwhelmingly heavy convoys at The Gate, and to ask what the Saint advised.
‘I’m just off on an inter-departmental inspection which will take me some time,’ said St. Peter. ‘You must learn to act on your own initiative. So I shall leave you to yourself for the next hour or two, merely suggesting (I don’t wish in any way to sway your judgment) that you invite St. Paul, St. Ignatius (Loyola, I mean) and — er — St. Christopher to assist as Supervising Assessors on the Board of Admission. Ignatius is one of the subtlest intellects we have, and an officer and a gentleman to boot. I assure you’— the Saint turned towards Death —‘he revels in dialectics. If he’s allowed to prove his case, he’s quite capable of letting off the offender. St. Christopher, of course, will pass anything that looks wet and muddy.’
‘They are nearly all that now, sir,’ said the Seraph.
‘So much the better; and — as I was going to say — St. Paul is an embarrass — a distinctly strong colleague. Still — we all have our weaknesses. Perhaps a well-timed reference to his seamanship in the Mediterranean — by the way, look up the name of his ship, will you? Alexandria register, I think-might be useful in some of those sudden maritime cases that crop up. I needn’t tell you to be firm, of course. That’s your besetting — er — I mean — reprimand ’em severely and publicly, but —’ the Saint’s voice broke —‘oh, my child, you don’t know what it is to need forgiveness. Be gentle with ’em — be very gentle with ’em!’
Swiftly as a falling shaft of light the Seraph kissed the sandalled feet and was away.
‘Aha!’ said St. Peter. ‘He can’t go far wrong with that Board of Admission as I’ve — er — arranged it.’
They walked towards the great central office of Normal Civil Death, which, buried to the knees in a flood of temporary structures, resembled a closed cribbage-board among spilt dominoes.
They entered an area of avenues and cross-avenues, flanked by long, low buildings, each packed with seraphs working wing to folded wing.
‘Our temporary buildings,’ Death explained. ‘Always being added to. This is the War-side. You’ll find nothing changed on the Normal Civil Side. They are more human than mankind.’
‘It doesn’t lie in my mouth to blame them,’ said St. Peter.
‘No, I’ve yet to meet the soul you wouldn’t find excuse for,’ said Death tenderly; ‘but then I don’t — er — arrange my Boards of Admission.’
‘If one doesn’t help one’s Staff, one’s Staff will never help itself,’ St. Peter laughed, as the shadow of the main porch of the Normal Civil Death Offices darkened above them.
‘This facade rather recalls the Vatican, doesn’t it?’ said the Saint.
‘They’re quite as conservative. ‘Notice how they still keep the old Holbein uniforms?‘Morning, Sergeant Fell. How goes it?’ said Death as he swung the dusty doors and nodded at a Commissionaire, clad in the grim livery of Death, even as Hans Holbein has designed it.
‘Sadly. Very sadly indeed, sir,’ the Commissionaire replied. ‘So many pore ladies and gentlemen, sir, ‘oo might well ‘ave lived another few years, goin’ off, as you might say, in every direction with no time for the proper obsequities.’
‘Too bad,’ said Death sympathetically. ‘Well, we’re none of us as young as we were, Sergeant.’
They climbed a carved staircase, behung with the whole millinery of undertaking at large. Death halted on a dark Aberdeen granite landing and beckoned a messenger.
‘We’re rather busy today, sir,’ the messenger whispered, ‘but I think His Majesty will see you.’
‘Who is the Head of this Department if it isn’t you?’ St. Peter whispered in turn.
‘You may well ask,’ his companion replied. ‘I’m only —’ he checked himself and went on. ‘The fact is, our Normal Civil Death side is controlled by a Being who considers himself all that I am and more. He’s Death as men have made him — in their own image.’ He pointed to a brazen plate, by the side of a black-curtained door, which read: ‘Normal Civil Death, K.G., K.T., K.P., P.C., etc.’ ‘He’s as human as mankind.’
‘I guessed as much from those letters. What do they mean?’
‘Titles conferred on him from time to time. King of Ghosts; King of Terrors; King of Phantoms; Pallid Conqueror, and so forth. There’s no denying he’s earned every one of them. A first-class mind, but just a leetle bit of a sn —’
‘His Majesty is at liberty,’ said the messenger.
Civil Death did not belie his name. No monarch on earth could have welcomed them more graciously; or, in St. Peter’s case, with more of that particularity of remembrance which is the gift of good kings. But when Death asked him how his office was working, he became at once the Departmental Head with a grievance.
‘Thanks to this abominable war,’ he began testily, ‘my N.C.D. has to spend all its time fighting for mere existence. Your new War-side seems to think that nothing matters except the war. I’ve been asked to give up two-thirds of my Archives Basement (E. 7-E. 64) to the Polish Civilian Casualty Check and Audit. Preposterous! Where am I to move my Archives? And they’ve just been cross-indexed, too!’
‘As I understood it,’ said Death, ‘our War-side merely applied for desk-room in your basement. They were prepared to leave your Archives in situ.’
‘Impossible! We may need to refer to them at any moment. There’s a case now which is interesting Us all — a Mrs. Ollerby. Worcestershire by extraction — dying of an internal hereditary complaint. At any moment, We may wish to refer to her dossier, and how can We if Our basement is given up to people over whom We exercise no departmental control? This war has been made excuse for slackness in every direction.’
‘Indeed!’ said Death. ‘You surprise me. I thought nothing made any difference to the N.C.D.’
‘A few years ago I should have concurred,’ Civil Death replied. ‘But since this — this recent outbreak of unregulated mortality there has been a distinct lack of respect toward certain aspects of Our administration. The attitude is bound to reflect itself in the office. The official is, in a large measure, what the public makes him. Of course, it is only temporary reaction, but the merest outsider would notice what I mean. Perhaps you would like to see for yourself?’ Civil Death bowed towards St. Peter, who feared that he might be taking up his time.
‘Not in the least. If I am not the servant of the public, what am I?’ Civil Death said, and preceded them to the landing. ‘Now, this’— he ushered them into an immense but badly lighted office —‘is our International Mortuary Department — the I.M.D. as we call it. It works with the Check and Audit. I should be sorry to say offhand how many billion sterling it represents, invested in the funeral ceremonies of all the races of mankind.’ He stopped behind a very bald-headed clerk at a desk. ‘And yet We take cognizance of the minutest detail, do not We?’ he went on. ‘What have We here, for example?’
‘Funeral expenses of the late Mr. John Shenks Tanner.’ The clerk stepped aside from the redruled book. ‘Cut down by the executors on account of the War from “173:19:1 to “47:18:4. A sad falling off, if I may say so, Your Majesty.’
‘And what was the attitude of the survivors?’ Civil Death asked.
‘Very casual. It was a motor-hearse funeral.’
‘A pernicious example, spreading, I fear, even in the lowest classes,’ his superior muttered. ‘Haste, lack of respect for the Dread Summons, carelessness in the Subsequent Disposition of the Corpse and —’
‘But as regards people’s real feelings?’ St. Peter demanded of the clerk.
‘That isn’t within the terms of our reference, Sir,’ was the answer. ‘But we do know that, as often as not, they don’t even buy black-edged announcement-cards nowadays.’
‘Good Heavens!’ said Civil Death swellingly. ‘No cards! I must look into this myself. Forgive me, St. Peter, but we Servants of Humanity, as you know, are not our own masters. No cards, indeed!’ He waved them off with an official hand, and immersed himself in the ledger.
‘Oh, come along,’ Death whispered to St. Peter. ‘This is a blessed relief!’
They two walked on till they reached the far end of the vast dim office. The clerks at the desks here scarcely pretended to work. A messenger entered and slapped down a small autophonic reel.
‘Here you are!’ he cried. ‘Mister Wilbraham Lattimer’s last dying speech and record. He made a shockin’ end of it.’
‘Good for Lattimer!’ a young voice called from a desk. ‘Chuck it over!’
‘Yes,’ the messenger went on.‘Lattimer said to his brother: “Bert, I haven’t time to worry about a little thing like dying these days, and what’s more important, you haven’t either. You go back to your Somme doin’s, and I’ll put it through with Aunt Maria. It’ll amuse her and it won’t hinder you.” That’s nice stuff for your boss!’ The messenger whistled and departed. A clerk groaned as he snatched up the reel.
‘How the deuce am I to knock this into official shape?’ he began. ‘Pass us the edifying Gantry Tubnell. I’ll have to crib from him again, I suppose.’
‘Be careful!’ a companion whispered, and shuffled a typewritten form along the desk. ‘I’ve used Tubby twice this morning already.’
The late Mr. Gantry Tubnell must have demised on approved departmental lines, for his record was much thumbed. Death and St. Peter watched the editing with interest.
‘I can’t bring in Aunt Maria any way,’ the clerk broke out at last. ‘Listen here, every one! She has heart-disease. She dies just as she’s lifted the dropsical Lattimer to change his sheets. She says: “Sorry, Willy! I’d make a dam’ pore ‘ospital nurse!”; Then she sits down and croaks. Now I call that good! I’ve a great mind to take it round to the War-side as an indirect casualty and get a breath of fresh air.’
‘Then you’ll be hauled over the coals,’ a neighbour suggested.
‘I’m used to that, too,’ the clerk sniggered.
‘Are you?’ said Death, stepping forward suddenly from behind a high map-stand. ‘Who are you?’ The clerk cowered in his skeleton jacket.
‘I’m not on the Regular Establishment, Sir,’ he stammered. ‘I’m a — Volunteer. I— I wanted to see how people behaved when they were in trouble.’
‘Did you? Well, take the late Mr. Wilbraham Lattimer’s and Miss Maria Lattimer’s papers to the War-side General Reference Office. When they have been passed upon, tell the Attendance Clerk that you are to serve as probationer in — let’s see — in the Domestic Induced Casualty Side — 7 G.S.’
The clerk collected himself a little and spoke through dry lips.
‘But — but I’m — I slipped in from the Lower Establishment, Sir,’ he breathed.
There was no need to explain. He shook from head to foot as with the palsy; and under all Heaven none tremble save those who come from that class which ‘also believe and tremble.’
‘Do you tell Me this officially, or as one created being to another?’ Death asked after a pause.
‘Oh, non-officially, Sir. Strictly non-officially, so long as you know all about it.’
His awe-stricken fellow-workers could not restrain a smile at Death having to be told about anything. Even Death bit his lips.
‘I don’t think you will find the War-side will raise any objection,’ said he. ‘By the way, they don’t wear that uniform over there.’
Almost before Death ceased speaking, it was ripped off and flung on the floor, and that which had been a sober clerk of Normal Civil Death stood up an unmistakable, curly-haired, bat-winged, faun-eared Imp of the Pit. But where his wings joined his shoulders there was a patch of delicate dove-coloured feathering that gave promise to spread all up the pinion. St. Peter saw it and smiled, for it was a known sign of grace.
‘Thank Goodness!’ the ex-clerk gasped as he snatched up the Lattimer records and sheered sideways through the skylight.
‘Amen!’ said Death and St. Peter together, and walked through the door.
‘Weren’t you hinting something to me a little while ago about my lax methods?’ St. Peter demanded, innocently.
‘Well, if one doesn’t help one’s Staff, one’s Staff will never help itself,’ Death retorted. ‘Now, I shall have to pitch in a stiff demi-official asking how that young fiend came to be taken on in the N.C.D. without examination. And I must do it before the N.C.D. complain that I’ve been interfering with their departmental transfers. Aren’t they human? If you want to go back to The Gate I think our shortest way will be through here and across the War–Sheds.’
They came out of a side-door into Heaven’s full light. A phalanx of Shining Ones swung across a great square singing
‘To Him Who made the Heavens abide, yet cease not from their motion.
To Him Who drives the cleansing tide twice a day round Ocean–Let His Name be magnified in all poor folks’ devotion!’
Death halted their leader, and asked a question.
‘We’re Volunteer Aid Serving Powers,’ the Seraph explained, ‘reporting for duty in the Domestic Induced Casualty Department — told off to help relatives, where we can.’
The shift trooped on — such an array of Powers, Honours, Glories, Toils, Patiences, Services, Faiths and Loves as no man may conceive even by favour of dreams. Death and St. Peter followed them into a D.I.C.D. Shed on the English side where, for the moment, work had slackened. Suddenly a name flashed on the telephone-indicator. ‘Mrs. Arthur Bedott, 317, Portsmouth Avenue, Brondesbury. Husband badly wounded. One child.’ Her special weakness was appended.
A Seraph on the raised dais that overlooked the Volunteer Aids waiting at the entrance, nodded and crooked a finger. One of the new shift — a temporary Acting Glory — hurled himself from his place and vanished earthward.
‘You may take it,’ Death whispered to St. Peter, ‘there will be a sustaining epic built up round Private Bedott’s wound for his wife and Baby Bedott to cling to. And here —‘they heard wings that flapped wearily —‘here, I suspect, comes one of our failures.’
A Seraph entered and dropped, panting, on a form. His plumage was ragged, his sword splintered to the hilt; and his face still worked with the passions of the world he had left, as his soiled vesture reeked of alcohol.
‘Defeat,’ he reported hoarsely, when he had given in a woman’s name. ‘Utter defeat! Look!’ He held up the stump of his sword. ‘I broke this on her gin-bottle.’
‘So? We try again,’ said the impassive Chief Seraph. Again he beckoned, and there stepped forward that very Imp whom Death had transferred from the N.C.D.
‘Go you!’ said the Seraph. ‘We must deal with a fool according to her folly. Have you pride enough?’
There was no need to ask. The messenger’s face glowed and his nostrils quivered with it. Scarcely pausing to salute, he poised and dived, and the papers on the desks spun beneath the draught of his furious vans.
St. Peter nodded high approval. ‘I see!’ he said. ‘He’ll work on her pride to steady her. By all means —“if by all means,” as my good Paul used to say. Only it ought to read “by any manner of possible means.” Excellent!’
‘It’s difficult, though,’ a soft-eyed Patience whispered. ‘I fail again and again. I’m only fit for an old-maid’s tea-party.’
Once more the record flashed — a multiple-urgent appeal on behalf of a few thousand men, worn-out body and soul. The Patience was detailed.
‘Oh, me!’ she sighed, with a comic little shrug of despair, and took the void softly as a summer breeze at dawning.
‘But how does this come under the head of Domestic Casualties? Those men were in the trenches. I heard the mud squelch,’ said St. Peter.
‘Something wrong with the installation — as usual. Waves are always jamming here,’ the Seraph replied.
‘So it seems,’ said St. Peter as a wireless cut in with the muffled note of some one singing (sorely out of tune), to an accompaniment of desultory poppings:
‘Unless you can love as the Angels love With the breadth of Heaven be —’
‘Twixt!’ It broke off. The record showed a name. The waiting Seraphs stiffened to attention with a click of tense quills.
‘As you were!’ said the Chief Seraph. ‘He’s met her.’
‘Who is she?’ said St. Peter.
‘His mother. You never get over your weakness for romance,’ Death answered, and a covert smile spread through the Office.
‘Thank Heaven, I don’t. But I really ought to be going —’
‘Wait one minute. Here’s trouble coming through, I think,’ Death interposed.
A recorder had sparked furiously in a broken run of S.O.S.‘s that allowed no time for inquiry.
‘Name! Name!’ an impatient young Faith panted at last. ‘It can’t be blotted out.’ No name came up. Only the reiterated appeal.
‘False alarm!’ said a hard-featured Toil, well used to mankind. ‘Some fool has found out that he owns a soul. ‘Wants work. I’d cure him! . . . ’
‘Hush!’ said a Love in Armour, stamping his mailed foot. The office listened.
‘‘Bad case?’ Death demanded at last.
‘Rank bad, Sir. They are holding back the name,’ said the Chief Seraph. The S.O.S. signals grew more desperate, and then ceased with an emphatic thump. The Love in Armour winced.
‘Firing-party,’ he whispered to St. Peter. ‘‘Can’t mistake that noise!’
‘What is it?’ St. Peter cried nervously.
‘Deserter; spy; murderer,’ was the Chief Seraph’s weighed answer. ‘It’s out of my department now. No — hold the line! The name’s up at last.’
It showed for an instant, broken and faint as sparks on charred wadding, but in that instant a dozen pens had it written. St. Peter with never a word gathered his robes about him and bundled through the door, headlong for The Gate.
‘No hurry,’ said Death at his elbow. ‘With the present rush your man won’t come up for ever so long.’
‘‘Never can be sure these days. Anyhow, the Lower Establishment will be after him like sharks. He’s the very type they’d want for propaganda. Deserter-traitor-murderer. Out of my way, please, babies!’
A group of children round a red-headed man who was telling them stories, scattered laughing. The man turned to St. Peter.
‘Deserter, traitor, murderer,’ he repeated. ‘Can I be of service?’
‘You can!’ St. Peter gasped. ‘Double on ahead to The Gate and tell them to hold up all expulsions till I come. Then,’ he shouted as the man sped off at a long hound-like trot, ‘go and picket the outskirts of the Convoys. Don’t let any one break away on any account. Quick!’
But Death was right. They need not have hurried. The crowd at The Gate was far beyond the capacities of the Examining Board even though, as St. Peter’s Deputy informed him, it had been enlarged twice in his absence.
‘We’re doing our best,’ the Seraph explained, ‘but delay is inevitable, Sir. The Lower Establishment are taking advantage of it, as usual, at the tail of the Convoys. I’ve doubled all pickets there, and I’m sending more. Here’s the extra list, Sir–Arc J., Bradlaugh C., Bunyan J., Calvin J. Iscariot J. reported to me just now, as under your orders, and took ’em with him. Also Shakespeare W. and —’
‘Never mind the rest,’ said St. Peter. I— I’m going there myself. Meantime, carry on with the passes — don’t fiddle over ’em — and give me a blank or two.’ He caught up a thick block of Free Passes, nodded to a group in khaki at a passport table, initialled their Commanding Officer’s personal pass as for ‘Officer and Party,’ and left the numbers to be filled in by a quite competent-looking Quarter-master-Sergeant. Then, Death beside him, he breasted his way out of The Gate against the incoming multitude of all races, tongues, and creeds that stretched far across the plain.
An old lady, firmly clutching a mottle-nosed, middle-aged Major by the belt, pushed across a procession of keen-faced poilus, and blocked his path, her captive held in that terrible mother-grip no Power has yet been able to unlock.
‘I found him! I’ve got him! Pass him!’ she ordered.
St. Peter’s jaw fell. Death politely looked elsewhere.
‘There are a few formalities,’ the Saint began.
‘With Jerry in this state? Nonsense! How like a man! My boy never gave me a moment’s anxiety in —’
‘Don’t, dear — don’t!’ The Major looked almost as uncomfortable as St. Peter.
‘Well, nothing compared with what he would give me if he weren’t passed.’
‘Didn’t I hear you singing just now?’ Death asked, seeing that his companion needed a breathing-space.
‘Of course you did,’ the Mother intervened. ‘He sings beautifully. And that’s another reason! You’re bass, aren’t you now, darling?’
St. Peter glanced at the agonised Major and hastily initialled him a pass. Without a word of thanks the Mother hauled him away.
‘Now, under what conceivable Ruling do you justify that?’ said Death.
‘I.W. — the Importunate Widow. It’s scandalous!’ St. Peter groaned. Then his face darkened as he looked across the great plain beyond The Gate. ‘I don’t like this,’ he said. ‘The Lower Establishment is out in full force to-night. I hope our pickets are strong enough —’
The crowd here had thinned to a disorderly queue flanked on both sides by a multitude of busy, discreet emissaries from the Lower Establishment who continually edged in to do business with them, only to be edged off again by a line of watchful pickets. Thanks to the khaki everywhere, the scene was not unlike that which one might have seen on earth any evening of the old days outside the refreshment-room by the Arch at Victoria Station, when the Army trains started. St. Peter’s appearance was greeted by the usual outburst of cock-crowing from the Lower Establishment.
‘Dirty work at the cross-roads,’ said Death dryly.
‘I deserve it!’ St. Peter grunted, ‘but think what it must mean for Judas.’
He shouldered into the thick of the confusion where the pickets coaxed, threatened, implored, and in extreme cases bodily shoved the wearied men and women past the voluble and insinuating spirits who strove to draw them aside.
A Shropshire Yeoman had just accepted, together with a forged pass, the assurance of a genial runner of the Lower Establishment that Heaven lay round the corner, and was being stealthily steered thither, when a large hand jerked him back, another took the runner in the chest, and some one thundered: ‘Get out, you crimp!’ The situation was then vividly explained to the soldier in the language of the barrack-room.
‘Don’t blame me, Guv’nor,’ the man expostulated. ‘I ‘aven’t seen a woman, let alone angels, for umpteen months. I’m from Joppa. Where ‘you from?’
‘Northampton,’ was the answer. ‘Rein back and keep by me.’
‘What? You ain’t ever Charley B. that my dad used to tell about? I thought you always said —’
‘I shall say a deal more soon. Your Sergeant’s talking to that woman in red. Fetch him inquick!’
Meantime, a sunken-eyed Scots officer, utterly lost to the riot around, was being button-holed by a person of reverend aspect who explained to him that, by the logic of his own ancestral creed, not only was the Highlander irrevocably damned, but that his damnation had been predetermined before Earth was made.
‘It’s unanswerable — just unanswerable,’ said the young man sorrowfully. ‘I’ll be with ye.’ He was moving off, when a smallish figure interposed, not without dignity.
‘Monsieur,’ it said, ‘would it be of any comfort to you to know that I am — I was — John Calvin?’ At this the reverend one cursed and swore like the lost Soul he was, while the Highlander turned to discuss with Calvin, pacing towards The Gate, some alterations in the fabric of a work of fiction called the Institutio.
Others were not so easily held. A certain Woman, with loosened hair, bare arms, flashing eyes and dancing feet, shepherded her knot of waverers, hoarse and exhausted. When the taunt broke out against her from the opposing line: ‘Tell ’em what you were! Tell ’em if you dare!’ she answered unflinchingly, as did Judas, who, worming through the crowd like an Armenian carpet-vendor, peddled his shame aloud that it might give strength to others.
‘Yes,’ he would cry, ‘I am everything they say, but if I’m here it must be a moral cert for you gents. This way, please. Many mansions, gentlemen! Go-ood billets! Don’t you notice these low people, Sar. Plees keep hope, gentlemen!’
When there were cases that cried to him from the ground — poor souls who could not stick it but had found their way out with a rifle and a boot-lace, he would tell them of his own end, till he made them contemptuous enough to rise up and curse him. Here St. Luke’s imperturbable bedside manner backed and strengthened the other’s almost too oriental flux of words.
In this fashion and step by step, all the day’s Convoy were piloted past that danger-point where the Lower Establishment are, for reasons not given us, allowed to ply their trade. The pickets dropped to the rear, relaxed, and compared notes.
‘What always impresses me most,’ said Death to St. Peter, ‘is the sheeplike simplicity of the intellectual mind.’ He had been watching one of the pickets apparently overwhelmed by the arguments of an advanced atheist who — so hot in his argument that he was deaf to the offers of the Lower Establishment to make him a god — had stalked, talking hard — while the picket always gave ground before him — straight past the Broad Road.
‘He was plaiting of long-tagged epigrams,’ the sober-faced picket smiled. ‘Give that sort only an ear and they’ll follow ye gobbling like turkeys.’
‘And John held his peace through it all,’ a full fresh voice broke in. ‘“It may be so,” says John. “Doubtless, in your belief, it is so,” says John. “Your words move me mightily,” says John, and gorges his own beliefs like a pike going backwards. And that young fool, so busy spinning words-words-words — that he trips past Hell Mouth without seeing it! . . . Who’s yonder, Joan?’
‘One of your English. ‘Always late. Look!’ A young girl with short-cropped hair pointed with her sword across the plain towards a single faltering figure which made at first as though to overtake the Convoy, but then turned left towards the Lower Establishment, who were enthusiastically cheering him as a leader of enterprise.
‘That’s my traitor,’ said St. Peter. ‘He has no business to report to the Lower Establishment before reporting to Convoy.’
The figure’s pace slackened as he neared the applauding line. He looked over his shoulder once or twice, and then fairly turned tail and fled again towards the still Convoy.
‘Nobody ever gave me credit for anything I did,’ he began, sobbing and gesticulating. ‘They were all against me from the first. I only wanted a little encouragement. It was a regular conspiracy, but I showed ’em what I could do! I showed ’em! And — and —’ he halted again. ‘Oh, God! What are you going to do with me?’
No one offered any suggestion. He ranged sideways like a doubtful dog, while across the plain the Lower Establishment murmured seductively. All eyes turned to St. Peter.
‘At this moment,’ the Saint said half to himself, ‘I can’t recall any precise ruling under which —’
‘My own case?’ the ever-ready Judas suggested.
‘No-o! That’s making too much of it. And yet —’
‘Oh, hurry up and get it over,’ the man wailed, and told them all that he had done, ending with the cry that none had ever recognised his merits; neither his own narrow-minded people, his inefficient employers, nor the snobbish jumped-up officers of his battalion.
‘You see,’ said St. Peter at the end. ‘It’s sheer vanity. It isn’t even as if we had a woman to fall back upon.’
‘Yet there was a woman or I’m mistaken,’ said the picket with the pleasing voice who had praised John.
‘Eh — what? When?’ St. Peter turned swiftly on the speaker. ‘Who was the woman?’
‘The wise woman of Tekoah,’ came the smooth answer. ‘I remember, because that verse was the private heart of my plays — some of ’em.’
But the Saint was not listening. ‘You have it!’ he cried. ‘Samuel Two, Double Fourteen. To think that I should have forgotten! “For we must needs die and are as water spilled on the ground which cannot be gathered up again. Neither Both God respect any person, yet —” Here, you! Listen to this!’
The man stepped forward and stood to attention. Some one took his cap as Judas and the picket John closed up beside him.
‘“Yet doth He devise means (d’you understand that?) devise means that His banished be not expelled from Him!” This covers your case. I don’t know what the means will be. That’s for you to find out. They’ll tell you yonder.’ He nodded towards the now silent Lower Establishment as he scribbled on a pass. ‘Take this paper over to them and report for duty there. You’ll have a thin time of it; but they won’t keep you a day longer than I’ve put down. Escort!’
‘Does — does that mean there’s any hope?’ the man stammered.
‘Yes — I’ll show you the way,’ Judas whispered. ‘I’ve lived there — a very long time.’
‘I’ll bear you company a piece,’ said John, on his left flank. ‘There’ll be Despair to deal with. Heart up, Mr. Littlesoul!’
The three wheeled off, and the Convoy watched them grow smaller and smaller across the plain.
St. Peter smiled benignantly and rubbed his hands.
‘And now we’re rested,’ said he, ‘I think we might make a push for billets this evening, gentlemen, eh?’
The pickets fell in, guardians no longer but friends and companions all down the line. There was a little burst of cheering and the whole Convoy strode away towards the not so distant Gate.
The Saint and Death stayed behind to rest awhile. It was a heavenly evening. They could hear the whistle of the low-flighting Cherubim, clear and sharp, under the diviner note of some released Seraph’s wings, where, his errand accomplished, he plunged three or four stars deep into the cool Baths of Hercules; the steady dynamo-like hum of the nearer planets on their axes; and, as the hush deepened, the surprised little sigh of some new-born sun a universe of universes away. But their minds were with the Convoy that their eyes followed.
Said St. Peter proudly at last: ‘If those people of mine had seen that fellow stripped of all hope in front of ’em, I doubt if they could have marched another yard to-night. Watch ’em stepping out now, though! Aren’t they human?’
‘To whom do you say it?’ Death answered, with something of a tired smile. ‘I’m more than human. I’ve got to die some time or other. But all other created Beings — afterwards . . . ’
‘I know,’ said St. Peter softly. ‘And that is why I love you, 0 Azrael!’
For now they were alone Death had, of course, returned to his true majestic shape — that only One of all created beings who is doomed to perish utterly, and knows it.
‘Well, that’s that — for me!’ Death concluded as he rose. ‘And yet —’ he glanced towards the empty plain where the Lower Establishment had withdrawn with their prisoner. ‘“Yet doth He devise means.”’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52